KANSAS CITY -- Before the 2023 season, major questions for the Royals centered on whether Bobby Witt Jr. could be their future shortstop and what strides he could take on both sides of the ball with everyday playing time at shortstop.
What will Witt do in Year 3? Well to start, he headlines the shortstop edition of our around-the-horn series.
Projected starter: Witt
As sure as anything on this roster (barring injury), Witt will be the Opening Day shortstop. He will hit near the top of the lineup every day. He’s the player the Royals are building around, in 2024 and beyond.
The only question is how far Witt can go. In his second season in the Majors, the 23-year-old hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases, becoming the first Royal in franchise history to notch a 30-30 season. He hit 28 doubles, smacked 11 triples and posted a 120 OPS+, a 115 wRC+ and 5.7 fWAR. All that led to a seventh-place finish in American League MVP voting, a notable achievement for anyone, but especially a player on a 106-loss team. Defensively, as noted above, Witt took a huge step forward last year.
What comes next? My colleague Paul Casella did an excellent write-up earlier this month about the history Witt will be chasing in 2024. One thing Witt will look to improve is the start of his season. He had a .664 OPS in the first 48 games of the season (through May 22), but then he made an adjustment and was productive the rest of the way.
Backup options: Maikel Garcia, Garrett Hampson
Witt appeared in 158 games last year and played 149 of them at shortstop. There were some aches and pains throughout the long season, as every player experiences, but for the most part, he stayed healthy and productive throughout the year. We should expect no different in 2024, barring injury. But on the days manager Matt Quatraro wants to get Witt off his feet and manage a long stretch of games, look for Garcia to move over to shortstop that day or Hampson to slide in, depending on what the rest of the field looks like.
Depth in Triple-A Omaha will likely include Cam Devanney, who played 70 games at shortstop with Triple-A Nashville (Brewers) last year and moves around the infield, and Ryan Fitzgerald, whom the Royals drafted in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 Draft from the Red Sox last month. He played more third base and corner outfield last year, but he came up as a shortstop.
Question to answer: Can the Royals sign Witt to a long-term extension?
It’s been a major question this offseason, and the Royals have begun preliminary conversations internally and with Witt and his representation about what an extension would look like and what Witt is looking for in regard to his future. He isn’t a free agent until the 2027 offseason, so there’s still plenty of time to work something out -- but the earlier the Royals can get this done, the better. This season, after all, is his final pre-arbitration year.
Witt will likely command the largest contract the Royals have ever handed out, and it sounds like ownership is ready to do that. How much it is, when it’s done and what Witt wants are some of the factors still to be determined.
“It’s clearly a goal of ours to sign Bobby long-term,” general manager J.J. Picollo said back in October. “He’s an exciting player, he’s one of the best players in the game. We would be foolish to not try to sign him long-term. We are working on that. … He’s a special player. We want to try to keep special players in our uniform.”
Who else is in the Pipeline?
Witt is the Royals’ shortstop for the foreseeable future. But there are some exciting players in the lower levels of the Minors worth keeping an eye on this year and in the future.
Daniel Vazquez, the Royals’ No. 30 prospect before this spring’s refresh of MLB.com’s rankings, looked more comfortable in his second year at Single-A Columbia. The Royals were aggressive in bringing their top international signee from 2021 stateside and know it will take time for him to develop. The 20-year-old slashed .223/.330/.288 this year. He has plus defense potential as he gains more experience, and while his glove is better than his hit tool, he flashes above-average raw power. It’ll take time and hard work for Vazquez to grow into his potential, but all the tools are there.
Playing next to him at third last year but rotating in at shortstop was No. 10 prospect Austin Charles, a 6-foot-6 athlete with plus raw power. He can handle shortstop despite his size. In his first full pro season, Charles slashed .239/.296/.382 in 71 games in Rookie-level and Single-A. Like Vazquez, Charles has a ton of tools and great makeup.