3 storylines to follow at Royals camp

February 13th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers' Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Hello from sunny Arizona. By the time you’re reading this, I’ll have landed in Phoenix for six weeks of Spring Training coverage. I am most certainly not in the best shape of my life, but hey, that’s why I’m at the keyboard while the players are on the field.

Speaking of those players, many are already at the Royals’ facility in Surprise -- and many took in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl win Sunday night in Glendale, Ariz.

Pitchers and catchers participating in the World Baseball Classic officially reported over the weekend, while the rest will have their first official workout on Tuesday. Position players in the WBC will report by Thursday, and the first full-squad workout with everyone at camp is on Feb. 20.

The Royals will open the 2023 season against the Twins on March 30 in Kansas City. Over the next 45 days, the Royals will have roster decisions to make, position battles to work out and much more.

Here are three storylines I’ll be watching this spring:

1. Who’s in center field?
A major question for the Royals in 2023 is who their future center fielder will be -- and whether that player is already in the organization. They traded Michael A. Taylor this winter to open the position for young players, specifically Kyle Isbel and Drew Waters. Those two will compete for the Opening Day center-field job, but both will get ample playing time this season either in center or right field.

Isbel, who will be 26 in March, made his debut in 2021, but he has received just 361 plate appearances over the past two seasons. In that span, he has been a below-average hitter, slashing .226/.281/.361 with a 76 wRC+. The Royals want to find out how those numbers can improve with everyday playing time. They also want to see how he holds up playing center field; metrics like outfielder jump and arm strength, coupled with his speed, tell Kansas City he’s an elite outfielder.

The same goes for Waters, who made his debut last season and impressed in a small sample size. In 109 plate appearances, Waters posted an .803 OPS with five homers and a 125 wRC+. A switch-hitter, Waters might have more of an offensive ceiling than Isbel, and Kansas City wants to see how Waters holds up in center field, too. One important note: The Royals don’t want to sacrifice tons of offensive production with their center fielder. They’re looking for a center fielder who can not only be an elite defender but also perform with the bat when needed.

2. What will the rotation look like?
Kansas City will once again rely on its young pitchers in 2023, hoping this is the year many of them take a step forward now with the guidance of pitching coach Brian Sweeney and his team. But some of those innings will be taken by veteran starters Zack Greinke and Jordan Lyles, so the Royals did set up somewhat of a competition this spring for the Opening Day pitching staff. With Greinke, Lyles and Brady Singer locks for the rotation, two spots are up for grabs.

Daniel Lynch, Brad Keller, Ryan Yarbrough, Jonathan Heasley, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, Angel Zerpa and Max Castillo will be competing for those spots. How the Royals use each of these pitchers -- because they will maximize the 40-man roster and use all of their pitchers at some point -- will be interesting. Will some pitch out of the bullpen? And how might Sweeney and his team unlock the next level in these players?

Pitching will be key to the Royals’ success, and it starts with how they structure their rotation.

3. Which prospects will impress?
The Royals have so much young talent at the Major League level now, but there’s always room for more. While Kansas City’s farm system isn’t littered with superstar names, evaluators feel it’s a deep system with a lot of potential. Some will get to show off their skills in front of the big league staff this spring as non-roster invitees.

Could shortstop Maikel Garcia (No. 5 in the Royals’ system, per MLB Pipeline) use the momentum from his winter ball experience to force his way onto the roster? The 22-year-old slashed .323/.444/.498 with four homers and 13 doubles for La Guaira in Venezuela this winter, walking (46) more times than he struck out (31).

Utility man Nick Loftin (No. 4) and outfielder Tyler Gentry (No. 8) are non-roster invitees who likely won’t be breaking camp, but could leave a strong impression for later this season. Loftin struggled at the end of the Triple-A Omaha season last year, but he’s as versatile as they come. He can play all over the field and is a selective hitter with sneaky pop and plus speed. Gentry is the latest Royals’ hitting development success story after he got healthy in 2022. He adjusted his approach at the plate to finish his season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas with a .972 OPS.

Alec Marsh (No. 19) and Jonathan Bowlan (No. 11) are two pitchers to watch, both on the 40-man but both likely to spend time in Triple-A. Both starters, they offer the Royals depth and could be the next of the young core of pitchers to debut.