Dayton Moore’s biggest flaw as general manager of the Kansas City Royals is that he just can’t stay out of his own way. Over the years, the Royals have made a dizzying number of unforced personnel errors that are no one’s fault but their own. Even if you’re a Moore apologist, you probably concede that these blunders are the reason why it took seven years to get to the playoffs in the first place, why the Royals’ competitive window turned out to be so short, and why the Royals have only one total division title in 13 years with the current front office group.
The most recent unforced error revolves around the Royals’ middle infield, a dumb symphony that involves four separate players and was—and is—completely avoidable.
Here’s the situation:
Coming into the season, the Royals knew that Adalberto Mondesi would start at shortstop. They signed Whit Merrifield to an extension and penciled him in at second base, giving the center field position to Billy Hamilton and choosing to play Jorge Soler in right field more often than not. To back up Mondesi and act as a skilled defender at a plethora of positions, the Royals signed utility man Chris Owins. And in the minor leagues, Nicky Lopez returned to Triple-A Omaha. The polished middle infielder out of Creighton University was a fast riser in the system and was poised to make the jump to Kansas City sooner rather than later.
Fast forward to mid-May, and Lopez is clearly ready. With a triple slash of .363/.463/.513, Lopez is hitting with the most power in his career at the highest average of his career. At the same time, he is walking nearly 15% of the time and striking out an absurdly low 3.7% of the time, both career bests. All in all, he’s hitting 51% better than the average Pacific Coast League hitter, and is doing all this with excellent defense at shortstop and second base.
Meanwhile, Chris Owings has stunk like a to-go box of Olive Garden left out in the Midwest summer sun. Per Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, Owings has been -0.4 WAR already. He’s hitting 78% below league average, striking out over a third of the time, and has gotten on base about once every five plate appearances. He’s been so bad that Ned Yost has acknowledged the need to back off playing Owings as often.
Now, the solution to this is easy. Cut bait with Owings, who is simply a sunk cost at this point, and replace him with Lopez, who has nothing more to prove in Triple-A. Alternatively, there are other guys whose roster spot could be swapped for Lopez. Terrance Gore or any reliever with options would work.
Here’s where the unforced error part comes in: the Royals are doing none of these things and are doing them for the dumbest of reasons. Moore’s own words to Royals beat writers say so:
The problem is that Lopez isn’t a fit on the present 25-man roster. Lopez plays second base and shortstop, positions occupied by Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. And the organization doesn’t want Lopez to play just twice a week or so, at least not this early in the season.
The other complication is that manager Ned Yost had to move Merrifield back to second base on basically a permanent basis because Merrifield began suffering from nagging lower-body injuries caused by the rigors of playing in the outfield. Merrifield hasn’t played the outfield since April 11, and he likely won’t play much there the rest of the season because his offense is simply too valuable to lose.
“There’s nobody left to call up right now [where] there’s a chance to play every day,” Moore said. “What I will say is that yes, we’re very excited about Nicky Lopez and he will have a bright future on this team, we hope.”
Moore’s reasoning is ridiculous for a veritable cornucopia of reasons. First, Lopez has a spot to play every day: second base. Lopez can start second base multiple times a week, play short once a week while Mondesi rests or is DH, or DH himself. Heck, the Royals have used Kelvin Gutierrez as DH multiple times in the last week. Not being able to find playing time for Lopez is like covering your eyes and plugging your ears and saying that you can’t find your phone.
Second, Merrifield is best as a second baseman, but he’s a good enough defender at multiple other positions that finding time for him isn’t an issue. After all, the Royals can find time for Owings to play center field, and to play somewhere every day. And as for the fact that he can’t play in the outfield because of “nagging lower-body injuries”? Are the Royals just now finding this out? If these injuries are serious, why does Merrifield look and play just like normal? This is to say nothing of the fact that Hunter Dozier has 314 minor league innings and 60 MLB innings in right field, and playing Dozier in right allows for Merrifield to stay on the infield more.
Third, that the Royals didn’t see this predicament coming is truly, utterly baffling. They entered the season knowing they were committing to Merrifield and Mondesi and knowing that Lopez was not far away. They have had time to try Lopez at third base or the outfield to increase his versatility. They did not. They also had multiple chances to trade Merrifield in the offseason to get additional prospects for the rebuild and open up a spot for Lopez. They did not. Worst of all, by committing to Mondesi at short and Merrifield specifically at second base blocks Lopez for literally as long as those players are Royals. Kansas City has both under contract through 2023.
Baseball players, coaches, and front office members rarely do things off the cuff or improvise. There are always reasons behind the decisions they make. The Royals’ decision to leave Lopez in the minors is also informed by reasoning. That reasoning is internally consistent: to get Lopez regular playing time, they’d have to pull playing time away from one of their two best players to do so. Hence, Lopez stays in the minors.
Unfortunately, internally consistent logic isn’t immune to criticism and doesn’t mean it is good reasoning. And by looking at everything else involved in this situation—Owing’s mere existence, Merrifield’s own utility, the Royals’ apparent desire to compete this and every year—the Royals’ reasoning crumbles, an Oreo of bad ideas left in the milk of critical thinking for too long.