Next week, Royals pitchers and catchers will report to Surprise, Arizona with a full squad workout not long after that. The Royals had a pretty quiet off-season up until the last few weeks and overall there haven’t been many changes from a team that lost 97 games last year. According to J.J. Picollo, there won’t be any major changes leading up to the season barring injury, and the roster is fairly set already.
J.J. Picollo says it’s getting to a point “where things are settled” in terms of the roster. While the Royals are still looking at non-roster invites to spring, other moves would be more reactionary to things coming their way.— Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11) February 3, 2023
Here’s what the roster is shaping up to look like at the outset of spring training.
Catcher - Salvador Pérez
Yes, I’ve seen the unsubstantiated rumor from a guy I’ve never heard of that writes the Astros are interested in a “blockbuster” trade for Salvy. I would put the odds of that happening at 1 percent. I know owner Jim Crane is calling the shots without GM James Click anymore, but Salvy does not seem like an Astros-type pickup with his low on-base percentage, terrible framing, and high salary for an older player. I think the Royals are probably more open to trading Salvy with Dayton Moore gone, but it would still take a lot to move him, plus he does have the right to veto any trade. Anyway, I’d put my money on Salvy behind the plate in Kansas City on Opening Day.
First Base - Vinnie Pasquantino
Vinnie was one of the top 12 hitters in baseball in the second half last year by wRC+, but his defense has always been a bit of a question mark. I would expect Nick Pratto to start the year in Omaha, which will give the Royals a chance to see how Vinnie handles first base duties. You hope at some point that Pratto forces the issue, and best case scenario they can split duties at first. But if Vinnie’s defense doesn’t cut the mustard, his bat certainly plays well enough to allow him to mash from the DH position.
Second base - Michael Massey
This sounds like an open competition with Massey and Nicky Lopez, but my guess is it’s Massey’s job to lose. I’ve heard there is real interest in Lopez from the White Sox, but that the Royals are reluctant to deal him until they feel confident Massey can win this job. Massey did slump in the last three weeks of the season, but his defense can carry a lot of his value, and he shouldn’t have to hit much to prove he’s an upgrade over Lopez.
Shortstop - Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals are committing to Bobby at shortstop, and in an evaluation year like this, that makes a lot of sense. He seemingly has the skills to play the position, but his metrics were awful last year, with a high error rate being a big part of that. Improving Bobby’s defense will be the job of new coach José Alguacil, and if he can’t improve, then they can always move him to third base in 2024 with Maikel Garcia at shortstop.
Third Base - Hunter Dozier
I know, I know - not great. If the Royals cared about winning, they wouldn’t put someone that has been below replacement level value in three of the last five seasons on the field. But this is about the long-term, and the Royals hope that Dozier shows enough signs of life that they can pull a trade similar to the one they got for what was left of Carlos Santana’s hitting ability last summer. Hunter Dozier knows where third base is, he gets to the stadium on time, and I’m sure he’s nice to the clubhouse attendants and such, so he gets the job for now because...well, someone has to play the position. But if Picollo wants to show us he is different than Dayton Moore, he’ll have to demonstrate he understands the “sunk cost fallacy” because it doesn’t seem like Dozier is one of the 26 best options for the roster.
Left field - MJ Melendez
Picollo says the Royals are still committed to seeing what Melendez can do at catcher, but he’s going to get some significant time in left field to get playing time. His defense there wasn’t great last year, but considering he was making a mid-season switch, it was actually kind of impressive. It’s not impossible for a catcher to move to the outfield, but it is rare. Perhaps with more reps in spring training he can make a smoother transition.
Centerfield - Kyle Isbel
Picollo has mentioned how Isbel led all players in “outfield jump” last year, so it is natural to see how he could handle centerfield in Kansas City. He doesn’t have the speed of a Lorenzo Cain or Michael A. Taylor, but with his reads, he could continue the tradition of excellent centerfield defense. His offense is another matter. Isbel has a line of .226/.281/.361 in 361 MLB plate appearances. He hit in the minors, so perhaps he just needs more time to make the transition, but he’ll be 26 years old by Opening Day, so this may be his best opportunity to show he is a big league regular.
