KC Royals Spring Training: Invitees steal early show

The KC Royals’ non-roster invitees are putting on an early Cactus League show.

With the KC Royals’ starting nine by all accounts set, the absence of any serious starting position battles gives the club a bit more leeway than usual to take close looks at its non-roster spring camp invitees. And although the Royals are only two games into their 28-contest Cactus League schedule after beating Cleveland 8-6 Monday, it’s those invitees who are grabbing headlines.

For the second straight day, a non-roster pitcher started and turned in an attention-getting performance. Jackson Kowar, the Royals’ fourth best prospect per MLB Pipeline, threw just 12 pitches in his scoreless two innings Monday; he required only three in the first after benefitting from a double play started by Michael Taylor’s fine catch in center and ended with his strike to Carlos Santana to double off the runner at first.

Kowar did allow two runners in the second, but struck out Bobby Bradley on three pitches to end the inning.

The righthanded rookie’s effort followed Ervin Santana’s good Sunday outing; although he allowed Texas’ only two runs on a Joey Gallo homer, Santana used just 15 pitches, and only three in a scoreless second, in getting his bid to return to the Royals off to a good start.

Non-roster relievers Gabe Speier and Collin Snider pitched as well Monday as Wade Davis, like Santana a former Royal bidding for a roster spot, did in his scoreless inning Sunday. Speier struck out two in his inning; Snider relieved the shaky Jake Newberry (he’d given up three runs) with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, got Alex Call to ground into a fielder’s choice, then pitched a scoreless ninth (including two strikeouts) to earn a save.

Speier is no stranger to spring training—he attended one camp with Arizona and this is his fourth with Kansas City—but he hasn’t pitched well in parts of two big league seasons with the Royals (7.64 ERA in 17 games) and is a long shot for an Opening Day bullpen spot. Snider, picked by Kansas City in the 12th round of the 2017 draft, has pitched at the Rookie, Class A and Advanced A levels with a combined 13-10, 3.96 ERA record. He’s slated to begin the season at Advanced A Quad Cities.

KC Royals Bubba Starling, Ryan McBroom and Ryan O’Hearn are hitting well

A year ago, in what seemed to be a make-or-break spring training for him, former first-round draft pick Bubba Starling exploded at the plate with five home runs and a .378/.439/.865 line in 15 games. He fizzled in the shortened regular season, though, hitting a paltry .169 with one homer, and finds himself at a career crossroad once again.

Although it’s early, Starling looks like the Starling of last spring. He’s played in both games and is 3-for-4 after a perfect 3-for-3 against the Indians Monday.

With the offseason acquisition of Carlos Santana, Kansas City’s two Ryans—McBroom and O’Hearn—aren’t engaged in the spring camp battle for first base they were last year; instead, they’re competing for space on the bench. McBroom is 3-for-3 with a home run and three RBIs, while O’Hearn is 1-for-2 with a homer.

And what of KC Royals non-roster invitee and top prospect Bobby Witt Jr.?

All eyes this spring are on top prospect Bobby Witt Jr., but he hasn’t provided any fireworks. He’s played in both games, pinch hitting Sunday and starting at shortstop Monday, and has a single in five at-bats. Although some desperately want to see Witt in Kansas City to start the season, he’s currently listed on Class A Columbia’s roster, a clear reflection of the fact his professional experience consists only of 37 Rookie level games in 2019 and working at the alternate training site last summer as a member of the Royals’ 60-man Player Pool.

(And don’t forget outfielder Kyle Isbel, who’s also played in both spring games and is 2-for-4, or Seuly Matias, who clubbed a monster home run Monday).

It’s early, but some of the KC Royals’ non-roster invites are doing well in the Cactus League. Whether they keep it up will be interesting to see.