In sports, they say that having too many players at one position is a good problem to have, and indeed, you would rather have multiple productive options at one spot, rather than no options. The Kansas City Royals, though, will soon be dealing with the former, with not just two, but three enticing options for filling arguably the most important defensive position on the field.
Ahead of the 2021 season, the clear-cut plan was going to be Adalberto Mondesi from the opening gun. It all made sense. Mondesi had struggled with injuries and inconsistency, but the talent was undeniable. He posted a 115 OPS+ with 14 homers and 32 steals in just 75 games in 2018, then led the American League in triples and swiped 43 bases in just 102 games in 2019.
2020 was something else, though. The overall numbers were pedestrian, with a .710 OPS (and a 90 OPS+), but after posting a .440 OPS through 37 games, Mondesi slashed .376/.424/.706 with all six of his homers and 16 steals in the final 22 games of the season. Most importantly, he played 59 of the 60 games last year. The stars seemed to be aligning for a breakout in 2021.
And then he got hurt right at the end of spring training. Then he got hurt again. Then he came back and got hurt again. All told, we are 130 games into 2021 and Adalberto Mondesi has played in ten of them. Yes, one-zero. Those ten games were great (.361, 4 homers, 1.212 OPS, 0.5 WAR), but now there are blatantly obvious questions about whether Mondesi is a long-term solution.
That question was even further muddled by what’s happened this season in his absense.
The Rise of Nicky Lopez
If you have watched the Royals this season, you are probably aware that Nicky Lopez has been the breakout star in the Royals infield this season.
In 2020, Lopez was absolutely miserably, barely clearing the Mendoza Line (batting .201), and posting an OPS of .552 and a pitiful 52 OPS+. Simply put, he was arguably the worst everyday player in baseball in 2020. 2021 looked like more of the same, as he was slashing .224/.320/.301 as late as June 12. It was legitimate to question whether he should be in Major League Baseball at all, let alone starting.
In 61 games since then, though, Lopez is batting .341 with a .799 OPS. He also swiped a dozen bases in that span. After three straight three-hit games to finish the Royals’ most recent series in Seattle, Lopez is now slashing a much more respectable .291/.361/.362 while slashing his strikeout rate from a year ago (from 21.7% in 2020 to 14.0% in 2021). After going 0-for-5 in stolen bases in 2020, Lopez has pulled a complete 180 there as well, currently sporting a perfect 18-for-18 mark on the basepaths.
That is not to mention his rock-solid defense at shortstop, where he is leading the American League with a .985 fielding percentage, committing just six errors in 116 games. From a sabermetric angle, his 1.2 defensive WAR is fifth in Major League Baseball by shortstops. Going by FanGraphs numbers, Lopez’s defensive runs above average (DEF) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) both rank second among all MLB shortstops.
Even though Lopez’s offensive game isn’t the type that should be able to succeed in 2021, he’s hit well enough and been excellent defensively, allowing him to rack up a very healthy 3.4 WAR this season, a figure that’s ninth among primary MLB shortstops. Simply put, at this point Lopez has earned the right to be the front-runner to start in 2022.
Witt On The Way
In his first full professional season, Witt has done all the Royals could’ve possibly asked. He started the year at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, slashed .295/.369/.570 in 61 games with 16 homers and 14 steals, then moved on to Triple-A Omaha and hasn’t skipped a beat, slashing .289/.343/.612 with 13 homers and eight steals in 36 games.
All-told, Witt is slashing .293/.360/.586 (good for a .945 OPS) across the two highest levels of the minors, bashing 28 homers and stealing 22 bases. His 28 homers are tied for fourth (with his teammate Nick Pratto) in all of Minor League Baseball.
When Witt was drafted, the Royals envisioned him as a legitimate five-tool shortstop, and the results this season suggest that he is developing to exactly the player he was expected to be. Notably, in 79 games at shortstop, he’s committed just six errors this season, showing an ability to handle a difficult position at a high level.
What Happens This Year?
