Spring Training starts now!
A year of transition brings some important questions. Here are five I'll be thinking about as Spring Training unfolds.
The calendar may tell you it’s mid-February and the weather forecast may be calling for snow showers later in the week, but make no mistake…spring is mercifully here.
Players who will be participating in next month’s World Baseball Classic were in camps in Arizona and Florida on Monday. For the Royals, the rest of the pitchers and catchers are due in Surprise on Wednesday. The full squad is to report on February 20.
Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call it baseball season. Let’s go.
As those players filter into camp I have some questions on my mind. Not everything will be answered by the time the Royals close out the Cactus League schedule at the end of next month, but we may have some clarity. Let’s run through a few of those.
What will the Q factor be for the Royals?
For the first time since 2010, the Royals will be led by a rookie manager. Matt Quatraro is the face of a massive on-field change for the Royals. There’s a new pitching coach (Brian Sweeney) a new assistant pitching coach (Zach Bove) and a new bench coach (Paul Hoover). Mitch Stetter has been in the organization for several years—he was the Manager of Pitching Performance for the last three seasons—and gets the bump to bullpen coach. Hell, we can probably throw Alec Zumwalt in the mix as he wasn’t the hitting coach at this time last year.
There are still some familiar faces. Everyone’s favorite Rusty Kuntz will be cycling around camp and Damon Hollins and Vance Wilson return to their respective positions they held last year.
It’s a necessary injection of new philosophies and voices for an organization that had gone horribly stale. All eyes will be on Quatraro, who has been on the job for a little over three months and has spent his winter getting to know the players on his roster. A bench coach for the last four seasons in Tampa, he finally gets to lead his own camp.
I expect he will lean on Hoover, who worked closely with Quatraro and manager Kevin Cash on in-game decisions in Tampa. Hoover also worked with the Rays catching staff, so it will be important for him to forge a strong working relationship with Salvador Perez who lost a couple of his key confidants with the departures of Pedro Grifol and Mike Tosar to the White Sox.
As the situation deteriorated last summer, we heard rumblings that the clubhouse was not an especially…relaxed place. How the new staff relates to the younger players will go a long way to establishing the next era of Royals baseball. It sounds a bit grandiose as I read back the previous sentence, but the stakes are extremely high. If Q and his staff are the home-run hires I expect (and hope) they are, we will see an almost immediate impact on the field. And that impact will be necessary to break the Royals from what has become a rut of a rebuild.
Can Bobby Witt Jr. prove himself defensively at short?
The Royals are committed to Witt being their everyday shortstop. I’ll go on the record right now and write that I believe that to be the correct call—with an important caveat. Witt needs to find the defensive spark that eluded him at the position last year.
We’ve been through all the defensive metrics for Witt’s performance at short in 2022. None of them are fun to examine. He was last among shortstops with -18 Defensive Runs Saved. He was fourth from the bottom among shortstops with -9 Outs Above Average. Last week, Baseball Prospectus introduced a refined defensive metric—Range Defense Added— which features the metric they call Defensive Runs Prevented (DRP). Witt ranked dead last in this new measurement with a -16.7 DRP.
Think what you will about defensive metrics, but if I have three different ones all telling me the same thing…I’m going to have to believe the metrics.
We know the bat will play at short. That was never a question. What we don’t know, however, is can Witt field adequately enough to stick at the position?
One name I didn’t mention in the question above about the new staff is infield coach José Alguacil. (Not an oversight on my part. I was holding him back specifically for this question.) Alguacil is a highly-regarded coach who was with the Giants organization for 13 seasons before moving on to the Nationals last year. One of the players he was tasked to work with last year was Nats shortstop prospect Brady House, Washington’s number five prospect according to Baseball America.
At times last year, it seemed as if the game moved much faster than Witt anticipated at short. A year of experience under his belt should help. So should the tutelage of Alguacil.
Will we see the Royals lock up any of their young players with a contract extension this spring?
