The MLB Lockout is finally over! Spring Training kicked off Sunday, March 13th with players reporting in Arizona and Florida. Notably absent from free agent and trade news, the Royals feel strongly that their roster is deep with the likes of Foster Griffin. General Manager Dayton Moore spoke on Saturday about the state of the Royals roster. “We’re comfortable with who we have in camp, the level of talent,” Moore said.
Clearly, the Royals will not be major players in the offseason activities and will instead look to solidify their lineup. The shortened spring will not be about signing free agents and wheeling trades to fill possible roster holes. Instead, it will be about testing young talent and fitting the puzzle together with what the Royals have in camp already. So who will be there?
61 total players are in Peoria at the Royals’ Spring Training Complex. Those 61 include the 40-man roster and 21 additional non-roster invitees (above). So let’s take a look at each position. Who are the players to watch this Spring at each position for the Royals?
Pitcher: Foster Griffin
26-year old Foster Griffin was the Royals’ first-round selection (28th overall) in the 2014 MLB Draft. Griffin was a long-time member of the Royals’ failed High-School Pitcher Club, alongside others. Griffin (2014), Nolan Watson (33rd-overall in 2015), and Ashe Russell (21st-overall in 2015) headline the trio of High-School Pitchers selected by the Royals in the mid-2010s that have failed to make a large impact for the club.
The young lefty looked to change his outlook with some very strong improvements in 2019 for the Royals. Foster Griffin posted mediocre results in Omaha for the Royals in 2019 before finding strong success in the Dominican Winter League following the 2019 season. In the DWL, Foster Griffin saw his SO/9 totals jump from 7.6 to 12.0 while his ERA fell from north of 5.00 to just 2.31. This success helped Foster Griffin find his way to Kansas City in the 2020 season where he made his Major League Debut. Tragically, Griffin suffered a UCL Tear in his very first Major League appearance (a relief appearance in which he earned the win).
After working his way back from injury in 2021, Griffin saw mixed results. His K numbers remained up and his ERA held strong until he found his way to AAA Omaha. There, in just 25 innings, Griffin struck out just 6.8 batters per nine but posted an ERA of 3.60. Which version of Griffin will we see this Spring? What does he look like 19 months removed from Tommy John? This will speak volumes about the Royals’ pitching depth and is worth watching in Spring Training.
Catcher: MJ Melendez
No surprise here. MJ Melendez will be a name to watch this spring. We profiled Melendez in our Top Three Prospects this offseason. MJ Melendez, the Royals’ second-round prospect in 2017, struggled through much of his young career before bursting onto the scene in 2021. He led the entire Minor Leagues in Home Runs and posted an outstanding .386 On-Base Percentage between AA and AAA last season.
Which version of Melendez will we see in Spring Training? If Melendez resembles his 2021 form at all in a shortened Spring, it will be difficult for the Royals to send him to Omaha as Opening Day kicks off. Even with Salvador Perez in tow, the young phenom could force his way onto the Royals opening day roster and split time between Catcher and DH with the veteran Perez.
First Base: Carlos Santana
The Royals signed the veteran “On-Base Machine” prior to 2021 and were met with a Tale of Two Seasons. In the first half of last season, Santana was his old self. He posted a .368 on-base percentage in the season’s first half versus just a .254 mark in the second half. Santana’s production didn’t just dip there. His slugging percentage fell from .421 with 14 home runs in the first half of the season to just .246 with 4 homers in the season’s second half.
Santana suffered a Grade 1 flexor sprain in August of 2021. Although this led to a major decrease in production, Santana started to find trouble at the plate as early as June of last season. Which Santana will the Royals have this season? Will he even make it to a second Opening Day with the club? Santana is owed just north of $10 million this season but was a topic of some trade discussions last deadline. With Nick Pratto knocking on the door, Santana’s time in KC may depend heavily on this Spring’s production.
Second Base: Clay Dungan
Clay Dungan burst onto the scene last year playing second base and shortstop for AA Northwest Arkansas much of the season. Dungan, a ninth-round selection in the 2019 MLB Draft, has now appeared in 153 career minor league games between Rookie ball and AA. In those contests, he’s compiled a lofty batting line of .313/.383/.438. He stole 28 bases for the Naturals last season, launched 9 homers, 4 triples, and struck out just 73 times.
Dungan’s K% finished among the best in the entire organization in 2021. He also plays exceptional defense all over the infield at SS, 2B, and 3B. It’s a long shot that we see Clay break Spring Training with the big-league club. The Royals already have 4 of those spots essentially guaranteed entering the season. But what if Dungan continues his tear? The Royals could always use depth, especially from a swiss-army- knife like Dungan. If he makes his case, at age 25, who’s to say the Royals don’t pull the plug on Hunter Dozier and bring Clay along for the ride instead?
Third Base: Who Is It?
It’s hard to say who will fill the hot corner for the Royals in 2022. One of the few question marks on the diamond entering 2022, the Royals have options. Bobby Witt Jr. played plenty at third last season, most notably when Adalberto Mondesi was playing alongside him during his rehab stints. Mondesi himself finished the season there, playing a total of 20 games there after his return from injury. Hunter Dozier started his career at third but after the poor defense, he should find minimal (if any) playing time at third. Lastly, there’s also the youngster Emmanuel Rivera. At 25 in 2021, Rivera hit .256/.316/.333 but flashed at times before being lost to injury. He appeared in just 29 games for the Royals last season.
The story to watch at 3B this spring will simply be who gets the work. The Royals have a roster crunch at the corners and some hard decisions could be made before Opening Day arrives. Mondesi makes the most sense for me in the position. He has no more options so he’s here to stay or gets DFA’d. Keep Witt at the Franchise position as a Shortstop, and move Nicky Lopez back to 2B. The clear storyline will be what Royals’ leadership wants to see at the hot corner entering the Spring.
Shortstop: Bobby Witt Jr.
The easiest answer is often times the right one. If Bobby Witt Jr. is on the diamond, he’s what we’re watching this Spring. Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2021, Bobby Witt Jr. will continue staking his claim on a Major League Lineup spot this Spring. The Royals won’t put any limitations on “Bobby Baseball” this Spring. The training wheels are off.
The only question remaining for Witt is whether he can avoid a slump as he enters the big leagues. Other top prospects, such as Jarred Kelenic, struggled after finding their way to the Major Leagues. Will that be the case for Witt Jr? How does he fare against Major League Talent this Spring? This will be what the entire league is watching this Spring. Witt is the next Superstar in the making.
Outfield: Dairon Blanco
Six years ago Dairon Blanco left Cuba to pursue a career in baseball. He began his career in the A’s organization. Blanco, a burner on the base paths, played four seasons in the Cuban professional league before signing with the A’s at age 24. He entered the Royals’ organization as part of the trade compensation for Jake Diekman.
Blanco is extremely intriguing for the Royals. Kansas City is noticeably thin in center field, with Michael Taylor as the only true, serviceable Center Fielder on the 40-man roster. Blanco plays well in center, mostly thanks to his blazing speed. In three minor league seasons, Blanco has hit .275/.339/.423. Last season between AA and AAA, Blanco appeared in 117 games. He posted a .350 OBP, stole 41 bases, and struck out 22%.
Blanco’s 8% walk rate, elite speed, and good defense may help him find his way on the Royals Opening Day Roster. The Royals don’t have a real option behind Taylor in center on the Major League roster. Edward Olivares is not a great defensive outfielder. Kyle Isbel is good but much more suited to play a corner OF spot. The same goes for Andrew Benintendi. Blanco may find his way out of necessity. The bat is just a bonus.