Even after the Royals’ work to put together a contending club in 2021 didn’t pan out, expect newly promoted president of baseball operations Dayton Moore and general manager J.J. Picollo to take another shot at adding some win-now pieces to complement a promising young core.
- Salvador Perez, C: $82MM through 2025 (includes $2MM buyout of $13.5MM club option for 2026)
- Hunter Dozier, 1B/3B/OF: $21.75MM through 2024 (includes $1MM buyout of $10MM club option for 2025)
- Mike Minor, LHP: $11MM through 2022 (includes $1MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2023)
- Carlos Santana, 1B/DH: $10.5MM through 2022
- Michael A. Taylor, OF: $9MM through 2023
- Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF: $4MM through 2022 (includes $750K buyout of $6.5MM club option for 2023*)
- Total 2022 commitments: $50.5MM
- Total of all long-term commitments: $138.25MM
*The value of Merrifield’s 2023 option will increase to $10.5MM if he spends fewer than 109 days on the IL from 2019-22. He has not been on the injured list in that time (or at all in his MLB career).
Projected Salaries for Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Andrew Benintendi – $9.3MM
- Adalberto Mondesi – $3.2MM
- Jakob Junis – $1.8MM
- Brad Keller – $5.2MM
- Cam Gallagher – $900K
- Scott Barlow – $2.4MM
- Ryan O’Hearn – $1.4MM
- Nicky Lopez – $2.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Junis, Gallagher, O’Hearn
The Royals got a head-start on some offseason business in September. General manager Dayton Moore was promoted to president of baseball operations, while longtime assistant GM J.J. Piccolo was elevated to the title of general manager. The pair of title bumps helped the Royals to ensure that both well-regarded execs will remain with the club and avoid being considered for lateral moves (that would previously have represented promotions) with other organizations. Meanwhile, the team kept center fielder Michael A. Taylor from reaching the free-agent market by hammering out a two-year, $9MM extension.
Taylor, 31 in March, turned in a dismal .244/.297/.356 batting line (77 wRC+) but played center field at such a ridiculously high level that it really didn’t matter. The Royals loved the glove enough to give Taylor 528 plate appearances, and he rewarded them with 19 Defensive Runs Saved, a 13.3 Ultimate Zone Rating and 15 Outs Above Average — a mark that trailed only Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot among all MLB outfielders.
The extension for Taylor preemptively answered the Royals’ center field question, and he’ll now return alongside left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who’s due one final arbitration raise. Benintendi no longer looks like the budding star we saw with the 2018 Red Sox, but he’s settled in as a slightly above-average bat and will give Kansas City a solid option for at least the 2022 season (if the team doesn’t look to further extend him this spring). Taylor and Benintendi can hold down two of three outfield spots, but the third is where the path moving forward becomes murkier.
Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier are both under contract for multiple seasons — Merrifield through at least 2022 with a 2023 club option, and Dozier through at least 2024 with a 2025 option. The former has been one of the game’s great bargains and a perennially unheralded star (at least relative to the acclaim he receives). The latter scuffled through a dismal 2021 showing that has made last March’s $25MM contract extension look regrettable.
Twenty-four-year-old Kyle Isbel also forced his way into the outfield conversation this year with a solid Triple-A showing (.269/.357/.444, 116 wRC+) and a torrid hot streak following a mid-September call to the Majors. In 47 plate appearances down the stretch, Isbel hit .286/.362/.524.
Isbel is purely an outfielder, but both Merrifield and Dozier can and have played in the outfield and infield extensively. Looking around the infield dirt, however, the picture is quite crowded. Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. should seize the shortstop position before too long, and the Royals have already moved Adalberto Mondesi to third base in part to prepare for a potential position change. Nicky Lopez was a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop this year (another reason Mondesi moved to the hot corner) and has likely cemented his spot in next year’s infield mix — even if it means a move to second base.
