It’s three weeks later than intended, but the Royals finally open their spring schedule this afternoon with their traditional Cactus League opener against their Surprise complex rivals, the Texas Rangers.
Spring training will be severely condensed this season, as the Royals were originally slated to play 32 games in 32 games, including four split-squad dates. Instead, the Royals will play 17 games in 19 days, with Opening Day occurring just 20 day following the spring opener. With a much shorter timeline this spring, with the effects spilling over into the regular season.
Pitching Depth Will Be More Important
As I touched on following Wednesday"s moves to acquire Amir Garrett then sign Zack Greinke, those moves accomplish a pair of things. Greinke"s signing adds an experienced arm to a young rotation, while Garrett adds another potential weapon out of the bullpen.
As we learned in both 2020 and 2021, changes to the routines and regimens to MLB players often are detrimental in the form of injuries, though spikes were noted among both pitchers and hitters. However, one common complaint with 2020"s “Summer Camp" was the three-week time frame, which pitchers said was not long enough to get properly stretched out and “ramped up." Additionally, the lack of a minor league season in 2020 had a residual effect that trickled down into every corner of professional baseball.
David Peterson, who managed the Houston Apollos in the independent American Association last season, told me that there was “a nationwide pitching shortage." He was right and the culprit was the major disruption of routines. Fortunately, COVID-19 wasn"t as much of an impediment to training as it was last offseason.
However, the lockout certainly was, as for over three months, teams and players could have no contact for each other. For many players with proven third-party training regimens, it probably didn"t effect offseason work much, but for younger players who might normally be asked to work on something and are monitored periodically, that was not possible during the lockout. Even more important, though, injured players could not see team doctors or trainers. For Richard Lovelady and Foster Griffin, who are both recovering from Tommy John surgery, being in the dark from the Royals for three critical months in their rehab process could potentially lead to issues down the road, or at least slow down their recovery.
Additionally, the late start to spring (players reported nearly four weeks later than normal) may have negative impacts, especially since report dates were not known until a few days prior due to the fluid nature of the lockout.
With all of this factored in, expect some players (especially pitchers) to get hurt. With the Royals" increasingly impressive stockpile of bullpen arms and treasure trove of young pitching either in or approaching the majors, how deep that pitching well is may be tested early on, with the team potentially dipping into an intriguing well of non-roster arms.
How Do the Royals Address the Infield?
The Royals have a good problem here, but a problem nonetheless. Bobby Witt Jr. is coming and many believe that his MLB debut will come on Opening Day. That means the Royals have three weeks to figure out where he goes, along with Nicky Lopez, Adalberto Mondesi, and Whit Merrifield. Presumably, those four will be occupying three of the four infield spots, with Carlos Santana (presumably) manning first base.
This doesn"t even factor in the Hunter Dozier problem, or the fact that Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez have legitimate cases to be on the Opening Day roster. What we have here is three potential starting third basemen, three shortstops, three second basemen, two first baseman, and four DH candidates spread among eight different players. There are a lot of ways to solve this puzzle for Mike Matheny, but there will be difficult decisions involved in solving it.
Additionally, for players like Dozier, who had a miserable season (.680 OPS and 81 OPS+) and Santana, who played even worse in the second half (.176/.254/.246 slash line post-All-Star Game), getting plenty of reps in spring games could be key to gaining timing and confidence ahead of the season, but slashing the number of spring games in half will severely curtail those plate appearances.
Who Plays Right Field?
The outfield is a simpler picture as two of the three spots are taken care of. Andrew Benintendi is in left and Michael A. Taylor will man center field after being the best defensive center fielder in baseball last season. Nothing besides injuries or Taylor"s iffy offensive skills cratering will change that. That leaves right field.
Last season, it was Jorge Soler (until he was traded in July) and Hunter Dozier primarily manning right field. Both were bad offensively and worse defensively. Presumably the Royals would like to avoid putting Dozier out there, but they may have to if the infield or DH spots get too crowded.
That leaves Kyle Isbel as the likely favorite. He actually started Opening Day in right a year ago (due to injuries) but spent most of the year in Omaha. Edward Olivares could get another opportunity as well. Isbel has only 76 MLB at-bats under his belt, while Olivares has 197 (101 last season), meaning that the jury still is definitely still out on both. Both have also shown the ability to produce at the MLB level, leaving the door open to a legitimate competition. Isbel is a lefty and Olivares a righty, so a platoon is not out of the question either.
What Will the Starters Do?
Stated plainly, the starting rotation did not have a good year in 2021. Mike Minor and his 5.05 ERA are now gone, but Brad Keller and Daniel Lynch both had ERAs well north of 5.00. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic punched in with 4.91 and 4.43 ERAs, respectively. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) marks for the group tend to suggest those results were not that much of a fluke. None of this even factors in Jackson Kowar‘s disastrous debut campaign.
Carlos Hernandez was the best starter to finish the season in a Royals uniform a year ago, posting a 3.68 ERA, but even that was only in 85.2 innings with only 11 starts. Jon Heasley is a dark-horse option as well, leaving the Royals seven realistic options for four spots, with Greinke being a lock. Keller and Singer likely are rotation locks as well, but even then, that leaves five legitimate options for two spots, with no pitcher being able to earn more than two or three spring starts. There"s a lot to sort out and little time to do it.
One option the Royals may explore: a six-man rotation. The Royals employed a six-man rotation for much of the final two months of last season, primarily to help ease workloads on pitchers going from a 60 game season back to 162. With the season being 181 days this season, rather than the originally scheduled 185, which doesn"t sound like much, but eliminated days off will take their toll as the season goes on. Allowing pitchers to ease into the season may help weather a potential storm later on.
Nonetheless, with a lot of baseball to be played between now and October 5th, these are likely the key things to watch for the Royals right now. Of course, a real story could be something none of us are paying attention to now. We can only wait and see…
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