KANSAS CITY -- Despite the Royals’ offense improving in the second half last season, there were some big holes to fill for it to have a chance to be better in 2024. The outfield was one such hole, given it ranked fifth-worst in baseball in slugging percentage (.393) and second-worst in wRC+ (83).
The Royals think they found one answer by signing Hunter Renfroe, and his presence lengthens the lineup behind Bobby Witt Jr., Salvador Perez and Vinnie Pasquantino. But Renfroe’s signing also crowded the outfield while increasing the depth there. That, as well as the competition we’ll see this spring, is a good thing.
Let’s take a look at the Royals’ outfield options in ’24, as our around-the-horn series continues:
The Royals moved Melendez full time to the outfield last year with the hope of helping his offense, but he struggled as a bat-first outfielder. The 25-year-old played 148 games and finished with a .235/.316/.398 slash line with 16 home runs. His walk rate dipped from 12.4% in his rookie season to 10.3%, and his strikeout rate increased from 24.5% to 28.2%. Melendez is still young and has a high ceiling, but he’ll have to show improvement to continue getting everyday at-bats with Kansas City.
Isbel played great defense last season and showed he can handle center field at Kauffman Stadium, although his injury history might limit his everyday status. Still, his 10 outs above average ranked in the 96th percentile of MLB, per Statcast, and was tied for fifth among outfielders last year. He also ranked third in outfield jump (2.9 feet vs. average). That is the type of defense the Royals want manning center. Isbel had a .662 OPS in 91 games last year, but the Royals can have a glove-first outfielder if there are other pieces in the lineup picking up the slack.
Renfroe is a reliable defender with a good arm, which the Royals saw as a bonus when signing him. But he’ll be in the lineup for his offense. Renfroe has legitimate power. His .183 isolated power last year was the first time in his career he dipped below .200. The Royals are hoping the 32-year-old can get back to his 30-homer seasons of 2019 and ’21. In ’22, he hit 29 homers with a 124 wRC+.
Backup options: Nelson Velázquez, Dairon Blanco, Drew Waters
Velázquez is one of the more intriguing players on the Royals’ roster. In 40 games after being traded to Kansas City, he hit 14 home runs. He has incredible power and finished the season with an .888 OPS (including 13 games with the Cubs). The question is how the 25-year-old will fare over a full season.
Waters has had his moments but has yet to deliver since the 2022 trade that brought him over to Kansas City. After a late start to last season because of an oblique injury, he posted a .677 OPS in 98 games. The 25-year-old switch-hitter has a strong bat, but it seemed he was selling out for power at times, when he could be valuable on the bases. The Royals’ best defensive outfield last year included Waters in right and Isbel in center, and there is a chance Waters could take over as starting center fielder. But he’ll have to show much more offensively for that to happen.
Blanco brings incredible speed and good center-field defense, so if the Royals have room, it’s not difficult to see him as a bench player in 2024. The Royals also signed Garrett Hampson to be an up-the-middle backup for them, and that includes center field. Nick Loftin is viewed as a super-utility player who could see time in the corner outfield. Adam Frazier, whom the Royals are set to introduce this week after inking him to a one-year contract, also has experience out there.
With good springs, any of these players could earn a starting role, and the Royals likely will mix up their outfield based on platoons and workload.
Question to answer: Did the Royals do enough to fix their offensive production in the outfield?
The Royals have a ton of outfielders, but there are questions surrounding each of them, whether it’s offensively or defensively or both. Renfroe does give the Royals more power, as long as last year was a fluke and not a sign of regression. Whether he alone is enough to fill the holes the Royals saw last season is to be determined.
More than anything, the Royals are counting on Melendez, Waters and others to truly take a step forward in 2024. They’ll want to find out what they have with Velázquez over a full 162 and, eventually, prospect Tyler Gentry. That sounds familiar to last year, too.
Who else is in the Pipeline?
Gentry, the Royals’ No. 8 prospect in the MLB Pipeline rankings, has a chance to earn his way onto the Opening Day roster. Gentry, 24, is already on the 40-man roster -- added this offseason to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft -- and is probably the most ready for the Majors among positions players who haven’t made their debut yet. Gentry had a tough start to the season last year but really turned it on halfway through, finishing with a .791 OPS, 16 homers, 14.2% walk rate, 22.2% strikeout rate and 103 wRC+. He has an above-average arm and is aggressive in the outfield. Whether it’s out of camp or sometime later in the summer, Gentry will be playing in Kansas City in 2024.
There are plenty of other outfielders in the Royals’ system worth keeping an eye on, including 2022 first-round Draft pick Gavin Cross, their No. 6 prospect. He missed the final two months of last season after an illness, so coming back strong is imperative for the 22-year-old. A few ’23 draftees will be in their first full pro seasons this year: Carson Roccaforte (No. 14), Jared Dickey (No. 20) and Spencer Nivens (No. 21).