Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier will start in the outfield for the KC Royals. At least two players will compete for a backup role; the new 26th man spot will allow the club to keep both, and maybe another extra outfielder.
As soon as the 2019 season ended, and Alex Gordon became a retirement-contemplating free agent, outfielders Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips could be confident they both had shots at a starting outfield job in 2020. With the contest between them for center field left unresolved, Gordon’s plans unknown, and speculation rampant that Whit Merrifield would be the everyday right fielder in 2020, there was certain to be at least one job available, if not two.
Two offseason events changed things, however: the Royals signed Maikel Franco to play third base and Gordon decided to return for at least one more campaign. Franco’s signing uprooted Hunter Dozier from third and transplanted him in right, moving Merrifield to center, and Gordon isn’t taking his Gold Gloves anywhere but back to left field. Any hope for a starting outfield assignment thus gone, Starling and Phillips will now compete for a backup spot.
The Starling-Phillips competition intensified when the Royals placed Billy Hamilton on waivers and Atlanta claimed him last August. Unfortunately, neither player performed well enough to win Hamilton’s vacated spot (Phillips fared badly for the second straight season and Starling disappointed in his first trip to the majors). The fact that both ran out of options when last season ended increases the gravity of their competition’s impending renewal.
Major League Baseball’s recent confirmation that the 26th man rule takes effect this season may be a blessing for Starling and Phillips–with the new roster spot the rule creates, both may secure reserve roles. With a 25-man roster, Matheny might have been hard-pressed to keep Starling and Phillips, especially considering Merrifield’s versatility, the probable presence on the roster of outfield-capable Ryan McBroom, and the fact Jorge Soler can play right field if he absolutely must.
But the new 26th spot gives Matheny flexibility and the luxury, if he so chooses, to keep Starling and Phillips, both of whom appear more suited for reserve roles at this point in their careers. Retaining both, at least for the early stages of the season, would reduce the pressure on each to outperform the other–a more relaxed approach to the game might be beneficial to them and the club.
Nothing, of course, requires Matheny to break camp with Starling and Phillips, but one is certain to make the roster. Keeping Starling or Phillips, but not both, would allow Matheny to choose another outfielder; with excellent internal choices, the Royals needn’t look outside the organization for such a player, and could promote up-and-coming prospect Nick Heath. If Heath isn’t quite major league ready yet, he’s close and is high on management’s radar. An adept base stealer, good defender and, at least for a part-time player, a serviceable hitter, he’s Terrance Gore and more.
The downside to keeping Heath? He won’t be able to play every day, something he may need to be doing instead of being a big-league reserve at this stage of his career.
In the final analysis, baseball’s gift of the 26th man gives KC Royals manager Mike Matheny an important decision to make. Will he choose a third catcher for the spot? An extra outfielder or two? A utility man? A one-dimensional specialist? Or will he find a player who offers something entirely different? Matheny has almost six weeks to make his decision; we’ll find out then.