Pitchers and catchers officially report to Surprise this week, so a barrage of pictures and videos of players stretching will likely be coming your way soon. Soon, games will start and assumptions can be made way too soon about this player or that player. Rather than write a whole article about this, I just want to take this opportunity to caution people against reading too deeply into those spring stats. I don’t want to have to bring up Peter O’Brien after today, but I will if needed. His .296/.371/.741 spring made a lot of people believe he was the next big thing. He was in five different organizations last year and hit .191/.273/.375 in 381 plate appearances in the minors.
Anyway, let’s get to the three big questions.
Who plays center field?
The Royals have had center field locked down nicely since 2012 when Lorenzo Cain made his first Opening Day roster. Now, he’s set to earn $80 million over the next half-decade in Milwaukee, so the Royals have to find a new solution. The options are bleak. Billy Burns, Paulo Orlando, Bubba Starling and Alex Gordon are options on the 40-man roster. Maybe I should include Jorge Bonifacio here after his one start in Texas early in his big league career. Either way, nothing looks too pretty here. In my mind, the Royals need someone who can go get it to help their pitching staff. I assume Gordon will actually be in left and he’s still a fantastic defender, but whoever is in right will likely need a little bit of help.
What the Royals probably do: As it stands right now, Orlando has to be considered the front runner. I’ve never been impressed with his defense in right (though the numbers contradict me on that), but I think he’s a perfectly fine center fielder. Something about the angles being easier to read helps him, and his athleticism and speed play well in center. And he has a chance to not be a complete zero with the bat, although his allergy to walks and just generally taking pitches makes it an uphill battle for him constantly. Billy Burns working as the fourth outfielder seems likely as well, but I think even less of him than I do Orlando. For a fast guy, Burns isn’t an especially good defender or base runner, so unless he’s posting a high BABIP, he’s probably not doing much for a team.
What I’d do: Are the Royals going to win in 2018? Probably not. Let’s see what Bubba has to offer. He’s a very good defensive center fielder and there’s at least some potential somewhere in his bat. These are some selective endpoints, but he hit .288/.335/.443 in his final 59 games of the season. I’m not exactly brimming with confidence that he’ll ever be much of a contributor, but why not find out now? Another option is to go get a guy like Jarrod Dyson who is a legitimately fantastic defender and let him run down fly balls all over the outfield. He’s likely pretty inexpensive at this point, the fans love him and he’s a plus in the clubhouse. That actually might be my favorite option.
Heading into the 2017 season, we pretty much knew who was going to be in the bullpen. They had a group of veterans with no options, so there wasn’t much room for surprise. Mike Minor was able to break through, but the bullpen to start the year in Minnesota was pretty similar to what we all expected at this time. This year is very different. Assuming they’re not traded, Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer are the only true locks, I think. They have about 15 other candidates, and they might be able to piece together a unit that ends up pretty good from that, but there are a whole bunch of questions about this unit as we wait for the season to start.
What the Royals probably do: If I had to guess, they’ll carry eight relievers to start. Herrera and Maurer are in, as I mentioned before. Brian Flynn is the top lefty candidate and he’s out of options, so I think he’s in. Jesse Hahn, if healthy and not in the rotation, seems like he’s in there and Kevin McCarthy and his solid 2017 with the good ground ball rate also seems like a near lock to make the final unit. Then I think Wily Peralta gets in as well. Some might argue he’s a lock, and I think he’s probably pretty close, but the guarantee is so slim that if he tanks in the spring, the Royals might just cut bait rather than ever let him on the roster. And now you see the confusion because that’s only six. Burch Smith is probably the top candidate for one of the last spots because of his big fastball and Rule 5 status, and then I guess maybe Eric Stout makes it as a second lefty.
What I’d do: Man, I don’t know. This is a group that will be very flexible throughout the season with a lot of guys with options. In addition to the eight mentioned above, Andres Machado, Scott Barlow, Sam Gaviglio and Tim Hill should all be up and down this season. Kyle Zimmer, if healthy (hahahahaha), could make an impact on this unit as well. And then there’s Richard Lovelady. I don’t think there’s a need to push Lovelady just yet, but I’d get him up to the big leagues pretty quickly once he is. And hey, Peter Moylan and Tony Watson are both out there as guys I could see the Royals snapping up pretty cheap in free agency still.
What’s happening with the Royals free agents?
This is one that we’ve talked about way too much this offseason, but it’s still a huge question as the season creeps closer. I already mentioned Peter Moylan, but there are bigger names still out there. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still waiting for the contracts they’ve been wanting all winter. It’s not just them, though. Jason Vargas is still sitting out there; so is Melky Cabrera. We’ve talked a ton about the big ones here, but I’m surprised Vargas hasn’t been able to find a deal. Every team needs seven or eight starters to get through a long season, and while Vargas isn’t nearly as good as his All-Star status from 2017, he’s still a quality back-end arm.
What the Royals probably do: I still think Hosmer is back eventually, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if Moylan is. The rest probably go elsewhere, though the organization loves Vargas and might really appreciate his experience and arm in the rotation if they can move Jason Hammel. But I’m not sure why a team would trade for Hammel when they could just sign Vargas or a guy like Andrew Cashner. Other than Hosmer and Moylan, the rest likely move on unless one of them (read Moustakas) gets a little desperate and offers the Royals a deal they simply can’t refuse.
What I’d do: I’d walk on all of them other than maybe Moylan. You can always use innings in the bullpen and none of the major candidates I mentioned above are that big of a deal to worry about blocking or losing in favor of a known quantity. If a deal presented itself to the Royals on any of them other than probably Melky that was worth it, maybe I’d jump on that, but I think it’s best to just cut the cord and see what the young guys can do.
There are so many more unknowns than in years past, which might make for a bit of an uneasy season but for a way more entertaining spring than we’ve seen in the past. Maybe it won’t have the hope of 2011, but I remember those spring trainings of past bad teams and they were at least not short on storylines. And this one won’t be either.