The offseason is back to its traditional Thanksgiving crawl. The holiday has slowed much of the momentum it gained around the 40-man roster deadline. That should change over the coming weeks as the Winter Meetings kick off in early December. The first two weeks of December are usually busy with trades and free-agent signings. For the Royals, hopefully, that proves true as well. There’s a lot of ground to cover in improving a disappointing 2023 roster. It’s impossible to gauge just where the offseason will finish up, but one of the more intriguing questions leading into next season could actually be an area where very little change is expected at all.
The Kansas City infield and its cast of characters look to be all but set heading into next season. Bobby Witt Jr., Maikel Garcia, and Vinnie Pasquantino have surely cemented their place somewhere in the everyday lineup for next season. Behind them, Michael Massey and Nick Loftin both have strong cases to be involved. To a lesser extent, we’ll likely see Nick Pratto and Samad Taylor at times as well. Although there doesn’t figure to be much change in the names involved, there are certainly compelling cases for a number of different configurations for next season’s infield. Here’s the case for each player and what role should suit them best next season.
Bobby Witt Jr.
2024 Steamer Projections: .278/.328/.501, 30 HR, 120 wRC+, 4.7 fWAR
We can get the easiest one out of the way first. There’s little question left surrounding the young, blossoming superstar. Perhaps the only thing left to ponder is how long he will remain in Royal blue. He became the first Royals player to finish top-10 in MVP voting since Salvador Perez in 2021. He did so while playing some of the best defense among all major league shortstops, and also became the founding member of Kansas City’s 30-30 club.
Remember that laughable rookie season when he was made the starting third baseman despite being the number-one prospect in baseball as a shortstop? Adalberto Mondesi, who “beat him out” for that Opening Day shortstop job didn’t play a single game in 2023. Where is Mike Matheny these days? Bobby Witt Jr. is the unquestioned starting shortstop for your Kansas City Royals for the foreseeable future.
2024 Steamer Projections: .276/.362/.437, 24 HR, 127 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR
After his impressive debut season, many were already talking about Pasquantino as one of the best, young first basemen in the American League. Talks of a potential extension compared his value to Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo. It seemed like the Royals had a strong and youthful duo of bats in the heart of their order with “Pasquatch” and Bobby Witt Jr. Then, an unfortunate injury took all of that fun and hype away from us in 2023. Vinnie played in just 61 games last season, slashing .247/.324/.437. He was struggling in a bit of a “sophomore slump” but still hitting for a 103 wRC+.
Much of Pasquantino’s slump can probably be attributed most to a low BABIP. On the season his average on balls in play was just .250. It was even lower in his worst stretch from May 1, when it was all the way down to .220. Pasquantino has done enough to slot right back into the heart of next season’s order but could play more DH than first base upon his return simply to ease him back into action. Despite a successful recovery thus far, there is still the risk of re-injury on Pasquantino’s torn labrum. For this reason, he shouldn’t be seen as a safe bet to play more than 150 games next season and the team certainly needs a strong plan to provide him much-needed rest as he eases back into the heavy workload of a full season.
2024 Steamer Projections: .269/.333/.381, 7 HR, 94 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
Maikel Garcia had a strong rookie debut, finishing the season with a .272/.323/.358 triple slash. He also played excellent defense in what was his first professional season as a third baseman. Despite the solid rookie campaign, Garcia is one of the more polarizing young players on the major league roster. Many view him as a trade candidate, simply due to his value as a full-time shortstop — a role that is already filled in Kansas City by Witt. Others view the duo of Garcia and Witt as the foundation of the next competitive Royals team.
Without question, the defensive left side of the infield is among the very best in all of baseball when placed in the hands of Garcia and Witt. Offensively, however, there are clear shortcomings. Garcia is a true shortstop and his bat makes that clear. The power hasn’t shown up like once hoped, as evidenced by a meager .086 ISO last season. Among 21 qualified third basemen in the major leagues last season, that mark was dead last. Most successful MLB teams have ample power from the hot corner and it’s unclear if Garcia will ever be able to provide that. For this reason, the trade scenarios that include Garcia heading elsewhere to become a full-time shortstop make a lot of sense. Garcia is also a great prospect with years of club control, making a trade a tricky proposition.
