A day before the trade deadline, the Royals moved on from Emmanuel Rivera, trading him to the Arizona Diamondbacks for pitcher Luke Weaver. Rivera, 26, had been with the organization since 2015. He showed potential at the plate, especially in 2021 and this year, during stops in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, when he posted a .921 and a .908 OPS.
Over those same two years, he appeared in 92 games (87 at third base) for the big league club, accumulating just over 300 plate appearances. He slashed .243/.298/.378 for an OPS thirteen percent league average.
Now he’s gone, traded to the desert for a former promising arm. With Rivera goes yet another starting third base option for the Royals.
Which raises the question: who’s the long-term answer at third base for the Kansas City Royals?
Since the Royals (finally) moved on from Mike Moustakas during the 2018 season, third base has been a black hole on the Royals roster. Or a turnstile. Or a black hole turnstile, something I hope doesn’t exist in the cosmos.
After dealing Moose that year, the Royals gave playing time at third to, among others, Hunter Dozier, Alcides Escobar, and Cheslor Cuthbert.
2019: Dozier, Cuthbert, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Chris Owings.
2020: Maikel Franco got 51 games at third.
2021, more of a variety: Dozier, Gutierrez, Rivera, Hanser Alberto, and Adalberto Mondesi.
2022: Rivera (57), Bobby Witt Jr. (34), Nicky Lopez (25), Dozier (10), and Michael Massey (1).
As you can see, there’s no answer. There really doesn’t seem like there’s a plan, either. Gone are Rivera, Gutierrez, Cuthbert, Escobar, Owings, Franco, and Alberto.
And that’s not to say I fault the Royals for moving on from any of those guys. None seem like the answer at third base. Really, none of the remaining players do, either, though I have a suspicion it will be one of them.
The Royals could have twice avoided this problem a couple of drafts, one semi-recent and one very recent.
Back in 2015, the Royals had two first-round draft picks, and used them both on pitchers: Ashe Russell with pick No. 21 and Nolan Watson with pick No. 33. Of course, neither of those guys worked out, as Russell quickly flamed out of professional baseball and Watson never reached the majors before switching organizations.
Eight picks after the Royals grabbed Watson, the Braves selected Austin Riley. He’s pretty good these days. He’s in the hunt for the MVP award this season after helping Atlanta capture the World Series last year. Recently, he inked a very team-friendly extension to stay with the Braves for the next decade while never making more than $22 million in any given season, a pittance these days for his type of production.
Fast forward to the 2020 MLB Draft. I remember my stomach dropping as the Royals came on the clock and a certain pitcher had fallen to them. It seemed like an omen of the Damien variety, but of course, the Royals selected Asa Lacy with the No. 4 pick, and he hasn’t looked good since.
17 picks later, the Cardinals drafted Georgia prep third baseman Jordan Walker, who’s now their most coveted prospect. While he has yet to reach the majors, he’s on the doorstep, and he looks like he’ll be a star (though, oddly, not at third base, as the Cardinals have an entrenched MVP candidate there already; nice problem to have).
Now, with Rivera gone, to whom do the Royals turn their lonely eyes? First, external options, which look either a) way too pricey, b) way too old, or c) way too underwhelming.
- Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals. Could opt out of the final five years, $179 million owed on his current deal. Seems unlikely.
- Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers. Turns 38 in November. Dodgers hold $16 million club option with $2 million buyout. OPS down for fifth straight season.
- Evan Longoria, San Francisco Giants. Turns 37 in October. Giants hold $13 million club option with $5 million buyout. Only played in 52 games this season.
- Joey Wendle, Miami Marlins. Left-handed hitter turns 33 in offseason. Marlins hold $6.3 million club option with $75,000 buyout. 2022 OPS+ is 83; career is 101.
- Brandon Drury, San Diego Padres. Enjoying a career-year in his eighth season, slashing .268/.329/.515, but has struggled past week with new team. Only unrestricted free agent on list. Turns 30 in about 10 days.
Alright...that’s not too encouraging. What about signing a free agent shortstop and pushing a current shortstop to third? The upcoming free agent shortstops are much younger than the third basemen but will also be much more expensive (outside of Arenado).
- Carlos Correa, Minnesota Twins. The former No. 1 pick hasn’t lifted the Twins like I thought he would. OPS of .767 is still 22 percent above league average. Expected to opt out of remaining one year on contract worth $35.1 million.
- Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers. Reaches free agency for the first time this Winter, and should ignite a bidding war. Slashing .308/.347/.504.
- Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox. Expecting to opt out of remaining three years, $60 million. Soon-to-be 30-year-old slashing .307/.378/.447.
- Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves. By WAR, the best of the bunch in 2022. Turns 29 in February. Currently setting career highs in average, OBP, and slugging.
- Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox. Probably won’t reach free agency this Winter as Chicago holds team-friendly $12.5 million club option for 2023.
I don’t see the Royals signing any of those 10 players. Maybe Drury; however, even that seems unlikely considering Kansas City’s roster crunch of young position players, especially up the middle.
Next year, the Royals will have at least four good players who play primarily shortstop or second base in Witt Jr., Mondesi, Massey, and Lopez. Two out of those guys will be out of the mix, so why not move one of them to third base? There’s also Dozier (shudders) to consider.
The likeliest candidate appears to be Bobby Witt Jr. He has some time at third already under his belt, and as my colleague Matthew LaMar pointed out recently, Bobby’s been, um, not good at shortstop this season.
Then again...why not see if he can stick at short? Yes, the games next season matter, but the Royals won’t be competing for a playoff spot in 2023. Stick the team’s most dynamic player at short and see if he improves while playing some combination of Mondesi/Massey/Lopez at the hot corner. Maybe one of those guys becomes a Gold Glover over there.
And if Witt Jr. doesn’t improve at shortstop, move him to third.
Though it doesn’t first appear so at first glance, the Royals have some options to fix their third base problem. All of them, for the moment, appear internal.
Until 2024, it may remain a fluid situation.