The Kansas City Royals moved into a new phase with the major-league club roster earlier this summer. They have 13 rookies on the active roster, taking up half of the 26 spots.
The roster is younger than it was at the start of the season, heavily homegrown and largely features players under contract or club control for multiple seasons.
This summer has certainly served as an inflection point for the franchise and its future.
The final seven weeks of the season will help guide the decision-making process led this offseason led by president of baseball operations Dayton Moore and general manager J.J. Picollo.
Picollo, who was with the team in Minnesota during the current road trip, spoke with The Star prior to Tuesday night’s game about the next steps in the club’s progression looking ahead to the offseason and spring training 2023.
The 27-year-old switch-hitter is rehabbing back home in the Dominican Republic. He’s still in regular contact with Royals rehab coordinator Jeff Blum, who continues to direct Mondesi’s rehab from KC, according to Picollo.
The Royals plan to have Mondesi working with their staff in the U.S. in the next few weeks as his rehab will start to gear towards preparing for the start of next season.
The expectation at this point is that Mondesi will be ready for spring training 2023. By the start of March, he’ll be 10 months removed from his injury and surgery.
How will the Royals approach integrating Mondesi into their plans?
“Similar to this past year,” Picollo said. “We know he’s a phenomenal shortstop. Right now, we’re mixing Bobby (Witt Jr.) between short and third. Nicky (Lopez) is getting a chance to play short. We know Nicky can play second base. We know we’ve got (Michael) Massey now. But (Mondesi) is a shortstop. So we’ll approach next spring training the same way we did this year. We’ve just got to make sure he’s healthy.”
The Royals went into this season with Mondesi slated to be their starting shortstop without predetermined off days or a set in stone schedule to manage his workload.
Meanwhile, Lopez played second base and Witt played third base. Both served as options at shortstop when Mondesi wasn’t playing.
“The more depth we have, the better,” Picollo said. “I think having a healthy Mondesi is going to be really good for this team because he’s a weapon. I know it has been difficult to get him on the field and keep him on the field, but he’s a weapon when he’s on the field.
“So if he’s on the field, we’re certainly a better team. We’ll be better off with him. There’s more depth there. There’s more options. Just look at the way teams sort of deploy their troops, whether it’s the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Rays, teams that are having success, they have a lot of depth.”
Playing multiple positions has been part of the way the Royals’ top prospects are getting at-bats in the upper levels of the minors as well as in their initial introduction to the majors.
In the same way that Witt has played shortstop and third base, rookies MJ Melendez (catcher, outfield), Nick Pratto (first base/outfield), Nate Eaton (outfield/infield) and Massey (second base, third base) have also been players without set positions.
The Royals have had success with several multi-positional players in the majors in recent years such as Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier. Lopez has made himself a Gold Glove candidate at two positions in recent years.
Going back to their 2015 World Series championship run, the versatility of a player like Ben Zobrist played a crucial role in the club’s success.
Well, the multi-positional format isn’t only a temporary experiment to get young players on the field. It’s a viable option for how the team will operate in the future.
“I think depth is really valuable,” Picollo said. “If guys kind of jump out and establish themselves as they are everyday guys, that’s great. But right now the way our makeup is, guys are going to get a day off. Then when you talk about workload management, having the type of depth that we have allows us to give guys nights off. It’s not that they’re getting benched or they’re not valued. It just gives you a night.”
Picollo pointed to the club’s current wealth of left-handed hitting and its ability to create options and/or matchups as a benefit.
He also used the current stretch of the schedule, 17 games in 16 days, as an example of why it’s important to give players a day off their feet during the season. The idea being to keep the players healthier deeper into the season.
The revamped minor league season in recent years also contributes to the need for days off since those players are now becoming accustomed to a schedule that features a day off every week of the season.
“That’s sort of an unintended consequence,” Picollo said of the schedule in the minors. “But I think guys look forward to a day off. Cal Ripken is Cal Ripken. What Whit did, 500-plus games is pretty impressive. But it’s nice if you don’t feel like you have to do it. But again, that comes back to what you have on your bench. What are my other options? If I have other options. Yeah, give him a breather.”
