KC Royals Spring Training: 1 position still a puzzle

The KC Royals seem settled at most spots, but one big question still remains.

The last time center field was a spring training non-issue for the KC Royals was 2017, when Lorenzo Cain held undisputed title to the position. Cain’s departure following that season created an outfield hole that hadn’t existed since he won the job for good in 2013.

Before the Royals planned to give center to Whit Merrifield last year, Cain’s ultimate heir hadn’t been apparent. Bubba Starling, Brett Phillips, Abraham Almonte, Paulo Orlando, Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton all tried but failed to replace Cain. But Merrifield’s unique versatility always seems to block putting and leaving him in one place, and he once again moved around the field in 2020 until ending up in right when Hunter Dozier took over first base in September.

The Royals, after adding leftfielder Andrew Benintendi last week, appear to have their position players all but set as they prepare to open spring camp this week–Benintendi will play left and his decent lefthanded hitting takes some pressure off Nicky Lopez’s weak bat at second. Even center field may be resolved by the acquisition of Michael A. Taylor, the fleet afoot outfielder the Royals surprisingly signed in late November. General Manager Dayton Moore’s openness about how the club views Taylor seems to suggest he’s the top choice for the position.

But being the front-runner doesn’t mean Taylor will win the race. The spot shouldn’t be considered Taylor’s to keep…at least not yet.

Defensively, the seven-year veteran fits the KC center field mold. Like Cain, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis and others before him, Taylor is quick, fast, covers a lot of ground and owns a good glove. Nothing indicates he won’t be a strong component of the Royals up-the-middle defense.

Offense is the problem with Michael A. Taylor

Taylor’s offense is a much different story. It resembles Terrance Gore’s more than it does Cain’s, Wilson’s or Otis’. Taylor has some power—19 home runs in 2017 and 14 in 2015—but little else at the plate. Other than slugging percentage, his five-season .237/.291/.395 line isn’t remarkably better than fellow middle defender Nicky Lopez’s two-year .228/.279/.307.

Taylor did hit .271 in 2017, considerably better than the .205, .229 and .231 he struggled to the three previous seasons, but fell to .227, .250 and .196 from 2018-20.

He strikes out too often (31.37 percent of the time) and doesn’t walk enough (6.82 percent of plate appearances). Those numbers aren’t good for an everyday big league player.

Simply put, this new Royal has a lot of getting better to do, starting with plate discipline and pitch selection. He needs to swing less and take more, but at the right times. Critical for Taylor will be his spring camp and Cactus League work under the close scrutiny of the Royals’ hitting instructors. Taylor’s bat must be his, and their, primary focus.

What center field alternatives do the KC Royals have for 2021?

Kansas City signed Taylor to play center, not to provide another righthanded bat off the bench or a late inning defensive replacement; the club has plenty of outfielders to fulfill that kind of dual role. But what happens if Taylor’s hitting doesn’t improve and burdens an offense that could be so much better this season?

No longer options for center field are Franchy Cordero and prospect Khalil Lee, both traded away to get Benintendi. Jackie Bradley Jr. remained on the free agent market as of late Sunday night, but the KC Royals probably would have chosen him before Taylor if he’d been a financial fit, and the present free agent field really isn’t relevant because Kansas City won’t have a good feel for Taylor until well into the season.

That leaves Edward Olivares, Nick Heath, Kyle Isbel, and perhaps Bubba Starling and Seuly Matias. Olivares hit .274 with a couple of homers in the 18 games he played after coming to Kansas City from San Diego in last summer’s Trevor Rosenthal deal. Heath has long been considered a strong candidate to eventually make the club, probably in a reserve role, and had two hits in 13 at-bats in his first taste of the majors last year.

MLB.com ranks Isbel No. 7 on its Pipeline KC Top 30 prospect list; he hasn’t seen a big league pitch yet, but owns a respectable two-season .284/.347/.455 minor league slash, made last summer’s 60-man Player Pool, and will be in spring camp as a non-roster invitee.

The Royals also included Matias in 2020’s Player Pool and invited him to 2021 spring training. Yet to play a game in the majors, power is his biggest virtue—he hit 31 homers in Class A ball three years ago. Starling is, of course, Starling, a once-promising outfielder who hasn’t been able to hit big league pitching, and whose 2021 spring training could be his last with the Royals.

The internal alternatives to Taylor are, then, untested or unproven. None provide an immediate, everyday solution to the continuing center field puzzle.

That’s why Taylor is the KC Royals’ best bet, at least for now.

The KC Royals need Michael A. Taylor to come through. His bat will tell the tale.