This "year of evaluation" has revealed four winners and four losers for four defensive positions on the current 26-man MLB roster. The winners may not be long-term solutions, but they are positive contributors that can help the team win more games in 2024.
Winner: Nick Loftin
Loser: Michael Massey
I like Michael Massey as a player in many ways. He plays decent defense. He hit 15 dingers in 2023. And he may eventually be a positive contributor – for another team. But his major league value is exactly Replacement-Level Player (0.00 WAR in 2023). The Royals can (and should) trade Massey this off season and get some prospect value in return. Michael Massey and Nick Loftin are both 25 years-old. But Nick Loftin has more positive value and defensive versatility. He had 0.6 WAR in just 62 at bats. Yes, Nate Eaton teased us at the end of last year by amassing 0.9 WAR in 106 at bats in 2022, only to make the 26-man roster out of spring training and nose dive offensively in April. But there are big differences between Loftin and Eaton. Loftin hit right out of the gate and seems to be a more polished hitter. Nick Loftin hit .323 during his brief stint, which is much more convincing than Eaton’s .268 batting average in 2022. Anyway, the comparison is with Loftin and Massey, and the team does not need both of those players on the same roster.
Winner: Nelson Velázquez
Loser: MJ Melendez
MJ Melendez had a better second half in 2023, but he still had a negative impact (-0.4 WAR) on the team, largely due to poor defense. Like Massey, he should be traded for a decent prospect or two. There are teams who will be interested in Melendez. He did have a .316 on base percentage and a decent 92 OPS+. But J.J. Picollo found the team a better option: Nelson Velázquez. Melendez hit 16 home runs in 533 in 2023. Velázquez came over mid-season and hit 14 home runs for the Royals in just 133 at bats. His 1.2 WAR while playing for the Royals helped the team win games the last third of the season. Velázquez has some warts if you dig into the analytics, but he’s a better option than Melendez. Melendez, "you gotta go!"
Winner: Freddy Fermin
Loser: Salvador Perez
This one is difficult to admit because Perez is so lovable and is the team captain. Yes, he hit 23 home runs in 2023, but even with that power, he only accumulated 0.5 WAR in 538 at bats. Freddy Fermin was worth a healthy 1.7 WAR (third best position player behind Witt and Isbel) and he did it in only 217 at bats. If Freddy Fermin had gotten as many at bats as Salvador Perez, he would’ve been on pace to hit 22 home runs. There will be teams interested in trading for Salvador Perez. He still has power, leadership and value. But the Royals will most likely win more games in 2024 with Fermin as the starting catcher next season.
Winner: Dairon Blanco
Loser: Drew Waters
Waters struck out at a rate of 31.8% in 2023. If those strikeouts came with significant power production, it would be one thing. But he only had eight homers and a .377 slugging percentage. Yes, he was worth 0.7 WAR, but that was helped by his defensive value. On the other hand, Dairon Blanco produced 1.2 WAR in 124 at bats! He stole 24 bases! He had a .324 OBP! Blanco and his high energy, speed and defense helped the team win games in 2023 and should be on the roster in 2024.
As the Royals front office evaluates the now completed season of 2023, these are four position battles that can’t wait until spring training to be decided. Some players need to be traded over the off season in order to clear up the roster picture heading into spring training. And most importantly, these four players (Loftin, Velázquez, Fermin and Blanco) will help the team win more games in 2024 if given the opportunity to play every day.