SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Above the row of lockers belonging to several of the Royals’ position players in their Spring Training clubhouse is a graphic with all the young names and faces fans have become familiar with: Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, Edward Olivares, Kyle Isbel and more. Most were rookies in 2022, now are looking to establish themselves in ’23.
Beyond it looking cool, the Royals are sending a message: This is the future of the club.
“It’s motivation,” Witt said. “We all kind of came up together, so you want to go out and prove that you’re supposed to be here. That this isn’t a fluke. So, you want to keep going, keep working to get better each and every day. We have some things to prove, for sure.”
The Royals enter the 2023 season with a similar roster from last year, but with many new surrounding pieces. The coaching staff is almost entirely new, spearheaded by first-year manager Matt Quatraro and the creative ideas he’s bringing from Tampa Bay. Pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and bullpen coach Mitch Stetter are tasked with turning around a young staff that struggled mightily last year. Bench coach Paul Hoover came over with Quatraro from Tampa Bay and he has brought his catching expertise, while infield coach José Alguacil was hired to help the defense.
The voices and messages are all new. How far will it take the Royals? Did problems stem solely from the coaching staff or will the talent on the roster need to be reassessed? Here’s a season preview:
What needs to go right?
If the Royals’ pitching takes a step forward this season -- that is, their young starters find consistent success -- Kansas City will be better set up for the next few years. Brady Singer must continue his growth after a successful 2022, while Daniel Lynch, who will begin the season on the injured list, and Kris Bubic need to show consistent success. The Royals must also find out what they have in Jackson Kowar, Singer’s teammate at Florida and fellow first-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
In 2022, Kansas City had the second-worst walk-per-nine ratio in the big leagues (3.74). The club’s strikeout-per-nine (7.57) was third worst in baseball. That doesn’t set the staff up well for success, and the new coaches have targeted strike-throwing -- as simple as it sounds -- as a main goal in ’23. Pitchers seem to have bought into it this spring, but it will be put to the test this season.
The young hitters. The Royals feel they have their next championship-caliber lineup with their core hitters in the Majors, but what road blocks will Witt, Melendez, Pasquantino and Massey run into during year two in the Major Leagues? And how will they adjust to teams figuring them out as hitters? There is also uncertainty about whether Hunter Dozier can return to form after two years of searching for answers about his swing. And the Royals also need to address the uncertainty about their future in center field: Can Isbel or Drew Waters handle the job?
Team MVP will be: SS Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals are committing to Witt as their everyday shortstop this year and want to see improvement in his defensive metrics. This spring, Witt looks as comfortable as ever knowing his role on the team. And he wants to win more than ever, especially after his Team USA experience in the World Baseball Classic. All that will lead to the Royals watching Witt flourish in his second season, and the 22-year-old will stabilize the infield while leading the offense.
Team Cy Young will be: RHP Brady Singer
Fresh off a WBC experience that was unlike anything he’s ever been through, Singer will take an even greater step forward in 2023. A major emphasis for him last season, one that helped him immensely, was the addition of his changeup at the big league level. That will be even more important for him in ’23, throwing a third pitch often and staying unpredictable.
Dylan Coleman will emerge as the closer. Kansas City wants to find answers about its young starters this year, but just as important is setting up the bullpen for future success. Scott Barlow has the track record, but he can’t carry the load by himself. If the Royals trade Aroldis Chapman in the middle of the season -- and Barlow could be a trade candidate, too -- they’ll need to find other back-end options. Coleman has the velocity, the strikeout potential and the presence to close out games, but he struggles with his command at times. That will change in 2023 and will be a successful storyline by the end of the season.