The first KC Royals injury news of the spring isn't good. The club disclosed that outfielder Drew Waters has suffered a left oblique "tweak." While that description alone doesn't evoke serious concern, MLB.com KC beat writer Anne Rogers reports the tweak is a "strain" and Waters is expected to miss six weeks.
That puts Waters' readiness for Kansas City's March 30 Opening Day date with Minnesota in more than slight jeopardy, and makes the competition for the center field job more open than it was.
Could Waters be out longer? It's too early to tell, but former KC infielder Adalberto Mondesi taught Royals fans much about oblique strains two seasons ago: two separate strains, one on the left side and the other on the right, kept Mondesi, traded to Boston earlier this winter, on the Injured List for almost five months (and, combined with an intervening hamstring issue, kept him out of all but 35 games).
Hopefully, the team's estimate of six weeks on the sidelines for Waters proves accurate. And although the Royals haven't compared Waters' strain to either of Mondesi's, the latter's experience with the injury suggests recovery time can be unpredictable.
Waters was by all accounts a serious, if not the leading, candidate to replace recently-traded Gold Glover Michael A. Taylor in center. What happens now?
Drew Waters' injury casts the battle in a different light for the KC Royals
The race for center field was expected to be a battle this spring. But assuming Waters won't play again until after Opening Day, Kyle Isbel, who had a promising first season with Kansas City in 2021 but slumped badly last year, is a safe bet to become the frontrunner, especially considering that, per Rogers, manager Matt Quatraro said Tuesday Isbel will "get every opportunity to grab that spot." That Isbel has the edge is certainly a possible translation of Quatraro's managerspeak.
Isbel won't be without challengers. Rogers specifically mentioned Nate Eaton, Edward Olivares and Samad Taylor, but Olivares seems a better fit for right field. Eaton has 21 minor league center field appearances and former manager Mike Matheny deployed him in center five times last year, but third base occupied most of his minor league time and he might be needed there if Hunter Dozier's return to the hot corner goes badly.
Taylor, acquired last summer via the Whit Merrifield trade with Toronto and considered Kansas City's 25th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, probably won't seriously contend. Completely lacking in major league experience, and with only eight games in center field under his professional belt, he has the speed to cover even Kauffman Stadium's expansive center field. But he needs more outfield seasoning before the Royals entrust him with such an important position.
Don't expect Quatraro to give much, if any, Cactus League time in center this spring to recently-signed slugger Franmil Reyes, however. He's officially a designated hitter-outfielder, but his glove simply doesn't merit center field consideration: he's never played there in the majors, and his five-season -17 outfield DRS isn't appealing.
So, who do the Royals turn to at least until Waters gets back? Kyle Isbel, that's who.