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Next year’s looming infield conundrum will work itself out

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No need to overthink it

Nicky Lopez #8, Kyle Isbel #28, Whit Merrifield #15 and Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals celebrate after the Royals defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 to win the game at Kauffman Stadium on April 18, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nicky Lopez #8, Kyle Isbel #28, Whit Merrifield #15 and Hunter Dozier #17 of the Kansas City Royals celebrate after the Royals defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 to win the game at Kauffman Stadium on April 18, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“Depth” is generally not a word that you traditionally associate with the Kansas City Royals. That’s because the Royals have had precious little of it for most of the past quarter century, during which the Royals have only had four winning seasons. While having top-notch players is important, it’s not enough for a sustainable winner. After all, each team uses between 40 and 50 players during the course of a 162-game season—a top heavy team is simply more vulnerable than one with depth.

Fortunately, the Royals have developed some of this rare depth recently. We’ve seen it with the pitching staff, as there are half a dozen starting pitching prospects under the age of 25 who debuted over the last two years. All of a sudden, the Royals have a collection of big league caliber players, a collection larger than they have positions for.

As such, there’s been a bit of concern in Royals Land about where to play all these players. It’s certainly a valid concern, but it isn’t the big deal that it’s often portrayed to be. Having the depth is much better than not having it, and there are some good reasons that it will ultimately work itself out.

The Situation

There are four infield positions and they are, from left to right: third base, shortstop, second base, and first base. Additionally, there is a fifth position which is not usually included in the group but is relevant here: catcher.

Infield depth wouldn’t quite be so crazy if not for a particular trio of top 100 prospects, all of whom have destroyed Triple-A and are good enough to start on Opening Day 2022. This group, combined with the current group, makes for...well, more than five. Let’s take a look:

  • Carlos Santana—1B, under contract for 2022
  • Nick Pratto—1B, played four games in right field in Omaha in September
  • Whit Merrifield—2B, best in the infield but lots of corner outfield playing time
  • Nicky Lopez—2B/SS, made himself into an above average player this year
  • Adalberto Mondesi—SS/2B/3B, dynamic and versatile player, often injured
  • Bobby Witt Jr.—SS/3B, arguably the best prospect in Major League Baseball
  • Hunter Dozier—3B/1B, positionless roamer who can defend all over (but poorly)
  • Salvador Perez—C, arguably best offensive catcher in baseball
  • MJ Melendez—C, 2021 MiLB home run king, played some 3B in Omaha

Additionally, this group does not include players who profile as backups. Hanser Alberto accrued 0.6 WAR in 255 plate appearances, and Cam Gallagher is an underrated and excellent defensive catcher.

Obviously, not all choices here are equally viable. But the trick is finding the right combination, and every combination will feature some sort of compromise elsewhere. That is the conundrum.

Nothing is Set in Stone

The good news for the Royals is that this decision isn’t set in stone. Again: every year, teams used between 40 and 50 players. Rebuilding teams, like the Royals, often have relatively huge shifts in personnel between the first and the 162nd game of the year. That’s why Opening Day roster analysis is fun but ultimately not particularly useful.

Whatever decision the Royals land on, they can change it if they want without much consequence. Their prospects will have a full slate of options available, meaning they can be sent back to the minor leagues at any time. Furthermore, the Royals are not in a situation in which they need to absolutely win right now. It would be a disappointment if they lost more games than they won next year to be sure, but at the same time nobody is expecting a 2022 playoff run.

Injury

The Royals have actually had quite a bit of good recent historical luck regarding position player injuries—just take a look at Merrifield’s consecutive games played streak. He hasn’t missed a game since 2018. That’s not normal. Yes, Mondesi has been oft-injured and can’t be counted on to play a full slate of games, but the Royals haven’t had a lot of other players have similar issues.

Every MLB team should assume a certain amount of injury among their players. No team goes a whole year without anybody going on the Injured List. Baseball is a demanding physical game, and there will be injuries. Assuming that Merrifield can play 162 games a year for the rest of his contract is folly.

In other words, when we think “wow, look at how much depth the Royals have,” we’re picturing every single player healthy. The fact of the matter is that this won’t be the case all year, just like it wasn’t the case in 2021 with Mondesi’s extensive injury issues.

The Strugglebus

Remember Mike Moustakas’ rookie season? It was pretty bad. Remember how underwhelming Alex Gordon’s rookie year was? Do you remember when Billy Butler got sent back to Omaha in his second year? What about this year, when Lopez didn’t even make the big league club out of Spring Training after two consecutive years of replacement level production?

Most young players struggle at some point, no matter how accomplished they become. The best of the best young players tend to do well out of the gate, but that is just not a guarantee. Witt, Pratto, or Melendez could struggle so bad they get sent back to Triple-A, and it would not reflect particularly poorly on them. It happens sometimes.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the potential for veterans to struggle. Santana is in the last year of his deal, and he could see a reduced role if he continues to flounder. Dozier could find himself on the bench more often if he’s eclipsed by the young guns. Lopez could be moved back to a more backup, versatile role if his offensive gains regress. And should any of those things happen, the Royals will be glad they had the depth.

Trade

Finally, the potential for a trade is always possible for a team with depth at one position and a weakness at another. Let’s say that everything works out: the Big Three prospects are doing well, Mondesi stays healthy, and Lopez and Merrifield continue to produce. Any and all of those players could be trade bait for a position elsewhere, such as center field or pitching.


Roster crunches work themselves out on their own more often than they don’t. The Royals are definitely coming up on a roster crunch. But that doesn’t mean they won’t find a solution—or, more likely, solutions plural—to the problem next year.