Dayton Moore faced a difficult decision this past off-season, with a number of players entering their last year of club control. He could either trade them all away and rebuild the franchise, or go all in for one last hurrah. He chose a third way, threading the needle by trading a few veteran players for young, MLB-ready players that could contribute in 2017. The winter was headlined by one such bold deal, when he shipped Wade Davis to the Cubs for 25-year old outfielder Jorge Soler.
Soler had an inauspicious start to his Royals career. He had a brutal spring training, batting .143 with very shaky defense. Near the end of camp, he injured his oblique, landing him on the disabled list to start the year. It was another injury in what has already been an injury-ravaged start to Soler’s MLB career.
July 2015 - Left ankle injury (missed one month)
August 2015 - Left oblique injury (missed three weeks)
June 2016 - Strained left hamstring (missed two months)
September 2016 - Right side injury (missed two weeks)
Meanwhile, the Royals tried to make due with Paulo Orlando in right field, but when he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn to begin the year, they changed it up and brought up Jorge Bonifacio to make his Major League debut.
Bonifacio has been well thought of in the Royals system for years, but never really broke through to become a top prospect. He is still young, at age 23, and was in his second tour with AAA Omaha. He has developed into a power hitter as he has gotten older, and has showed a decent eye at the plate with a career 8.6% walk rate in the minors.
Given his chance, Bonifacio, at least through eight games, has made the most of it. He smacked his second home run Monday against the White Sox, a 432-foot blast. In his first eight games, he is hitting .333/.400/.556 and has been a good injection of offense in a team that sorely needs it.
Meanwhile, Jorge Soler has begun his rehab assignment in Omaha, and is hitting well with a line of .308/.419/.538 with two home runs in eight games. Despite his hot start, the Royals seem to be in no rush to bring him back.
"His rehab assignment runs through May 10," Moore told The Star on Thursday. "And at this point in time, we fully expect to utilize that period of time for him to get some at-bats and get caught up."
When Soler’s rehab time is up however, what happens in right field?
Many times, these things have a way of working themselves out. Soler could re-injure himself. Alex Gordon or Brandon Moss could get hurt, opening up a lineup spot. Bonifacio could come back to earth, the way Whit Merrifield did after the league figured him out, rendering a decision moot. Just for kicks, here are the best starts to a career by a Royals rookie in their first eight games (h/t Shaun Newkirk).
A couple of good players, but a lot of guys who regressed to the mean in a hard way. But if Bonifacio continues to hit - and he doesn’t even to be great to be an improvement over the current options - don’t the Royals have to keep him on the roster?
Jorge Soler will certainly be a starter when the Royals feel he is healthy. With what the Royals invested in him, and his former top prospect status, he will given every opportunity to succeed or fail. The Royals may decide that Bonifacio needs regular reps, and Omaha may be the only place he can get that kind of development.
But what if he can give the Royals more options at the MLB level? Platooning his right-handed bat with the left-handed bats of Alex Gordon and Brandon Moss could help mitigate the crummy offense of those two hitters. You may have to suffer some growing pains with the defense - Bonifacio and Soler are both sub-par defenders - but keeping their bats in the mix could add a jolt to the offense.
The problem is, how do you keep him on the roster? You can't send Alex Gordon to the minors (not that the Royals would anyway). Brandon Moss is not getting released one month into a two-year contract. Cheslor Cuthbert is out of options.
The solution may be, as David Lesky suggests at Baseball Prospectus Kansas City, that the Royals need to cut ties with Christian Colón. With Whit Merrifield on the roster and able to play all infield positions, the need to carry Colón seems less necessary. Although there is a strong case that Colón should have gotten more of a chance with this club, he has been a pretty poor hitter over the last two years, hitting .250/.314/.302 from 2015 to 2017, a 69 wRC+ in 296 plate appearances.
With the worst offense in baseball, the Royals need to maximize their production and look for all opportunities to add punch to the lineup. It is quite possible Jorge Bonifacio slumps soon as the league develops a "book" on him, but the Royals are desperate enough that they need to find out what they have. Adding Jorge Soler back to the lineup will only give them more options, and if it costs them a well-liked player who gave us some clutch post-season hits, then that is what needs to be done.