KANSAS CITY -- The Royals finished 2021 with more optimism about the future than they have had in recent years, with Whit Merrifield saying on the final day of the season he was “so excited about what we have moving forward that I wasn’t quite ready for it to end.”
“I can’t wait to get back already. … I’m going to be a lot more excited for Spring Training a lot earlier this year,” Merrifield added.
Now, it’s finally time. Merrifield and the Royals will descend on Surprise, Ariz., and begin the process to turn that future optimism into present-day excitement.
Here are five pressing questions facing the Royals now that baseball is back in business:
1. What does the infield look like?
Now that the Royals can check in with their players on the 40-man roster, they can ensure that each of them will be ready for Spring Training. That includes infielder Adalberto Mondesi, who had a specific offseason training program agreed on by the Royals, Mondesi and his agents in an effort to keep him on the field in 2022. Confirmation that he followed the recommendations of the Royals’ performance science and athletic training departments will be one of the first steps to figuring out what Kansas City’s infield will look like come Opening Day.
The next step will be to see how the competition shakes out in Spring Training. The Royals must configure where Mondesi (a shortstop who played third base when he returned to the field last season), Nicky Lopez, Merrifield and Bobby Witt Jr. fit in their infield plans. Part of the decision will be centered around how Witt performs in camp -- will he force the Royals to put him on the Opening Day roster, or will he start the season in Triple-A? From there, the Royals could have Merrifield and Lopez return as their Gold Glove-caliber middle infield duo, or move Merrifield to right field, Lopez back to second base and Mondesi to shortstop.
There are plenty of ways this question could shake out over the season and many ways the answer can influence other parts of the field and lineup. But now the Royals can resume these conversations while looking forward to what Spring Training holds.
2. Who is in the rotation?
Much like the infield question, there are a lot of different ways this one could shake out, and it starts with the Spring Training competition. The Royals will open camp with nine Major League-ready starters, barring injuries, fighting for five or six spots in the rotation to start the season -- knowing that the club will likely use all of them as starters over the full course of the year.
Mike Minor and Brad Keller are two veterans who likely have their spots locked into the rotation. Then come the young pitchers in Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Carlos Hernández, Jon Heasley and Angel Zerpa. Singer and Bubic have the most starting experience out of the group and could be seen as having a leg up in the competition -- Bubic especially with how he ended last season (2.20 ERA across six games).
But the Royals won’t ignore what Hernández did last season, posting a 3.55 ERA in 11 starts and a 3.68 ERA in 24 games overall, nor will Lynch go unnoticed with how he responded in his second stint in the Majors. Both Heasley (three starts) and Zerpa (one start) performed well in their small sample sizes, and despite Kowar’s bad first experience in the Majors, the right-hander’s dominance in Triple-A will give him a look for the big league rotation. The Royals’ Opening Day rotation seems to be wide open.
3. Can they snag another pitcher off the market?
The Royals made a move to add to their bullpen a few hours before the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired on Dec. 1. They signed right-hander Taylor Clarke to a one-year, $975,000 deal as a bounce-back candidate from the D-backs who gives the Royals depth in the bullpen to back up their young starters. The Royals also were able to sign three relievers to Minor League deals during the lockout in Colten Brewer, Arodys Vizcaíno and Sam Freeman, all of whom will likely compete for a spot in big league Spring Training.
Going into the offseason, though, the Royals wanted to strengthen their bullpen and perhaps even add to a core group of high-leverage relievers in Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont and Jake Brentz. They could do that by signing a proven and reliable reliever like Ryan Tepera, who spent time with the Cubs and White Sox last year, or Collin McHugh, who has been playoff-proven with the Rays.
4. When are their hitting prospects part of the solution?
Similar to last year’s goal of transitioning their young pitchers to the Majors, 2022 brings the same goal with the young hitting prospects. A new Royals era begins when they arrive in Kansas City. That includes Witt, catcher MJ Melendez and first baseman Nick Pratto and perhaps even first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, although the Royals might want to see him at the Triple-A level for a full season first.
When these players debut and how much playing time they receive is still to be determined, but all of them are likely to make their arrival in Kansas City in 2022. Pratto and Melendez are already on the 40-man roster and Witt could play himself into a roster spot with a standout performance this spring.
The Royals know there will be a transition period when these players encounter struggles in the Majors, like most rookies do, and they’ll count on their Major League staff -- including newly promoted assistant hitting coach Keoni DeRenne, who worked with all three hitters in the Minors -- to guide each one.
5. Can Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana have bounce-back years?
Dozier (.680 OPS, 82 wRC+) and Santana (.660 OPS, 83 wRC+) both struggled immensely last season as everyday players. Dozier was in the worst slump of his career, and Santana dealt with injuries in the second half. But given the Royals’ high expectation for the two sluggers going into the season, the club had to examine what went wrong in their evaluations this offseason.
The Royals were hoping to have Dozier work extensively with special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar -- one of the people Salvador Perez credited for his home run power surge in 2021 -- this offseason, but that was delayed because of the lockout. Still, the Royals will enter camp hoping Dozier has the right mindset for a bounce-back year before he begins to work on his mechanics with coaches.
The same goes for Santana. The Royals could explore a trade, but it’s hard to see a team willing to take on the nearly 36-year-old who is set to make $10.5 million. If Santana stays healthy, the Royals could plan to have him rotate between first base and DH while working with him to make sure his power and on-base skills return.
Whether Dozier and Santana can bounce back from ’21 is a key question for this club, considering their production is a big part of the Royals’ offense -- and their spots in the lineup dictate the plans for the young players. How long the Royals are willing to wait to find out is another question.