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The Case for Christian Colón

Because someone’s got to be right.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The history of second base for the Royals in Dayton Moore’s tenure is one of almost complete ignominy. In what now seems an impossibility in our aged states, Moore actually inherited a productive tandem of Mark Grudzielanek (getting the bulk of the playing time) and Esteban Germán at the keystone from the unlikeliest of places, Allard Baird’s useless toolbox otherwise consisting of tin-snips, four nonconsecutive wrenches of a 26-piece Allen wrench set, a brad gun, and a ten-inch mill file.

After two years of production from Grudzielanek - who led the Royals’ position players in both measures of WAR in 2007 - and solid utility man Germán, Moore was forced to piece together a five-headed monster at second as a collision with Ross Gload in foul territory ended Grudzielanek’s last year under contract with the club. This facilitated the passing of the torch from that pair to Alberto Callaspo in 2009. Callaspo was many things - serviceable third baseman, aspirant polygamist, decent OBP bat, alleged domestic abuser - but a passable defensive second baseman was probably not one of them. Shifted to third in 2010 before being flipped in a deadline deal that brought back Sean O’Sullivan and Will Smith, Callaspo’s lasting gift was that he begat Smith who begat Nori Aoki, allowing baseball to come out of left field to answer the decades’ old question “who will carry the mantle of Buster Keaton?”

A motley crew of ne’er-do-wells followed Callaspo. The oft-injured and iron-deficient Chris Getz. Keystone Kop Johnny Giavotella. A second installment of The Misadventures of Yuniesky Betancourt. By 2013, the hellish stew reduced down from rotting bits of Getz, Giavotella, Elliot Johnson, and the roided-out husk of Miguel Tejada was salvaged only by the garnish of Emilio Bonifacio that was urban foraged from Toronto’s dumpster.

Miami Marlins v Kansas City Royals
Getz doesn’t get it
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Tired of the night terrors rendering his sleep restless, Moore turned to free agency the next offseason for his next second baseman, the then-32-year-old Omar Infante coming off a 2.5 rWAR / 3.1 fWAR season. This was a bold, aging-curves-be-damned move.

In trying to clear the final hurdle from competitor to contender, the information that second basemen have a nasty habit of falling off a cliff in their early-to-mid 30s was disregarded. Coming off a very good year in Detroit - one buoyed by a .333 BABIP that propped up an anomalous 118 wRC+ - Infante’s comically low 4.2 BB% was adorable in the kind of way that Dayton Moore loved his targets to be, a peccadillo that made his walk-averse heart flutter.

Age, a minuscule walk rate, and regression to the mean could never come back to haunt the Royals. Well, except for in 2015, when near-sarcastic-All-Star Infante walked 2.0% of the time, the worst mark of any hitter in baseball with more than 300 PA and the exclamation point on an abject failure of a season.

Infante’s failures (in congress with Alex Gordon’s groin injury) played a key part in necessitating the acquisition of 2015 savior Ben Zobrist. In addition to lighting tens of millions of dollars ablaze, Infante’s struggles were at least partially to responsible for the cost of one of their top prospects, Sean Manaea.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
His face: our reaction to watching him play
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Not even half-way through the third in a four-year, $32 million deal, the Royals ate the remainder of the contract, and Infante was cut loose, having played passably in only year one before shitting the bed so thoroughly as to have lost his starting job two consecutive seasons.

Of course, heading into that fateful 2014 season, the Royals had internal possibilities at second base before signing Omar Infante, headlined by Johnny Giavotella - the erstwhile internet cause célèbre who moved on to Anaheim where he’s been above replacement-level, if not by much - but also including Christian Colón.

Colón was drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft, fourth overall, out of college baseball powerhouse Cal-State Fullerton. Moving right on past the fact that the Royals didn’t draft either of the other two players they had been linked to at the time (Chris Sale and Yasmani Grandal), Christian Colón was thought to be a high-floor, low-ceiling middle infielder who might have needed to move off short eventually but was close to the majors. While considered a bit of a reach at the time, few if any thought he wasn’t first-round material. He signed with the Royals five weeks past his 21st birthday, and four days later was making his first start for Wilmington, batting ahead of Eric Hosmer in a lineup that also featured Salvador Pérez.

In that same draft, the Royals took Whit Merrifield in the ninth round, 265 picks later. A product of National Champion South Carolina, Merrifield was assigned to Burlington in the Midwest League, then Kansas City’s low-A affiliate.

In the historically pitcher-friendly confines of Wilmington, Colón managed a 95 wRC+* while being 1.7 years younger than the average player at the level. It wasn’t a great start to his minor-league career, especially given his stature as the fourth pick of the draft, but it was solid enough that the Royals sent him straight to Double-A out of Spring Training the next season.

