KANSAS CITY -- A major question the Royals will try to answer in 2023 is whether Bobby Witt Jr. will be their everyday shortstop of the future, and they’ve committed to giving the 22-year-old as many innings at the position as possible this season.
Witt, the centerpiece of the Royals’ young core, opened his rookie season last year as Kansas City’s third baseman but pivoted back to shortstop -- the position he played in the Minors -- within the first few months of the season. He played 98 games at shortstop and 55 at the hot corner.
“We want to see him settle in at shortstop,” general manager J.J. Picollo said on Saturday at Royals Rally, the team’s fan fest at Kauffman Stadium. “We never had any doubt that he would be able to play shortstop in the big leagues. Last year, because of the situation where he was playing third and short, we didn’t think it was beneficial for him. We saw an uptick in his defensive play the last six weeks of the season when we kept him at short.”
With Witt at shortstop, the rest of the Royals’ infield is coming into focus.
Third base belongs to Hunter Dozier.
“We want Hunter Dozier to get at-bats,” Picollo said. “That’s the best place for him to play every day.”
The Royals are trying to solidify a position that saw a rotating cast of characters last year, including Witt (55 games), Dozier (27), Emmanuel Rivera (57), Nicky Lopez (30) and Nate Eaton (15). They’ll hope to do so with Dozier, the versatile utilityman who is trying to bounce back after two dismal seasons.
Since signing his four-year extension at the beginning of 2021, Dozier has slashed .226/.289/.391 with an 87 OPS+ and -3.9 WAR, per Baseball Reference. The 31-year-old is owed $17.25 million over the next two seasons and is trying to get back to his form of 2019, when he hit a career-high 26 homers -- and when he played 100 games at third base.
The Royals believe giving Dozier a set position at the beginning of spring will help his offense, despite him having -36 defensive runs saved in his career playing third base, per Fangraphs.
“Looking back on Hunter’s career, he started changing positions quite a bit,” Picollo said. “You do have to wonder, from our perspective, if that had an effect on his offense. He’s a tremendous worker, so if he’s told to play outfield or first base or third base, he’s going to get as much work in all three of those spots as possible. And he does take a lot of swings in his pregame prep. You wonder physically and mentally if it took a toll. Maybe this will settle him a little bit, and if he gets back on track, we know what he’s capable of. We’re optimistic that he’ll be our third baseman.”
Second base will be a competition this spring between Lopez and Michael Massey, although the Royals could move Lopez all around the infield depending on the day. Vinnie Pasquantino may man first base, while Nick Pratto will get the opportunity to earn the starting job there this spring, with Pasquantino moving to designated hitter.
“Any competition is good,” Lopez said. “Being able to play Gold Glove-caliber defense at second, short, third is always good. I pride myself on defense. Whether they ask me to play second base or wherever, I’m going to do what they ask me to do.”
Is extension season coming?
The Royals are exploring what contract extensions could look like with a few of their young players, and although nothing is imminent, the desire to lock up a core of players long-term is there.
“We think that’s a really important thing for a small-market thing to do,” owner John Sherman said. “I’d love to know we’ll have some of these guys beyond their arbitration years. It becomes very valuable, because you have cost certainty. Plus, if you’re going to lose them in five years, you’ve got to think about, how do you get a return on a really talented guy in their fourth or fifth year?
“I’m going to be down in Surprise with the front-office group, and we’re going to spend a lot of time on that, talking about key guys.”
Witt, Pasquantino and Brady Singer -- who will soon be going to an arbitration hearing with the Royals -- are all on the team's radar for multiyear extensions. The club should have a better idea of what those offers will look like over the next year as each player gets another year in the big leagues.
“It is something that we’ve discussed. We’ve studied other extensions signed, and when they get to certain years of service, now you get better comps of, this is what it should look like,” Picollo said. “Hopefully, the partner on the other end feels the same way.”
“It’s cool with the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, people still care about the Royals right now. That’s awesome. They’ve got other things they can be worried about, but they’re coming to see us. Any time that happens is super special.” -- Pasquantino, on Saturday's Royals Rally