The Royals open the season Thursday with a 3 p.m. home game against the Chicago White Sox.
Yet as the clock ticks closer to that 2018 opener, we have no idea which Royals will come out of the Kauffman Stadium dugout for their opening day introductions. The bullpen will remain a mystery until the team announces its 25-man roster, which will happen Thursday morning.
The one thing that is certain: First baseman and heavy hitter Frank Schwindel will not be on it.
Royals fans have scratched their heads over that decision for days. Why not take a chance on Schwindel’s powerful bat now? Can’t the Royals platoon him with Lucas Duda at first base?
The simple answer: Schwindel was a non-roster invitee, participating in major-league spring-training camp for the first time in his career with the Royals, which began after he was drafted in the 18th round in 2013. Without a spot on the 40-man roster, he was a long shot to fill the Eric Hosmer-shaped void at first base.
Here's the more complicated answer: The Royals could have placed him on the 40-man roster to protect him from December’s Rule 5 draft, one of the only mechanisms in place that protects minor-leaguers from being stashed in an organization’s farm system for an extended amount of time. They chose to protect relievers Tim Hill and Eric Stout and catcher Meibrys Viloria instead.
That doesn’t mean the Royals didn’t value Schwindel’s burgeoning power. They decided to take a “calculated risk,” general manager Dayton Moore said, because the market was flush with first basemen.
“The clubs that weren’t really gonna be in contention, they were gonna go with other people as their first baseman,” Moore said. “When you looked at the landscape, we didn't think he would get selected. If he had this type of spring as a Rule 5, he would be on a team."
The move — or non-move, really — worked in the Royals’ favor.
Schwindel arrived at Royals spring training trying to prove that he belonged. And after snapping a 1 for 20 slide to begin Cactus League competition, he did. He made a small adjustment in his batting stance that allowed him to pop off a spring-training best seven home runs (he was one of four players in baseball tied for the lead) in his last 21 at-bats. He drove in 17 runs and hit four doubles during his spring-ending 14 for 21 streak. He amassed a ridiculous slugging percentage of 1.857 in that span.
Manager Ned Yost marveled at Schwindel’s progress.
“All of a sudden you see the real Frank Schwindel,” he said on Sunday, the morning after Schwindel hit a game-tying, ninth-inning home run against the Diamondbacks.
But no level of spring training performance — which is usually inflated and rarely worth accounting for when it comes to roster decisions — was going to elevate Schwindel over Duda. The Royals would have had to work magic on the 40-man roster to even make Schwindel eligible for the active roster.
Plus, the Royals plan to rotate Jorge Soler, Cheslor Cuthbert and Mike Moustakas through the designated hitter's spot in the lineup this season. Once outfielder Jorge Bonifacio returns from his 80-game drug suspension, that formula will likely change. There was no way Schwindel could factor in, too.
The Royals added Duda because they did not want to rush the development of Schwindel, the versatile Hunter Dozier or first-base prospect Ryan O’Hearn, who hit five home runs and four doubles and batted .400 in 19 games this spring. The players have yet to reach their defensive ceilings, and another minor-league season would help them inch closer to playing first base in the majors.
That doesn’t make Schwindel the odd man out forever. If he builds on a career-best season in which he batted .329 with 23 home runs, 43 doubles, 97 RBIs and a .541 slugging percentage between a short stint at Class AA Northwest Arkansas and a promotion to Class AAA Omaha, it may be difficult to keep him in the minor leagues all season.
It's just going to take time.
But for a team that thought it lacked depth at first base, with 2017 first-round pick Nick Pratto not likely to arrive in the major leagues until 2021 at the earliest, Schwindel’s blossoming career provides encouragement.