The likely return of Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon will play a big part in setting the Kansas City Royals’ outfield configuration in 2020.
While the Royals went into this year’s spring training with question marks about which outfielders would break camp with the club — Brett Phillips and Jorge Bonifacio went to the minors, and Brian Goodwin was cut — there’s a clear group that appears slated for next year’s major league roster.
As of mid-November, the likely five-player outfield contingent consists of Gordon, Whit Merrifield, Brett Phillips, Jorge Soler and Bubba Starling.
Of course, offseason trades and/or free agent additions could change the outlook significantly.
Gordon, a franchise cornerstone coming off of his seventh Gold Glove Award and third in a row, slots in as the everyday left fielder. The Royals continue to contend that American League home run champion Jorge Soler will not be a full-time designated hitter, and he will continue to play the outfield.
The back-to-back AL hit king Merrifield will continue to play multiple positions in order to keep his table-setting bat in the lineup daily. Merrifield and Soler were the only two Royals who played every game in 2019.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore and new manager Mike Matheny have already discussed how they intend to use Merrifield’s versatility to keep him in the lineup with Nicky Lopez penciled in as the regular second baseman.
“The way Mike and I have discussed it is it’s important to have him either center field or second base,” Moore said during the MLB general managers’ meetings at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Yeah, he can play right field. I think that all plays out over the course of the season.”
Merrifield, the club’s lone All-Star in 2019, set career highs for hits (206), runs (105) extra-base hits (67), triples (10), slugging percentage (.463), OPS (.811) and games. His 206 hits were sixth-most in club history.
The fact that both Phillips and Starling are out of minor-league options plays a huge factor. The Royals would have to risk losing them through the waiver process to send them to Triple-A.
Phillips, acquired in the July 2018 trade that sent Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee, spent the majority of 2019 playing for Triple-A Omaha.
Nothin’ but Brett.
Phillips puts an end to the top of the second with a stellar catch in center.
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While he’s shown flashes of potential both offensively and defensively, Phillips’ overall offensive numbers in the majors have lagged behind his level of production in the minors. In 66 games in the majors with the Royals, Phillips has batted .169 with a .250 on-base percentage and a .294 slugging percentage.
Starling, from Gardner Edgerton High School and the No. 5 overall draft pick in the 2011 draft, made his MLB debut in July following an All-Star season at Triple-A.
Hey, there’s a reason the Cornhuskers wanted him to be their quarterback.
Bubba Starling shows off his cannon arm, throwing out Francisco Lindor at home plate.
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Starling’s first taste of the big leagues came this season in a 56-game string that included 197 plate appearances. By comparison, Phillips has had 324 plate appearances in the majors.
Similar to Phillips, Starling’s initial foray in the majors hasn’t been a consistently productive offensive player. He posted a slash line of .215/.255/.317.
The Royals show no indication of being willing to give up either player at this time.
“Specifically, Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling we view as strong candidates to win a position in the outfield,” Moore said. “That being said, there’s a role for them on the team over the course of 162 games. Whether that be to win an everyday job or come in late off the bench and play defense, pinch run.
“There’s an opportunity for them, especially with a 26-man roster and 13 of them needing to be position players. So I think there’s room for them. You can’t have enough good players. We are very excited and encouraged about Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling.”
The possibility remains that injury, roster changes or an organizational decision could prompt the Royals to explore other options such as free agency or internal options in the minors such as Nick Heath or highly-regarded prospect Khalil Lee.