3 key Q's ahead of Royals spring opener

Depth, bullpen, youngsters focus of early camp headlines

February 28th, 2021

Baseball is set to return Sunday when the Royals play a seven-inning game against the Rangers to open the Cactus League season at Surprise Stadium.

Royals manager Mike Matheny said that the Royals will stay on the field to get two more innings of work in to make it a full nine-inning day on the first day of exhibition games.

With Cactus League play underway Sunday, here are three questions facing the Royals this spring season:

1. How will the depth play out?

The Royals have a pretty good idea of who will be in the lineup come Opening Day -- not so much the order as much as the players who will be in it. The roster battle that will be interesting to watch this spring will be when it comes to the depth, particularly in the outfield. Nick Heath, Edward Olivares, Bubba Starling and Kyle Isbel will be competing for bench spots, with Heath and Olivares likely having the leg up in the competition due to their 40-man roster spots.

Starling makes sense as an option, especially when talking about late-game defensive replacements, while Isbel, the Royals’ No. 7-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline, could start the season in the Minor Leagues to get everyday at-bats there.

“It comes back to what we talked about for what’s the rest of our roster look like?” Matheny said earlier this week. “Is it more about at-bats, is it more about having defensive coverage, is it more about having depth? We won’t really know that until we watch how the roster develops. We have some young guys that haven’t been to the Major Leagues yet that you’re talking about a pretty good skill set. And then it gets back to that conversation of, ‘Is it better for them to go prove [it] at the lower levels?’

“There’s a lot of different conversations that I think they help get them sorted out by watching guys compete and go about their business through Spring Training. I think spring is valuable for figuring out this sort of question.”

2. What will the bullpen look like?

The core of the Royals’ bullpen has returned this season, but the way that roles will shake out is yet to be determined. Matheny said Saturday that the approach will likely be the same this year in that the traditional “closer” role might not be in the ninth inning of a tight game. Instead, the Royals’ best arms will appear in the highest-leverage point, and that might be in the sixth or seventh inning.

What we can learn in Spring Training is who those high-leverage players are. Greg Holland and Josh Staumont figure to be in the conversation, and how Wade Davis fares against hitters in exhibition games will also determine whether he gets a roster spot and where he fits into the bullpen. Kyle Zimmer is healthy after ending the season on the injured list and expects to be a reliable piece of the ‘pen, too.

What role Jakob Junis might have this season will be something to watch this spring. The right-hander will start Tuesday’s game against the Cubs, and he could round out the rotation or slot into the bullpen depending on the Royals’ needs.

“The more pitchers that you have available to pitch in high-leverage innings, the better your team’s going to be,” Matheny said. “Does it get to the point where maybe guys own a certain spot? Potentially. I think it’s much more important now -- and I’ve heard Holly talk about it. Wade talk about it. I’ve heard Josh talking about it: 'I just want to get the ball.' … It gives us the flexibility to do what we believe is right and not have to necessarily spend too much time thinking about having to understand all the emotion that goes along with people who were fighting the system of wanting these roles and titles.”

3. Will any prospects force the Royals’ hand?

The opportunities are aplenty in Spring Training, and there’s no better way for young prospects to take advantage than by having an impressive spring season. Will there by any prospects on the verge of the Majors that play their way to an Opening Day roster spot?

The young outfielders mentioned above can certainly be in this conversation, with Heath and Oliveras getting a taste of the Majors last season and Isbel seemingly close. Pitching prospects will likely be eased into workloads after no Minor League season last year, but left-hander Daniel Lynch and righty Jackson Kowar -- who is scheduled to start Monday’s game against Cleveland -- can now show what they worked on last summer and what Royals fans can expect when their debut does come.

Top-ranked prospect Bobby Witt Jr., No. 7 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list, isn’t expected to debut this year. But spring games can give a peek into his development and where it might take him over the next few years.