* wRC+, short for Weighted Runs Created Plus, will be relied upon heavily here because of the volatility of minor-league numbers and run environments in specific leagues. The player’s offensive performance is scaled to league average - 100 for the unindoctrinated - with each point above or below 100 meaning his performance was that percentage point above or below average for that league.

Meanwhile Merrifield, five months Colón’s senior, was 0.4 years younger than the average player at his level. He racked up a 100 wRC+. His .156 ISO was encouraging and could conceivably have been believed to portend some gap power, but it was a mark that he wouldn’t really come close to again for four more years.

This time 2.0 years younger than the average player in the Texas League and at the jump that makes or breaks minor-leaguers, Colón struggled. Some of those struggles could probably be linked to crappy luck. He played 127 games, logging 99 at short, and struggled to an 80 wRC+ before being given the opportunity to log some more time in the Arizona Fall League, where he rebounded and managed a 98 wRC+. In Northwest Arkansas, he was beneficiary of just a .271 BABIP. If looking for encouragement, one needed only to look at his 8.1 BB% and 9.0 K%.

Like Colón, Merrifield’s season began up a level from where he’d been. 0.8 years younger than his peers in the Carolina League, he was pretty damn close to average again, notching a 103 wRC+, eight percent better than Colón the year before, but nearly a year-and-a-half older for the level.

The Royals put Colón back in Northwest Arkansas to start 2012. Spending over half the year there, he slashed an improved .289/.364/.392 in 73 games while losing over five weeks to a toe-injury. 1.1 years younger than average, Colón’s return to the level resulted in a 115 wRC+. More impressively, he walked in 9.8% of plate appearances while striking out just 8.7% of the time. Five games after earning a promotion to Triple-A, he fouled a ball off his eye, ending his strong 2012 campaign.

Merrifield started his 2012 back at Wilmington, and trudged along for another 101 games with a 102 wRC+. Along the way, he held down a 9.3 BB% and 15.7 K%. Now 0.4 years older than the competition, he was performing moderately worse (one percent) than he had the year before, but he still saw a promotion to Double-A that coincided with Christian Colón’s promotion to Triple-A. 1.1 years the junior of his peers now, Merrifield experienced his own promotional hiccup, registering an 82 wRC+ in 24 games. He was then assigned to the Arizona Fall League, where he struggled again with an 81 wRC+ over 19 games.

After a winter spent making up for lost time in Puerto Rico, Colón returned to Omaha for 2013, essentially his first experience in the Pacific Coast League at 2.9 years the junior of the average player at the level. As was the case in his first taste of Double-A ball, things went less than swimmingly, though with a 90 wRC+ it was less a speed bump than in the first go-round in the Texas League. Once again, the gap between his K% and BB% was encouraging, just 2.8% (7.1 BB% to 9.9 K%).

Merrifield returned to Northwest Arkansas, now exactly the average age of his peers. He missed a month with a hamstring injury but was otherwise - wait for it... wait for it... - decidedly average with a 100 wRC+. His BB% dropped to 6.1 and his K% jumped to 16.1% while logging more time in the outfield corners than anywhere else.

2014 for Colón started back in Omaha where - 1.6 years the junior of fellow PCLers - he recorded a 110 wRC+. For the second time at an extended stop, Colón drew more walks than strikeouts, 7.9% to 7.7%. His success was rewarded with a September call-up and a spot on the Royals’ playoff roster. In extremely limited playing time (21 games and 49 PAs), he rode a .366 BABIP to a .333/.375/.489 slash line, cruising to a 143 wRC+ and worth 0.7 fWAR in extremely limited time and capping it off in the thrilling Wild Card Game with the game-tying hit in the 12th.

While Colón was getting a shot to deliver in big postseason moments like Merrifield had in college, the Gamecock started his season in Northwest Arkansas again. This time he showed himself to be better than the competition, though 0.9 years the senior of the average Texas Leaguer. In 44 games, he posted the best walk-rate of any stop in the minors other than the Arizona Fall League, 11.6%, while striking out just 14.6% of the time. With just a perfectly normal .305 BABIP, he slashed .278/.366/.463, totaling a 139 wRC+ thanks to a .185 ISO and much improved plate discipline before finally getting promoted to Omaha. In Omaha, he was decidedly more lucky than outstanding, riding the coattails of a .394 BABIP to a contextually modest 120 wRC+ while walking just a paltry 4.9% of the time. His slash-line in the offensive playland of the PCL was .340/.373/.474, but one look at that BABIP, much less sexy .134 ISO, and return to walk- and strikeout-rates much more in line with his career norms was all one needed to see that those stats needed to be taken with a fistful of salt.

With Omar Infante’s name cast in stone on Ned Yost’s lineup card until he mercifully injured his oblique, Colón started 2015 in Kansas City but on July 3 was optioned to Omaha after taking just 86 trips to the plate spread out over a random-ass assortment of 28 games. In only eight of those games did he see any time at second despite Infante never having a moment in the season past May 27 in which his OBP was above .255.