Kansas City could split first base and designated hitter duties between Dozier and veteran Carlos Santana, with Merrifield taking the bulk of his reps in right field and Isbel getting more work in Triple-A. That might be a palatable option were it not for the looming arrival of another top prospect: first baseman Nick Pratto. The former first-round pick went from potential afterthought to potential building block with a ludicrous minor league season that saw him post a .265/.385/.602 batting line with 36 long balls between Double-A and Triple-A. He’s all but ready for an MLB look himself, and that’s where things get tougher.
First and foremost: Moore has made clear in the past that he has little interest in trading Merrifield. Although Merrifield has long been a player for whom rival fans (and surely rival clubs) have pined in trade scenarios, Kansas City extended him mid-rebuild and has never shown an inclination to move him. Now that Moore & Co. have shifted to a win-now mindset, Merrifield isn’t likely to suddenly be available — even with his club control dwindling.
That said, neither Dozier nor Santana is teeming with trade value. Dozier hit just .216/.285/.394 in 2021 and posted poor defensive marks at multiple positions. Santana was terrific through the season’s first two months before flopping with a .198/.287/.296 slash from June 1 through season’s end. The Royals could explore swapping out either for another sub-optimal contract, but it’s also possible that Dozier simply moves to a bench role and Kansas City hopes for a rebound from one or both. Dozier, after all, has played all four corner spots and finished the season on a big high note, hitting .272/.346/.576 from Sept. 1 onward.
The only other spot on the diamond yet to be addressed in this writing barely even needs mention. Salvador Perez’s 2021 campaign was one of the best by any catcher in Major League history, and he’ll return as the team’s linchpin behind the plate. Perhaps the Royals will explore the market for a veteran backup, as neither Cam Gallagher nor Sebastian Rivero inspires much confidence in the event of an untimely injury to Perez. Then again, both are passable backups — especially considering Perez’s ironman workload — and the Royals likely have a superior safety net waiting in the wings, should Perez require a prolonged stay on the injured list.
For all the attention (rightfully) placed on huge seasons for Witt and Pratto in Double-A and Triple-A, the Royals had a third overwhelming performance from a minor league hitter. Catching prospect MJ Melendez was not only in the Double-A and Triple-A lineups with Witt and Pratto the whole way — he actually outproduced both at the plate. In 531 plate appearances between those two levels, Melendez mashed at a combined .288/.386/.625 pace with 41 home runs. Selected just 38 picks after Pratto in 2017, Melendez joined in his draft-mate in flipping the narrative on that ’17 draft class in convincing fashion.
Unlike Pratto and Witt, however, Melendez doesn’t have a clear path to everyday at-bats moving forward. He could certainly operate as a designated hitter and part-time catcher, gradually increasing his workload behind the dish as Perez’s own workload decreases with age. That opportunity might not present itself until 2023, barring a deal to unload Santana, but it’s certainly one to which the Royals have to be open.
Alternatively, it’s inevitable that catching-needy clubs around the game will see a blocked catching prospect who just put the finishing touches on a mammoth minor league season and try to pry him loose. The Marlins, Astros, Rangers and perhaps the Yankees are all teams in need of long-term solutions behind the dish. This isn’t a situation where the Royals would use Melendez in order to shed a contract such as Santana, to be clear, but Kansas City will field plenty of interest in Melendez this winter. Miami, in particular, is teeming with young pitching it could offer the Royals.
Of course, the Royals have their own collection of impressive young arms on which they’ll rely moving forward. The 2021 Royals were the first team in Major League history to have five pitchers from the same draft class start a game for the team that drafted them (via Royals director of communications Nick Kappel, on Twitter). Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic were Kansas City’s top four picks in 2018, and 18th-rounder Jon Heasley made his own MLB debut late in the season. Add breakout righty Carlos Hernandez, veteran Mike Minor, stalwart Brad Keller and righty Jakob Junis to the mix, and the Royals have some obvious depth before even making any additions.
That depth is nice, but it didn’t yield results for the Royals in 2021. Kansas City starters ranked 24th in the Majors with a 4.97 ERA. As was the case with Santana, Minor’s two-year deal failed to pay dividends. He soaked up a team-high 158 2/3 innings but did so with a 5.05 ERA. Fielding-independent metrics were more forgiving, but one has to imagine that the Royals would be open to finding a way to move Minor and the $11MM he’s still guaranteed ($10MM salary in 2022; $1MM buyout of a $13MM club option for 2023).
