KC Royals: Is phenom Bobby Witt Jr. close enough yet?

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

Bobby Witt Jr. is having a fine spring for the KC Royals. Can he make the club?

Between now and Opening Day, the Kings of Kauffman writers are analyzing how various KC Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is infielder Bobby Witt Jr.

Bobby Witt Jr., the best prospect to come the KC Royals’ way in a long while, is on frequent display in Arizona this spring. He’s played in every one of the club’s seven games, and is proving he’s the five-tool player the Royals knew him to be when they made him the second overall selection in the 2019 amateur draft.

Witt, only 20, is making the most of his prolonged time in the spotlight. A 2-for-3 afternoon in the Royals’ 8-6 victory over San Francisco Saturday boosted his Cactus League average to .333, his OBP to .375 and his OPS to .908. He hammered a two-run homer off Tyler Rogers in the third, and also singled.

And his speed took center stage Thursday when Cincinnati’s Errol Robinson clanked Witt’s deep fly to left and Witt flashed around the bases to score. He didn’t get credit for a home run, but proved inside-the-park homers are in his future.

He also has four RBIs and three singles to go with the pair of hits he collected Saturday.

Unfortunately, Witt’s Cactus League performances this season and last, and the almost 40 games he played in Rookie ball two seasons ago, provide the only public evidence of his progress. He didn’t play in 2018 after signing with the Royals, then hit .262 with two doubles, five triples, a home run and 27 RBIs when he debuted with Kansas City’s Arizona rookie team.

The KC Royals invited him to spring training last year; he hit a single and double and walked twice in three games before the pandemic shuttered spring training camps. And although 2020’s minor league season was wiped out, Witt made KC’s 60-man Player Pool and, by all accounts, played well at the alternate training site.

Getting good cuts against talented minor league-level teammates, though, isn’t the same as facing high-caliber big league pitchers on a daily basis, and Witt’s exposure to the latter has come only in exhibition games. Nevertheless, is he ready for the majors this season?

No. Although he deserves his MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 Royals prospect ranking, he hasn’t seen a regular season pitch above Rookie league, and a mixed bag of prospects, minor leaguers, and some veterans in last season’s Pool games and 10 Cactus League contests. Witt needs more seasoning than that.

Even if Witt is big-league ready, or close to it, the starting lineup can’t accommodate him. He’s a natural shortstop, but Adalberto Mondesi plays there; he’s worked out at third, but the Royals didn’t just extend third baseman Hunter Dozier for a reported $25 million (minimum) to sit on the bench. He can also play second, but not unless the club is ready to give up on Nicky Lopez’s hitting (it isn’t). A move to the outfield is certainly possible, but not until one outfielder among Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, or Whit Merrifield moves positions or to another team.

And the Royals won’t call Witt up just to watch and learn from the dugout—if he can’t play regularly in Kansas City, he’ll stay in the minors where he can.

More importantly, it’s clear management is determined not to expedite Witt’s progression unless it’s absolutely necessary and won’t gamble his development and career simply to appease those who want to see him in Kansas City now. 

Instead, expect Witt to start the 2021 season at Class A Columbia or Advanced A Quad Cities, unless the Royals decide he’s ready to jump to Double A Northwest Arkansas. Only if long-term injuries to Mondesi, Lopez or Dozier occur with the Royals in contention, he warrants one of the two spots available for September roster expansion, or he’s consistently playing so well that the Royals just can’t keep him down on the farm, should he make it to Kauffman Stadium this season.

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The KC Royals must allow Bobby Witt Jr. to progress at the proper pace. Everyone can wait until he’s fully prepared for the major leagues.