Guessing the Royals Opening Day Lineup

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Here we are, the middle of February and normally we would be discussing the elation of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. Instead, the players and owners are stuck in a grudge match that I can only assume includes table, ladders and chairs (Oh My!), putting a cease and desist order on not only the start of camp but also possibly Opening Day.

But I don’t want to discuss the doldrums that are “The Lockout”, so instead today I figured I would piece together what I think the Kansas City Royals Opening Day lineup will look like (whenever that happens). Sure, every Royals blogger known to man has probably already pieced together their thoughts on the topic, but I haven’t read any of them so whatever spills out here is purely one man’s thoughts on what we could be seeing in April…or sadly, maybe May.

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Catcher

This might be the easiest position on the team, as it is a no-brainer. After the 2021 season Salvador Perez had, he is a lock to start the year behind the dish. Salvy’s monster season will go down as one for the ages in Royals history and he definitely put a stamp on making sure to this point he is the greatest catcher in Royals history.

All that being said, we are getting closer to Salvy not being the “main man” behind the plate and in fact his successor might make his major league debut in 2022. MJ Melendez elevated his status within the Royals prospects rank in 2021 and won so many awards along the way that it would be foolish to ignore what he could bring to the Kansas City lineup.

The Royals have already discussed other positions for Melendez to play if he was recalled, including a short tryout at third base last year in AAA Omaha. Perez saw a hefty amount of time at DH last year and I would imagine that total continues to go up as the season wears on in 2022. All that being said, Melendez more than likely will start the year in the minors, so for now, Perez has a lock on the catcher position.

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Designated Hitter

By the end of last season, the DH spot became a revolving door for the Royals and no one player really had planted down permanent residence in the spot. I would expect the same in 2022 but to start the year, Carlos Santana is as good a candidate as any to fill the role.

Everyone knows Santana had a down year in 2021 and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Royals trade him, possibly even before the All-Star break. But to start the year, I would expect him on the Kansas City roster and filling a role either at first base or DH.

The Royals have a gaggle of first base/DH types either on the main roster or down in the minors and there already feels like there is a logjam between the two positions and Perez’s decline defensively is only going to make that worse. So while I picture Santana here to start the new campaign, the likelihood of him being around all season is probably slim and none.

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FIRST BASE

Speaking of down years offensively, Hunter Dozier had quite the doozy in 2021. In fact, it felt like a tale of two halves. Here are his numbers as we break up the two halves of his year:

Credit: Baseball Reference

While the core offensive stats (Homers, RBIs, doubles, etc.) are basically the same, the real “Tale of the Tape” is in the slash line. An almost 100 point increase in On-Base Percentage and an over 100 point jump in Slugging Percentage really points at how it felt like two different seasons for Hunter. Throw in the giant increase in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) and it’s easy to see why there are so many questions for Dozier to start a new season.

Now he did have a few injuries early in the year that played a part in those numbers, but it makes sense to question just what kind of production we will get from Dozier in 2022. But no matter how many fans want him gone, he just signed a new extension before last season and isn’t going anywhere. So why do I have him penciled in at first base?

Dozier struggled defensively last year for Kansas City, whether it was in the outfield or at third base. The one position he seemed at the very least ‘capable’ at was first base. Since I can’t imagine him not in the lineup to start the year, first base seems like the best position to hide the man without a position.

But we all know Nick Pratto is knocking at the door and by the time the year is done he will more than likely be manning the position. But to start the year, my guess is that Pratto starts in Omaha and makes his way to Kansas City either by hot streak or injury. So on Opening Day, Dozier appears to the the best answer. Where will he be by September? That is a question for a later time, albeit a good question.

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SECOND BASE

All these months later and I still can’t believe what we saw from Nicky Lopez last year. If there was a player on the Kansas City roster who took an opportunity and ran with it last year, it was Lopez. After being sent down near the end of spring training, he studied tape, adjusted his swing and when shortstop Adalberto Mondesi ended up on the injured list to start the year, Lopez was ready to step up…and step up he did.

All Nicky did was post a 4 win season (according to Baseball Reference), play Gold Glove defense at shortstop and became not just a replacement for Mondesi but a guy who will be in the lineup on Opening Day with absolutely no arguments. In a matter of months, Nicky turned around his career while also probably changing the trajectory of the Royals 2022 infield.

