The Royals enter Spring Training with answers to some of the questions that greeted them at the start of the offseason. But there are still plenty of roster battles that will play out over the next month. As we get into March and closer to Opening Day, some performances will stick out more than others, and the roster that the Royals will take with them into the regular season will begin to form.
Opening Day is April 1 against the Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. Who will be on the Royals’ 26-man roster? Here is an early prediction:
Catchers (2): Salvador Perez, Cam Gallagher
Perez will be back as the starter after a shortened season in which he totaled 12 doubles, 11 home runs and a .986 OPS in 37 games. The 30-year-old is entering the final year of his contract, and extension talks will commence this season. But his focus is on repeating his performance from 2020. The backup to Perez will be determined this spring. Both Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria are out of options, so it might come down to which one could slide through waivers and return to Triple-A Omaha. Gallagher, 28, hit .283/.356/.434 across 60 plate appearances (25 games) in 2020.
First base (2): Carlos Santana, Ryan O'Hearn
The Royals signed Santana to a two-year deal to be their first baseman and middle-of-the-order bat. That’s where he’ll be come Opening Day. Santana hit just .199 with a .699 OPS in 2020 but led the American League with 47 walks , and he posted a .349 on-base percentage. This offseason the Royals prioritized acquisitions who have shown they can get on base, and Santana fits that bill. His backup will be a Spring Training battle between O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom, both of whom can play the corner outfield as well. O’Hearn saw more playing time last season, hitting .195/.303/.301 across 132 plate appearances, with 27 games at first base.
Second base (1): Nicky Lopez
A finalist for the AL Gold Glove at the position, Lopez was tied for first among Major League second basemen with six Outs Above Average, according to Statcast. His defense is elite. Yes, Lopez needs to improve offensively -- he posted a .552 OPS in 2020 -- but the Royals value defense, and that will put Lopez in the lineup on an everyday basis. He could also be helped by the players the Royals added -- Santana and Andrew Benintendi are offensive-minded players who can take the pressure off Lopez to go out and be the hero in the lineup every night. If Lopez needs a day off, and Hanser Alberto (see below) is needed elsewhere on the field, Whit Merrifield can play second base as well.
Third base (1): Hunter Dozier
Dozier will get back to the position the Royals drafted him at with third base available after Maikel Franco was non-tendered. Dozier regressed last year after an outstanding 2019 season, and the Royals are optimistic the 29-year-old can get back to the .870 OPS he posted in ’19.
Shortstop (1): Adalberto Mondesi
Mondesi’s spectacular finish -- he hit .356/.408/.667 across 100 plate appearances with six home runs and 20 RBIs in September -- has the Royals optimistic that he has put worries about his left shoulder surgery from 2019 behind him. The 25-year-old remains full of potential, if he can limit his swing-and-miss tendencies and start 2021 as hot as he finished ’20.
Utility (1): Hanser Alberto
The roster crunch that will greet the Royals come Opening Day, with the 26-man roster and pitchers needing to ease into their workloads, means Alberto could find himself filling lots of roles over the infield. The 28-year-old signed a Minor League deal with the Royals but could prove to be a valuable signing thanks to his versatility. He has spent the most time at second base -- and could take over full-time if Lopez struggles or if Lopez needs to fill in for Mondesi at shortstop -- but has also played third base (592 1/3 innings), shortstop (123 1/3 innings) and even a little in the outfield (15 1/3 innings).
Outfield (4): Whit Merrifield, Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, Nick Heath
The Royals entered the offseason with Merrifield as their only sure outfielder. Then they added Taylor through free agency and Benintendi in a three-team trade with the Red Sox and Mets. Now the Royals' outfield will look like this, from left to right: Benintendi, Taylor, Merrifield. A fourth -- or fifth, if the club prioritizes position players to start the season -- will come from whoever puts together the most impressive spring. Heath’s speed is valuable off the bench. Bubba Starling is a non-roster invite who could play his way into a backup spot. Edward Olivares could also see playing time.
DH (1): Jorge Soler
Soler is healthy after an oblique injury affected him throughout 2020. The Royals are optimistic he can get back to the player who led the AL in home runs in 2019. He will also become a free agent at the end of the season, so the Royals have a decision to make on a possible extension.
Starting pitchers (5): Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic
The Royals signed Minor to add another veteran arm to their staff, slotting him in the rotation with Duffy, who is in the final year of his contract. After the veterans comes a slew of young arms, including Keller, who could be the Opening Day starter, Singer and Bubic. The Royals will do everything to protect those arms after an unprecedented 2020, so a six-man rotation isn’t out of the question. Ervin Santana is entering Spring Training on a Minor League deal and could be perfect to help piece the rotation together until the young arms are ready to work on a five-day routine. Carlos Hernández is the Royals’ No. 9 prospect and could also help the pitching staff -- whether in the rotation or bullpen -- with an impressive spring, as well as Daniel Lynch (No. 3 prospect) or Jackson Kowar (No. 4).
Relievers (8): Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Tyler Zuber, Jakob Junis, Greg Holland, Jesse Hahn, Kyle Zimmer, Wade Davis
Bringing Holland back gave the Royals one of their anchors in the bullpen from 2020, and Junis could be one of the more valuable arms in the bullpen, either as a piggyback starter or a late-innings reliever. Hahn and Staumont will look to build on their spectacular seasons last year, while Zimmer hopes to continue to stay healthy and contribute like he did in 2020. Davis signed a Minor League contract with the Royals, and if he can find his control -- even with a lower velocity -- he should make the club. The Royals have depth in Scott Blewett, Richard Lovelady and Jake Newberry, as well as some of the starting-pitching prospects on the rise who could see their debuts out of the bullpen.