Looking to the homegrown arms, all four of Singer, Lynch, Kowar and Bubic previously ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects. Singer showed promise during his 2020 debut but took a step back in 2021 (128 1/3 innings, 4.91 ERA). Each of Bubic, Lynch and Kowar walked 10% or more of the hitters they faced and did so with below-average strikeout rates. Not every top-ranked pitching prospect dominates from day one — the vast majority do not, in fact — but it’s fair to say the Royals were probably hoping for better results from at least some of this group through this stage in their young careers.
Be that as it may, the Royals can still count themselves eight deep (if not more) in viable rotation options. They’ll be looking for some to take a step forward, but the fate of next year’s staff is largely dependent on the continued development of the young pitchers. There’s certainly room to add a veteran on a low-cost deal, but the hope will be that some combination of Singer, Bubic, Lynch, Kowar and Hernandez seizes at least a couple of long-term spots.
To recap: the Royals have three near-MLB top-100 prospects, with only one (Melendez) truly being blocked by a veteran. They have more infielders than infield spots available (in part due to underperformers Dozier and Santana), and they have more outfielders than outfield spots available. They’re also teeming with young starters who carry plenty of potential but have yet to piece things together.
It’s not hard to see why the front office is so bullish on the long-term outlook. However, the Royals need a lot of positive strides, from a development standpoint, for this group to be deemed a contender. They could opt for a quiet winter with regard to the lineup and the rotation, relying solely on internal development — or they could do what they did nearly a decade ago and condense some of this talent into more proven stars. It’s been almost nine years since the Royals acquired James Shields and Wade Davis in a trade that sent then-top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay, but the current Kansas City roster is in a somewhat comparable spot.
There’s virtually no scenario in which the Royals move Witt, and Pratto seems quite unlikely to be dealt himself. But with Melendez being blocked, a smorgasbord of young rotation hopefuls and perhaps players like Isbel or Mondesi lacking straightforward paths to playing time, there are multiple avenues for Moore, Picollo and the rest of the front office to explore.
In surprisingly candid fashion this summer, Moore indicated that the team simply can’t count on the wildly talented but oft-injured Mondesi as an everyday player, though he also emphasized the organization had no plans to give up on him. Still, with several other infield options and Mondesi now just two years from free agency, it stands to reason that other clubs will look into acquiring him. Suffice it to say, while the Royals may not be the most active team in the free-agent market, they’ll likely still be active in talks with other clubs around the league.
The one area of the club that this outlook has yet to address, of course, is the bullpen. Dominant relief pitching was a hallmark of the Royals’ 2014-15 World Series clubs, and the foundation for a similarly strong bullpen could be in place. Controllable, power-armed righties Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont had breakout years and positioned themselves as a formidable one-two punch in 2022 and beyond. Rookie southpaw Jake Brentz had a strong debut of his own and averaged 97 mph on his heater, but he’ll need to curb his 13.3% walk rate. Domingo Tapia and Dylan Coleman showed varying levels of promise.
That said, the bullpen is the most obvious area that the Royals could look to spend in free agency. Kansas City is projected for just shy of $87MM in payroll next season (using Swartz’s arbitration projections), and that number could fall with some non-tenders looking quite likely. The Royals have just $33MM on the books in 2023. It’d still be a shock to see them play at the very top of the relief market (i.e. Raisel Iglesias), but any of the second-tier options thereafter (Kendall Graveman, Corey Knebel, etc.) could easily fit into the Royals’ payroll. Putting together a deep bullpen will only take pressure off the young arms in the rotation.
The 2021 season didn’t go as Moore and his staff hoped when dipping back into the free-agent market last winter, but it’s still hard to look at all of the talent on the horizon in Kansas City and not believe better days are ahead. The Royals can afford to make a splash or two in the bullpen. Their growing crop of young talent and considerable payroll space gives them ample leverage to take a bigger swing on the trade market if the opportunity presents itself.