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Play the Kids! The Royals 2023 season preview

The Royals are going young, but is it young enough?

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Baseball has become a young man’s game. The days of the traditional player career arc with peak performance at age 27-28 are long gone, with players developing faster than before. Teams need hitters with can hit harder and pitchers that can throw harder, and more often than not, those are younger players. Cost consciousness and a greater understanding of player aging curves have also led teams to depend more on younger talent because it is cheaper.

For a long time, the Royals have talked about getting younger, but have had a tough time actually doing it. Baseball Reference calculates average age, weighted to playing time (a young player that plays a lot will affect the average age more than an old player who doesn’t play much). In 2021, when the Royals should have been rebuilding, they actually fielded the 14th-oldest lineup in club history. Instead of giving chances to young, hungry players, the Royals brought in Carlos Santana, Andrew Benintendi, and Michael A. Taylor. They lost 88 games that year, and were even worse in 2022, causing Club President Dayton Moore and manager Mike Matheny to lose their jobs after a 97-loss season.

Kansas City Royals

2022 record: 65-97, 5th place

2023 PECOTA projection: 64-98

2023 ZIPS projection: 73-89

Manager: Matt Quatraro

Key additions: Jackie Bradley Jr., Matt Duffy, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Lyles, Franmil Reyes, Josh Taylor, Ryan Yarbrough

Key losses: Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, Michael A. Taylor, Luke Weaver

With J.J. Picollo now in charge of player personnel, the Royals are once again preaching youth. Of the expected nine Opening Day starters, seven will likely be 27 years of age or younger, and four - Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, and Michael Massey - will be in their second year of big league action. That number can increase when Nate Eaton is in the lineup and when Nick Pratto and/or Maikel Garcia are called up. Teams that have fielded lineups full of young hitters have historically done well in the following years, something the Royals are counting on.

Yet the Royals won’t have the youngest lineup of hitters in baseball on Opening Day. That honors goes to the Cleveland Guardians, a franchise that owner John Sherman was once a part of and would like to emulate.

2023 Opening Day position players, average age

Position AVG
Position AVG
Cleveland Guardians 27.3
Baltimore Orioles 27.4
Tampa Bay Rays 27.6
St. Louis Cardinals 27.7
Washington Nationals 27.7
Arizona Diamondbacks 27.8
Milwaukee Brewers 27.9
Kansas City Royals 28.0
Detroit Tigers 28.1
Houston AStros 28.3

The Royals’ average age is skewed by the bench spots of over-30-year-old veterans Matt Duffy and Jackie Bradley Jr. - if you take them out the Royals have the youngest set of hitters in baseball. But their spots on the roster show how the team still isn’t quite all-in on going young. While the Royals signed two veterans who haven’t hit since Obama was president, the Guardians fill their bench by giving young players a chance. Hopefully bench roles won’t matter much, but another young team - the St. Louis Cardinals - have made a tradition of handing bench roles to younger players only to see them exceed expectations. Young players need opportunities.

The young hitter the Royals are counting the most on is phenom Bobby Witt Jr. There was a lot to like from Bobby in his rookie season, as he was the just the fifth player under the age of 22 to put up a 20+ home run, 30+ stolen base season. But he also posted a .294 on-base percentage that was 14th-worst among qualified hitters and was the worst-ranked shortstop with at least 800 innings in both Defensive Runs Saved and Defensive Runs Above Average. The Royals believe he has the tools to improve defensively at shortstop under the tutelage of new infield coach José Alguacil and are committed to him there this season.

Fellow rookie MJ Melendez also showed promise with the bat, with a 12.4 percent walk rate that was the best mark ever by a Royals rookie, and 18 home runs that was sixth-best among all rookies last year. But he was a poor pitch framer and even worse at pitch-blocking, putting doubt as to whether he can stick at catcher long-term. His future may be in the outfield, where he struggled defensively as well, but could improve with more time to prepare this year.

Vinnie Pasquantino best epitomizes the approach under new hitting coach Alec Zumwalt - look for a good pitch and rip it. He was one of just eight hitters last year with at least 250 plate appearances to have more walks than strikeouts. And he has become a fan favorite with his sense of humor, his natural leadership, and his laser-shot home runs.

The Royals are hoping Kyle Isbel can be the answer in centerfield, after trading Gold Glover Michael A. Taylor to the Twins. Isbel was the best in baseball in getting a jump on flyballs, and the Royals hope that translates into him becoming an elite defender. If not, Drew Waters could be an option in centerfield once he returns from an oblique injury that may cost him the first few weeks of the season. Edward Olivares and Nate Eaton also figure to be in the mix, and need to take advantage of the opportunities given to them this year.

