Haven’t you heard? There’s a young shortstop in the Kansas City Royals organization. He’s fast and can hit for power, and he has impressed in spring training. Defensively, he’s a natural at shortstop, but the Royals have been playing him lately at second base where there’s more of an immediate need.
You might think that I’m talking about Bobby Witt, Jr., and you would not be incorrect. However, the above paragraph was actually referencing one Adalberto Mondesi, circa spring training 2016. And for those of you who remember Mondesi playing at that time, well, you know: Mondesi is a cautionary tale for Witt.
Let’s back up a little. Witt, whose namesake father pitched 16 years in the big leagues, turns 21 in June. Drafted as the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, Witt has been a consensus top-25 prospect in baseball, with a couple of publications putting him in the top ten list prior to this season. Crowning a prospect as a “five-tool” player is rather overdone, but Witt is one of the few who truly fits the bill.
Consider the following home run. Witt absolutely demolished a home run to the tune of 484 feet. He did it with a notably compact and normal swing; Witt certainly wasn’t selling out for power here, but power he generated:
Been waiting for a good view of Bobby Witt Jr.'s home run today. @Royals provided it, and good lord is it is glorious: 484 feet.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 8, 2021
Oh, and he's only 20 years old. pic.twitter.com/wUIwIGku7t
Then, a few days later, Witt made one of the prettiest infield plays you’ll about ever see at any level. He did so at second base, a position at which he has very few professional reps. Didn’t matter. Witt made it look easy.
Bobby Witt Jr. - Tuesday #Royals— Josh Vernier (@JoshVernier610) March 9, 2021
Hype for Witt is rather extreme at the moment. He probably has the second-highest ceiling out of any player in camp, and Royals players are talking about him in a way that I haven’t really seen before. Hunter Dozier had this to say about Witt:
How does Royals 3B Hunter Dozier put into perspective what Bobby Witt Jr. is doing?— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) March 8, 2021
"It’s hard. When I was 20 I was at Stephen F. Austin grinding. ... He’s such a talented kid. He’s an even better guy. He’s fun to watch. He does something every game that surprises you."
He was echoed by Duffy, who has been very effusive about Witt since last summer:
Danny Duffy saw Bobby Witt Jr.'s ability firsthand last summer. In one AB, Witt kept fouling off pitch after pitch. When Witt singled, Duffy threw his hands up and laughed. Here's what the Royals lefty said today about what the 20-year-old is doing: pic.twitter.com/Yz7pFOlnG0— Alec Lewis (@alec_lewis) March 10, 2021
We’re at the point in the hype train where the main MLB Twitter account tweeted that Witt home run highlight to its 8.8 million followers. And your rank and file fans have noticed. They are excited. And they want to see him posthaste. Here at Royals Review, we have commenters on pretty much every article these days argue that Witt should break camp with the team, and we see the same sorts of comments on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
Thanks to the pandemic, we don’t have a lot of hard data about Witt. He participated in the summer camp and fall camp that the Royals hosted last year, and he’s obviously in the big league camp this year. The only thing we can really do is read between the lines of what people in the organization are saying about him, as well as his performance so far this spring. He certainly seems ready.
But I’m here to pump the breaks, because, again, Mondesi is the cautionary tale to Witt. Why? Well, it should be obvious looking at his professional history: the Royals rushed Mondesi, who, like Witt, was clearly talented, and his on-field performance lagged far behind what his talent would have suggested.
Mondesi famously made his big league debut at 20 years of age—the same age as Witt, currently—in the 2015 World Series. He struck out in his only appearance in the series and looked overwhemingly lost during that one plate appearance. You can’t really blame him for that, of course. Mondesi was a Double-A player on the sport’s biggest stage, but not only that, he was a Double-A player who had never posted a league-average batting line in his professional career.
In 2016, during Mondesi’s age-21 season, he finally posted above-average offensive production for the first time in his career. Per wRC+, Mondesi hit for 22% above league average in 131 Double-A plate appearances and 23% above league average in 61 Triple-A plate appearances. And yet, all was not well—Mondesi used his legs, raw strength, and hyper-aggressive approach to take advantage of poor defenses and mistake pitches, but there was a hole in his swing and approach. It showed. Mondesi struck out 25% of the time in the upper minors, over three times as often has he walked.
We all know the story from there: Mondesi struggled mightily, overmatched. Through 2017, Mondesi was the worst hitter in baseball among all position players with 150 or more plate appearances.
We also know the story afterward, too. Over the last three years, Mondesi has settled into an above-average shortstop who, when on a hot streak, can really impact a baseball game. Even if he doesn’t get any better, that’s a really solid player to have on your team—a starting caliber player for a playoff team, even. He has plenty of room to get better, too, with the sky as the limit to his talents.
Could Witt succeed immediately where Mondesi didn’t? Perhaps. They are two different players.
However, we’ve all seen Mondesi play. He has insane talent, but and he was simply not ready the first two times around. There is no downside whatsoever to sending Witt to the minor leagues and lots of developmental upside. On the other hand, being aggressive with Witt’s assignment has, most charitably, no upside whatsoever, and the potential to derail his entire career at worst.
This is not to say that Witt should be banished to the minor leagues forever. Rather, like any other prospect, Witt should have to prove it. If he’s as talented as we all think he is, he’ll force his way onto the team anyway. I, for one, am looking forward to that day. But until then, let’s see what he can do against other talented prospects first.