Spring training is, at long last, getting underway following last week’s resolution of the MLB lockout and the Kansas City Royals announced their 2022 Spring Training roster on Sunday. A total of 61 players are in camp: the 40-man roster plus eight non-roster invitees.
The 40-man roster yields no major surprises, as the Royals were very quiet during the free agency bonanza prior to the lockout beginning on December 1 and likewise have done little since the transaction freeze thawed. Probably the most notable development on that front is the addition of Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez to the 40-man roster, though that was a formality to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft (which never happened due to the lockout).
That leaves 21 non-roster invitees heading to Surprise. We’ll take a dive at who could be in a position to, well, surprise.
Who Could Surprise: This is a tough call. The Royals have pitching needs, especially in adding depth to the bullpen. Realistically, I could see this entire group in the majors at some point this year, save for Vines.
Starting with the prospects, Cox is the Royals’ #12 prospect, having been picked in the 5th round of the vaunted 2018 draft class. He posted strong numbers at Double-A in 2021 and hits 96 with his fastball. Dye, a 23rd-round selection in the same 2018 class, has a 2.82 ERA and 10.3 K/9 over three professional seasons. Despite a fastball that is said to sit in the upper-80s, he has moved seamlessly up the ranks, posting a 2.52 ERA in Double-A in 2021 before finishing the year in Omaha.
On the retread side, Brad Peacock is far and away the most notable and most experienced. A 34-year-old who appeared in two (awful) outings for Boston last year, Peacock is hanging on by a thread but is well worth a flyer, which the Royals took by inking him to a minor league deal on March 7. He has a career 4.11 ERA pitching both in relief and as a starter, but was a key piece on the 2017 Houston Astros championship team, going 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA with 161 strikeouts in just 132.0 innings and earning an 11-out save (allowing no hits in 3.2 innings) in Game 3 of the World Series.
As for the other retreads, Arodys Vizcaino is probably the one with the most upside, but the most injury questions, as I touched on after he signed in January. He has a 3.01 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 194.1 MLB innings but has thrown only 10.2 professional innings since 2019, none in the majors. Colten Brewer, a 6-4 right-hander, had one disastrous outing for Boston last year (four hits, three walks, four runs in one inning) and has a 5.04 ERA over 81 career outings, all in relief. He’s struggled with his command over his MLB career, walking 5.7 batters per nine innings.
Lastly, there is Jose Cuas and Foster Griffin, who both sit somewhere in the middle. Cuas is an interesting tale. Drafted by Milwaukee in 2015 as a shortstop, he gave pitching a try after three seasons and a career .200 average in the low minors. After a couple of trips to the independent Atlantic League, the Royals took a flyer last year and he delivered, posting a 1.51 ERA and 44 strikeouts against just eight walks in 41.2 innings. He earned the final out in Double-A Northwest Arkansas’ Double-A Central championship. At 27 years old, he’s a little old for a prospect, but he could be a dark horse to crack the MLB bullpen.
That leaves Griffin, a tragic case of one of the most bittersweet MLB debuts in league history. Drafted 28th overall in 2014, he debuted on July 27, 2020, his 25th birthday, but his friends and family couldn’t be there due to COVID-19. He then threw 1.2 hitless innings in relief against Detroit, earning the win. However, he left the game due to injury and he would require Tommy John surgery, missing all of 2021. He looks to round back into form.
Who Could Surprise: Nobody. Okay, that was an easy answer with Salvador Perez coming off a massive season and MJ Melendez waiting in the fold. But let’s play devil’s advocate, shall we?
Fermin was the primary catcher in Double-A last year, batting .279 with 10 homers in 73 games. Not bad, though at 26 years old, he was old for his level. Nonetheless, he has good plate discipline (career .341 OBP) and excellent contact ability (only 177 strikeouts in 312 career games), so there may be a home for him as a backup catcher in Kansas City someday.
For the rest, Emshoff, an undrafted free agent signed in 2020, showed excellent power (10 HR in 55 games) and plate discipline (30 walks and a .380 OBP) at Low-A Columbia, but a 35% strikeout rate is concerning. Porter, also an undrafted free agent (signed in 2018) has hit .312 in 260 minor league games, though he hit just .241, albeit with 14 homers and a fine .368 OBP at High-A Quad Cities.
