Six days and counting until games that matter happen.
The last time the Royals allowed fans into the ballpark, the Royals walked off the 101-win Minnesota Twins to send Ned Yost off into retirement. Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier were all in the lineup that day, but that trio is all that will remain on the field for Thursday’s opener when fans can come back to the stadium again for the first time in 560 days. There wasn’t a lot of hope that day, but that’s changed quite a bit over the 18 months since then. Maybe the Royals won’t make the playoffs (okay, it’s more than maybe), but the direction is at least clearer and optimism, at least to some level, is warranted. There’s even a path, albeit narrow, to contention. I wrote about it yesterday even (and if you’ll just subscribe already, I can stop bugging you)! Spring training has been great, but I’m just ready for some real baseball that we get to see in person.
A lot has happened since we last talked, and one of those things is that Bobby Witt, Jr. got reassigned to minor league camp, which is probably the right decision but made some people irrationally angry. Fans of other teams saw the news and assumed the Royals were manipulating service time, which couldn’t be more laughable given both the situation with Witt and the organization’s history. They just don’t do that, and it’s at times been to the detriment of the long-term plan. Think back just to last year when they gave Brady Singer a start in the second game of the season when they had to keep him in the minors for literally like a week to get an extra year on him. They just don’t do it.
No, this is the right call with Witt. He was beginning to slump a little bit toward the end of his time in big league camp. That doesn’t mean I don’t think he’ll be a fantastic player. Sending him to minor league camp (and probably the alternate site for a month) and then AA to start is ultimately the right decision for his development. What I’m curious about is where he plays most. Dayton Moore mentioned third base and some outfield along with shortstop. If that’s the case, the clock, if it wasn’t already, is really ticking on Nicky Lopez. My guess is if Witt does what everyone hopes he can, he’ll spend a few weeks in AA and maybe a few more in AAA and then be in the big leagues around the break.
Speaking of second base, the Royals made a little news yesterday when Mike Matheny mentioned to Alec Lewis of The Athletic that Kyle Isbel still has a shot to make the Opening Day roster, which would shift Merrifield to second base. I’m all for it, honestly. Isbel has actually been a little more impressive to me this spring than Witt even was. He’s hit .314/.390/.543, which is still a spring training stat line, but I haven’t noticed him looking overmatched at any point. I’m a bit worried about the swing and miss. He’s struck out in 27 percent of his plate appearances, but he’s also walked in 10 percent, so that’s a plus.
I’m just a little confused about why they’d reassign him just a few days ago only to still have him in a position to make the team. It’s not like they had to make a move to get camp to a certain arbitrary number. I think he’s still on the outside looking in, but it’s not because he doesn’t belong. The Royals simply have a crunch right now. They currently have 38 players on the 40-man that’ll cut down to 37 once Daniel Tillo goes on the 60-day IL. They’re likely to add at least Hanser Alberto, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. I think Jake Brentz makes the team too, so that’s four players with three open spots. Then you add Isbel and it’s just one more spot to clear. It’s not that they don’t have players they could easily DFA, but I’m skeptical they’ll cut bait with two more guys when they don’t really have to.
I’m not going to be that guy to get worked up over lineups, but I do want to talk about what we’ve seen from the Royals over the last few days that seems to be how the Royals will start their season. Merrifield and Andrew Benintendi at the top is something we’ve known for awhile, but it seems that Matheny is now looking at Adalberto Mondesi in the three spot, followed by Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana, Soler and Dozier. I’m not sure if I have an issue with it or not, but one thing that stands out is that two guys like Mondesi and Perez back-to-back just seems like a recipe for easy innings for the opponents way too often.
Perez’s plate appearances ended on either the first or second pitch 59 percent of the time in 2020. Mondesi had the same number. The league average was 56 percent. I know that seems like a small difference, but it’s a difference nonetheless. Part of my skepticism here is that I really liked the idea of Santana hitting third to give the Royals three guys who really put together great plate appearances to start a game. I liked the idea of separating Perez and Mondesi by a few spots. On the plus side, though, Soler and Dozier at six and seven have a chance to be one of the best combos in the league there, but I’d rather they get more plate appearances.
Mid-week day games are hard to catch sometimes, but if you had the opportunity to see yesterday’s and stuck it out into the last third of the game, you got to see a truly dominant relief performance from the aforementioned Santana. He had it all working. There was no radar gun on the television, but the fastball looked good and everything else actually looked better. He threw three perfect innings and struck out seven, which is a bit inflated because the Diamondbacks in the late innings of a spring game aren’t elite competition, but still, it was very impressive.
And then the day before, Jakob Junis looked about as good as I remember seeing him, throwing two perfect innings with three strikeouts. I think he has a great shot to be the fifth starter when they start using a fifth starter in a few weeks, but until then, the Royals have a chance to have some serious length in the bullpen with Junis and Santana able to give multiple innings at a time. With Greg Holland, Jesse Hahn and Scott Barlow anchoring the back of the bullpen (and Josh Staumont too once he’s fully up to speed) and the stuff you see from Kyle Zimmer and Jake Brentz, the Royals bullpen has a chance to be versatile, deep and very good. That’s something I’m really looking forward to seeing play out as the season gets going.