Last year the Royals fielded an outfield that featured an All-Star in Andrew Benintendi and a Gold Glove winner in Michael A. Taylor. Neither player is still on the roster, leaving the Royals with a mix of young outfielders with potential, but a lot of question marks.
The outfield situation is likely going to be a fluid situation all season, particularly now that the Royals have been hit with injuries to their outfielders in the first week of camp. Those injuries could open up opportunities for others. Here’s how the battle for outfield playing time looks at the outset of camp.
Kyle Isbel has been praised all off-season for his ability to get good reads and jumps on balls hit to the outfield - a metric he led all of baseball in last year. He may not have the foot speed of Lorenzo Cain, but the Royals want to see if he can cover center in spacious Kauffman Stadium on a regular basis. Manager Matt Quatraro told reporters, “We’re going to give Kyle every opportunity to grab that spot,” adding he is an “an elite defender, somebody that we think highly of.” The bat has not come around for him yet, with a line of .226/.281/.361 with six home runs in 361 plate appearances, but the UNLV grad did show a patient eye in the minors, and while he won’t be a power hitter, could be good for 15 home runs and good gap power.
MJ Melendez will still see action behind the plate as the Royals are committed to seeing him improve as a catcher. But with All-Star catcher Salvador Perez still entrenched behind the plate, expect Melendez to get a lot of time in left field. Melendez was pretty poor defensively last year in limited action in left last year, but he was making the switch mid-season, so some reps in spring training could improve his numbers considerably. Offensively, he was second on the team in walk rate behind only Carlos Santana with a promising 18 home runs and a solid wRC+ of 99. He .258 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was one of the lowest in baseball, so I would expect some improvement from his .217 batting average, particularly with no shifts.
Edward Olivares should probably expect to see less of I-29 shuttling between Omaha and Kansas City this year. He still has an option year remaining, but the Royals will want a long look at the 26-year-old after injuries limited his playing time last year. He has shown good power in flashes, but his low ralk rate and defensive abilities may hold him back. He made some adjustments that could unlock more power, but his time to hit is now.
Diego Hernandez was not going to make the MLB roster, but he was a rising star in the organization who suffered a setback when he landed awkwardly on his shoulder on Saturday, dislocating it in an injury that will keep him out 3-4 months. Hernandez has plus speed and held his own in High-A and Double-A last year despite being just 21 years old. He probably won’t develop much power, but a lefty bat who can run will have a shot to contribute for the Royals long-term.
Brewer Hicklen made his MLB debut last year and had a chance to make the team as a reserve outfielder, but an elbow injury will cost him eight weeks to start the year. The 27-year old has good power and plus speed, hitting 28 home runs and stealing 35 bases in Triple-A Omaha last year. He strikes out too much to be a regular, but he could be a contributor this year once he gets healthy.
Drew Waters was in line to compete for an outfield job in center or right after an impressive debut with the Royals last year, but an oblique injury in the first week of camp will keep him out for six weeks. The switch-hitter batted .240/.324/.479 with five home runs in 32 games with the Royals after they acquired him from the Braves. He’ll need to limit the whiffs, but the 24-year-old made some simple adjustments to hit hitting that have renewed his career and he could be a starter for the Royals once he’s healthy.
Battling for a spot
Matt Beaty was signed to a minor league deal after an injury-plagued season with the Padres. He was solid contributor off the bench for the Dodgers for a few seasons with 18 home runs in 603 career MLB plate appearances and a line of .249/.320/.405. The lefty bat can play both first base and outfield, and has even filled in a third base. A good spring could get the 29-year-old on the 40-man roster.
Nate Eaton is making a case for sticking on the roster due to his versatility. As a rookie, he hit .264/.331/.387 in 44 games last year, and was a sparkplug off the bench. He also exhibits the strongest arm in baseball. His versatility could cause him to see a lot of playing time at third base, but expect him to get some outfield time as well. Quatraro calls him a “hard-nosed player and somebody that puts a lot of energy into what we’re doing”, which is what any manager wants off his bench.
Franmil Reyes may have the most power out of anyone in camp, and already has two 30+ home runs seasons in the big league under his belt. His performance cratered last year, which caused him to be let go by both the Guardians and Cubs. But he’s just 27-years-old, and if the right-hander can make enough contact, he could be a real threat at the plate, and the perfect protection needed for the younger Royals hitters.
Samad Taylor was acquired from the Blue Jays last year in the Whit Merrifield trade, and like Whit, Taylor is a speedster who can play second base and outfield. He missed the second half of the season with an injury, and struggled a bit in the Arizona Fall League, so most likely he is ticketed for Omaha. But don’t be surprised if he’s up quickly as he has the attributes the Royals love for bench options - speed and versatility.
Dairon Blanco got his pro career off to a late start after defecting from Cuba, but he made his MLB debut last year at age 29. His offensive numbers at Omaha were terrific - .301/.367/.486 with 14 home runs and 45 steals. The right-hander can play all three outfield positions, and could be a useful bench piece, but not being on the 40-man roster gives him an uphill battle.
Tyler Gentry had one of the best seasons by any Royals prospect in the minors last year, batting .326/.422/.542 with 21 home runs across High-A and Double-A. The 24-year-old can play some center but is probably more equipped to play corner outfield. If he continues to hit, his bat will play at those positions. He’s not likely to make the team, but the right-handed bat could be in Kansas City pretty soon.
Nick Loftin added 20 pounds of muscle this off-season, and it paid off with a big home run on Saturday. The former first-round pick is one of the top hitting prospects in the organization after hitting .254/.333/.403 with 17 home runs and 29 steals across Double-A and Triple-A last year. He was an infielder in college, but expect to see him all over the field.
John Rave is a left-handed bat who doesn’t really excel in any aspect, but also doesn’t have any major holes to his game. He hit .256/.353/.413 with 16 home runs and 23 steals across Double-A and Triple-A last year, and while he’s not considered a top prospect because he’s already 25 years old, he could be a contributor at some point this season.
Tyler Tolbert was Royals MVP on Saturday after smacking a big home run and coming on for two incredible catches filling in for Hernandez. Tolbert spends more time on the infield and isn’t known for his power - he has just 10 home runs in 255 minor league games. But he is one of the best basestealers in all of baseball, going 60-for-60 in swipes last year. He won’t make the team, but if he can improve his offensive numbers, he could put himself on the radar screen.
Which "long shot" would you most like to see in Kansas City this year?
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