This probably could’ve been a Twitter thread but I didn’t want it to ramble on for too long, so we’ll just do it all here. There are a couple of position “battles” the Royals face entering Spring Training that I think are completely ridiculous. Barring some unforeseen injury or a totally unpredictable collapse during Spring Training, Michael Massey should be the Royals Opening Day second baseman, and Drew Waters should be the Opening Day centerfielder. I’ll explain…
Let’s start with Massey and Lopez at second base. I know the Royals have said it’s going to be a competition between Massey and Lopez, but I don’t buy it. Nicky Lopez has now played in the majority of four major league seasons. In three of those seasons he has posted a wRC+ in the FIFTIES (50’s). That is literally “worst everyday player in baseball” territory. There was the 2021 season where Lopez went nuclear, to the tune of a 105 wRC+, but that’s an anomaly at this point. Without the juiced ball I don’t know that Lopez can ever realistically approach league average on a consistent basis.
Massey on the other hand came up last year and posted a 93 wRC+ right out of the minor leagues despite not hitting for much power relative to his minor league production. Massey has never walked much, and his OBP was inflated a bit by 8 HBP in just 52 games, but his .133 ISO in his rookie campaign dwarfs Lopez’ career-high .084 ISO back in 2019 (with the aforementioned juiced ball). Let’s look at the projections for this season, Lopez’ age-28 season and Massey’s age-25 season:
– Massey: 12 HR, 101 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
– Lopez: 2 HR, 84 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
– Massey: 13 HR, 96 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
– Lopez: 2 HR, 88 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR
– Massey: 12 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
– Lopez: 2 HR, 86 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
One note on this, all of these projections slight Lopez a bit on the defensive end and certainly don’t value Massey as the Gold Glove Award winner he was in the minor leagues. I think all-in-all it washes out enough, but I think at the respective offensive projections, both players will be worth more “wins” when their defensive prowess becomes more obvious now that you can’t over shift left-handed hitters.
Here’s what it ultimately boils down to for me:
- Massey is clearly the better offensive player and the Royals need to be better offensively this season if they want to be competitive in the AL Central.
- While Lopez is no doubt an elite defender, his defense won’t be the difference between the Royals making the playoffs in 2024 or not. Massey developing into a potential five- or six-hole hitter could be.
- Lopez’ peak value is probably best created as a defensive utility specialist. His ability to play an elite shortstop AND second base separates him from most other infielders in baseball. The Royals need to allow him to move around the infield a bit to spell the starters, because his bat just isn’t starting level worthy.
I think the Royals know all this. I think the plan is for Massey to roll out at second base on Opening Day. It would be unfair to Lopez’ 2021 season, which was legitimately brilliant, to cross him off the list in February. But it’s pretty obvious, in my opinion anyway, who the everyday second baseman should be. At least early on.
Honestly, you could copy and paste the above down here, swap the names out, and you’d have a pretty similar argument that I’m about to give in favor of Drew Waters. For starters, let’s go back to the projections:
– Waters: 13 HR, 100 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
– Isbel: 12 HR, 95 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR
– Waters: 11 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR
– Isbel: 9 HR, 90 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR
– Waters: 13 HR, 99 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR
– Isbel: 12 HR, 92 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR
The projections have this as a much closer battle than I expected. The problem I have with them is that they have a hard time accounting for circumstances. For example, the fact that Isbel was rushed from High-A to the big league roster and Drew Waters had a tremendously different approach once he joined the Royals organization. The projections just take the numbers into account, and Waters’ numbers were not impressive in his time with Atlanta. So…there’s that.
I feel really bad for Kyle Isbel. I sold y’all a bill of goods about how good he could be and then the Royals behaved in a very odd manor with his development. They yanked him to the big leagues straight out of High-A and then didn’t play him all the time when he was up. They made a mechanical adjustment to his swing in 2021 that seemed to be helping, but it didn’t appear to still be a part of his swing last season. Over the course of last season, Isbel refined his approach a bit, but hit .197 after the All-Star break. He walked more and hit for more power, but also struck out over 30% of the time in that stretch as well. The swing-and-miss issues reared its ugly head and Isbel just never looked super comfortable in the box at any point in the season.
