Why days like Tuesday are so important for the KC Royals

Kansas City had almost 50 players in action.

Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/GettyImages
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Unless it's late in the campaign and impacts battles for postseason berths, one day means little in the grand scheme of a major league baseball season. A single day is even less important in spring training, when who wins and who loses doesn't matters at all. But for the KC Royals, Tuesday meant a lot.

The Royals began their day with four Cactus League games in the books, but put two more behind them before sunset. That's because they split up, with one KC team hosting the Rockies while the other hit the road to face the Padres.

The split-squad day allowed the club to play and evaluate at least twice as many players as it could have in only one game. And that's as good as gold for a team packed with all the new Royals general manager J.J. Picollo added over the winter and a slew of others vying for Opening Day roster spots.

The general benefit of such a day is obvious — the more players the club's decision-makers get to see, the better — but what specifically was Kansas City able to accomplish Tuesday?

The Royals got looks at several pitchers of special interest

Between Tuesday's two games (for the record, Kansas City beat Colorado but lost to the Padres), 14 different pitchers, and 33 different position players, saw action. Included in that bunch were two important hurlers making their way back from injuries, and two key newcomers.

Daniel Lynch IV and Jake Brentz, the two hoping to bounce back from injuries, both worked against Colorado. Lynch missed almost all of last season with shoulder issues and, because he's in the mix for the fifth rotation spot, everything he does this spring is under close scrutiny. Lynch pitched two innings, giving up a run, a hit and a walk, and struck out two. He's now started twice and is 0-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three frames.

Brentz's second Cactus League appearance was far better than his first. Although he walked two, he struck out one in his scoreless inning after an unsightly and short outing against Texas last week. Striving to make the club after Tommy John Surgery, he's yielded three runs in 1.1 innings this spring.

Picollo devoted much of his offseason efforts to bolstering his club's rotation and bullpen, and a pair of his winter additions pitched for the first time this spring. Michael Wacha started against the Padres, with whom he went a stellar 14-4 last season, and struck out two in his scoreless three-up, three-down inning. The Royals signed the 11-year big league veteran in December, and he could soon become the staff ace.

John Schreiber, a cinch for a bullpen spot after coming over from the Red Sox this month in the David Sandlin trade, also pitched a scoreless inning against San Diego. Expect him to see plenty of work this spring: he's a good candidate to set up probable closer Will Smith.

Sam Long, signed as a free agent during the offseason after pitching two seasons for the Giants and one for the A's, probably hasn't figured prominently in the club's immediate plans. That may change, though, after recent injuries to two other Royals — Christian Chamberlain has a UCL tear and Carlos Hernández is sidelined with a sore shoulder.

Enter Long? Possibly, and the scoreless two frames with three strikeouts he threw against San Diego won't hurt his case. Long, a lefty, is 3-5 with a 4.92 ERA in 80 major league appearances, including 68 in relief.

The early battle for outfield spots might be getting interesting

Spring camp opened with all three starting outfield slots presumptively filled with Kyle Isbel in center, MJ Melendez in left, and Hunter Renfroe in right. But competition for a reserve slot or slots could be heating up already.

Dairon Blanco, a leading contender for one of those slots, didn't play Tuesday but is 2-for-5 (.400) in two games. And the split-squad day gave the Royals the chance to see Drew Waters again; he began the day with two hits in four spring at-bats, but went 0-for-3 against the Padres. In some danger of spending 2024 in the minors, he's now 2-for-7 (.286) with a home run and a run driven in.

Playing well Tuesday, however, was Devin Mann. Acquired from the Dodgers in the 2022 trade deadline deal that sent Ryan Yarbrough to LA, he went 2-3 with an RBI against San Diego. Currently the organization's 28th-best prospect per MLB Pipeline, Mann is now 3-for-7 (.429).

Also standing out was Diego Hernandez who, playing against Colorado, matched Mann's 2-for-3 effort and moved past him statistically. Hernandez is now 3-for-6 (.500). He hasn't played in the majors yet but owns a .275/.339/.362 minor league line with 107 stolen bases.

So it is that the Royals enjoyed an invaluable day of evaluation, more so than usual. Two games gave them the excellent opportunity to check out almost 50 players. Two other split-squad days remain on the schedule: March 15 against the Reds and Guardians and March 21 against the White Sox and Guardians.

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