Bobby Witt Jr.
The Royals’ top prospect entering this year as Baseball America and USA Today Minor League Player of the Year in 2021, as well as MLB.com’s No. 1 overall prospect in the minors heading into 2022, Witt had one full-length season of professional baseball before he made his highly anticipated debut on Opening Day in April.
How has he handled everything from the attention to the daily schedule to the adjustment to the majors?
“I think he has handled the attention great,” Picollo said. “I mean it has sort of subsided a little bit from that initial ‘Bobby is here.’ But he handled that great. “
Witt, 22, entered Tuesday leading the Royals with 28 multi-hit games. He’d also led all Royals hitters in batting average since July 5 (.304).
Witt also started the day ranked first among all rookies in stolen bases (22) as well as tied for first in extra-base hits (39), second in runs (57), hits (103) and RBI (57) and tied for second in doubles (19) and home runs (15).
“He has had a very consistent year,” Picollo said. “There hasn’t been a long period of time where he has gone through a terrible stretch. I still think there’s going to be a stretch here where he really takes off. He has had a couple short spurts. But overall, it has been really good. His at-bats are really good. He doesn’t ever seem overwhelmed by the moment.
“There’s a lot of guys that I could say this about, but you feel good when he’s in the box in big situations because you feel like he’s the type of guy that’s going to step up. But I think he’s right on par with what we expected. I don’t know where he ranks compared to all the other rookies, but he at the top in a lot of categories so I don’t know if we could expect anymore than that.”
The Royals will watch closely how Witt adapts to the length of the season and whether fatigue becomes an issue. Communication between the Royals training staff, strength and conditioning staff and coaching staff will be critical down the stretch.
“Keeping his body in a good spot to finish the year strong is probably as big a focus as anything right now,” Picollo said. “I think he’s built to play a lot of games.”
Final weeks of the regular season
Now that the Royals have many of their top prospects in the majors and having success — Vinnie Pasquantino earned American League Player of the Week honors — it gives the Royals the chance to see how they measure up in a lot different ways.
“That’s the nice thing now, that there’s more opportunity for them to be on the field,” Picollo said. “It will give us a better gauge on where they are and how do they factor into the Opening Day roster. Obviously, a lot of them do.
“But there’s going to be competition. We’re still going to look to add to the team in different ways. There are discussions we’ll start having here in September and going into October. But from a nucleus standpoint, we have a good idea of what we have.
With 27 out of the Royals’ last 33 games coming against AL Central foes, the newest members of the Royals will see first-hand what the competition in their division will be like for them. They’ll repeatedly play the teams they’ll have to go through in order to make playoff runs in the future.
“I think we learn a lot about guys then,” Picollo said. “Like Lance Lynn pitched really well against us in Chicago. And he pitched pretty well against us in Kansas City, but we took better at-bats off of him. So seeing how they’re going to make those adjustments is as much a part of the evaluation as anything else.
“I’m not going to worry about batting average. Something that has stood out to me is we’re taking walks at a good time. We’re not getting excited in big moments. We’re down two and somebody leads off an inning with a walk, that’s huge. They’re the type of evaluations when you’re talking about winning. That’s what we need.”
Through Wednesday, the Royals were 48-71.
Since June 15, the Royals are 27-30.
How the Royals sustain or fail to sustain their improved play down the stretch in their final 44 games will likely impact how the front office views the offseason.
Will it determine how the Royals approach the free-agent market?
“We’ll look at it,” Picollo said of the free-agent market. “We’re not going to say, ‘OK, this is our team.’ Every team has got to get better. We want to win a World Series. We’ve got to take our first steps where we’re more competitive, and we’re seeing that now.
“But we’re going to look at free agency. We’re going to be aggressive like we always are. Where we’ll be with payroll is to be determined. So that’s certainly going to have a factor in what we’ll do. Knowing the nucleus of what we have doesn’t make it as pressing. So if there’s the right player to add to the club, then you add it. I think time will tell, end of the year meetings, talking to our staff at the end, talking to our scouts about what they see with our team, then just sort of evaluating what free agents are out there. Then, you always have the trade market.”