2024 Steamer Projections: .253/.305/.413, 14 HR, 92 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR
Michael Massey went unheralded for much of his minor league career, despite absolutely dominating at every level. His worst showing in the minors was 2022 for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals (AA) where he slashed .305/.359/.495 over 54 games — good for a 113 wRC+. Massey was fairly successful in a brief showing for the Royals in 2022 which led to some optimism for his 2023 chances. This made it all the more disappointing when Massey stumbled out of the gate and couldn’t truly get onto his feet until the season’s second half. He finished his season with a 73 wRC+ and was only worth 0.5 fWAR on the back of strong defense at second base.
On the surface, one could easily think that Massey might be moved into a depth role next season. However, a stronger second half still gives some hope for next season. After the All-Star break last season, Massey had a (still disappointing) 85 wRC+. Despite the low overall showing, there were promising signs such as his improved strikeout rate (15.4%) and stronger power output (.197 ISO). In the season’s final month, Massey slashed .269/.313/.513 with five home runs and a 120 wRC+. That stronger second half should give Massey another chance, but the team should carry a shorter leash with him next season. He’s still a young player with promise. The problem for Massey is the competition starting to surround him.
2024 Steamer Projections: .254/.316/.387, 4 HR, 90 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
Nick Loftin likely would have earned a larger sample with the big league club last season if an injury hadn’t sidelined him for much of the season’s first half. He eventually debuted later in the season but appeared in just 19 games. Still, the results in that span were promising as he slashed .323/.368/.435. Much like we saw in the minor leagues, Loftin didn’t strike out much at all. On the flip side, what didn’t translate well for him at the next level was the improved power output we had seen at Triple-A. Loftin hit 14 home runs over 82 games for the Omaha Storm Chasers in 2023 with a .175 ISO. That ISO figure was all the way down to just .113 in an extremely small major-league sample.
That missing power doesn’t help Loftin’s case to become an everyday third baseman for Kansas City, and Massey had a much stronger track record in his minor league career which should give him a chance over Loftin next season. The biggest thing in Loftin’s favor is his defensive versatility, which could help him grab a utility role. Thus far into his major league career, he’s played 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF, and CF. At a minimum, Loftin seems like a good bet to claim the Matt Duffy role from last season and provide valuable at-bats off the bench, albeit with much more upside than Duffy provided.
2024 Steamer Projections: .247/.334/.375, 2 HR, 94 wRC+, 0.4 fWAR
Samad Taylor struggled immensely in the major leagues last season, which was extremely curious following such a strong showing to start the season in Triple-A. He was in some ways the organization’s very best hitter in the entire minor leagues, slashing .301/.418/.466 over 89 games for the Storm Chasers. Then, upon making his major league debut Taylor struggled to a 49 wRC+ over 31 games. He struck out 31.9% of the time and hit for far less power than we’ve seen from him at any point in his professional career thus far.
Steamer projections are rather optimistic for Taylor, despite his struggles. His projected 94 wRC+ is actually better than both Michael Massey and Nick Loftin. Like Loftin, Taylor offers versatility defensively and has enough speed to allow him to play center field in Kauffman Stadium. It’s worth wondering if the limited usage for Taylor after being promoted last season was at least partially to blame for his slow start. He played in back-to-back games just three times after being promoted from Omaha. At one point after a second promotion, Taylor played just six times in a 26-game span. That much time on the bench is destined to hurt a player’s timing and confidence. This seems eerily similar to how the team handled Kyle Isbel earlier in his career.
2024 Steamer Projections: .213/.309/.380, 10 HR, 86 wRC+, 0.0 fWAR
The door couldn’t have been more open for Pratto in 2023. He got off to a strong start after a promotion from Triple-A Omaha, but that success was short-lived. Through the end of May, Pratto had slashed .295/.398/.429 with an impressive 12.2% walk rate. Unfortunately, his sky-high strikeout rate (32.5%) was a sign of things to come. All the success came crashing down for Pratto in a rough two-month sample from June 1 through July 31. His strikeout rate ballooned to 40.9% and he hit just .199. Injury sidelined him at the end of July and he never got a chance to get back on track.
The Royals have long had high hopes for Pratto, dating back to his selection 14th overall in the 2017 draft. He became part of the organization’s trio of top prospects — alongside MJ Melendez and Bobby Witt Jr. — but hasn’t quite been able to stake a claim the way the other two have. With Vinnie Pasquantino sidelined last season, it was Pratto’s best chance to do so, and that crashed and burned. The Royals still have a need for first base depth, regardless of what happens with Salvador Perez this winter. If he is still on the roster, Pratto at least deserves a short chance to open next season to see if he can finally fulfill his potential. The leash is short (if not non-existent) at this point but the potential is still too high to completely ignore.