The Kansas City Royals will open the 2021 season with a top prospect on their Opening Day roster and likely in the starting lineup. But it won't be Bobby Witt, Jr.
The Royals will host the Texas Rangers Thursday afternoon with outfielder Kyle Isbel making his major-league debut. The Royals will send right-hander Brad Keller to the mound, while the Rangers counter with RHP Kyle Gibson.
A 2018 third-round draft pick out of UNLV and the No. 6-ranked prospect in the Royals farm system according to Baseball America, Isbel earned his way on the roster this spring. He hit .333 with two home runs, three doubles, six walks, five RBIs, 10 runs scored and 14 strikeouts in 23 games (42 at-bats).
But it was more than the numbers. It was the way he approached every play.
"The way he plays the game reminds me a lot of (former Royals star Alex Gordon)," teammate Hunter Dozier told The Kansas City Star. "He plays hard. He's a player that's going to help us out a lot, and he's going to be fun to watch."
The Royals haven't had a winning season since 2015. But they filled some holes in the offseason, picking up outfielders Andrew Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor, first baseman Carlos Santana and left-hander Mike Minor. With a young pitching staff, led by 2018 first-round picks Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, and other prospects such as Witt (who was sent to the minors for more seasoning to start the season), there's hope for the short-term future.
Winning 12 of their last 18 games last season and sporting a Cactus League-best 16-8 mark this spring has manager Mike Matheny optimistic.
"You're watching us catch momentum," he said. "You can't help but sense the vibe of excitement now because of some of the momentum that we have."
However, Kansas City will open the season without shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, who was placed on the 10-day injured list with an oblique injury on Wednesday.
The Rangers are looking to rebound after going 22-38 in 2020. But in the full season of 2019 they finished just six games under .500 at 78-84. There are few sure things for manager Chris Woodward, who starts his third season at the helm.
The Rangers added outfielder Khris Davis from Oakland. He and veteran Joey Gallo will be asked to lead the offense. Both players struggled in 2020, with Gallo hitting just .181 with a .679 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and Davis hitting just .200 with a .632 OPS.
Gallo had a strong spring, with a .310 average and 1.233 OPS with six home runs. And he will team with talented Leody Taveras and David Dahl to form a solid, if not elite, outfield defense.
Pitching is another unanswered question, with Gibson leading an unproven rotation. Kohei Arihara was acquired from the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan. He has a career 3.65 ERA since his professional debut in 2015. He is said to have control over a seven-pitch arsenal. If his 3.86 ERA over four games in spring training are an indication, he'll adjust well to the major leagues.
"I thought he was really good today, especially for the first three innings," Woodward said after his final spring tune-up. "That's about as good as I've seen him. His velo ticked up, his stuff was sharp. He dominated for three innings.
In 24 games - including 22 starts - against the Royals, Gibson is 9-5 with a 3.67 ERA. Keller is 0-2 against the Rangers with a 4.00 ERA in two games - one start.
--Field Level Media