After a years-long rebuilding process, the Royals opened a competitive window for the middle portions of the previous decade. From 2013 to 2017, the club had five straight seasons of at least 80 wins, including back-to-back trips to the World Series in 2014 and 2015, emerging victorious in the latter season. In 2018, that competitive window slammed shut as the team lost 104 games, and then 103 games the following year.
Of course, one benefit of such miserable losing seasons is higher draft picks. In the 2019 MLB draft, the Orioles held the first selection on the heels of their 47-win season, opting for Adley Rutschman with that pick. The second pick went to the Royals, who chose Bobby Witt Jr., a shortstop from Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, Texas who was still a couple of weeks away from his 19th birthday.
The Royals quickly agreed to terms with Witt and put him to work right away, as he got into 37 rookie ball games that year. After that short assignment, Witt was ranked the 24th-best prospect in the league by Baseball America. 2020 was a lost season, in a sense, due to the pandemic wiping out the minor league seasons. However, Witt was evidently so impressive at the team’s alternate training site and in next year’s spring training that he was under consideration to be called up to the big leagues to start the 2021 season. It would have been an incredibly ambitious move to call up a 20-year-old with no experience above rookie ball, but the club ultimately decided against it, assigning Witt to Double-A to get more in-game experience after the lost 2020 campaign.
While spending 2021 in the minors, Witt could scarcely have had a better year. In 61 Double-A games, he hit .295/.369/.570, wRC+ of 145. A promotion to Triple-A didn’t slow him down, as he slashed .285/.352/.581 for a wRC+ of 142 in 62 games. Baseball America now ranks him the third-best prospect in the sport, behind only Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez. While it’s unclear how serious the Royals were about promoting Witt a year ago, there’s no question he’s pounding on the door now.
Witt is primarily a shortstop, having played most of his games there so far, but the Royals also tried him out at third a bit. In 2021, he played in 102 games at shortstop and 18 at the hot corner. That extra bit of flexibility could help him crack the roster, as the big league team has far more question marks than answers at this point.
Adalberto Mondesi was supposed to be the team’s shortstop of the future after a tremendous breakout campaign in 2018. In that year, Mondesi hit .276/.306/.498, with 14 home runs and 32 stolen bases in just 75 games. However, that power seemed to slip away from him over the next two campaigns, as he hit 16 homers over 161 games between 2019 and 2020, producing a combined line of .260/.292/.421. He still had the speed, though, notching 67 stolen bases in that time. Then 2021 saw Mondesi sidelined by a series of injuries, limiting him to just 10 games over the first five months of the season. In an interview in August, Royals general manager Dayton Moore candidly admitted that the club no longer viewed Mondesi as an everyday player that they would expect to play 100-plus games a year. Mondesi returned to the club in September, having been moved to third base, seeing action in 25 more games before the season ended.
The reason Mondesi was moved to third was because, in his absence, Nicky Lopez had a nice season and took over the shortstop position. Lopez played 151 games, providing excellent defense and speed, racking up 22 stolen bases on the year. Although his bat was adequate enough to put up a wRC+ of 106, it was largely powerless and BABIP-driven, as evidenced by two homers on the season and his overall line of .300/.365/.378. Despite his excellent defense at short, he could move to second if needed, as he has 133 games of MLB experience there over the past three seasons.
Whit Merrifield spent most of 2021 at second base, but can also play the outfield. If Lopez, Witt and Mondesi are all healthy and lined up in the infield, Merrifield might become the regular right fielder, with Michael A. Taylor in center and Andrew Benintendi in left, and Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares on hand for further depth.
When Mondesi returned in September and took over at third, he bumped off Hunter Dozier, who was in the midst of an incredibly inconsistent season. Dozier seemed to break out in 2019, hitting 26 home runs and slashing .279/.348/.522, wRC+ of 123. In 2020, his production dropped a bit but was still above average, coming in at .228/.344/.392, wRC+ of 104. In 2021, the first half of the season was dismal, as he was sitting on a line of .147/.214/.357 at the end of June. In July, he bounced back with a month of hitting .304/.389/.443. August saw him turn right around in the other direction and hit .216/.262/.330, but then he finished strong over September and October, with marks of .272/.346/.576 over the final month-plus. After losing the hot corner to Mondesi, he bounced between first base, designated hitter and the corner outfield spots.
Carlos Santana, signed to a two-year deal a year ago, had the worst year of his career in 2021, hitting .214/.319/.342. Some of that production could perhaps be attributed to a quad strain that was hampering him down the stretch, but his numbers before the injury weren’t great either. The team might consider moving the final year of his contract, which still guarantees him $10.5MM, but it won’t be easy after that tepid campaign, especially since he’ll turn 36 in April.
The first base situation could also be further crowded by the arrival of Nick Pratto. Much like Witt, he spent 2021 almost evenly between Double-A and Triple-A. He hit 36 home runs on the year, slashing .265/.385/.602, for a wRC+ of 156. He’s only ever played first base in the minors, except for three Triple-A games in right field this year.
Given all of this positional flexibility, the Royals can surely make it work one way or another. If they prefer Witt at third, he can play beside Lopez and Merrifield, with Mondesi becoming a super-utility option that can have his workload managed. If they want Witt at short, they could slide Lopez to the keystone and Merrifield to the outfield. The first base/DH mix might be a little crowded, but only temporarily, as Santana and Benintendi are free agents after 2022. As the season goes on, there will inevitably be injuries that make the game of musical chairs less crowded. But with the imminent arrival of both Witt and Pratto, along with Asa Lacy and many other young pitchers, Royals fans have reasons to be optimistic about the club topping the 74 wins they managed in 2021.