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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 16
March 16, 2021
The biggest player story this spring comes out of Surprise, Ariz., where Bobby Witt Jr. -- yes, this guy’s kid -- is making a run at the Royals’ roster despite almost no professional experience. Witt, the second pick in the 2019 draft, is hitting .333/.379/.667 in 29 Cactus League PAs, playing his expected good defense, and making jaws drop with his power.
The performance is a bit out of the blue. In his pro debut two years ago, in the complex-level Arizona League, Witt hit just .262/.317/.354 with one homer in 180 PA. Like all minor leaguers, Witt was sidelined by the pandemic in 2020, costing him a year of development, though he was at the Royals’ alternate site and garnered good reviews. (Keep in mind that 112.3% of prospects at alternate sites garnered good reviews. Alternate-site baseball was the greatest baseball ever played.) Coming into this spring, Witt was a mostly consensus top-20 prospect, with Keith Law the low ranker at #27.
I have a general principle that if it was silly to think a player should make the team on February 15, it’s just as silly on March 15. Witt falls comfortably into that rubric; he has never played outside the controlled environments of complex league and alternate sites, and while his spring performance has been impressive, it’s 29 plate appearances against miserable pitching. Baseball Reference calculates the quality of pitching and hitting faced by players in the spring. On average, Witt has faced below-Double-A quality pitching.
Digging into that a bit more, Witt has nine hits and two walks this spring off the following pitchers:
1B Kirk McCarty
1B Bennett Sousa
1B Andre Jackson
HR Tyler Rogers
1B Wandy Peralta
HR Yusmeiro Petit
1B Taylor Guerrieri
1B Josh Lindblom
HR Julio Urias
BB Tyler Johnson
BB Julio Urias
That’s not all dreck, of course; Julio Urias is a star, Yusmeiro Petit is a good reliever. On balance, though, Witt has done his damage against minor leaguers and fringe major leaguers. Taking his 2021 spring training performance at face value is a mistake, even if the ball he hit off Petit hasn’t landed yet.
Moreover, the Royals don’t need to elevate Witt. They have an established player, Adalberto Mondesi, at Witt’s position. Witt is probably a better defender than Mondesi is right now, but if he does make the Royals, he would be the one asked to defer and move to second base or third base. Witt could very well make that adjustment -- he has played some second this spring -- but it adds to the degree of difficulty of making the leap to the majors. I also don’t care for moving the long-term better player off his primary position in deference to a mediocre veteran. Bobby Witt Jr. is the Royals’ shortstop of the future, Adalberto Mondesi is a guy with a .304 career OBP.
The Royals also have a third baseman to whom they just gave a long-term contract in Hunter Dozier. They have two second basemen in Nicky Lopez and Hanser Alberto. Carlos Santana is locked in at first base, as is Jorge Soler at DH, limiting the ways in which Mike Matheny could get everyone playing time. This isn’t the Orioles, running out a Triple-A team and hoping no one notices. The Royals have a decent infield; Witt may or may not be better than the available options. Putting Witt on the roster on Opening Day might be a mistake, but putting him on the roster on Opening Day and then not playing him every day would definitely be one.
Complicating all this is the delay of the 2021 minor-league season. In a normal year, it would be easy to send Witt to ... whatever we call the Carolina League now ... and let him define his own path to the majors. You could even be aggressive and send him to Double-A. The Royals’ choice, however, is bringing him to Kansas City or leaving him in Arizona for another month, working out and playing in more exhibition games against subpar competition. That moves the needle a bit for me; remember, Witt was 19 the day he was drafted and turns 21 in June. That’s very old for a high-school draftee to have almost no pro experience. He needs real reps. Not in a complex, not in an alternate site, not in the Cactus League. He needs to be facing guys trying to get him out for real.
Still, when I consider Witt’s lack of pro experience, the pitchers he has hit this spring, the roster logjam he would create, and that he wouldn’t be playing shortstop, it all adds up to leaving him in Surprise for another month. There is really no risk to doing so, whereas having him start the year with the Royals is almost all downside. Witt isn’t Fernando Tatis Jr. two years ago, with a strong professional performance record and no one in front of him.
This also isn’t service-time manipulation; you get the sense the Royals want to promote Witt in part to continue staking out their position as an organization that does right by the players. Again, though, he’s not a player who is clearly qualified for the major leagues. He’s an inexperienced one having a few good weeks against spring-training pitchers.
Soon enough, Bobby Witt Jr. will be a Royal. It just shouldn’t be on Opening Day.