With all that being said, you might be wondering why I have him stationed at second base. First off, he is very familiar with the position and is a Gold Glove caliber defender at the position. Second, the Royals have a plethora of options in the infield and in some ways you can’t go wrong with the 3-4 options at pretty much any position. Third, there’s a certain top prospect that has worked himself into a spot in the lineup and that’s where we are headed to next.

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SHORTSTOP

The question going into this season wasn’t if Bobby Witt Jr. would be in the Royals Opening Day lineup but where. Witt has vaulted himself up almost every baseball prospect list and after last year it feels like he has nothing else to prove down in the minors. It is pretty much a lock that we will see Witt in the lineup from day one and nary an argument will be found.

So what position do you slot him in at? I’m going with shortstop, which is his main position. The Royals had him playing at either SS or 3B last year in the minors and even had tried him out at 2B and the outfield last year in spring training. But for an optimal defensive lineup, I would leave Witt at SS and let him play.

Could the Royals move him around this upcoming season? I would almost bet on it. Manager Mike Matheny has shown a tendency to move around and shuffle his lineups so I would almost guarantee Witt will see action at multiple positions in 2022. But the smarter move might be to keep him in one spot as long as you can to let him get comfortable in the major leagues before turning him into a chess piece to move around at a whim. Less will be more with Witt to start out and shortstop feels like the best landing spot.

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THIRD BASE

Third base felt like a black hole for Kansas City in 2021. It didn’t matter who you toss onto the position, they either struggled on defense or offense (or both). Near the end of the season, the team moved Adalberto Mondesi over to third base to not only see how he would do at the spot but also to try and keep him on the field. Mondesi only played in 35 games last year and 20 of them were at the hot corner in September.

So to start the 2022 campaign, Mondesi seems like the best fit for third base and it will be interesting to see if this becomes something that sticks or if the Royals have other ideas for him. I personally feel like Mondesi in a super utility role isn’t an awful idea, especially if it meant him playing both the infield and outfield.

Speaking of the outfield, I am a firm believer in trying Mondesi out in center field. As of right now the Royals don’t have a prospect firmly slotted for the position (Kyle Isbel is a possibility, but he could also be used on either corner position) and the team would be able to utilize his speed at the spot. But if the Royals were interested in that position change, they would have already tried it out. So for now, Mondesi appears to be only an infielder.

I could spill more words on Mondesi and his role on this team but for now third base feels like not only the best spot for him but also for the Royals. In all honesty, 2B/SS/3B could be almost any grouping of Mondesi/Lopez/Witt Jr. and Kansas City would be fine. I firmly believe they are all capable of playing all three of those positions so in some ways the Royals can’t go wrong with whatever configuration they end up deciding on.

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LEFT FIELD

I almost just wrote in Alex Gordon for left field in this Kansas City lineup. I’m pretty sure you understand; it was pure instinct. With 2021 being the first year in a long time with no Gordon out in left field, the Royals brought in Andrew Benintendi to take his spot in the lineup. The end results were very average, although he did win a Gold Glove award (which very few of us expected). It would appear the plan was to pencil in Benny again out in left, but what should we expect?

While the Royals were hoping for the 2018 version of Benintendi, he came a lot closer to the 2019 version that no one was really a big fan of. The problem is that at times last season we saw a guy who the Royals should be falling over themselves to sign to a contract extension…while other times we saw the guy that Boston was fine with dumping for Franchy Cordero. First, here is Benny’s number broken down by month:

Credit: Baseball Reference

May and September were great months for Andrew, but he was dealing with injuries for a good chunk of the summer so maybe some of that is to blame for his numbers during that span. But here are some splits that worry me:

Credit: Baseball Reference

For a guy who is supposed to be a gap hitter, it is frightening to see his numbers at Kauffman Stadium. Kauffman has one of the biggest outfields in baseball and should be a good spot for the type of hitter Benintendi can be. Instead, it feels like he tried to go deep way more than he should have and in all honesty, that is a hitting philosophy that has proven to be inefficient for him.

Benny is a lock to start the year out in left field, but if he is looking for a long-term deal, how he performs this year might be a sign of what his future is going to be in Kansas City.

