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Evaluating Royals position players halfway through the season

Spoiler alert: They’ve been really bad!

Cleveland Guardians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

The Royals are exactly halfway through the season and we can already tell it is one they would like to forget. They have the second-worst record in baseball at 23-58, and are on pace for the most losses in club history, and the second-most losses by any team in baseball since 1969.

While the team did not expect to be in contention, owner John Sherman admitted “the results are worse than we thought they would be.” The front office has called this an “evaluation year” so let’s evaluate the players we saw in the first half, starting with the position players.

Bobby Witt Jr. has been the team’s most valuable player by fWAR (1.6), thanks largely to his speed and improved defense. While he can be prone to errors, he is sixth among all shortstops in Outs Above Average and seventh in Defensive Runs Above Average. He is the second-fastest player in baseball and is fifth among all players in stolen bases.

Offensively he is about the same player he was last year, a slightly below-league-average hitter. He has incrementally improved his walk rate and strikeout rate and has cut down on his chase rate a bit, but his on-base percentage remains well below .300. He has really struggled against fastballs this year - only Trea Turner has a lower wOBA against heaters. Bobby has been hurt by some very bad luck - his expected batting average is .287, compared to his actual batting average of .241. He’s hit for good power and is on pace for a 20+ home run/40+ stolen base season, which is valuable. The 23-year old still has room for growth but his career looks more like “very solid starter on a good team” than “franchise player.” Grade: B

MJ Melendez had a promising start to his career last year, but has struggled to get out of the gate this season, hitting a disappointing .213/.298/.342 for the year, posting the 15th-worst wRC+ among all qualified hitters. Melendez can still draw some walks, but his strikeout rate has increased. He has fifth-lowest contact rate and the 11th-highest swinging strike rate. What has been mystifying is his lack of power - he has hit just six home runs this year. He’s hitting the ball hard - he is among the leaders in average exit velocity and has improved his hard-hit rate. Some of it is bad luck - if he played all of his games in Cincinnati, he’d have 15 home runs this year.

Defensively, Melendez has been a mess. By Defensive Runs Saved, he has been one of the worst defenders at any position. He has not been good at getting jumps on balls and his five errors are second-most among any outfielder. Melendez brought a refreshing approach to the plate for this organization, but through 800 MLB plate appearances, he has been a below replacement level player. Grade: D

Salvador Perez continues to defy age and reason. Nobody in baseball swings at more pitches out of the strike zone. Only Nicholas Castellanos has more swinging strikes. No one has a lower walk rate. Yet Salvy just keeps chugging along, leading the team and all MLB catchers with 15 home runs this year. Despite turning 33 in May, Salvy is putting up a season almost identical to his career numbers.

Defensively he has improved a bit with his framing - he is no longer the league’s worst. He may be losing his ability to throw runners out a bit - he has nailed just 15 percent of would-be base-stealers this year. Rule changes are part of that, but compared to his peers he is now among the worst at throwing out runners. There are still some concerns about whether he will need more time off as he ages - he has missed some time this year due to vision problems. But Salvy keeps chugging along, the rock for the Royals no matter their ups and downs. Grade: B+

Vinnie Pasquantino had an impressive rookie season and looked to be on his way to a breakout season in year two. He hit .292/.380/.549 over his first 31 games and was on pace for a 30-home run season. But he went into a funk after that, hitting .203/.269/.331 in 30 games. Maybe he was pressing - his walk rate fell over that time - or maybe he was dealing with the same shoulder discomfort he experienced in 2022 that ultimately led to surgery this year that will keep him out for the rest of the year. Either way, the Royals will miss his bat. Before he got hurt, he had one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball and one of the best hard-hit rates, and led the team in OPS+ with 111. Grade: B

Edward Olivares is the kind of enigmatic player that has tormented the Royals before in their dark days. He shows just enough promise with the bat to hang onto him, but is such an awful defender, you want him off your team. Only two outfielders are worse than him at Outs Above Average. He has some athleticism - his speed and arm rate very well - but negates that with terrible instincts. He is one of the worst outfielders at getting a jump on the ball.