In the short term, we know this: Adalberto Mondesi resumed his rehab assignment last Thursday after a setback on a previous rehab attempt kept him out of commission for more than two weeks. At some point soon, Mondesi will presumably, hopefully, maybe finally resume an extremely frustrating season for him, the Royals brass, and Royals fans.
For much of the summer, Lopez has manned short with Whit Merrifield at second base. Coincidentally or not, Merrifield has posted his best defensive season (1.6 defensive WAR) this year, while spending more time at second (117 games) than he has at any position since 2017. As good as Merrifield and Lopez have been up the middle, is that combination worth breaking up just to get Mondesi back in the fold for a month?
The options to get through 2021 could be as simple as having Lopez and Mondesi split time in order to give Mondesi reps, but also try to at least get him through the final month of the season healthy (which shouldn’t be a very high bar, but unfortunately, he’s lost all benefit of a doubt there).
If the Royals want Mondesi to play everyday, then the Royals could slide Merrifield to right field (which would take away at-bats from some combination of Hunter Dozier, Edward Olivares, Ryan O’Hearn, and more indirectly, Emmanuel Rivera) and you can either leave Lopez at short and put Mondesi at second, or slide Lopez over to second.
Either way, there are no great options to get guys at bats who need them, but the Royals have enough positional flexibility that they can shuffle enough guys around to allow younger players to get playing time.
What Happens in 2022?
This is where things get tricky. As you may have noticed, the above scenario does not factor in Bobby Witt Jr. in any way. It’s entirely possible that Witt doesn’t debut this season, and the current infield conundrum (as well as the minor league season being extended into October) might make it easier for the Royals to let Witt finish the season in Omaha.
Now, it’s almost inconceivable that Witt wouldn’t be on the Opening Day roster in 2022, and I’d say it’s extremely likely he’s in the Opening Day lineup as well. The question is, where would he play?
Among the current Royals active roster, only two position players are scheduled to leave via free agency this winter: Michael A. Taylor and Hanser Alberto. Considering he’s always been a part-time player, Alberto is irrelevant in this equation. Assuming Taylor walks, though, that could lead to an intriguing chain of events.
With his game-breaking speed, the Royals may consider moving Mondesi to center field to fill the void, considering there is no obvious replacement waiting in the wings. Kyle Isbel has primarily handled center field in Omaha, though some believe left field is his future home. if that’s the plan, then the infield equation becomes considerably simpler.
In that case, it seems likely that Merrifield and Lopez stay put up the middle. If that were to happen, then the likely destination for Witt becomes third base, a position some believe will become his permanent home anyways. He’s already played 17 games there this season, several due to Mondesi rehabbing at short, and he’s already shown smooth defense there as well:
In that scenario, Hunter Dozier either ends up in right, or splitting DH duties with O’Hearn and Salvador Perez. The Royals may also decide that with fellow top prospect Nick Pratto coming quickly, cutting bait with Carlos Santana this offseason (something I suggested back at the trade deadline) might be the best way to create some elbow room.
Isbel and Olivares are going to need at bats too, though, so in a perfect world, Dozier may be the odd man out after a miserable -2.9 WAR season (a number that puts him in danger of the worst offensive season of the 21st century). However, the world isn’t perfect and for better or for worse, the Royals are on the hook for $21.5 million over the next three years for Dozier. That cost is sunk, so Dozier is probably going to have a starting role in 2022, which doesn’t help the shuffling game.
Of course, that’s if the Royals want to move Mondesi to center field. If not, then perhaps Lopez takes a back seat, even if he doesn’t necessarily deserve it based on his 2021 output. A sort of platoon could develop, or the two more or less serve as dual utility men to give each other, as well as Bobby Witt and others, days off (in this case, we assume that Whit Merrifield still refuses to take a day off).
Regardless of how things shake out, the Royals have a problem about what to do at shortstop, both now and in the future. As the Royals inch back towards contention, though, they’re probably more than happy that the problem is caused by having too much talent, rather than not having enough.
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