Royals hope youthful flexibility a plus

Dave Skretta
Associated Press
Kansas City Royals center fielder Bubba Starling (11) connects for a two-run home run in the eighth inning in a preseason 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros Monday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals hope a mostly youthful lineup can help them contend in this shortened season.

Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny had just watched Salvador Perez and backup Cam Gallagher test positive for COVID-19, sending the only backstops on his 40-man roster into quarantine with just a couple of weeks before the start of the season.

The question posed to Matheny was a natural one: So, what do you think about being a player-manager?

"I think I could catch one out of one inning," the longtime big league catcher replied, "and then I would need some help."

The image of the 49-year-old Matheny back behind the plate is pushing the idea of flexibility to an extreme. But the Royals do hope their youth gives them a unique ability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment in which they hope to not just complete a 60-game season but actually contend into the final weeks of September.

This isn't a team full of veterans who have been through the 162-game grind and have a proscribed routine not only for each month or week but each day at the ballpark. Instead, this is a team of 20-something prospects who are just now getting their first taste of big league ball – under the strangest of circumstances – and who have spent the past couple of years going up and down the minor league ladder as they develop into professional players.

"The one thing we've always understood at this particular point in our lives: We don't know what is going to happen tomorrow," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "We don't know what is going to happen next year. We're just going to develop our players the best we can right now, and we have to play the hand we're dealt. And we're getting a new hand every day, and we have to make the best of it."

The Royals, who open the season Friday in Cleveland, anticipated using this as a rebuilding year as Matheny took over for the retired Ned Yost. But now, all bets are off for a season in which one hot streak could land a team in the postseason.

"When we set our 30-man roster, even when we go down to 26, we're going to be aggressive with the right players assuming they have the ability to help us," Moore said. "We're not going to shy away from that. We're not going to manipulate service time or manage the roster in a way that puts a player in a spot where they get confused. we're going to put the right players on the team at the right time. And the most talented players are going to play."

NEW LOOK: The Royals added third baseman Maikel Franco, who hopes to rediscover the plate approach that made him an everyday player in Philadelphia. If he can do that, it would allow the Royals to keep Hunter Dozier in the outfield and Ryan O'Hearn at first base, strengthening the entire lineup.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Bobby Witt Jr. was having a splendid first spring training when the pandemic brought things to a halt, so the Royals made sure to bring their 20-year-old prized infielder to Kauffman Stadium for spring training 2.0. He almost certainly won't make the big league roster, but the tools he has flashed against veterans the past couple weeks are undeniable.

"My goal to come out here was just to learn, watch the players and how the big leaguers go about their business and learn more about the game," Witt said. "I'm just trying to learn and trying to have fun with it all."

Also undeniable? The Royals have a bunch of talented arms that could be in the majors soon. Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer are part of a wave of draft picks from the college ranks who have soared through the minors.

COVID-19 TESTS: The Royals have Perez back but Gallagher has yet to rejoin the team.

Their best prospects at catcher to back up Perez for the time being are MJ Melendez and Sebastian Rivero, but neither is considered ready for the big leagues.

"I am asymptomatic and will continue to work as hard as I can to stay ready while I quarantine," said Gallagher, who tested positive the morning after playing in an intrasquad game. "The first couple weeks of workouts have just made me that much more excited about our ball club and I can't wait to rejoin them and compete as soon as I'm allowed."

O'Hearn and starter Brad Keller also have tested positive. Like the two catchers, they also were asymptomatic. Starter Jakob Junis also tested positive but returned to the team last week. He was placed on the injured list Monday because he was not ready yet for competition and will miss the beginning of the season.

Royals at a glance

Kansas City Royals

2019: 59-103, fourth place.

Manager: Mike Matheny (first season).

He’s Here: Manager Mike Matheny, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Greg Holland, 3B Maikel Franco.

He’s Outta Here: Manager Ned Yost, INF Cheslor Cuthbert, RHP Trevor Oaks, RF Jorge Bonifacio, C Martin Maldonado, OF Billy Hamilton, 1B Lucas Duda.

Projected Lineup: CF Whit Merrifield (.302, 16 HRs, 74 RBIs, 20 SBs), SS Adalberto Mondesi (.263, 9, 62, 43), RF Hunter Dozier (.279, 26, 84), DH Jorge Soler (.265, 48, 117), C Salvador Perez (Tommy John surgery), LF Alex Gordon (.266, 13, 76), 3B Maikel Franco (.234, 17, 57 with Philadelphia), 1B Ryan O’Hearn (.195, 14, 38), 2B Nicky Lopez (.240, 2, 30).

Rotation: RH Brad Keller (7-14, 4.19 ERA), LH Danny Duffy (7-6, 4.34), RH Jakob Junis (9-14, 5.24), LH Mike Montgomery (2-7, 4.64), RH Glenn Sparkman (4-11, 6.02), RH Jorge Lopez (4-9, 6.33).

Key Relievers: RH Ian Kennedy (3-2, 3.41 ERA, 30 saves), RH Kevin McCarthy (4-2, 4.48), RH Jake Newberry (1-0, 3.77), RH Heath Fillmyer (0-2, 8.06), LH Richard Lovelady (0-3, 7.65), RH Josh Staumont (0-0, 3.72), RH Greg Holland (1-2, 4.54, 17 saves with Arizona), RH Trevor Rosenthal (0-1, 13.50 with Detroit and Washington), RH Chance Adams (1-1, 8.53 with New York Yankees).

Outlook: The biggest move for the Royals this season came away from the field, where longtime owner David Glass sold the franchise to a group led by Kansas City businessman John Sherman shortly before his death. The sale valued at about $1 billion became public about the time Yost announced his retirement after two World Series trips and a championship in 2015. The Royals have fallen on hard times since those heady days and it is up to Matheny to usher a young but talented group toward respectability. Mondesi, Lopez, Dozier and OF Bubba Starling already had cracked the roster and gained valuable experience last season, and a wave of pitching prospects could arrive before the end of the shortened season. With only 60 games in the pandemic-influenced sprint, the Royals think they could have more success than they would over a 162-game season. And they could potentially set themselves up for bigger things next year.