SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals have increased their win percentage over the past three years, but they have yet to get back to who they want to be as a club: Contenders.
Improving this year and in the next few are crucial to reaching that goal. After a 74-88 record last season, Kansas City's improvement in 2022 will largely be based on the development of its young players. Potential must turn into reality.
“We’ve been talking about potential for years,” Whit Merrifield said. “We’ve got a lot of players that, if they can play up to their potential, we can do a lot of good things. We’ve had injuries and down years, which are going to happen, but we just got to do it. We got to go out and win. And we can, we just haven’t done it yet. I’m tired of talking about our potential, and I’m ready to win some games.”
That starts Thursday when the Royals host the Guardians at Kauffman Stadium for Opening Day. Here’s what to expect in 2022:
What needs to go right?
How about pitching, pitching and more pitching? The Royals made a significant step forward last season in getting several young pitching prospects from the 2018 MLB Draft to the Majors. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic had debuted in 2020. Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Jonathan Heasley were all promoted in ’21. Add in Brad Keller and Carlos Hernández, and the Royals believe they have several starters of their future ready to make an impact.
The next step is turning that potential impact into winning games. Zack Greinke should help with some of that, as the Royals will rely on him to be a workhorse at the top of the rotation. The rest will fall on some mix of starters throughout the season. The Royals announced they will start Greinke, Keller, Bubic and Hernández, in that order, against Cleveland this weekend, while the fifth starter spot is still being decided. Singer, Lynch, Kowar and Heasley are all expected to pitch significant innings for Kansas City this year. And early returns are positive, with Bubic adding a slider, Lynch focusing on his curveball, Kowar smoothing out his delivery and Keller and Singer both gaining confidence in their changeups. There are more pitchers waiting in the wings, too; No. 19 prospect Austin Cox, for example, had a standout spring.
The Royals strengthened their bullpen by adding Amir Garrett to the group of high-leverage relievers Jake Brentz, Josh Staumont and Scott Barlow. Offseason addition Taylor Clarke could also fit into this group. Although it’s still a relatively young and inexperienced group, Kansas City wanted to construct a strong bullpen to help the young starters take the next step in their development. Having reliable relievers deliver lockdown innings gives the Royals a greater chance to win winnable games after a starter has pitched a good outing.
“Our success this year is going to be based on the improvement of our starting pitching,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “We have a good idea of what we’re going to get out of our ‘pen. There’s some ceiling there. It could really be a fun ‘pen to watch, but I think we know what we’re dealing with. But to have a stable rotation and not go through some of the things we went through last year -- it was tough at times, one- or two-inning outings, a lot on our bullpen in a year we’re trying to protect arms. Our success is going to be based on our rotation.
“They take a step forward, I think we’ll be a pretty good team.”
Great unknown: The lineup depth
On paper, the Royals believe they have a well-rounded lineup with hitters one through nine -- power, speed and on-base percentage. But there are some questions that need to be answered: Will Hunter Dozier, a power hitter, bounce back from his .680 OPS season? Will Carlos Santana, known for his power and for being an on-base machine, look more like the dangerous hitter we saw in the first half now that he’s healthy? Will second baseman Nicky Lopez, a contact and on-base hitter, repeat his .300-average season? Will shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, who impacts the game with his power and speed, stay healthy after playing just 35 games in 2021?
All those questions impact the type of lineup the Royals intend to put out each night. Bobby Witt Jr. certainly extends the depth, whether he hits second like he has this spring or further down the order. But to support the pitching staff, the Royals will need to improve their run scoring from last year after ranking in the bottom third in baseball in OBP (.306) and isolated power (.147), which tells us how often a player hits for extra bases as not all hits are created equal.
One thing we do know is that the Royals are speedy. Merrifield led the league in stolen bases last year with 40. Lopez was eighth with 22. Witt Jr. and Mondesi will be aggressive on the basepaths, and Michael A. Taylor will add speed, too.
Team MVP will be: Salvador Perez
Perez is coming off a historic season at the plate and did everything he could this offseason in preparation of replicating it. With his 48 home runs last season tying the Major League lead and the Royals’ franchise record, Perez has to be eyeing new career highs as he anchors the middle of the Royals’ lineup. On top of that, he’ll be the guiding backstop for a young pitching staff yet again, with, of course, the addition of Greinke.
Team Cy Young will be: Zack Greinke
He’s entering his 19th Major League season and returning to the organization with whom he won the Cy Young Award back in 2009. Greinke signed with the Royals to lead the rest of the young starters, and he’ll get that started on Opening Day. Greinke has the track record to back up this prediction, and the Royals will look to him to eat as many innings as he can every fifth day.
Bold prediction: The Royals will grab onto the third Wild Card spot in the American League.
Is this optimistic? Yes. Is it totally out of range? No, not with the expanded 12-team postseason this year, with six teams from each league getting a spot in October. The Royals play in a weak AL Central, which should help, although they can’t overlook the additions that the Twins and Tigers made this offseason. We mentioned how speedy the Royals are earlier. They also play great defense, with Gold Glove-caliber players at almost every position. Speed and defense don’t win alone, but they certainly help. If what we see on paper translates to the regular season, and if the Royals can avoid the long losing streaks (remember the 11-game skid last season?), they have a chance to compete in October.