Second base has been a bit of a revolving door for the Royals since Dayton Moore took over. Since 2007, his first full season as General Manager, a total of 32 different players have played second base, none of them appearing in more than 300 games at the position. The Royals hoped that Omar Infante would stabilize the position after they outbid the Yankees to sign him to a four-year, $30 million deal, but they ended up releasing him last summer with over a year left on the deal.
This year, the team will have an open competition at second base, with three relatively inexperienced players vying for the position. Combined, they have just 393 games of Major League experience, and one of them has played just four games at second base in his professional career. Could one of them emerge and solidify the position, at least for a year? Let's take a look at the candidates.
The former #4 overall pick in the draft is known for his post-season heroics, but he has never really gotten an extended look as a starting second baseman. There have been concerns about Colon's defense, despite decent metrics, and he hasn't exactly lit the world on fire with his bat. He has a career line of .268/.328/.338 in 329 plate appearances, although he really struggled with the bat last year.
Colon finally went yard last year, after 289 at-bats, the fifth-longest homerless drought a Royals player has had to start his career. His ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) is the 20th-lowest in baseball over the past three seasons for a player with at least 300 plate appearances. His .070 ISO in a Royals uniform matches that of light-hitting shortstop Tony Pena, Jr. He has eight fewer career home runs than new Royals pitcher Travis Wood, in almost 150 more plate appearances.
Colon can't hit for power, but he can draw walks at a fair rate. His 7.6% walk rate over the last three seasons is better than Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler, or Lorenzo Cain. Colon will be 28 in May and is out of options at this point, so he will have to make the team or be subject to waivers.
The Royals say they will give Cuthbert an opportunity at second base this year, since he is blocked at third base with the return of Mike Moustakas. Cuthbert showed some signs of potential last year, hitting .278/.318/.413 with 12 home runs in 128 games at age 23. Cuthbert has the power potential to become the first Royals second baseman to hit double digits in home runs since Alberto Callaspo hit 11 in 2009.
However Cuthbert has played just four games at second base in his professional career and the transition from third base to second is a rare one, and a difficult one to make. While Cuthbert showed a strong arm and made some terrific plays at third, overall his defense was quite poor. He showed little lateral movement and lacked the soft hands needed to play second base. The Royals have tried to transition blocked third basemen to second before. The club talked about moving Kevin Seitzer to second base in 1991, and actually played Mark Teahen at second base early in the 2009 season, but abandoned both experiments early on.
The Royals face a bit of a roster logjam with Cuthbert since he cannot be sent to the minors without subjecting him to waivers. It would be a surprise if he plays more than a few games at second base, but the Royals may decide they have little choice but to let him try.
"Two Hit Whit" was a rookie sensation, at least for the first month or so. The South Carolina native hit .308 over his first 40 games with the Royals, but hit just .254 after that to end with a line of .283/.323/.392 in 332 plate appearances. Merrifield was a plus baserunner, finishing second on the team in Baserunning Runs to Jarrod Dyson. He was also a plus with the glove, finishing seventh among all second basemen in baseball in Defensive Runs Above Average and eighth in Defensive Runs Saved.
Whit was a bit of a late bloomer, and at 28 - he's older than Eric Hosmer - he may not have much upside left. The league seemed to figure him out after a hot month to start his career. He had a very low walk rate of 5.7% that will require that he hit for a high average to be of much use offensively.
Merrifield has positional versatility that may cause the Royals to see him as more of a valuable utility player than an everyday second baseman. But he performed well over a good-sized sample last year, and ZIPS projects him to be a 1.3 WAR player next year. He may not be a long-term solution, but Merrifield could be the stop-gap at second that can bring the speed and defense to the lineup that the Royals place such a high value on.
The Royals would have loved it if top prospect Raul Mondesi had performed well last season and transitioned smoothly as the starting second baseman this year before taking over at shortstop in 2018 for free agent Alcides Escobar. However Mondesi looked completely overwhelmed at the plate last year, hitting .185/.231/.281 in 149 plate appearances. There have been 27 Royals hitters who have hit under the Mendoza Line in a season with at least 100 plate appearances. They have all been either at the end of their career (Harmon Killebrew, John Wathan), were a flash in the pan (Bob Hamelin, Aaron Guiel), or never had much of a career (Gary Thurman, Tony Pena, Jr.,).
But when you see Mondesi play, you can see obvious potential. Mondesi flies around the bases, and he stole nine bases in ten attempts at the Major League level (after stealing 24 bases in 25 attempts in the minors). He has more pop than the average middle infielder, and did manage to hit two home runs in 47 games. His defensive metrics weren't very good last year, but he did wow with highlight reel plays at times.
If the Royals feel like Mondesi can learn to develop his bat at the Major League level, he may just start the season as their regular second baseman. But it would probably benefit his long-term development more to work on his hitting in the minor leagues. Mondesi easily has the highest upside out of any of the options here, the only question is whether or not he is ready.