With a week left of the Cactus League schedule, the Royals have begun the decision-making part of Spring Training. Brad Keller was announced as the Royals’ Opening Day starter, and manager Mike Matheny laid out his pitching plans to begin the regular season with that announcement.
The Royals’ Opening Day roster will continue to take shape before the season begins on 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 signed a four-year extension with a club option for a fifth year on Sunday, so now Perez can focus is on repeating his performance from 2020. Gallagher, 28, is likely in line for the backup spot. He posted a .283/.356/.434 slash line 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 past 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, slashing .195/.303/.301 across 132 plate appearances, with 27 games at first base.
O’Hearn hit two home runs in his first 10 at-bats this spring, showing a mechanical adjustment with his swing that he has worked since the end of last season. His starting job at first base is now blocked by Santana, but O’Hearn recently talked about finding the positives in that and making sure he continues to compete when he’s called upon.
Second base (1): Nicky Lopez
A finalist for the AL Gold Glove Award at the position last year, Lopez was first among Major League second basemen with seven 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 to start the season. Lopez focused this offseason on adjusting his mindset to being oriented toward contact and getting on base, rather than hitting for power every game. 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 is needed elsewhere on the field, Whit Merrifield can play second base, as well.
Third base (1): Hunter Dozier
Dozier is the Royals’ third baseman of the future after signing a four-year contract extension with a fifth-year club option early this spring. The 29-year-old returns to the position the Royals drafted him at, with third base available after Maikel Franco was non-tendered. Dozier regressed last year because of a late start due to COVID-19 after an outstanding 2019 season, but the Royals are optimistic he can get back to the .870 OPS he posted in ’19. If the Royals need Dozier elsewhere on the field -- his versatility is valued across the organization -- Alberto can step in, or Kelvin Gutierrez, who has one Minor League option remaining, can be called upon.
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 this year as hot as he finished ’20. Mondesi was eased into Cactus League action because of a sore foot after he was hit by a pitch in live batting practice before camp began, but after an RBI double in his first at-bat of the spring, he said he feels good and ready to go for the season.
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).
The Royals are getting to know Alberto’s strengths and weaknesses on the field, but they’ve been impressed this spring. He has shown great contact skills and sneaky quick speed. He could also play first base, so he’s a true utilityman and likely will be used as such unless he’s needed as a starter at one position.
Outfield (4): Whit Merrifield, Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Benintendi, Jarrod Dyson
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. And after camp opened, they added a familiar face to the roster, bringing back Dyson on a one-year deal. Dyson was a spark plug in the clubhouse for the 2015 World Series team, and his energy is a big reason the Royals wanted him back. But he also has a unique skill set to bring as a speedy fourth outfielder. Taylor especially has been impressive this spring, with good bat-to-ball skills and great defense. While the outfield seems set with Benintendi in left, Taylor in center, Merrifield in right and Dyson as a backup, the Royals could bring on an extra position player to open the season. Nick Heath’s speed is valuable off the bench, and Bubba Starling is a non-roster invitee 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 '19. He also can become a free agent at the end of the season, so the Royals have a decision to make on a possible extension. Royals manager Mike Matheny noted we’ll see Soler more in right field this spring. Soler has put an emphasis on his defense and wants to be considered in that mix. On Sunday, the 29-year-old cranked his fourth home run this spring, all moonshots.
Starting pitchers (4): Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Mike Minor, Brady Singer
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 come a couple of young arms, including Keller and Singer. The Royals optioned lefty Kris Bubic to Triple-A Omaha last week, in part because they don’t need a fifth starter until April 16. The Royals will do everything to protect those arms after an unprecedented 2020, so a six-man rotation at some point this year isn’t out of the question. Ervin Santana is in 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. Jakob Junis could also serve as a swingman to bridge the workload gap.
Relievers (9): Josh Staumont, Scott Barlow, Jakob Junis, Greg Holland, Jesse Hahn, Kyle Zimmer, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, Richard Lovelady
Bringing Holland back gave the Royals one of their anchors in the bullpen from 2020, and bringing Davis into the fold gives the Royals a potential 1-2 punch in the back part of their ‘pen if Davis continues the success he’s had this Spring Training.
Junis could be one of the more valuable arms in the bullpen, either as a piggyback starter or a late-innings reliever. Junis has added a cutter this spring, and it’s a legit pitch that has seen good results. He’s being built up as a starter to begin the spring, and the Royals will position him on their staff based on need come Opening Day. Hahn and Staumont, who is regaining strength after COVID-19 delayed his entry into camp, 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. Barlow figures to be another workhorse reliever, building on his Major League-leading 32 appearances last year.
Tyler Zuber was optioned to Triple-A Omaha, taking him out of the Opening Day bullpen picture and creating space for Lovelady, a lefty, who is on the 40-man roster and has pitched really well this spring. The Royals have depth in Zuber, Carlos Hernández, Scott Blewett and Jake Newberry, as well as some of the starting-pitching prospects on the rise who could see their debuts out of the bullpen.