Royals hoping for 'tough decision' in outfield position battle

March 1st, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- During their annual end-of-season conversations with players last year, the Royals were up front about what to expect over the offseason and entering Spring Training. After 106 losses, the goal was to significantly improve the roster and increase the depth.

What that meant for many returning players was that there would be roster battles to win in the spring.

“That’s generally the theme for the whole team,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “Guys knew leaving last year that we were going to try to elevate the amount of competition within camp, and the more good players we have, the more you have a chance to elevate yourself to another level.”

One of those battles is the outfield, and a few competing for a spot were in the lineup for Thursday’s 6-1 loss to the White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Here is how the competition is looking so far:

Likely starters: , ,
The Royals signed Renfroe to be their starting right fielder and lengthen the lineup with the power he has shown previously. He was sidelined a few days early in camp with lower back tightness, mainly out of precaution, but Renfroe is expected to make his Cactus League debut on Friday. He might be the only surefire starter right now as the newest addition to the offense, but he likes having competitiveness in camp.

“It’s good for the team, no question,” Renfroe said. “The more competition you have, the better you’re going to get. The more athletic you’ll be, the more you’re going to learn. I think it helps every player improve their game.”

Isbel is the Royals’ best defensive option in center field at the expansive Kauffman Stadium, and his goal this year is to simply stay healthy and on the field. But if the Royals need an impactful bat or righties in the lineup, they have other options.

Melendez, now a full-time outfielder, has a high ceiling as a power bat, and the Royals believe his .837 OPS after the All-Star break last year is more indicative of his ability. The club thinks his defense will improve with more reps and wants to give him another chance to show what he’s capable of, especially with more pressure off him in the lineup because of Renfroe and the return of Vinnie Pasquantino.

Bench, platoon or DH options: , ,
Out of this group, it looks like two could make the team, as the Royals are looking to carry five outfielders.

“There are some guys who are clearly going to be on the team,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “I can’t see where we wouldn’t go with at least five outfielders. Trying to figure out who that fifth outfielder is going to be. Hopefully we leave here healthy, and then it is a competition and we have to make a tough decision.”

The Royals are eager to see what Velázquez’s power will yield over a full season after he hit 14 home runs in 40 games with the club, and the switch-hitting Waters might have the highest ceiling of any outfielder with his strength, speed and ability to play center field. He just hasn’t been able to put it together and had a 31.8% strikeout rate in 98 games last year after coming back from an oblique injury. He's struck out five times in nine at-bats this spring, along with a home run.

“My focus is just to compete every time I’m out there,” Waters said last week. “Be more consistent and a more competitive baseball player every day.”

Blanco would give the Royals a speedy bench option and could be a defensive replacement late in games. He also adapted well to irregular playing time last year.

The other piece of the puzzle is the Royals’ group of versatile infielders, Adam Frazier and Garrett Hampson, who can play in the outfield. Hampson can also play center, so perhaps the Royals would go with an impact outfield bat on the bench rather than prioritizing defense because of that protection.

Depth options: , , ,
All four will likely be in Triple-A Omaha to begin the year, with Gentry the headliner of this group as the Royals’ No. 8 prospect in last year’s MLB Pipeline rankings. The 25-year-old will have a chance to hit his way to Kansas City and could offer the Royals a power bat in the corner outfield.

Eaton isn’t on the 40-man roster but has big league experience, as well as the ability to play the infield. Rave and Hernandez can both play center field. If the Royals are in a bind, they’ll be able to lean on this depth -- and all the better if they have standout springs.