Inbox: How are KC roster battles shaping up?

March 2nd, 2020

SURPRISE, Az. -- The Royals open the 2020 season three weeks from Thursday in Chicago against the White Sox.

And the Royals still have several decisions to make: Finding a fifth starter, filling out the final position-player spots, filling out the final spots for an eight-man bullpen, etc. There are still 68 players in camp, a number that likely will be reduced some this week.

With that, let’s get to your questions for this week’s Royals Inbox:

Basically, these are all the major questions of camp.

Honestly, the fifth-starter competition remains wide open. The Royals won’t need that spot until April 8, so it isn’t a high priority to resolve at this point in camp. That 26th spot -- and there may be two open roster spots depending on whether or not they keep both Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling, who are both out of options -- still seems to be a battle among Matt Reynolds (not on the 40-man roster), Erick Mejia (also not on the 40-man) and Ryan McBroom.

The final bullpen spot or spots probably will go down to the wire. Ian Kennedy, Scott Barlow and Tim Hill performed well at the back end of the bullpen over the final part of 2019, and their roles probably won’t change. Jorge López is out of options so he’s in. Manager Mike Matheny keeps talking up Glenn Sparkman (who has options), and Sparkman touched 97 mph on Sunday -- just what Matheny wants to see. Non-roster invites Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal have been superb early in camp.

Theoretically, that would be seven spots right there. The final spot (plus a potential fifth starter) would come from several candidates, including Stephen Woods Jr. (Rule 5), Jesse Hahn (out of options), Randy Rosario (out of options), and many who have options: Kyle Zimmer, Kevin McCarthy, Jake Newberry, Josh Staumont and several others.

The feeling around camp is that at least 70 wins is not only possible, it’s pretty much imperative.

After two straight seasons of triple-digit losses, progress in 2020 needs to be evident simply to give everyone in the organization confidence and optimism that the rebuild -- now in its third year -- is on the right track.

The Royals’ lineup one through nine should be better than last year’s. The bullpen certainly will be better. The starting rotation -- Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Jakob Junis, Mike Montgomery, mystery fifth starter -- just needs to be adequate and keep the team in the majority of games. Throw in the enthusiasm and determination of Matheny and that could add up to at least 70 wins. We’ll see.

It kind of seems doubtful they’ll add any more free-agents, as I'm not sure the front office sees any value in that. Of course, never say never.

Well, you probably know by now how much Matheny has raved about Ryan O’Hearn as his first baseman. Matheny believes there is a breakout season within O’Hearn for 2020.

Nothing is indicating Matheny has changed his mind, so the assumption is O’Hearn will be the Opening Day starter. O’Hearn, so far, has shown several times a desire to drive the ball the opposite way and avoid pounding the ball into the shift. O’Hearn hit three rockets on Sunday, two the other way.

McBroom has been impressive at the plate, and Matheny has talked frequently about protecting O’Hearn against some tough lefties -- that could allow McBroom, who has Minor League options, to wedge his way onto the roster.

Third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, the Royals’ No. 21 prospect per MLB Pipeline, looks different this camp than he did last summer. There seems to be more confidence, more ability to drive the ball, more hard contact. He also made a terrific scoop Sunday at first base.

He needs that versatility to play multiple positions. He’s not really a candidate to go north with the team, because it needs him to develop at Triple-A Omaha, but he has really caught Matheny’s eye.

Absolutely, that 26th man has to be versatile, and Matheny has brought that up repeatedly. I wrote about that recently.

Well, Starling is out of options, so it’s a make-or-break camp for both him and Phillips. Starling is off to a much better start at the plate (6-for-15, two homers) than Phillips (2-for-11). It will be interesting to see, considering how much the Royals value inventory, if they keep both on the 26-man big league roster. It is still too early to tell. Either would be excellent defenders off the bench.

The handshake deal I reported earlier is still in effect. The television deal with Sinclair will get finalized before Opening Day, I’m told. Royals fans should expect, I’m also told, that all 162 games will be televised in some fashion, either on FOX Sports Kansas City or nationally.

Having done both, Arizona is much more convenient in terms of travel. I’m not a huge desert guy, but having all teams play within the confines of the Valley is much easier for a beat writer.

The superb defense of outfielder Kyle Isbel has raised some eyebrows, including mine. Isbel, the No. 7 Royals prospect per MLB Pipeline, can really cover some ground. Also, I’ve been impressed by the overall game of Khalil Lee, the No. 8 prospect, and his ability to drive the ball the opposite way. Both have big futures.