If ever there were a time in which it could not have hurt to see what Colón could do, it was during the 82 games after May 27 in which Infante started 78 times and played in three of the other four games, all while slashing .206/.221/.289. In perhaps the most egregious misuse/disuse of a former first round pick, Colón saw a mere 16 trips to the plate from June 1 to July 3, thrice going a full six days between stepping into the batter’s box.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays
“Wait. For serious? I get to play?”
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After having his ass glued to the bench for more than a month, Colón was demoted and left to wallow in Omaha for two months, finishing out the Triple-A season in the PCL with a deflated 91 wRC+. Upon getting recalled when rosters expanded, Colón was granted six starts, with most of his playing time (perhaps understandably this time with Zobrist on the roster) coming after the Royals had clinched the division. At one point after the call-up, he went an absurd 12 days without stepping on the field, but in the potentially volatile sample of 33 PA, he lifted his season’s wRC+ to 90 thanks to a .414/.485/.448 slash over that fitful month.

While Colón was getting jerked around at multiple levels, Merrifield was arguably getting slighted in his own right. On July 8, Whit Merrifield was slashing a respectable .289/.348/.393 in first full season in Omaha. He got pulled early from the Storm Chasers’ game that day, the hook coinciding with Alex Gordon’s groin injury. The rumor mill began churning, and word was Merrifield was getting The Call. Unfortunately for Merrifield, The Call didn’t come.

Downtrodden, Merrifield limped to the finish line, slashing .231/.274/.324 the rest of the way while 0.8 years younger than the average PCLer. He ended the year with a mere 81 wRC+, a .292 BABIP explaining some but hardly all of the dip. His 6.6 BB% was a step back in the right direction from the 4.9% he’d posted in 76 games at Triple-A in 2014, as was his 11.1 K% - the lowest mark he posted at any level.

Opening Day 2016 came, and Christian Colón was again on the 25-man roster, but again his playing time was anything but consistent. Over Kansas City’s first 39 games, he made 13 starts, thanks in part to Infante’s continued struggles and a few games missed by Mike Moustakas prior to his season-ending knee injury. Colon was slashing a middling but not disastrous .250/.313/.295 when he was demoted to make room for Whit Merrifield. He’d logged just 48 PA at this point, bringing his major-league career-total to 216 PA through four disjointed stints over parts of three seasons. 16 days later with an unimpressive .266/.338/375 slash accumulated, Christian Colón hopped back on the I-29 Express and headed back to Kansas City.

Omar Infante was a week away from being cut loose, but it looked like Whit Merrifield had seized the starting role at second. From the Royals’ 60th game to their 151st, Colón was given just 26 opportunities to start appearing in 12 additional games. He added another 92 PA to his career total. For the year, he managed an Infante-esque 58 wRC+, hitting .231/.294/.293 in a miserable campaign.

Merrifield began his 2016 in Omaha, hitting .278/.342/.458 before being given a chance Colón still hasn’t been given - the opportunity to start consistently in Kansas City. Merrifield started red-hot. From his call-up on May 18 to June 18, Merrifield hit a scorching .339/.356/.496 with a 127 wRC+, all brought to you by a .402 BABIP. In the fun with arbitrary endpoints game, a quick look at what Merrifield did after an obviously lucky first month in the majors paints a different picture. Still a bit on the lucky side with a .336 BABIP, Merrifield spent his next 54 games (47 starts) slashing .250/.305/.332. That unimpressive, second slash line and the corresponding 69 wRC+ was amassed over 214 PA.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In total, Merrifield was given 332 PA in 2016, three more than Colón has gotten in parts of three seasons. His midseason struggles led to a demotion of his own on July 27, a stint that ran 33 mostly unproductive games where he slashed just .254/.298/.385, a worse mark than Colón’s when he was demoted. His major-league run saw him slash .283/.323/.392 with an 89 wRC+. He struck out 21.7% of the time while earning walks in just 5.7% of his trips to the dish. The .361 BABIP that drove him to a mark as good as it was suggests some regression to the mean is in store for poor Whit.

After the 2014 season, virtually no one would have said Merrifield had a brighter future than Colón. The next two seasons saw Ned Yost and the Royals do their damnedest to obliterate any reasonable shot Colón had at developing at the major-league level.

The most consecutive starts he logged in any of his five fragmented stints was ten. His second-most was six, both stretches coming in 2015. In 2014, he started four consecutive times once. In 2016, the season in which it would have made easily the most sense for Colón to be starting a lot, the most consecutive starts he logged was three. Yes, you read that correctly. Three. [h/t to kcstengelSr]

By contrast, over his first 53 games in uniform in Kansas City, Merrifield made 47 starts and played in three other games in that stretch.

