On first glance, the Kansas City Royals have a pretty strong outfield depth. Between Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Paulo Orlando, Jorge Soler, Whit Merrifield, and Billy Burns, the Royals have a collection of players with prior Major League experience. Cain and Gordon have been cornerstones of the roster for years, and Soler was a high profile acquisition who the Royals hope can transform their team.
But look a little further past the hard carapace and there’s a pretty squishy underbelly. That underbelly is the position of center field, where the Royals lack depth and intriguing options.
Cain is, obviously, one of the better players on this team, if not the best position player. By Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Cain comes in first in total WAR among all Royals since 2013, and owns two of the top three individual seasons by WAR in that time frame. Cain also leads the team in WAR this year so far. It’s easy to see why: Cain is an elite fielder who is also an above average hitter.
Unfortunately, the problem with Cain is pretty clear: in the five years Cain has been a regular player for the Royals, he has averaged only 110 games played per season, with a high of 140 games played in 2015 (a pretty low number for a high, as outfielders eclipsed the 140 game mark in a season 224 times in the same five-year span). That 140 games is also a career high. This is not a good mark, though it is a fair bit more respectable than the Royals’ single-season home run record and is at least 140 games more than I have played in a single Major League season.
The Royals have been able to weather Cain’s inconsisency in the past mostly through the brilliant performance of one eternally-underrated Jarrod Dyson, who despite a limited role still put up the Royals fourth-best positional WAR since 2013. Dyson is now with the Seattle Mariners, and though he remains in the Battle for Grass Creek he, sadly, is playing for the enemy—at least through the end of this season.
While it is possible that Cain could play 140-150 games this season, rendering immediate concern moot, there are two reasons to still be wary. One, that Cain is 31 years old and not getting younger; players tend to get less healthy with age, not more. And two, even if Cain plays all 162 games this season, he will be a free agent at the end of the year. The Royals are going to need center field depth this year, and if by some chance they don’t, they sure will need it next year.
The catalyst for this conversation is Paulo Orlando, the backup center fielder this year, though he has been the starter in right field and will continue to be so until Soler comes back. Orlando has been pretty good over the past two seasons for the Royals, certainly a welcome surprise out of nowhere. But Orlando is 31 now, a nobody prospect who made his debut at the age of 29. The full list of truly great position players who debuted at that age can be counted on a double amputee’s hands (though, DON’T SLEEP ON TIM TEBOW). Nobody expects Orlando to be great, but the same forces that prevent great players from leaping out of the woodwork also work against merely good players from leaping out of the woodwork.
Orlando, as a minor leaguer, hit .275/.324/.403/.726, which isn’t great. As a Major Leaguer, he’s hit .277/.303/.405/.708. That’s pretty much the ideal—to translate your minor league numbers directly the Majors. There’s a snag, though. Orlando has hit .128/.171/.128/.299. so far this year through 42 plate appearances. That is, to put it kindly, a dumpster fire of a line.
Slumps certainly exist, and Orlando certainly isn’t the only Royal slumping, but a sub-.300 OPS is a giant red flag that reads ‘DEMOTE ME’ in 128 point Comic Sans. That number will certainly go up, but Orlando is a low-ceiling player. Orlando doesn’t have any power; out of 241 players with 700+ plate appearances since 2015, Orlando ranks 182nd in isolated slugging percentage. Most eggregiously, Orlando has quite possibly the worst plate discipline of any Major League regular. He ranks dead last in strikeouts per walk, walking back to the dugout 8.8 times as often as he walks to first base. That’s bold because it’s not something that goes away. If Orlando’s not getting many hits, there’s no way for him to help the team offensively.
And behind Orlando, there’s not much else. Among the Royals’ internal options:
- Billy Burns (AAA), .664 MLB OPS / .739 MiLB OPS
- Bubba Starling (AAA), .690 MiLB OPS
- Terrance Gore (AA), .615 MiLB OPS
- Donnie Dewees (AA), .727 MiLB OPS
As we all know, offense isn’t the only factor; defense is important, too. But there’s an offensive floor you have to meet to be a good player if you don’t have all-world defense and baserunning. After Cain, if Orlando doesn’t bounce back, the Royals don’t have anyone you’d be comfortable with handling center field for more than a day here or there, at least not right now. And yeah, the Royals could improvise and make do with Gordon or Merrifield playing center field, but that’s a makeshift solution if there ever was one.
If Orlando hits a few doubles and triples and gets his swing back, everybody feels a lot better. For what it’s worth, his track record suggest he can do just that. But his struggles highlight a potential problem. The Royals are operating without much of a safety net here. Hopefully, they won’t find out how big or small the net is this year, but next year will loom either way.