No more ‘roaming the valley’ for Isbel and Co. with Royals camp open

March 11th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Kyle Isbel set his alarm for 6:40 a.m. Friday morning in anticipation of his arrival to the Royals complex in Surprise.

The Royals outfielder woke up at 5:40 a.m. on his own.

“I could not wait to get here today,” Isbel said after a round of batting practice on the George Brett Field with teammates Nick Pratto and Sebastian Rivero.

The three stayed in Arizona this offseason and worked out together during the lockout, when 40-man players weren’t allowed to communicate with their clubs as Major League Baseball and the Major League Players Association negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. When a deal was agreed upon and ratified by the players and owners Thursday evening, a sigh of relief rippled through the Royals organization.

“I don’t think I’ve ever packed my stuff up so fast to get here,” Pratto said. “It’s like a homecoming now. It feels good to hug people, shake their hands, have those conversations again.”

Pratto (No. 2) and Isbel (No. 5) are two of the Royals top position player prospects, and Rivero spent time last season as the team’s backup catcher. All three were planning to work out at the Royals facility this offseason with team coaches and staff. Isbel and Rivero have had big league time, and Pratto was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. When the lockout was imposed, they scrambled to find a new offseason facility, sometimes having to drive across the Phoenix area.

“Roaming the valley -- that’s literally what we were doing,” Isbel said. “I couldn’t tell you how many miles I put on my car just driving from place to place to get our work in. I got rid of my truck because I was literally driving too much.”

They settled on a place for the last month in Peoria, Ariz., which is near Surprise, to get their baseball work in, and they had live batting practice against pitchers at Verrado High School. So they’re entering a condensed Spring Training -- Opening Day is in less than a month, April 7 -- ramped up and ready to go.

“You have that feeling where it’s going to start at some point,” Isbel said. “It was definitely tough, because you work all offseason for a certain point and you get to that point, and it’s not here. It gets pushed back, and you don’t know when that starting point is going to be. It’s just tough mentally and physically because you don’t know when to ramp up. You turn all the way up then you have to give the body a rest because we had a little break. It was interesting for sure.”

The same goes for several pitchers; Jon Heasley was at the complex Friday and is set to throw a live session Saturday. The Royals expect to know more about where both pitchers and position players stand after Sunday’s mandatory report date for Spring Training to officially kick off.

Pratto and Isbel are good friends with several players who were already at the complex for Minor League Spring Training, like Bobby Witt Jr. and Vinnie Pasquantino. Now they’re about to get back to work with them.

“That was another thing that was really difficult, seeing all our buddies start up here,” Pratto said. “Seeing everyone back to business, back to work, it was hard, awkward. We would see them at night, and then they’re off to the field in the morning, and we were going to wherever we were going that day. I might be golfing that day. It was like you were retired and seeing everybody else play.”

With the benefit of hindsight and the acknowledgement of the difficulty, both Pratto and Isbel could look back on this offseason with some positives. But they were no doubt amped up to be back in Royals gear, working with Royals coaches and playing with Royals teammates.

“It was a good challenge for me to be on my own and explore things on my own and build new relationships,” Pratto said. “I think that was really good as a part of my development as a person and player. … At the same time, I think it’s good for the sport and it’s good for everybody to get back to normal. Step out of this weird time.”

Royals will honor Art Stewart in 2022

The Royals announced Friday that the team will wear a jersey patch for the 2022 season in honor of Art Stewart, the longtime scout who joined the Royals organization in 1969 and passed away last November at the age of 94. The patch is of Stewart’s signature and will be the eighth of its kind in Royals history, following honors in memory of Dick Howser (1987) Joe Burke (’92), Ewing Kauffman (’93) Muriel Kauffman (’95), Paul Splittorff (2011), Yordano Ventura (’17) and David Glass (’20).

Stewart was the longest-tenured associate in the Royals organization and spent the last 21 years as the senior advisor to the general manager. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Professional Scouts Hall of Fame the same year. His signature is on the first contracts of more than 70 players who reached the Major Leagues, including Kevin Appier, Mike Sweeney, Bo Jackson, Brian McRae, Johnny Damon, Joe Randa and Carlos Beltran.

There will also be an Art Stewart Scout Seat for every home game during the ’22 season, which will be reserved for a scout.