The Royals have a rich tradition of centerfielders from Amos Otis to Willie Wilson to Carlos Beltrán. Lorenzo Cain has patrolled centerfield with elite defense at Kauffman Stadium for the last six years, but barring a surprising development on the free agent market, there will be a new centerfielder tracking down flyballs this season.
There is no obvious heir apparent at the position, which leaves some uncertainty headed into spring training. The potential options are pretty underwhelming.
MLB.com writer Jeffrey Flanagan pencils in Orlando in centerfield in his best guess at the 2018 lineup. The speedy Brazilian has had an up-and-down career in his brief time in Kansas City. On June 28, 2016, Paulo Orlando was hitting .343, prompting this article explaining how he could qualify for the batting title. Since then, he has hit .258/.285/.362 in 386 plate appearance, missing much of 2017 with a fractured shin.
Orlando has some strengths - he is a solid defender, even in centerfield, according to the metrics. There is his noted ability to hit triples, using the deep alleys of Kauffman stadium coupled with good speed.
But overall, Orlando has been a well-below average offensive player, with a wRC+ of 87, according to Fangraphs. Despite his triples, his power is well below average. He strikes out at a rate slightly higher than league-average. Despite being speedy, he doesn’t steal a lot of bases.
Perhaps the biggest weakness to his game, however, is his inability to draw walks. Over the last three seasons, no player with at least 500 plate appearances has a lower walk rate than Paulo Orlando. Paulo Orlando has been up 825 times in the big leagues, and has walked nineteen times. Nineteen. Last year, there were 27 times where a player drew more walks than that in a month, including notable boppers like Eugenio Suarez, Cameron Maybin, Cesar Hernandez, and Logan Forsythe.
So Orlando is highly dependent on batting average, which has fluctuated quite a bit throughout his career. He is also at an age where his speed may begin to decline - remember, he is actually older than Lorenzo Cain. Orlando seems to fit best as a nice fourth outfielder, but he would likely be exposed as a starter, a conclusion shared by Craig Brown at Baseball Prospectus Kansas City. However, in this situation, he may be the best of several weak options.
Matthew LaMar has written before about the possibility of Alex Gordon playing in centerfield on a regular basis. Playing a more difficult position could help us ignore Gordon’s struggles at the plate a bit more, and it could open up left field for a more offensively-minded player. Gordon has showed he is up to the task, at least in limited playing times, wowing us with plays like this.
However, you don’t often see players move up the defensive spectrum at age 34. And moving him to center simply moves his bat to another position - you’re still playing someone who has been one of the worst hitters in baseball over the last two seasons. Perhaps the Royals feel they are stuck playing Gordon because of his big contract, and moving him to center would be making the best of a bad situation.
When Burns was acquired, many thought he would be a replacement for Jarrod Dyson, since he was six years younger and a switch-hitter. However, rather than serve as a pinch-runner and defensive specialist as Dyson did, Burns spent most of 2017 in the minor leagues, appearing in just seven Major League games.
Burns has produced the most soft-contact in the big leagues since 2015. His meal ticket has been his speed, but he hasn’t seemed to be able to translate his fast wheels into great baserunning or defense the way Dyson did. He has been a good, but not great base-stealer, and his defense in center has been below-average by the metrics.
Still, he may be well-suited for Kauffman Stadium and could be coached up to become a better basestealer. Burns is out of options this year, so he cannot be sent to the minors unless he clears waivers - which at age 28, may not be that much of an obstacle anymore. He has been a solid starter before, getting 555 plate appearances for the Athletics in 2015 and excelling with a line of .294/.334/.392 and 2.8 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. Perhaps given more playing time with the Royals, he can duplicate that success one more time.
Bubba has seemingly been around forever, having been taken fifth overall in the 2011 draft. But he’s just 25 years old, still young enough to have a smidge of upside, although his opportunities are probably just about running out. Starling got off to a dreadful start last season, hitting just .133 over his first 26 games. But he hit a respectable .297/.344/.456 in 54 games after that until his season was derailed by an oblique injury.
That has always been the issue with Starling however. He flashes just enough talent to get you excited about him, but you really have to add caveats and selective endpoints to make his performance seem remotely adequate. No one doubts his defense is Major League-ready, but the bat has been slower to come around. Strikeouts have plagued him his entire career with a 27% whiff rate. But he was able to lower that to 18% in his last 54 games in 2017, giving some hope that the local kid is turning the proverbial corner.
Bubba is entering his last option year. I would expect him to begin the season in Omaha, and if he shows any semblance of offense, he will likely get some playing time in Kansas City. But this may be a “sink-or-swim” season for Starling. If he can’t put it together at age 25, it probably won’t ever happen. The Royals may want to give him one last look.
You may be asking why Mondesí is on this list when he was a shortstop in the minors. Well, the possibility of moving Mondesí to centerfield has at least been raised by Dayton Moore. They love his speed and athleticism, and may feel his bat can play in center. The rationale behind moving him may simply be it that it is easier to find a free agent to fill shortstop (Alcides Escobar!) than centerfield.
However Mondesí has already struggled mightily with his bat in his first 72 big league games over the last two years. Trying to adjust to Major League pitching while also changing positions seems to be asking a lot of the 22 year-old. Moving him to center to keep a hitter like Alcides Escobar, one of the worst hitters in baseball, seems like an invitation to field one of the weakest lineups in the league. Mondesí has tremendous upside. If he can reach that upside and stay at shortstop, the Royals would have a very valuable player. Moving him to center just reduces his value and possibly hurts his development.
Free agent Jarrod Dyson had a career-high 390 plate appearances with Seattle last year and hit almost exactly along his career numbers - .251/.324/.350 with 28 steals and 2.6 WAR, according to Baseball Reference. ZIPS projects his offensive numbers to dip a bit next year, although he should still be a valuable player due to his speed and defense.
According to estimates from Dave Cameron and readers at Fangraphs, Dyson should expect to land a two-year deal worth around $8-11 million, which should be able to fit in Kansas City’s tight budget. The Giants and Orioles are said to be interested, so the Royals may have to top their offers. Other free agent options could include Austin Jackson, Cameron Maybin, or Carlos Gomez. The Royals were linked to Maybin earlier in the off-season.
Other options: Tyler Collins is more suited for a reserve role, or more likely, as organizational filler in Omaha. Terrance Gore has game-breaking speed, but does not hit enough to justify a roster position. Donnie Dewees shows promise and solid on-base skills but had mixed results last year and is probably a year away.
Who should get the bulk of the playing time in centerfield?
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Another internal option
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