In the past, the Royals have enjoyed doing long-term business in Spring Training. Two years ago it was Salvador Perez who inked a four-year, $82 million extension. That stands as the largest contract in franchise history. (Hunter Dozier, too. But let’s not talk about that.)
If they’re going to wrap up Witt, they’re going to have to blow past that amount. Will they use the next six weeks to hammer out a new deal? Actually, I wouldn’t count on it. I get the feeling the Royals, while open to locking Witt up for any length of time, want to see a little more from their sophomore shortstop.
Other candidates for extensions would be Vinnie Pasquantino (who, one would assume, would be a lot more affordable to wrap up than Witt) and Brady Singer. All three players mentioned within carry a certain amount of risk in that two have just finished their first seasons in the majors and the third scuffled for two years before breaking out last summer. Recall that a few springs ago we were speculating long-term deals for Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller. Sometimes, it’s smart to take the wait-and-see approach.
So while I’m skeptical we’ll see any kind of movement on contracts this spring, that doesn’t mean the groundwork won’t be getting underway. Otherwise, the above question turns into something along the lines of “will we see any trades?” in a couple of years.
Who will be the fourth and fifth starter?
Ahhh…the typical question of the spring. Who, exactly, will provide the starts out of the back of the rotation?
Before we get to the back of the rotation, let’s start with the locks. You have Singer, Zack Greinke and Jordan Lyles as your one through three. I haven’t written much about Lyles at all this winter, mainly because it’s all a bit underwhelming. Yet, when I present the rotation shoe-ins like that, it’s a little more understandable that they went that direction. This rotation feels paper-thin at this point.
Maybe asking who will make the back of the rotation isn’t the right question. Maybe the question should be, “Who will shed the stink of the old pitching coach who shall not be named?”
The Royals have plenty of candidates, all of them familiar. Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic represent the Class of 2018. There’s also Jackson Kowar lurking in the background. Jon Heasley, too. And the promise of Angel Zerpa and Max Castillo. Brad Keller is still around! That’s seven candidates for the final two spots. And I would wager that all six make starts in Kansas City this summer. Unless two of these guys absolutely seize the opportunity. Which would be nice.
Regular readers will know that I remain high on Lynch. He probably has the inside track for a spot in the rotation. That leaves the last one up for grabs that probably won’t be decided until the very end of camp.
What will be the impact of the World Baseball Classic?
The Royals will have 10 players participating in the WBC:
Ronald Bolaños, RHP, Cuba
Max Castillo, RHP, Venezuela
Robbie Glendinning, IF, Australia
Carlos Hernández, RHP, Venezuela
Nicky Lopez IF, Italy
MJ Melendez C/OF, Puerto Rico
Vinnie Pasquantino, IF, Italy
Salvador Perez, C, Venezuela
Brady Singer, RHP, USA
Bobby Witt Jr., IF, USA
While 10 isn’t a lot compared to some other clubs, the bottom half of that list represents the heart of the current club. With young players like Melendez, Pasquantino and Witt, it’s not really ideal that they’re missing a chunk of this camp. The same could be said with a guy like Singer, who could use every minute of time he can get with new pitching coaches Sweeney and Bove. And Perez needs to be working with Hoover and those pitching coaches as well.
Can I admit something to you? I’m kind of excited about the WBC and the players who will be representing. I wasn’t so sold on it last time around, but as the tournament unfolded, I was completely absorbed in the action. The players take this seriously and it’s damn fun to watch competitive baseball in March. Hopefully, the younger players will get something out of mingling with different teammates and coaches.
Most of all, this year’s tournament should be a blast.
Angel Zerpa is also pitching for team Venezuela
Mr. B. can we assume that Dozier starting at 3B is nothing more than: a) an admission the club isn't serious about competing this year; b) a showcase trying to lure a sucker; c) one last stab before admitting his contract was a huge mistake?
PS- thx for the GIF of Uncle Rusty. Will be he cycling through the minors again this season?