All statistics are 2022 numbers.

2023 Royals projected lineup

Starting Lineup PA HR SB BA OBA SLG fWAR
Starting Lineup PA HR SB BA OBA SLG fWAR
RF MJ Melendez (L) 534 18 2 .217 .313 .393 -0.2
SS Bobby Witt Jr. (R) 632 20 30 .254 .294 .428 2.3
1B Vinnie Pasquantino (L) 298 10 1 .295 .383 .450 1.5
C Salvador Perez (R) 473 23 0 .254 .292 .465 0.5
DH Franmil Reyes (R) 473 14 2 .221 .273 .365 -1.1
LF Edward Olivares (R) 174 4 2 .286 .333 .410 0.4
2B Michael Massey (L) 194 4 3 .243 .307 .376 0.6
3B Hunter Dozier (R) 500 12 4 .236 .292 .387 -1.0
CF Kyle Isbel (L) 278 5 9 .211 .264 .340 0.7
IF Nicky Lopez (L) 480 0 13 .227 .281 .273 1.2
IF Matt Duffy (R) 247 2 0 .250 .308 .311 -0.1
IF/OF Nate Eaton (R) 122 1 11 .264 .331 .387 0.9
OF Jackie Bradley Jr. (L) 370 4 2 .203 .255 .311 -0.1
OF Drew Waters (S) 109 5 0 .240 .324 .479 0.4

The Royals decided not to go young with their pitching staff, despite having a few promising young pitchers in Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic. The club brought in veteran starters Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough and brought back Zack Greinke to eat up innings and protect the young arms, then signed veteran reliever Aroldis Chapman to give them more options in late innings. The result is that the Royals will have the 11th-oldest pitching staff in baseball on Opening Day, in sharp contrast to the Guardians, who will field the youngest staff in baseball as they try to defend their division title.

Singer had a breakout season in 2022, finishing 22nd in fWAR among all American League pitchers with at least 100 innings. Fellow 2018 draftees Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic had much more mixed results, and the Royals are hoping new pitching coach Brian Sweeney and his assistant Zach Bove can use data more effectively to produce better results from them. Unfortunately for Lynch, those results will have to wait as he is expected to miss the first month of the season with a shoulder strain.

The Royals should have more bullpen depth with the addition of Chapman, the acquisition of lefty Josh Taylor from Boston, and the transition of hard-throwing Carlos Hernández to a reliever. They join Scott Barlow, who has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the last few years, but could be trade bait this summer as the Royals look to build up their low-ranked farm system.

All statistics are 2022 numbers.

2023 Royals projected pitching staff

Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
Rotation ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
RHP Zack Greinke 3.68 4.03 137.0 4.8 1.8 1.9
RHP Jordan Lyles 4.42 4.40 179.0 7.2 2.6 1.4
RHP Brad Keller 5.09 4.50 139.2 6.6 3.7 0.7
RHP Brady Singer 3.23 3.58 153.1 8.8 2.1 2.9
LHP Kris Bubic 5.58 4.78 129.0 7.7 4.4 0.5
LHP Daniel Lynch 5.13 4.63 131.2 8.3 3.6 0.7
Bullpen ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
RHP Scott Barlow 2.18 3.62 74.1 9.3 2.7 0.9
LHP Aroldis Chapman 4.46 4.57 36.1 10.7 6.9 -0.2
LHP Amir Garrett 4.96 3.40 45.1 9.7 6.4 0.5
RHP Dylan Coleman 2.78 3.88 68.0 9.4 4.9 0.4
RHP Taylor Clarke 4.04 3.30 49.0 8.8 1.5 0.7
RHP Carlos Hernandez 7.39 5.20 56.0 5.6 5.0 -0.2
LHP Ryan Yarbrough 4.50 4.77 80.0 6.9 2.5 0.0

The Royals will be young, and by mid-season they could be even younger, but will they be good? Picollo insists that their minor league development is sound, it was a change in coaching at the Major League level that was needed. That puts the onus on this coaching staff to get results, sooner rather than later. With six consecutive losing seasons, few signs of improvement over the off-season, and ownership clamoring for a new downtown ballpark, fans are growing restless. The young players will offer some hope for the future, but before long, hope will have to turn into wins.