Notes: Who starts in CF?; Barlow's new pitch

February 22nd, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals’ center-field competition narrowed itself down some already in camp.

Drew Waters strained his left oblique last week, and he will be out likely six weeks, manager Matt Quatraro said on Tuesday.

That puts Waters' return to baseball activities a little after Opening Day and his return to the field likely at the end of April.

While Waters won’t miss much of the regular season, this does change the center-field competition a bit, given that the club’s No. 7 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, was slated to compete for the starting job this spring.

Kyle Isbel appears to be the frontrunner for that spot now, with Waters an option later this season as the Royals search for their next center fielder of the future. They traded Michael A. Taylor to the Twins this offseason specifically to give playing time to Isbel and Waters, both of whom can play all three spots in the outfield.

“We’re going to give Kyle every opportunity to grab that spot,” Quatraro said. “He’s an elite defender, somebody that we think highly of. He would probably be the guy in the lead.”

It is past time for the Royals to learn what they have in Isbel, who will turn 26 next week, on an everyday basis. He’s entering his third season in the Majors, but he hasn’t gotten much opportunity, garnering 361 plate appearances over two seasons. Isbel has a .642 career OPS and six home runs in that time, production that the Royals think will increase with everyday playing time.

Isbel graded highly in defensive metrics last year, mainly in the corner outfield -- he ranked in the 100th percentile in outfielder jump, per Statcast, and in the 97th percentile in outs above average -- so the Royals want to determine whether those can play in the expansive center field at Kauffman Stadium.

“Elite jumps, routes,” Quatraro said of playing center at The K. “It’s huge, so you need somebody who can really run, that can cover a lot of ground and more so than anything, get good jumps on the ball so they’re in the right spot.”

More at-bats this spring will also go to Nate Eaton, Samad Taylor and Diego Hernandez, as well as non-roster invitees Dairon Blanco and John Rave. Taylor and Hernandez likely need more time in the Minor Leagues to develop offensively, but Hernandez especially can play center in the Majors right now.

Eaton is the most versatile of the bunch, playing all over the outfield and third base. Waters’ injury could open up right field playing time, too, for Eaton, Edward Olivares or one of several utility players the Royals have in camp, like Hunter Dozier or Matt Beaty.

Barlow’s new pitch

The offseason is a time for pitchers to tinker with grips and add pitches to their arsenal, and Royals closer  is no different. Barlow brought a new two-seam fastball to spring, and the feedback he’s gotten from hitters so far is clear: Throw it more.

“Getting confidence through that has been very cool,” Barlow said.

Barlow had ample success the past two years with his four-seam, curveball and slider; hitters batted .189 and .138 last year off the slider and curveball, respectively, and his curveball had a 43% whiff percentage. His four-seam is fairly straight, though, and had a .304 average against it last year. Barlow wanted to find a pitch that opened up the strike zone and had some horizontal movement to combat his breaking pitches.

“I wanted it to be useful and make sense with my other pitches,” Barlow said. “I didn’t want necessarily big run with no sink. I wanted the best of both worlds. That was my main concern that it did have depth rather than just run.

“The coaches have been great with it, helping me tinker with grips, and the data backs it up when I get the grip right.”

Who’s impressing early?

One name is circling around camp: Ryan Weiss. The non-roster reliever added some sweeping action to his slider that has coaches raising their eyebrows about what he could bring to the bullpen.

Weiss was on the Royals’ 40-man roster at the end of last year when they claimed him off waivers from the D-backs, but he never pitched in the big leagues; Weiss allowed 31 earned runs in 35 2/3 innings with Triple-A Omaha last year. Kansas City designated Weiss for assignment in October, but he got through waivers and remained in the organization. The changes he made this offseason are worth watching as games begin.