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A quintet of infielders holds the key to the Royals' offseason

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Who woulda thunk it?

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For six consecutive years, the Kansas City Royals have employed Alex Gordon in left field. Every offseason except the previous one, the Royals knew that Gordon was returning. General Manager Dayton Moore and Manager Ned Yost did not wake up in the dead of night with cold sweats, wondering who would play left field. They knew. Everyone else knew. And even this year, after Gordon's worst season in seven years, Gordon will play left field.

The same can't be said about the infield. Omar Infante probably gave Moore and Yost his fair share of nightmares, but this year the nightmare is multifaceted, more complicated, and has more heads than a chimera--it's more like a pentmera, actually. It's totally real, obviously, so feel free to Google it.*

*Please don't do this. Among the image results for a pentmera search include a 'dusty pink' religious robe of some sort and an Adolf Hitler quote. A pentmera is not a real animal and Royals Review claims no responsibility in case of readers thinking it was real.

This multi-headed animal, the one that Moore and Yost have to think about, consists of five names. Those names' performance and the prediction of those performances by the front office will, believe it or not, have one of the biggest effects on the 2017 Royals. Those names:

  • Hunter Dozier; third base, right field, first base, professional benchwarmer
  • Cheslor Cuthbert; third base, assistant smile instructor
  • Raul Mondesi; shortstop, second base, and helmets HATE him
  • Christian Colon; shortstop, second base, third base, guy who could have been Chris Sale instead
  • Whit Merrifield; Willie Bloomquist's younger, more handsome, better self

At first blush, those names don't look too appealing, and that's mostly because they aren't. Sike! Only Mondesi is under 25 years old, and the last time Mondesi put up an .800 OPS in a year as a professional ballplayer was zero o clock, nevermonth. While next year is only his age 21 season, he's got more in common with an undercooked steak than a superstar at the moment.

At second blush, you start to realize that decisions revolving around those five players and their respective performances makes up an outsized portion of the Royals offseason plans. Let's take a look at why.

Hunter Dozier

  • Best Case: above average bat at a trio of positions
  • Worst Case: in the minors all year
If Dozier's career was a person, it would be your bizarre uncle who has always done his own thing, like eating hot dogs raw before logging into Minecraft and continuing to build his epic recreation of the Sydney Opera house.

Dozier was drafted eighth overall in the 2013 draft. The Royals didn't really want Dozier eighth; they wanted Sean Manaea, and overreaching for Dozier allowed them to draft Manaea, too. Then, Dozier, a shortstop in high school and college, was shifted to third base, where he played very well until halfway through 2014. He proceeded to play terribly through the end of 2015, and then started playing well again in 2016, well enough to get promoted twice and make his big league debut--in right field. In a blowout. All in all, Dozier played a rather inconsequential eight games at the Major League level, also winning the 2016 Brandon Finnegan Memorial Duck-Billed Platypus Award for most awkward usage of a top prospect in a season.

Judging by how the Royals treated him in a meaningless September, you've got to think that the Royals just don't think highly of him. But Dozier crushed AA and played very well in AAA, and entering his age 25 season he's still got some peak years in front of him.

In the best-case scenario, Dozier is an above-average bat who can adequately play first base, third base, and corner outfield. This would be a huge, huge deal. Last year, the Royals had only two regulars or semi-regulars hit better than league average by wRC+. That's why they were 23rd in the league in runs scored.

But...the Royals have Mike Moustakas at third base. They have Eric Hosmer at first base. They have Alex Gordon in left field. Lorenzo Cain could be playing more right field. All four of those players will be gone after next year, but the Royals control Dozier until 2023. Whether or not the Royals think Dozier can be a positive impact is a big deal, and there is no solid answer. It's also complicated by...


Cheslor Cuthbert

  • Best Case: above-average bat, playable at third base and second base, a lefty-masher for a DH platoon
  • Worst Case: not good, just like 2016 only more depressing
There's a sort of feeling that Cuthbert filled in admirably for Moustakas when the latter's ACL ripped itself apart. By any metric, this is not close to accurate. Cuthbert was an ok bat, but his baserunning was abysmal, and any defensive stat you pick--UZR, DRS, simple errors--says his defensive performance at third base was* __________.

*THIS IS AN INSERT YOUR OWN POLITICAL JOKE. YOUR OPTIONS ARE
A) TRUMPIAN: SEEMS MILDLY INTERESTING, BUT OBJECTIVELY A PRETTY TERRIBLE IDEA
B) CLINTONIAN: LIKE AN EMAIL SCANDAL, JUST KEEPS COMING BACK TO BITE YOU
THANK YOU FOR PLAYING

That being said, Cuthbert is the little engine that could, and he just sort of keeps going when people forget him. Unlike Dozier, Cuthbert has a history of good hitting against lefties (career 112 wRC+ vs. lefties (100 is average)). Cuthbert as the right-handed part of a DH platoon is cheap and reasonably effective. And if Cuthbert can pretend to play second base well enough, he could be a part of that mess, too.

