Death. Taxes. Alcides Escobar.
That has been the popular refrain among Royals fans, due to the constant appearance of the shortstop in the Royals lineup. Escobar has appeared in 97% of Royals games since he was acquired from Milwaukee, including a current streak of 333 games in a row. Esky’s fixture in the lineup comes despite being one of the worst hitters in baseball over the last few seasons.
But Ned Yost values his defense and believes in his magical ability to “ambush” pitchers and lead off, and so Alcides Escobar being in the Royals lineup becomes as inevitable as death or taxes. And at least among some fans, his appearances are just as popular as those inevitable events.
But when Escobar filed for free agency last November, along with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain, it seemed as if the permanence of Alcides was coming to an end in Kansas City. The young player with the most upside in the entire organization - Adalberto Mondesí - played the same position, and after a successful season in Omaha, seemed ready for big league action. And yet, Alcides Escobar was on the one free agent the Royals brought back, inking him to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million.
My initial response to the reunion was, like many fans, one of bewilderment, even of anger. Bringing back Esky seemed to be a poor sign for young Mondesí, and I shared many of the opinions Matthew LaMar voiced when he questioned the handling of Mondesí. However, upon further reflection, I think my outrage may have been premature. Can you imagine that? A sports take on the internet being too hasty?
With Escobar on the team, and Yost asserting that he will likely be the everyday starting shortstop, there are questions as to what exactly Mondesí’s role will be. In my mind, there are really only three likely scenarios.
Adalberto Mondesí heads to the minors
I initially thought this was the most likely outcome when they signed Escobar. Adalberto hit very well in Omaha last year, after struggling mightily to begin the year with the Royals. He hit .305/.340/.539 with 13 home runs in 85 games, despite being one of the youngest players in the Pacific Coast League.
Those kind of numbers might suggest Mondesí is ready, however it was just 85 games, barely half a season in AAA. The Royals have suggested that Mondesí has yet to prove he can withstand a full season of action, and they are right - Mondesí hasn’t played over 110 games in a season since 2013. He missed three weeks last year with a back injury and missed half of the 2016 season with a suspension for a banned substance.
Mondesí is also still quite young - he won’t turn 23 until July - and he still has parts of his game to work on. While his numbers were good when he hit the ball in Omaha, his 5% walk rate and 24% strikeout rate suggest plate discipline that could get exposed at the big league level. Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs also reported on some scouts being underwhelmed by Mondesí’s attitude after working his way back from suspension. Forcing the youngster to earn his way back to the big leagues may not be the worst thing for his development. After rushing him to the big leagues, perhaps the organization should be more patient in his progress.
Adalberto Mondesí is the starting second baseman
Ned Yost has suggested that a strong spring could earn Mondesí the starting second baseman job. However, Whit Merrifield is the incumbent at that position, and is coming off a very solid season. So what gives?
Well, Merrifield is very versatile, and he could be a utility player that plays all over the field. For a team that pretty much has no solid starters right now, save for catcher, Merrifield should have no problem finding a spot in the lineup every day, playing all over the diamond.
However, I am starting to think that Merrifield will end up spending most of his time in centerfield. It is the position he played in college until he was moved off from there to make room for a young Jackie Bradley, Jr. Merrifield has begun playing there again this spring and he seems to have the speed to be able to handle it.
Merrifield in CF will be interesting to see. Statcast had him as the 3rd fastest 2B last year but his speed would make him the 13-14th fastest CF.— Shaun Newkirk (@Shauncore) February 26, 2018
Worth noting that his 28.9 ft/s is just a snapshot. He was faster than Jarrod Dyson according to Statcast.
With lackluster alternate options in center, Merrifield may make the most sense. And showing off his versatility could improve his trade value, opening up his market beyond teams that need a second baseman. This scenario could keep the Royals strong defensively up the middle, and also serve as an offensive upgrade with Mondesí’s speed and power potential in the lineup over the limited Paulo Orlando, who would otherwise be the favorite to start in center.
Adalberto Mondesí makes the big league roster but sits the bench
This is the only outcome that would truly be a hindrance to Mondesí’s development, but it also seems very unlikely. The Royals have been big on Mondesí’s tools, recognizing his speed as a valuable enough asset to name him the starting second baseman last year, even when it seemed as if he wasn’t quite ready. So it seems unlikely they would squander him on their bench. Yost has pretty much said if Adalberto is in the big leagues, he’s playing.
“If he’s doing great, we want him playing every day in the big leagues. If he’s doing (expletive), we want him playing every day in Omaha. It’s as simple as that.”
If the Mondesí is healthy but has just 20 plate appearances the first month, well that is pretty clear mishandling of the best talent in the organization. But let’s wait until that happens before we bring out the pitchforks.
Honestly, I think much of the ire over the Esky signing is over Alcides himself. It is hard to watch him flail away at everything near the plate and hit a little infield dribbler. I visibly wince when I see his name at the top of the lineup. The “Death, Taxes, Escobar” refrain is not a compliment.
However he is still a very adequate defender, and for a team that has loaded up on groundball pitchers, I can understand the desire to have a dependable defensive shortstop over the talented but perhaps erratic Mondesí. While Esky is no longer a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, he was still 8th out of 20 qualified shortstops in Fangraphs’ defensive ratings. The money should not be a concern - Escobar is a replacement-level player getting paid replacement-level salary.
And frankly, in a season in which the Royals are kinda sorta maybe tanking but totally not tanking (wink, wink), is having the second-worst hitter in baseball last year in your lineup a bad thing? I’m not saying the Royals should try to lose games on purpose, or that they signed Escobar with an eye towards losing, but...doesn’t he ultimately help their draft position?
I’m being a bit facetious, but the bigger point is - it just doesn’t matter if Alcides Escobar is in the lineup. The Royals are going to be a very bad team this year. Their offense is projected to be the worst in the American League. The Royals could bring out Yuniesky Betancourt to play shortstop (they’ve probably considered it, at least) and it wouldn’t matter much. It is all about the future now.
Let’s see how the Royals handle Mondesí this year, because he is probably one of the only players on this current team that has a chance to be on the next contending Royals club. Maybe he will miss out on valuable time developing at shortstop. Maybe another few months in Omaha will be just what he needs to springboard a future All-Star career.
Just remind yourself, when Esky is leading off in June, posting an on-base percentage of .280, that it doesn’t matter. Embrace the darkness of death, taxes, and Escobar. Because it is going to be a long season no matter what.