Spring Training is here! I’ve made no secret of the fact that the vast majority of the Royals’ off-season has been extremely off-putting to me. I won’t lie, I’m still entirely unimpressed with the Royals’ efforts to get people behind a new stadium. I will still be rooting for Aroldis Chapman to fall on his face from now until the end of time. But the players are on the fields again so we can stop focusing on that stuff and start focusing on the reason we’re all here to begin with.
Things could hardly have started off better. With players returning to camp, we’re now hearing more about their philosophies, goals, and immediate plans. We’re hearing from the pitchers about the changes they’re implementing and how excited they are to do so.
Brad Keller went to Driveline with the team’s encouragement and learned a couple of new breaking pitches which he hopes will lead to more swing and miss. Daniel Lynch also sought outside help which was then built upon by the Royals to improve his own curveball. They’re talking about using techniques from other, more successful teams, like aiming right down the middle.
The reporting indicates that the Royals pitchers are as excited as they’ve been in years to be working this way. Instead of players leaving and talking poorly about the team, guys are looking forward to implementing the changes and becoming better pitchers. Spring Training is a time for optimism, but the Royals’ coaches and pitchers are making it easier than ever to jump on the hype train.
They played baseball yesterday!
That’s right, Spring Training has entered the “competitive” portion already and the Royals had the first game of Spring Training. Of particular note was the starting lineup. While Ned Yost and Mike Matheny were managers you could gather a lot of information about early thinking from the Cactus League opener’s starting lineup. Nothing is guaranteed, but players that show up there often seem to appear to have the inside track to roster spots. So let’s take a look at this year’s lineup:
Bobby Witt Jr. leading off is an interesting development. He’s probably the player that makes the most sense in that position, all things considered, but maybe someone else will take it from him later. Franmil Reyes and Johan Camargo are both particularly interesting choices in the starting lineup. They both have a history of success early in the major league careers but who have fallen on hard times lately. It will be interesting to see if the Royals’ hitting coaching apparatus can help get the 29-year-olds back on track. If so, it would force Nick Pratto to truly fight for a major league job and make Hunter Dozier even more expendable.
On the other hand, John Rave is almost certainly only in the lineup to get some time in front of the big league coaches before being sent back to minor league camp fairly early. He broke out a bit in AA Northwest Arkansas last season with a .778 OPS and double digit home runs and stolen bases, but struggled in a handful of games after being promoted to AAA and probably has plenty more to prove before taking a major league position.
The most interesting omissions are probably Hunter Dozier and Edward Olivares. It might mean nothing, but it might mean that they’re both on the bubble and will have to fight to keep their roles on this team. They’ll definitely be worth watching to see if the Royals try to trade or cut either player before the season starts.
On the other hand, it won’t serve anyone to read much into Nicky Lopez or M.J. Melendez not playing. Melendez was too good last year - even if he’s not as good as you probably remember - and Lopez has too important a role as a utility player on this team for their absences to mean much.
Finally, it’s good to see Nate Eaton in the starting lineup. He had a really hot September and if he can take that hot month and make into a career baseline, he could turn out to be a very valuable player going forward. Given his speed and defensive aptitude, the absolute worst we should expect from him is a sort of right-handed Jarrod Dyson role, but with a touch more power. Still, if the Royals can get even more out of him, that could be very important going forward.
It still feels a bit hard to believe that real baseball is being played once again given how interminably long and dismal the offseason was, but it is happening. It still remains to be seen if the Royals can surprise anyone by playing better or somehow even worse than projected, but at least we’ll get to see it with our own eyes instead of just staring at new projections and bemoaning money spent on mediocre or worse pitchers.