2023 Rival Preview: Bobby Witt Jr. and other youngsters look to bring the Royals back to life
By Evan Stack14 days ago
Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at each American League team and discuss their 2022 season, their offseason moves, and their 2023 outlook.
2022 Season Recap…
Kansas City’s 2022 reminded me a lot of the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays — a mix of veterans and young players, with no legitimate expectations for the season. While I am in no way comparing the talent of the two teams (because the Jays definitely win that category), the overall goal of the year was that the young studs needed to get their feet wet in the MLB.
They were able to accomplish that, although it did come with its hardships, as the Royals finished 65-97 and fifth place in the AL Central. Since their World Series title in 2015, the Royals have finished third place or below each season in their division.
Last season featured the much-anticipated debut of 3B Bobby Witt Jr., who was a top-10 prospect in all of baseball entering the year. Witt was thrown into the fire from the jump, as then-manager Mike Matheny had him batting second on Opening Day. Witt answered the call; his RBI double in the bottom of the 8th gave Kansas City the lead for good, leading the Royals to a 3-1 win over the Guardians to open the season.
Witt finished his rookie campaign with a .254 batting average, 20 home runs, 80 RBIs, and 30 stolen bases (4th in the AL). As a result of those accomplishments, Witt finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
C/OF MJ Melendez and 1B Vinnie Pasquantino were other prospects who made their debuts in 2022. Despite a low batting average, Melendez showed flashes of power throughout the season, hitting 18 home runs and 62 RBIs through 129 games. Pasquantino was a lot more of a complete hitter, finishing his season batting .295 with 10 home runs, an .832 OPS, and a 135 OPS+.
It wasn’t a 48-home-run season like he had in 2021, but C Salvador Perez still showed his value with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. Since 2015, Perez has hit over 20 home runs every season except in 2019 (did not play due to injury) and 2020 (COVID-shortened season).
The Royals struggled with consistency from their pitching, as they failed to have a starter make 30 starts. Brady Singer was definitely the leader of this group, as his third year in the bigs was by far his best. Singer was 10-5 with a 3.23 ERA over 153.1 innings. Zack Greinke had a solid season in his return to Kansas City, posting a 3.68 ERA despite owning a career-low 4.8 K/9.
Out of the bullpen, the Royals were led by Scott Barlow, who has been surrounded by trade rumours since the deadline last season. Those rumours were present for good reason, as Barlow became Kansas City’s best late-game option. He had a 2.18 ERA through 69 games, as well as an ERA+ of 188. It was Barlow’s second straight season of an ERA under 2.50, and the Royals, unless the offer is right, seem set on retaining their ace in the pen.
With the way the season was going, it was no surprise to see the Royals dump multiple veterans at the trade deadline, sending 1B/DH Carlos Santana to the Mariners, 2B Whit Merrifield to the Blue Jays, and LF Andrew Benintendi to the Yankees.
One of Kansas City’s best feats of the 2022 season happened north of the border, in which they defeated the Blue Jays in a game without ten players to due their COVID-19 vaccination status. While they did lose the next three games of that series, the fact that they even won a game that shorthanded was worthy of a significant amount of MLB headlines.
With the franchise ranking in the lower third of the league in payroll, the Royals weren’t bound to snag any top-of-the-line free agents. They brought Greinke back and added two established arms to their rotation, which will hopefully make up for the inconsistency and lack of durability from last year’s group.
First up is Jordan Lyles, who pitched 179 innings over 32 starts last year in Baltimore. While a 4.42 ERA isn’t the most attractive thing, a veteran inning-eater on a cheap deal (2 years, $17 million) fits the Royals’ narrative well.
The other is Ryan Yarbrough, who the Blue Jays notoriously know quite well. Yarbrough, formerly of the Rays, bounced between the starting rotation and the bullpen during his first five years in Tampa Bay, and it’s still unclear how the Royals intend to use him. Nonetheless, Yarbrough has been stable in his career (4.33 ERA, a 7.3 K/9 vs. a 2.0 BB/9), and he too is on a very cheap deal at one year and $3 million.
One of the more interesting additions of Kansas City’s winter is RP Aroldis Chapman. Chapman is a seven-time All-Star and has eight seasons of 30 saves or more. Since his debut in 2010, he is one of the most successful relief pitchers in that time period, but his past two years have featured two of the highest ERAs in his career. Last season was relatively concerning for Chapman, as he owned a 4.46 ERA with a very high 6.9 BB/9 with the Yankees.
He is signed to a one-year, $3.75 million deal, and I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to call this a “prove it” deal for Chapman, as a little regression means he needs to prove that he can still be a reliable closer in the MLB. If he succeeds with Kansas City, it’s a sure-fire bet someone shops for his talents at the trade deadline.
As almost every team does, the Royals added some guys on minor-league deals. The most notable of these are DH Franmil Reyes and 1B Matt Beaty. Reyes has been a traditional power hitter, but at only 27 years old, I think there’s still a productive hitter there. Beaty is someone who started his major league career with the Dodgers but was traded at the beginning of 2022 for a minor league prospect. He posted solid stats with LA, but I don’t think he earned a fair shot at fully playing at this level. I think he can very easily get that opportunity with a team like Kansas City, who likely won’t be competing for much this season. Like Chapman, Beaty could turn into a trade chip if he can make it to the major league roster early.
Lastly, the Royals traded away CF Michael A. Taylor and SS Adalberto Mondesi. Between the two, they returned two prospects and RP Josh Taylor.
My take on Kansas City’s 2023 outlook…
Expectations will still be pretty low for Kansas City this season, but I do believe they’re a few wins better than last year’s team. The Twins, White Sox, and Guardians should all vie for the AL Central crown, with Kansas City and Detroit fighting it out for fourth and fifth place.
While it isn’t asking for much, the Royals should finish decisively over the Tigers in the standings. I haven’t broken down Detroit yet, but on paper, the Royals are simply better. Again, it’s not saying much, but a good measuring stick for KC this season would be to prove that they are farther along in their rebuild than Detroit is.
Witt, Pasqualino, and Melendez were not the only players to make their debut for Kansas City last season; OF Nate Eaton, LF/1B Nick Pratto, and 2B Michael Massey all got their first taste of MLB action in 2022. Another year of exposure for all of those guys will only help them. Singer is a promising breakout candidate after a good year last season. The former top prospect in Kansas City’s system is arguably the best arm in their rotation, and is certainly an arm that they can build around in the future.
The Royals made some changes in leadership, bringing in Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro as manager, and JJ Picollo as the new GM. Picollo has worked in Kansas City’s organization since 2006, so the odds of any aggressive financial changes are low (especially when the new skipper previously worked with the Rays). Regardless, the Royals are actively turning the page to a new era. Until they make it back to the postseason, they’ll surely be a pain in the side of their AL Central foes.
- The Orioles had a surprisingly quiet winter after their breakout season
- Despite minimal off-season additions, the Rays will be better than last year
- Puzzling off-season decisions leave the Red Sox as a boom-or-bust candidate
- The Yankees need to do a better job at taking the pressure off of Aaron Judge
- All eyes on Shohei Ohtani as the Angels roll into another non-competitive season
- The Astros are showing no signs of slowing down
- The Rangers had another spending spree this winter
- The Mariners are looking to take another step forward after ending their playoff drought
- The pitching factory in Cleveland looks to take over the AL Central again
- The White Sox are looking for a rebound with new management
- Carlos Correa made it back to Minnesota… Can the Twins make it back to the playoffs?
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