Waters, on the other hand, came to the Royals in July and immediately started hitting. His walk rate nearly doubled in KC and his ISO increased by nearly 100 points between the two teams at the AAA level. Waters struck out quite a bit in the big leagues, but his walk rate and ISO were substantially higher against big league pitchers than they were against AAA pitchers during his time with the Braves. It’s easy to chalk it up to his approach, but something clearly clicked for him when he got into the Royals PD system. I don’t know what the Royals did exactly, but it worked wonders on the 24-year old.
Here are the main points for arguing Waters > Isbel in center field on Opening Day:
- Kyle Isbel has never shown an ability to hit for the kind of power that Waters flashed between AAA Omaha and the big leagues last season. That power difference is the potential difference between an every day outfielder and a rotational piece.
- The Royals need to find out if Drew Waters can be an everyday center fielder. Is he capable of playing above average defense at the position for six months? If not, you know you need to find someone who can. If he can, that solves a lot of your problems moving forward.
- I don’t think Kyle Isbel is an everyday starter moving forward. He’s an incredibly valuable fourth outfielder because of his elite defense and potential to contribute on offense in some capacity. He may even be a *slightly* better option in center field right now if you were trying to win a World Series, but you’re not. Let him platoon with Edward Olivares in right field and see if Waters can be the answer you’re looking for in center field every day.
Prioritizing defense over offensive potential has made the Royals consistently one of the worst team in baseball over the last 25 years. Defense is obviously important. Don’t twist this and make it about something it isn’t. Not everyone can be Manny Ramirez in the field. However, in the case of Massey and Waters, the marginal defensive value that their potential replacements would add are not worth the difference in offense that Massey and Waters could provide. At this point in time it would be silly to think that either Nicky Lopez or Kyle Isbel would be an every day starter at one position on a playoff team. Massey and Waters won’t be the best players on a playoff team, but both of them at least have the ability to be a “set and forget” starter at crucial positions on the field for a playoff team. It’s time to find out if they WILL be.
3 thoughts on “Thoughts on two position battles entering Spring Training”
Thanks for the insightful and thoughtful analysis. After reading and carefully considering your perspective…I am now all in with Massey and Waters.
With our every other year personal spring training approach, we will return to Surprise March ‘24, your info will to be very helpful as I prepare my annual roster projection spreadsheets for High A; Double A (here for NW Arkansas, Triple A, and KC.
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I’m in agreement with everything in this article. If Massey doesn’t win the 2B job, that would be very disappointing. I feel like you go with him and put up with any potential growing pains this years.
I feel the same about Waters. I’m not sure I see either one of the candidates joining the list of great Royals CFs (Otis, Wilson, Cain, Beltran), but I think he’s got the better shot of being an everyday player. With the right lineup around him, he could be very valuable. I don’t want it sound like I’m giving up on Isbel, but with RF unsettled and Olivares likely getting some starts at DH, I’d rather see him split time there than take away reps from Waters in CF.
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I think all of us agree with Massey starting and Lopez serving as a utility infielder.
As for Waters and Isbel, I agree with the Royals on this one. Isbel has never been given a chance for a fulltime role as you mention in the article. I think the Royals should see what they have in him everyday in CF. See what he can do both in center and in the box. I believe Waters is the starting RFer and will be in contention to win a GG there. If midseason comes along and they want to switch the positions of these two, then fine. But for now Isbel deserves a chance to prove what he can do. I think Waters is the long-term RFer also and not a fulltime CFer. Hopefully they draft Enrique Bradfield in July and he makes it to Kauffman stadium in late 2025 to lockdown CF.
I also think that Eaton will play for Isbel once or twice a week to help keep his legs fresh all season. Let these guys go out and show what they can do. I also expect LF to be MJM and Oliveras with both of them mixing in at DH with Salvy until Pratto proves he needs to be in KC. I am looking forward to this season as I finally feel like the team will give opportunities to the young everyday talent we have.