Baseball is expected to start a shortened season with 29-man rosters. Who might the 29 KC Royals be?
Ongoing negotiations between the Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League Baseball concerning the 2020 season are bearing fruit. As of Friday evening, the MLBPA and MLB had reached agreement on several issues, apparently including big league roster expansion–the parties have reportedly agreed to at least start the season with 29-man rosters. How will the KC Royals fill additional spots?
Before baseball stopped March 12, the only novel roster question facing the Royals was who their “26th man” would be–under new rules effective this season, clubs can carry 26 players instead of 25. Assuming baseball resumes this year, fans and owners will want as many games as can reasonably be played and players appear willing to schedule more doubleheaders and play into November, moves that will increase wear and tear on players and make more players a must.
Here’s how the KC Royals might assemble their 29-man roster. (The new regular season rule restricts teams to 13 pitchers, but it’s reasonable to assume any further roster expansion will allow at least one more hurler; 14 pitchers, then, are presumed for this analysis, leaving 15 position spots to be filled).
Starting lineup. Kings of Kauffman’s Jordan Foote recently projected this Opening Day alignment: Salvador Perez (C), Ryan O’Hearn (1B), Nicky Lopez (2B), Adalberto Mondesi (SS), Maikel Franco (3B), Alex Gordon (LF), Whit Merrifield (CF), Hunter Dozier (RF) and Jorge Soler (DH). Foote’s reasoning was sound and takes care of nine of 29 spots.
Starting rotation. Because frequent early-season off days aren’t likely in a shortened, compressed campaign, the KC Royals will need five starters immediately. Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis and Mike Montgomery are locks, but no pitcher staked a clear claim to the fifth spot in spring training. Not unexpectedly, however, Glenn Sparkman and Jorge Lopez made their cases for it: Sparkman posted a 1.08 ERA and struck out 12 in 8.1 innings and Lopez was 2-0 (4.22 ERA) and fanned 12 in 10.2.
Although neither Sparkman or Lopez probably won the fifth spot outright, they may very well share it. Both seemed destined for bullpen roles before spring training, but manager Mike Matheny can use them as swingmen. Look for the club to keep and rotate both, leaving eight spots open for relievers (assuming, again, an expanded 14-pitcher allowance).
This four-starter, two-swing man scenario doesn’t account, of course, for the possible immediate promotion of Brady Singer, whose major league debut was already expected this season. Although the Royals seem as high on Singer as any pitcher they’ve had, circumstances may weigh against him breaking camp with the team: he has only one season of professional experience (albeit good), hasn’t pitched above Double-A ball, and his spring numbers–a 4.76 ERA, seven hits, four walks and three runs in 5.2 innings–don’t commend him quite yet for a jump to the majors.
But KC is so high on Singer that he might just make that jump immediately and land at the back of the rotation. If he does make the club, someone else must go; because Lopez is out of minor league options, and he and Sparkman can start or relieve, the pitcher cut would likely be a reliever.
Bullpen. Ian Kennedy‘s four-game 8.44 ERA won’t be enough to dislodge him from the closer role he won early last season; Scott Barlow pitched well (1.69 ERA and four strikeouts in 5.1 innings) did nothing to lose his set-up job; and the Royals recently selected Trevor Rosenthal‘s contract, securing his bullpen spot on the Opening Day roster.
Greg Holland, like Rosenthal a non-roster invitee to spring camp, pitched well enough to complete a successful return to KC. He struck out eight and walked just one in six innings; his 4.50 ERA, otherwise questionable for a reliever, is mostly attributable to one poor inning. Unlike Rosenthal, however, the club hasn’t selected his contract from Triple-A Omaha (and can’t until the current roster freeze is lifted) but likely will, narrowing available bullpen spots to four.
Kansas City needs at least one left-handed reliever and Tim Hill entered spring training as the overwhelming favorite. But an alarming Cactus League record puts his job in jeopardy–his 24.55 ERA (37th among the 39 pitchers originally in camp) and the 10 runs and nine hits he surrendered in 3.2 innings–leave him well behind fellow lefties Randy Rosario and Richard Lovelady.
Lovelady, recovering from offseason surgery, didn’t give up a run or a walk, and struck out six, in 4.1 innings, and Rosario had three saves and a 1.42 ERA in six games. Keeping both would give Matheny the luxury of two bullpen southpaws; that Rosario is out of options and pitched well for KC in six games last season enhance his chances to make the club.
