There are many question marks for the KC Royals as they head into another offseason after losing 106 games, tying the franchise record. These questions include the usual suspects of who is in the rotation, who is in the infield, etc. While the outfield has a lot of questions, centerfield doesn't seem to be one of the causes for concern with general manager J.J. Picollo.
The Royals are confident in Kyle Isbel. Why should they be?
The infield is pretty much set with Vinnie Pasquantino coming back from injury, Maikel Garcia being a defensive wizard at third, Bobby Witt Jr. turning into a superstar, and Michael Massey at the keystone. Part of the rotation is set with Cole Ragans, Brady Singer, and Jordan Lyles taking spots. The outfield has a lot of question marks though.
There are a plethora of options the Royals can use for the outfield, from slugger Nelson Velasquez to prospect Tyler Gentry to even Drew Waters. All seem to be fighting for a spot on the 2024 roster, as Picollo spoke to media members this week.
A lot of Royals fans probably just let out a sigh of contempt at hearing that Kyle Isbel will be the centerfielder in 2024. In this writer's opinion, Isbel getting the 2024 Opening Day start makes sense for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that he is one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball. For centerfielders with 700+ innings in the field, Isbel ranks 3rd on the list in defensive runs saved with 13, behind Brenton Doyle of the Colorado Rockies with 19 and Kevin Kiermaier of the Toronto Blue Jays with 18. Both of which will probably be nominated for the Gold Glove.
If we look at Isbel's Baseball Savant percentiles, it further explains how Isbel is one of the elite defensive centerfielders. The two percentiles Isbel stands out in are fielding run value and range, both of which stand in the 92nd and 96th percentiles, respectively. To add to this, Isbel lands directly in-between the two in terms of most offensive stats, with Kiermaier having a 104 wRC+, Doyle sporting a 43 wRC+, and Isbel sporting a 75 wRC+.
Going back to the leaderboard of centerfielders with 700+ innings in the field, the two best hitters in that group with plus defense are Kiermaier and Luis Robert, with Cedric Mullins being league average. To sum up the point, you don't need a centerfielder with elite offensive production if they are great fielders.
Another reason Isbel can be penciled into the starting centerfield role is because who else can man the spot for the Royals? The other options are either too volitile or prospects that are either more suited for the corner spots or are too far away from the majors.
Waters is one of those options, but he was only slightly better offensively than Isbel with an 82 wRC+ and worse on defense, although he was solid with 4 outs above average. The other options are to fast-track Carson Roccaforte, who is already in A-ball, or call up a prospect like Diego Hernandez, who took a step back offensively this year at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Outside of those two, centerfield is not a deep position for the Royals at the moment.
The last reason Isbel is almost guaranteed the starting centerfield role is that the Royals need to spend elsewhere in free agency, and it leaves one less position to think about as the outfield isn't solidified. Plus, the centerfield class doesn't exactly have a player that is substantially better than Isbel.
At the moment, the Royals have a lot of other things to focus on in the offseason than worry about centerfielders. Isbel may not be perfect with the bat, which may lead to fans being frustrated over his play, but the landscape of centerfield is littered with players who are elite with the glove and below average with the bat.