It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching. Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside. Not in this space! Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch. There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper! If you want to keep up with the Royals during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well. You can follow that here!
The Royals have only finished second or higher three times since the AL Central came into existence in 1994. One year they were still 20 games behind, the other two they went to (and once won) the World Series. So, if nothing else, they make their chances count when they get them? The question is, of course, when they’ll get another chance. Let’s see if these folks know!
|The Royals Reporter
C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Kansas City’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?
Max: The Royals were very quiet pre-lockout, and even in the days after it ended, making Royals fans think the team was standing pat. But in the matter of a few hours they traded pitcher Mike Minor to the Reds for reliever Amir Garrett, then used the money saved from that deal to bring back free agent Zack Greinke. The 38-year old returns to the franchise that drafted him, where he won his 2009 Cy Young Award. He may not be the same pitcher he was then, but he is a pitcher that can throw strikes, take the ball every fifth day, and mentor the younger pitchers they are trying to develop. Adding Garrett – who was awful in 2021 – seems like a decent gamble and fills a need for lefty relievers in their pen.
I think a lot of fans were hoping for a bit more – the team is coming off four consecutive seasons well below .500, including an 88-loss season last year. The team did not upgrade the offense at all, despite finishing 13th in runs scored. But management is likely hoping the improvement will come from top prospects like Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez making their MLB debut in 2022.
Kevin: The Royals only made two major moves: trading Mike Minor for Amir Garrett and bringing back Zack Greinke on a one year deal. Even though the Royals didn’t make a tremendous number of moves, those two deals impact this club in a major way. Greinke gives this young rotation, which went through its lumps last year, a mentor who could help them mature in their approach and adjustment to the Major League level. As for Garrett, he solidifies the bullpen, and brings a fiery presence in the locker room. I was hoping to see Carlos Santana traded as well, especially with Nick Pratto making so much progress last year. However, I think the two moves were enough, especially since this young core, led by Bobby Witt, Jr., is going to be more ready to compete in 2023, after their young guys get more experience at the MLB level this season.
C70: Whit Merrifield has a $6.5 million team option for 2023. What are the odds he makes it through 2022 as a member of the Royals?
Max: The Royals have made it pretty clear they’re not trading him, and with this trade value much lower than it was a few years ago, he is a safe bet to stay in KC. The Royals value positional versatility, so even though Merrifield might be moved off his regular second base to make room in the infield for Witt, Adalberto Mondesi, and Nicky Lopez, he should still be hitting at the top of the lineup, likely as a right fielder. He also has a very club-friendly deal, an extra bonus for a cost-conscious club like the Royals. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if they tear up that contract and work out some sort of short extension with him.
Kevin: The Royals view Salvy (Salvador Perez) and Whit as the faces of the Royals franchise, and last year, they did their part to keep at least one-half of that pair long-term. They have had their opportunities to trade him in the past couple of years when his value was much higher, and yet, he continues to wear a uniform and trot out every day at the top of the batting order. I think Whit not only gets through 2022, but I think it’s totally plausible he signs an extension as soon as next offseason. Dayton Moore values guys like Whit, and they want to keep him around for the next competitive run, especially since he missed out on those 2014 and 2015 playoff runs.
C70: Andrew Benintendi seemed to adjust well to his new surroundings, bouncing back from a horrible 2020. What does this season have in store for him?
Max: Benny had a three-act season last year, hitting well to start the year, suffering in the middle with a rib injury, then bouncing back to finish strong. He was a solid bat and also won his first Gold Glove Award in left. I think the Royals would like to extend him past this season, rather than see him walk at the end of the year as a free agent. He has better plate discipline than most other hitters in the lineup, and the organization is very thin in outfield prospects. Expect to see him near the top of the Royals lineup, and if he’s finally healthy, he could put together a solid season in what could be his walk year.
Kevin: I think Benintendi continues to be the player that he was when he was healthy, but I am not sure we see considerable growth from him in his second season in Kansas City. I think he will hit in the .270-.290 range, hit 15-20 home runs, steal 10-15 bags, and maybe be in the hunt to win another Gold Glove in left field. However, I don’t think it will come in a spectacular fashion, and I doubt he garners much All-Star consideration either. That being said, much like last year, I think we’ll look at his stat line at the end of 2022 and be surprised with how effective he was, especially at the plate.
C70: Bobby Witt Jr. should be making his debut in 2022. What do you expect from him his first time around?
Max: It is hard to temper expectations about Witt. He has been named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, MLB Pipeline’s top prospect in baseball, with MLB.com’s Jim Callis comparing him to Alex Rodriguez in terms of a face-of-the-franchise player. Witt brings plus defense, blazing speed, and light-tower power along with a very mature approach to the game. There are a few concerns about his pitch recognition, but he improved his strikeout rate over the course of last season. There is every reason to think he’ll be the Royals Opening Day third baseman, and the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year.
Kevin: Witt is the real deal and the best position prospect they have had in some time. He will have his growing pains for sure, and it’s totally plausible that he’ll have a rough first month as he makes the adjustment to Major League pitching. However, Witt has done a phenomenal job making adjustments at the Minor League level, and I see him doing the same in his rookie year. After starting slow, he’ll make a Rookie of the Year push, and though he won’t win the award, he’ll probably be the best rookie statistically in the second half, and many will rue the day that he didn’t earn the award because of his slow start.
C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?
Max: The rebuild process should be bearing fruit by now, and I think most Royals fans have raised expectations. A .500 season is within grasp if rookies like Witt, Pratto, and Melendez have solid debuts, and the young pitchers like Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Carlos Hernandez progress. But the team still has some holes – Adalbert Mondesi can’t stay healthy, Hunter Dozier has been dreadful the past two seasons, Michael Taylor is an outstanding defender, but subpar bat, the bullpen lacks depth. Plus it’s hard to pin your hat on so many young players – some of them will undoubtedly fail. The Royals are probably a year away from any kind of contention, but the expectation is they should make improvements in the standings. If I had to predict right now, I’d put them just under .500 at 79-83.
Kevin: This is another year of development, which isn’t easy to stomach for a squad that has struggled to be competitive since 2017. However, the Royals are going to play the young guys and see what they have, and while that may not improve the record from a year ago, this team will be a whole lot more interesting to watch. I see this team starting slow in April and May, especially as they try to figure out their rotation, but I think in the second half, especially in August and September, they finish above .500 in both months, and Royals fans will feel hopeful that 2023 will be the year that they become competitive again. Specifically, this team will probably finish in the 73-76 win mark, which is around the same as last year. But the momentum from a solid finish and doing so through their young guys will energize this fanbase a lot more than the 2021 squad.
C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Royals Twitter accounts to follow.
Max: Alex Duvall at @RoyalsFarm used to write at our site, and he and his team have been killing it with coverage of the Royals farm system with a great podcast as well. David Lesky at @DBLesky does write a weekly column at our site, but he also has his own newsletter with terrific insight and analysis on the club. Clint Scoles at @ClintScoles also writes at our site, but has his own Patreon page too where he writes more in-depth on Royals prospects and amateurs. If you want to know what’s going on in the draft and international signings, he’s a great resource.
Kevin: Royals Review (@RoyalsReview), The Royals Rundown Podcast (@RoyalRundownPod), and Jared Perkins (@JaredCP1) of Royals Farm Report (@RoyalsFarm) do a phenomenal job and cover the Royals in different lights.