Josh Staumont may have been in the KC Royals’ minor league plans for this season, but his stellar six-game Cactus League effort probably has the club rethinking his role. Intimidating with 10 strikeouts in six scoreless innings, his chances to win one of the last available relief jobs are strong.
Stephen Woods Jr. complicates finalizing the bullpen selections. Woods is a Rule 5 draftee, meaning the Royals have to keep him on the active roster all season or risk losing him; although his high left ankle and lateral left ankle sprains made a transfer to the Injured List lasting beyond Opening Day almost certain, thus freeing a roster spot, the game’s extended shutdown now makes recovery before the season starts more likely. In that case, the club will have to decide whether to keep him on the big league roster or expose him to loss.
Woods’ ultimate fate may actually depend on Singer, whose addition to the 29-man roster contemplated here necessitates a corresponding subtraction to keep the club under the presumed 14-hurler limit; unless the Royals deem another hurler dispensable, Woods could end up being the odd pitcher out. But there’s room for him if they decide Singer needs a little more time in the minors.
Even if they send Singer to Omaha, though, KC may decide to risk losing Woods–he gave up three runs and walked five in 3.2 innings before suffering his injuries. If they do, either Hill or Kevin McCarthy, a KC bullpen mainstay who’s made 164 appearances in parts of four seasons with the team, should get the last available bullpen spot. Jake Newberry could make it on the basis of his 5.1 scoreless spring innings. (Hill, McCarthy and Newberry each have two minor league options left).
Finally, Kyle Zimmer appears out of the bullpen picture after his recent option to Omaha. And if the pitcher limit isn’t increased to 14, it will be a simple matter to choose another position player to round out the 29-man roster.
Backup catcher. Meibrys Viloria‘s recent reassignment originally dispelled any notion that the KC Royals might break camp with three catchers. Apparently comfortable with Perez’s recovery from Tommy John surgery, the club optioned Viloria to Omaha March 10 and Cam Gallagher will back up Perez. Now, however, the prospect of more doubleheaders may mean Perez, and even Gallagher could require more rest, in which case the club may recall Viloria. A reserve/utility player (more on that later) would be the most likely cut to make room for Viloria.
Reserve outfielders. The Royals have moved Whit Merrifield to center field, Alex Gordon spurned retirement to re-sign and play left, and the acquisition of Maikel Franco to play third base enabled the club to move Hunter Dozier to right. Those moves left Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips to battle for a reserve, instead of starting, spot. That both are out of options intensified the competition, which Starling led with a .367 average, three homers and three stolen bases; Phillips was at .269 with 10 strikeouts in 26 at-bats, compared to Starling’s four in 30.
Now, a 29-man roster probably moots the battle and gives the Royals more time to resolve it permanently–they can keep both outfielders, at least for a while. Retaining Starling and Phillips also means Nick Heath, Kyle Isbel and Khalil Lee can get more minor league seasoning.
Utility players. O’Hearn earned the 2019 first base job with a breakout 2018 season, but a miserable ’19 campaign, and a serviceable performance by newcomer Ryan McBroom late in the season, thrust the two into a first base position battle this spring. The race was close when baseball stopped–they each had 35 at-bats, O’Hearn had 12 hits and McBroom 11, O’Hearn’s nine RBIs bettered McBroom by one, and O’Hearn had five homers to McBroom’s three. Because O’Hearn so impressed Matheny before spring training, he’ll get the initial nod at first.
McBroom, however, will still make the club. The KC Royals didn’t obtain him from the Yankees last season to help stock the minors and he can play first base and the outfield. And he can hit.
Merrifield has been the consummate utility man for the Royals, but his shift to center, where the Royals clearly want him to play, means he won’t be as available to move around the diamond. KC will need another versatile infielder; although Kelvin Gutierrez was recently optioned to Omaha, he and Matt Reynolds are leading candidates for the role and the last spots on the 29-man roster.
Reynolds played every infield position and two in the outfield in parts of three seasons with the Mets and Nationals, but is weak at the plate (.223 career average). Gutierrez hit .260 in 73 at-bats with the Royals last season, but is less versatile than Reynolds–he played third base and made two appearances at DH in 2019, although he’s played first, third and shortstop in the minors. Keeping both players assures the club of more infield and outfield options, which may prove invaluable for a schedule designed to maximize the number of games played in a short season.
A 29-man major league roster seems best if baseball resumes this year. The KC Royals have a lot of options if that happens.