Right field - Drew Waters
I thought that Waters would play center, but he has a very strong arm, and actually spent more time in right last year. Waters was pretty impressive over 32 games with a line of .240/.324/.479, but his 36.7 percent strikeout rate remains a concern.
Designated hitter - Edward Olivares
I would expect heavy rotation here with Salvy spending about a quarter or more of his at-bats from the DH spot. Olivares still has an option year remaining, but I suspect we’ll see him stay in Kansas City more. At age 27, this may be his last best shot to show he deserves to stick.
Bench - Another catcher, Nate Eaton, Nicky Lopez, Johan Camargo
The Royals will have four more roster spots, and I suspect one will go to a catcher, and I don’t think it’s anyone on the current roster. Freddy Fermín would be the likeliest internal candidate, and he is coming off an MVP season in winter ball in Venezuela. But the team is said to be looking for a veteran adept at handling pitchers. There aren’t many of those options left, but the Royals could pick up Kevin Plawecki, or there may be a trade for someone that doesn’t make a roster toward the end of spring training.
Nate Eaton makes a lot of sense as a utility player capable of filling in at third and in the outfield. He boasts one of the stronger arms on the team and had a lot of energy in limited action last year. I would guess Lopez makes the team as an option to fill in at middle infield, but a trade at the end of spring training is a possibility if Massey convinces the Royals he is ready. That leaves one spot left, and I suspect it is between veterans Johan Camargo and Matt Duffy. Camargo has a bit more positional versatility, Duffy is a better defender. If I had to guess, I’d give an inside track to Camargo, but it is probably up for grabs.
Starting rotation - Brady Singer, Zack Greinke, Jordan Lyles, Daniel Lynch, Brad Keller
Singer will start on Opening Day, hopefully with a contract extension in hand. Greinke and Lyles will serve to eat innings and protect the younger arms. Lynch is still a question mark, but I think he has the stuff to break through this year. Keller is coming off a lousy season, and it wasn’t a guarantee he’d come back. But he has some bounceback potential and could be a trade asset if he can get back to form.
I expect a lot of fluidity in the rotation, by design. Dan Szymborski of Fangraphs wrote that the Royals had the “gentlest dropoff between their top five starting pitchers and their next five (or 10) starting pitchers of any team in baseball I’ve run so far”, meaning there is little daylight between the top of their staff and the tenth man on the staff. So a lot of these parts are pretty interchangeable and I suspect you’ll see plenty of starts from Kris Bubic, Max Castillo, and yes, the Royals will have to find out what they have in Jackson Kowar.
Bullpen - Scott Barlow, Aroldis Chapman, Taylor Clarke, Dylan Coleman, Jose Cuas, Amir Garrett, Josh Staumont, Ryan Yarbrough
Picollo has stated that Barlow is his closer, despite the Chapman signing, but it is nice to have options in case last year’s velocity drop catches up with Scottie. The Royals could really use a rebound season from Josh Staumont who still has potential if he can get his fastball back. Dylan Coleman showed a lot of potential and Jose Cuas was an impressive find. Ryan Yarbrough will be the long reliever who sees some starts.
The Royals got Josh Taylor from Boston last month, but he missed all of last season and while I would guess he starts in Omaha to get his sea legs back, he should get some significant time in the big leagues. Carlos Hernández is expected to see more bullpen time this year. Evan Sisk, who the Royals acquired from the Twins, could also see a lot of time as a lefty with a lower arm angle. Veterans Nick Wittgren, Mike Mayers, and Cody Poteet could also challenge for bullpen roles.
I would expect a lot of fluidity in the bullpen as well. Picollo has talked about mixing and matching relievers in anticipation of upcoming series. I imagine they’ll do some “lengthening” of the roster by shuttling guys up and down depending on which team they’re facing. The Royals do seem rather left-handed heavy - Chapman, Garrett, Yarbrough, Taylor, Sisk, and Richard Lovelady as well - despite trends in baseball moving away from lefty relievers.