Raul Mondesi

  • Best Case: following the career path of one Francisco Lindor
  • Worst Case: following the career path of one Alcides Escobar, except not as good
Mondesi has been a top prospect for a long time, even longer than we've been mourning Harambe's death, for instance. He first popped up on a top 100 prospect list in 2013, showing up ranked 58th on Baseball Prospectus. Since then, he's made the top 100 prospect list every year on BP, MLB.com, and Baseball America, peaking at 16th in 2016.

He won't be on a top prospect list next year for a purely technical reason--he exhausted his rookie eligibility--but if he did, he probably would have taken a hit. See, Mondesi's always gotten by on athleticism and projection. He's always been extraordinarily young for his level, and regardless of his offensive output he has the type of unteachable skillset that you'd kill for. He's fast, he is a great baserunner, he has excellent footwork and ability at a premium position (shortstop), and is a switch hitter with decent power for the position. All those things also describe one Francisco Lindor, who's basically the second coming of Derek Jeter (let me remind you that is 3000+ career hits, future Hall of Famer Jeter).

In his 47 games of MLB action, Mondesi was flat-out terrible. Did he hit for average? Nope; he hit .185. Did he get on base? Nope; his on base percentage was .235, fifth-worse in all of baseball among those who matched his plate appearance count. How about power? Not terrible!--but also not great, at under a .100 ISO and only two HR hit. Defensively, too, he was slapped at second base, a place where he had played a grand total of 26 games prior to being called up to the Majors, where he played second base exclusively and was not good.

Look, this was Mondesi's age 20 season. Twenty! He's a full year plus ahead of Eric Hosmer's MLB schedule, two years ahead of Mike Moustakas, and three years ahead of NL MVP Kris Bryant. Mondesi could be an above-average regular as soon as this year.

Or Mondesi could have negative value again, a la Yuniesky Betancourt. From good player to terrible one is a large swing, but that's what the Royals have with Mondesi.

Christian Colon

  • Best Case: average starting second baseman with utility at shortstop and third base
  • Worst Case: just another gosh-darned useless utility infielder who could have been Chris Sale

The Kansas City Royals famously drafted Colon just a few spots ahead of Sale, you know, the guy who's been an All-Star and received votes for the Cy Young for five consecutive years.

But who has a key play in a Wild Card win? NOT SALE!


Who has a game-winning hit in an elimination game of the World Series? COLON DOES!


Who has been a near-replacement level player over his short career despite being a top five pick? HOLD OFF BLACK FRIDAY, BECAUSE IT'S NOT A SALE.

Really, Colon's ceiling is relatively limited. He's never going to be a star. He could be a good utility guy who could play a decent amount of time at second, though. Colon's aggregate defensive rankings at shortstop, third base, and second place put him at an average to above average defender at each, which is valuable.

But is Colon's bat like it was in 2016? A Francoeurian horror? Or is it more like his career, the line for a serviceable starter/utilityman? The world may never know.

Whit Merrifield

Best Case: Ben Zobrist Lite!
Worst Case: Willie Bloomquist Lite!

Look - Whit is one of two things, as stated above: a lite version of Zobrist or, er, a lite version of Bloomquist. There's been a lot of discussion about Whit on this site and elsewhere, but they all center around that core question. If Merrifield is more like Zobrist, he's a league average player who can positively contribute at a half dozen positions. That is extremely valuable--especially considering he makes the league minimum.*

*For those of you who aren't familiar, the MLB minimum in 2016 was $507,500 per year, which in MLB terms is small (and valuable to the team), but in real life terms is obviously a lot. Say a marginal, career minor league player gets called up to the big leagues for a month to fill in. Just in that one month, they'd make almost $42,000, or about a $40,000 raise for the month. For this reason, I always, always root for guys to get their callup, especially unheralded ones who might never make it.

Of course, if Merrifield is more like Bloomquist, he's completely replaceable and little more than a warm body doing baseball-style things. That is not valuable at all. But it represents an extreme range in possibilities.

What to do?

The biggest issue regarding these five is that they have overlapping skills in areas of need. The Royals need offense, a dependable second baseman, platoon bats for a DH, and perhaps some corner outfield depth as well. They could look elsewhere for these things--or they could decide that they have them internally. Not only do they have to decide that external v internal question, but they have to decide which internal player they like. Is Dozier or Cuthbert more likely to produce, given their similar skillsets? Do you have Merrifield or Mondesi play second base? Are any of them trade bait?

There are no solid answers, but the way the Royals approach these players is going to be very important.