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CENTER FIELD

First, the good news: Michael A. Taylor was so good defensively in 2021 that he won a Gold Glove.

Now, the bad news: if you are expecting Taylor to provide much offense then you will be very disappointed.

“The Taylor Experiment” appeared to at least pay off in that he came in to upgrade the defense in center field and he definitely accomplished that. It was just the hope for more offense never materialized and he ended up producing about the same as he did previously in Washington.

So while Taylor is back and will more than likely start the year as the regular center fielder, it also feels like the Royals don’t expect him to be the main guy all year. While center field isn’t a deep position for the organization, there is hope that Kyle Isbel can take over at some point in 2022 and provide more offense than Taylor did last season. Taylor is also around through 2023, so once the time comes for him to be a fourth outfielder, he can occasionally start while also filling in as a defensive replacement late in the game.

Until then, expect some great defensive plays out in center field that will have you cheering him this year followed by at bats that will make you the master of the “heavy sigh”.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

RIGHT FIELD

There are times I really wish Kansas City didn’t have so many infielders. Right now is one of those times, as the move that makes the most sense is to start Whit Merrifield out in right field. Yes, I realize he had an amazing defensive season at second base. But that is exactly why I wish they didn’t have so many infielders; you could then just slot him in at second and find someone else to man the outfield. But if we are trying to use logic here, Whit in right structures the lineup and the defense better for the Royals.

Now, this doesn’t mean he will play the whole year out there but I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw the largest chunk of that time patrolling the outfield at Kauffman. Maybe if Hunter Dozier played better defense out there or if Bobby Witt, Jr. wasn’t so good defensively at shortstop you could put one of them out in right field. Instead, Whit is almost being punished for being versatile. But it makes sense.

While I don’t want to pile on here (and I don’t want to be that guy) but I also believe we have started to see the beginning of the regression for Merrifield. His offensive numbers were noticeably down last season and while his BAbip and hard hit rate were up, both his strikeout and groundball percentages saw an increase. Merrifield is entering his age 33 season and while he could see a slight bump up this year, one would think some of these numbers will continue to see a slide in 2022.

Many said for years the Royals should trade Whit and Kansas City stood firm on their loyalty to him. The Royals front office can definitely be loyal to a fault and Whit will be another example of that. We all love what Merrifield brings to this team but we should probably accept the fact that his peak playing days are in the rear-view mirror.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

STARTING PITCHER

This was the one spot in the Opening Day lineup that I wavered on and if I’m being honest, no one in the Royals rotation felt like a great choice. So almost by default it would appear Brad Keller has the best chance of being the Opening Day starter in 2022.

We all know about Keller’s awful 2021 and how frustrating it was watching him from start to start. Every time you felt like he was getting his groove back, he would have a start that felt like a big leap backwards. If the Royals are going to be serious about contending in the next few years, fixing Keller should be one of the main assignments.

While Keller isn’t a lock in this spot, the only way one of the other starters take this spot would be if they had a jaw-dropping spring. Considering most of us have our concerns about the young arms in the Royals rotation and have even more concerns about Cal Eldred as the Kansas City pitching coach, it would be even more shocking if one of the youngsters broke from the pack this spring. It would be great to see a Daniel Lynch or a Jackson Kowar start dominating but it feels more and more like that is farther away than we originally thought.

So for now, Keller is my guess. I would love to be shocked by another option but that feels like a 2023 thing. Hopefully we get a different Keller than the one we saw in 2021 on Opening Day.

Credit: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

So here is how I would structure this lineup for Opening Day:

SS Witt, Jr.

RF Merrifield

LF Benintendi

C Perez

DH Santana

1B Dozier

3B Mondesi

CF Taylor

2B Lopez

SP Keller

So this is what I tend to believe the Royals Opening Day lineup will look like. It could drastically change between now and then if there are any injuries or any other acquisitions, but this feels like the best bet with what the Royals have right now. It’s not a blow-away lineup but it is one that needs to improve on it’s 2021 showing.

The interesting part will be to see what it looks like by the end of the season. With names like Isbel, Pratto and Melendez waiting in the wings, this could be a very different team in September than what we will see in April…or whenever the season actually starts.

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