The nicest possible way to put this would be to say that the Royals comically mishandled the development of Christian Colón - a first-round draft pick who should have been getting both consistent playing time and a real shot in the majors - once he got within spitting distance of the 25-man roster. Rather than opting for a stopgap solution at second in 2014 if the Royals’ brass truly didn’t believe they could get a year’s worth of passable play from the duo of Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colón, they signed Infante. When it was clear that Infante had no business on the field by early in 2015, Colón rotted away on the bench. When an opportunity presented itself again in 2016, Merrifield mystifyingly leapfrogged Colón.

And if the popular sentiment that the Royals did not like Colón’s glove were true, how then does one reconcile that with the fact that he logged more innings at short in 2015 than at either second or third? If he is good enough to man short for 3159.2 innings in the majors and minors, surely he can play second base. Merrifield, on the other hand, has amassed a mere 107 professional, affiliated innings at shortstop. Isolating their major-league defensive performance solely to their work at second, Colon has been worth 6 DRS and 5.9 UZR in 407.0 innings compared to 5 DRS and 6.2 UZR in 502.2 innings for Merrifield.

So despite the fact that Omar Infante did everything in his power to let Christian Colón have a shot at a job at second base, Colón spent his age-26 and age-27 seasons yo-yoing between playing once a week in the majors and recalibrating in Omaha for a month before going right back to being frozen out on Ned Yost’s bench.

What round a player was drafted in should not trump the results on the field. Whit Merrifield does some things nicely. Of course, Merrifield’s positive attributes would serve the Royals better coming in the form of a super utility player and pinch-runner off the bench.

One insane month fueled by the beneficence of the BABIP Fairy shouldn’t color the perception of who Merrifield is too heavily. Merrifield’s BABIP in the minors sat in the .292 - .318 range for all but two stops. That .361 mark from last year that has everybody marching in the Merrifield Parade is a mirage.

Royals fans should be all too cognizant of the hazards of pinning too much hope on the results from just a month of play. Such foolhardy dreams trick people into thinking Kyle Davies is one-third of a three-headed monster in the rotation. Or that Luke Hochevar, Starting Pitcher, has turned another corner. Or that Salvador Perez finally learned how to take a walk.

MLB: Kansas City Royals-Photo Day
“Don’t mind me. I’m just turning corners.”
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

That sparkle? That luster? It’s iron pyrite.

In their respective advances through the rungs on the minor league ladder, the [slightly] younger Colón was assigned more aggressively. He didn’t always excel at his first shot at a level. There was usually a period of adjustment, but he was young for his level at nearly every stop leading up to his promotion to the majors. Meanwhile, Merrifield saw a slower, eased advancement through the minors.

A step behind Colón at nearly every juncture, Merrifield slashed .273/.333/.373 with 43 HR in 3088 PA in the minors while Colón hit to the tune of a .281/.344/.381 triple-slash with 39 HR over 2478 PA. In 332 reasonably clustered together plate appearances in the majors, Merrifield hit .283/.323/.392 with a .309 wOBA and 89 wRC+, all while benefiting from a .361 BABIP that’s coming crashing back to earth. In 329 PA spread out over five disjointed stints in the majors, Colón hit .268/.328/.338 with a .298 wOBA, 84 wRC+, and a .321 BABIP that suggests some luck but not aberrance. Garnering playing time at five positions, Merrifield was worth 6 DRS and 5.2 UZR in 659.2 innings last season. In his defensive career totaling 736 innings at three positions, Colón was worth 9 DRS and 6.0 UZR.

The case for Merrifield as the Royals starting second baseman in 2017 is built upon the faulty premise that one month meant a whole lot more than it did. His only real edge over Colón is in Base Runs, and since he’d have to get on base to make this matter, it could easily be argued that his skills are better used in the aforementioned super-utility/pinch-runner role. Jarrod Dyson Whit Merrifield is not. His defense is not so good as to justify forcing him into the lineup.

That a case for Colón can even be made given the complete bungling of his development in the past two seasons is damn near miraculous. Players can’t get better by watching games from the dugout. Still, there is a reason the projection systems think he will outperform Merrifield offensively: their respective histories. That he has been more valuable defensively thus far in their respective careers may not have passed the threshold for portending what will happen, but the fact remains that in their comparative defensive statistical samples, both DRS and UZR have rated Colón (who is actually able to play shortstop) the superior defender. The projections see Colón, who was abandoned and left to wander the desert for two entire years, as the better bet offensively. If he hadn’t essentially lost the two most recent years in figuring those projections, the difference might be more stark between the two.

The Royals’ starting job at second base should be Christian Colón’s to lose right now, at least until Raúl Mondesí forces the Royals’ hand. Somehow it seems unlikely that this is the case.

*The stats herein come courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.