Both of these men could one day be backup candidates in the majors, but neither will be helping the Royals in 2022. The last of the group, Cropley, has done little of note in three professional seasons (two with Washington) and hit .194 with two homers in 26 games at Double-A last year. His MLB prospects at any point are very doubtful.
Who Could Surprise: I will give you one guess, which you promptly just used on Bobby Witt Jr. Guess what? You’re correct! There are still several other intriguing options, though.
The next most obvious is Pasquantino, an 11th-round pick from 2019 who has erupted. He teased us with 14 homers in 57 games at Burlington as a rookie in 2019, then slashed an excellent .300/.394/.573 with 24 homers across High-A and Double-A in 2021. Even more impressive, he struck out just 64 times in 116 games—a rarity for a 2021 power hitter—and his OPS actually improved from .950 to .965 after being promoted mid-season to Northwest Arkansas. Barring a setback, it’s hard to believe Pasquantino won’t hit his way to Kansas City sometime this summer.
Castillo is a sleeper for a utility infielder spot. A 26-year-old who debuted for San Diego last summer (going 1-for-3 in a single game) before signing a minor league deal with the Royals, he’s played extensively at three positions and has batted .304, .313, and .287 over his last three minor league campaigns while displaying excellent contact ability (186 strikeouts over 325 games in that span).
Cancel is a fine player who has shown pop in the middle infield at every stop, but probably has been surpassed on the depth chart, despite playing 57 games at Omaha last season (with 14 homers and a .238 average). Dungan is another pleasant surprise, who was drafted in the 9th round in 2019, hit .357 in Burlington that summer, then hit .288 with nine homers and 28 stolen bases in Double-A this season. He also committed just five errors in 102 games split between second base and shortstop this past summer. That said, he’s probably at least another year away.
All told, there are plenty of useful big-league infield candidates, though with Witt’s arrival, things are looking crowded already in Kansas City. Lack of opportunity may be the biggest thing holding some of these players back.
Who Could Suprise: Like the infield, the MLB outfield is probably essentially set, though that group is not nearly as deep, as reflected by this list. Other than catcher, this is likely the least-intriguing non-roster list.
Jones is the most notable, having spent parts of the last six seasons in Detroit. However, he never learned to hit while there, slashing just .210/.275/.371 over 352 MLB games, good for a pitiful 72 OPS+, 28% below league average. He’s also posted a negative WAR in four of his six MLB seasons and just 1.1 for his career. He’s the most likely of this group to crack the Opening Day roster, but will elicit no excitement or intrigue. His ceiling is of a fourth outfielder.
Blanco was acquired from Oakland in exchange for Jake Diekman at the trade deadline in 2019. He split 2021 between Double-A and Triple-A, slashing .277/.350/.441 with 14 homers and 41 stolen bases. He also enjoyed an excellent winter, batting .312 with 21 steals in 37 winter league games in Mexico. On the surface he looks like a big leaguer, but at 28, again, he is quite old for a prospect. That said, Blanco appearing in MLB games with the Royals is definitely still a possibility.
Brewer Hicklen displays blazing speed (40-for-44 in steals this past season) and good pop (16 homers), but a lot of swings and misses. After being literally the only good hitter in High-A Wilmington in 2019 (just click the link, it’s absurd), many of his teammates (notably Pratto and Melendez) raced by him in 2021. Still, a player was once good enough to be a wide receiver at UAB is definitely still in the fold, but not this year most likely.
Lastly, Eaton has never really been on the radar and hit an uninspiring .243 with six homers (and 23 steals) in 70 games at High-A Quad Cities. Nonetheless, he had an excellent fall in the exclusive Arizona Fall League, batting .317 with an .816 OPS in 20 games. He definitely has the shakiest MLB prospects of this group and is likely two years away at least.
With spring in the air, there are surprises to be had. Once April 7 comes around, who knows how many of these names we’ll see in Kansas City?
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