Offensively, he’s been inconsistent but is fourth on the team with a 104 OPS+. He doesn’t consistently hit the ball hard, he won’t walk much, and his future is looking more and more like a fourth outfielder, not a player the Royals can depend on much. Grade: C+

Nick Pratto has been one of the more pleasant surprises for a team with little to brag about. The former top prospect was promoted despite some ugly numbers in the minors, and he has responded with a team-leading .345 on-base percentage. He has adapted well to hitting in the leadoff spot and hasn’t had much trouble hitting lefties (he’s actually had a reverse platoon split this year).

He has drawn walks, but has been a bit too passive at times. He leads the league in called strike rate and has take more called strike threes than any hitter except Ryan Noda. That is why he is fourth overall in strikeout rate in baseball at 36.4 percent, a number he’ll need to improve upon. Still, he is looking like a solid starter at first with good defense, one of the few positions the Royals can count on going forward. Grade: B+

Michael Massey got to the big leagues on the strength of his defense, and he has been a solid defender, but not the plus defender some may have expected after he won a Gold Glove in the minors. He has good average exit velocity, but that hasn’t translated into good offensive numbers yet. His .315 slugging percentage is 15th-lowest among players with at least 200 plate appearances. His strikeout rate is also entirely too high for a player that doesn’t hit home runs - he’s whiffing nearly 30 percent of the time. Massey is currently out with a finger laceration, but should be back in a week or two. The Royals have some depth at second base, so the second half will be key for him to prove he has a place on this roster. Grade: C-

Maikel Garcia has shown flashes of brilliance since being promoted. H was having a very hot June, until a 1-for-20 slump over the last five games. He initially showed a very patient eye, but has drawn few walks over the last few weeks. He is capable of hitting for some power, although it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever be a serious power threat. He has been a terrific baserunner, successfully swiping 11 bases without being caught. His defense has been outstanding - he leads all third basemen in Outs Above Average. Garcia is already second on the team in fWAR at 1.4 and looks like one of their more valuable players. Grade: A-

Nicky Lopez is posting the best walk rate of his career at 13.4 percent, but continues to hit without any kind of power. He has the sixth-lowest hard-hit rate in baseball with a poor average exit velocity of 86.1. But he still provides great defense as one of the best infielders in Outs Above Average. At this point of his career, he is what he is - a terrific fielder who can get on base a bit and be a good baserunner, with little offense to speak of. Many teams will covet him as a role player, and there is good chance he is traded this summer. Grade: B-

Kyle Isbel injured his hamstring in May, only recently returning to action. The Royals were counting on him becoming their centerfielder of the future, praising his ability to get a jump on balls, something he led all of baseball in last year. In very limited action, he has already done very well in Defensive Runs Saved. But what is holding Isbel back is a lack of progress with his bat. His anemic line of .194/.233/.327 adds more evidence that he is not up to being a Major League regular. With his defense, Isbel only has to be slightly below-average with the bat to be valuable. But the 26-year old may be running out of chances to show he is more than just a good glove. Grade: C-

Drew Waters missed the first seven weeks of the season with an oblique injury, and has struggled to get his bat going since then. Strikeouts have been a major issue - he’s striking out nearly 40 percent of the time so far. His defense in the outfield has been solid, although he has made some head-scratching plays at times. Waters is a player that still has a lot to prove, and may profile as more of a fourth outfielder unless he can improve with the bat in the second half. Grade: C-

Freddy Fermin was MVP of the Venezuelan Winter League, but not considered a prospect largely due to his age. But the 28-year old has impressed in his rookie season, hitting .286/.345/.506 with four home runs in 30 games. He has also been a plus defender, faring well in framing metrics. He has been everything you would want from a backup catcher and looks to be a part of the future going forward. Grade: A

Others: Matt Duffy got off to a great start in April, but has been pretty inept with the bat since then, and the veteran seems unlikely to return next year. Dairon Blanco has blazing speed, but still seems a bit raw and has had trouble making contact. Nate Eaton has intriguing speed and a great arm, but has looked totally overmatched with the bat at the MLB level. Samad Taylor had a nice moment with a walk-off hit, and he has drawn some walks with good speed, but he has yet to hit much.