The Royals reconvened for the first time in 2018 at this weekend’s FanFest, still unsure what their lineup will look like when the season begins in two months. Free agent Eric Hosmer is still on the market, making him a viable candidate to clear up the conundrum at first base. Third base seems to be Cheslor Cuthbert’s job to lose.
But of all the questions surrounding the team, one took center stage on Friday: What form will the Royals’ post-Lorenzo Cain outfield take?
Cain agreed to a five-year contract with the Brewers on Thursday, officially shutting the door on a reunion with the team he led to back-to-back World Series berths and a championship. He truly never factored into the Royals’ plans for the 2018 season, anyway, as general manager Dayton Moore made clear that re-signing the 31-year-old would not jive with his attempts to rebuild what was once the best farm system in the major leagues.
Nevertheless, finding a replacement for Cain, a stellar defender who never won a Gold Glove with the Royals but still found himself lauded nationally for both his playmaking ability and his steady offense, won’t be an easy task to undertake.
“He’s one of those guys that I looked up to. But I think there are some guys in our system that can replace him,” minor-league outfielder Bubba Starling said. “I don’t think anybody will be able to get the job done like he did but we’ll be able to step in and hold our own.”
With a bevy of internal options at their disposal, Moore and manager Ned Yost would be jumping the gun if they attempted to pinpoint now, three weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Surprise, Ariz., who their opening day center fielder might be.
“Make no mistake about it, Lorenzo Cain was one of the elite center fielders in the game,” Moore said. “We all enjoyed watching him play and watching him emerge into the talent that he became. … It’s our job to find the next Lorenzo Cain.”
They will need the five weeks after full-squad activities begin on Feb. 19 to give Paulo Orlando, who missed more than two months while recovering from a fractured shin last year, the chance to emerge with a starting job like he did last spring.
They need to be able to evaluate Billy Burns, who in 2015 played 125 games in center field for the Oakland Athletics while hitting .294 with 18 doubles, nine triples, five home runs and 42 RBIs.
They need to give reps in center field to Alex Gordon, the five-time Gold Glove winner who led all left fielders with an ultimate zone rating of 11.5 and was third with nine defensive runs saved last season. Moore envisions Gordon providing relief in center.
“We’re not going to put official ceilings on him and we’ll see if he jumps up and takes it,” Moore said. “Do I expect him to be opening day in center field? No, I don’t expect that. He may expect that, and that’s good. If he wins it, he wins it. But right now we project him to probably be in Omaha and go from there.”
In a sense, the Royals have an embarrassment of riches to sort through. It’s just that none of them is the same five-tool player as Cain, and only two have shown offensive upside at the big-league level.
Orlando had a breakout 2016 season, during which he hit .302 with 24 doubles and 43 RBIs. But when he won the starting right field job last year, he hit .149 through 14 games and was demoted. He wound up with a .285 average in 30 games at Class AAA Omaha.
Burns floundered at the major-league level after logging 2.3 wins above replacement in 2015 in the Fangraphs version of the stat. He batted .235 in 97 games the following season, and only knocked one hit in six plate appearances for the Royals in 2017.
His upside is speed — Burns stole a base in 46 of 61 attempts over 242 big-league games and 24 of 35 at Omaha last season — and better plate discipline. Burns walked 44 times and struck out 60 times over 413 plate appearances last year.
Orlando drew nine walks and struck out 26 times in 129 plate appearances.
The sample sizes aren’t equal but they’re indicative of a trend. In his only full major-league season, Orlando struck out 105 times in 484 plate appearances (21.7 percent) in 2016. Burns logged 81 strikeouts in 555 plate appearances (14.6 percent) with the A’s in 2015, his only full major-league campaign.
With so much left for both parties to prove, the Royals are willing to give Burns and Orlando a chance to fill Cain’s shoes.
“We’re not going to be in a hurry to fill that center field position from outside because of the internal candidates we have,” Moore said. “They’re going to compete. … We’ll see who comes and goes and gets it.”