It won't be long before the Kansas City chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America reveals the KC Royals players chosen for its annual awards. You may remember last year's winners: the local writers named Brady Singer the Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year, rookie shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. was the Les Milgram Player of the Year, and catcher Salvador Perez won the Joe Burke Special Achievement Award.
Who wins those awards for the 2023 season will be known soon enough. In the meantime, and while wondering to what extent general manager J.J. Picollo will retool his team this winter, I decided to disclose who I'd choose for three Kansas City "Of the Year" awards — Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, and Rookie of the Year.
Unlike previous seasons, determining who's most worthy of such titles wasn't difficult. That's what happens when a team loses 106 games and finishes last in its division — on bad clubs, the best performances are easy to identify.
So, who did I pick?
Rookie of the Year: Third baseman Maikel Garcia
Garcia gave Kansas City fans a glimpse of his talent during the 2022 season. Called up from Double-A Northwest Arkansas to join the contingent of young players who replaced several Royals whose vaccination status prevented them from crossing the border into Canada for a July series in Toronto, and then recalled twice from Triple-A Omaha before the campaign ended, he hit .318 in the 23 times he went to the plate in nine games.
This season, though, was his first real big chance, and Garcia didn't waste it. Summoned to the big league club from Omaha in early May, he went 8-for-23 with five RBIs in his first six games, clubbed his first major league home run June 4 against Colorado, and finished his 123-game rookie season with a .272 average. Garcia also established himself as the club's regular third baseman; his .972 fielding percentage was well above league average, and his 13 OAA mark at the hot corner was excellent.
Catcher Freddy Fermin would have given Garcia a run for his money — he hit nine homers and hit .281 — but because he played in 53 fewer games than Garcia, primarily as Perez's backup, and spent most of September on the Injured List, Garcia gets the edge for my Royals Rookie of the Year.
Pitcher of the Year: Starter Cole Ragans
Forgive yourself if your double-take greeted the late June news that Cole Ragans was one of two Texas players for whom the Royals traded reliever Aroldis Chapman. That the club moved Chapman was, of course, no surprise; instead, receiving in return Ragans and Roni Cabrera, a pair of relative unknowns (at least to KC fans) took many observers aback.
While Cabrera moved from the Rangers' Dominican Summer League club to the Royals' DSL affiliate where he remained for the rest of the season, Kansas City immediately assigned Ragans, who'd previously pitched 26 times for Texas over parts of two seasons, to Omaha. He joined the Royals as the 27th man for their July 15 doubleheader with Toronto and, starting the nightcap, held the Blue Jays to a run in five innings before heading back to Triple-A,
But he was back for good in early August and, despite a few bumps in the road (he gave up five runs to Houston Sept. 16 and four to Detroit Sept. 28), he finished the Kansas City portion of his season with a 2.64 ERA and 5-2 record in 12 starts. He also struck out 89 batters in 71.2 innings.
So, why is a pitcher who appeared in only a dozen KC games my Pitcher of the Year choice? No one else was as good — Jordan Lyles went 6-17, Brady Singer 8-11, Zack Greinke 2-15, Carlos Hernández 1-10, Alec Marsh 3-9, and Taylor Clarke 3-6. And none of them had an ERA better than Greinke's 5.06.
Player of the Year: Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr.
Who else could it be? No Royal was better than Witt, who overcame a start so slow (he was hitting .228 at the end of May) that it triggered scattered calls for his return to the minors,
But Witt caught fire by hitting .280 in June and, despite slowing a bit in September, finished his second big league campaign with glittering numbers across the board: 28 doubles, a major league-leading 11 triples, 30 homers, 96 RBIs, 49 steals, and a .276 average, 120 OPS+, and 115 wRC+.
He also became the first Royal to homer 30 times and steal 30 bases in a single season. And his vastly improved defense (14 OAA at shortstop compared to -9 there last season) suggests he might someday be a Gold Glove candidate.