Which ‘young’ Royals position players should be counted on by next Spring?

Yeah, it’s been a while since I have posted both on this blog as well as on Twitter. However, I figured that rather than just punt the season (as well as another potential blog), I would write a couple of pieces before August finished as well as grad school began. After all, we still have roughly a month left in the season, so Royals baseball is still worth watching (even if the Royals are due for a 100 losses again).

Over the past month, the Royals have embraced the “youth” movement in the field, pretty much shipping off underwhelming veterans such as Billy Hamilton, Martin Maldonado, and Lucas Duda in favor of Royals prospects such as Bubba Starling, Brett Phillips, and Meibrys Viloria. Dayton Moore’s shift to a younger lineup has experienced some growing pains, as the Royals are currently 5-14 in the month of August, which may be the fatal death blow in another 100-loss season. However, with any youth movement, more losing than winning is to be expected (and it’s also happening in the bullpen, as young pitchers such as Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer are given chances to mixed results…more on this in another post). That being said, which “young” position players have impressed and should be counted on going forward, and which ones may end up fizzling out by next season (i.e. David Lough)?

In this post, I will separate each Royals position player into one of three categories: “worth watching”, “on the fence”, and “not worth it”. So let’s take a look at where the “newer” Royals fall.

Worth Watching

Nicky Lopez, MI; Meibrys Viloria, C; Bubba Starling, OF.

None of these three players are doing much at the plate. Lopez, known as a contact-hitter in the minors and in college at Creighton University in Omaha, has been pretty unspectacular, as he is hitting .231 with an OPS+ of 51, according to Baseball Reference. Viloria and Starling have also underwhelmed at the dish, as they are hitting .206 and .195, respectively, though they have had much fewer plate appearances than Lopez in 2019 (Lopez has had 328 plate appearances while Viloria and Starling have 194 plate appearances combined).

However, I’m rating them as worth watching not just this year but going forward into next Spring because their defense has transitioned strongly to the Major League level. Lopez has accumulated one of the best Def ratings on the Royals current roster, as he has a Def of 6.1, which is second only to Adalberto Mondesi’s 11.6 rating (Hamilton and Maldonado had higher Def ratings but they are gone). It’s definitely conceivable to think that if Lopez can refine his approach at the plate a bit, he and Mondesi can duo one of the best defensive middle infields in the American League by next season. So while Lopez hasn’t really wowed Royals fans at the dish, his defense has lived up to the reputation considerably.

As for Viloria and Starling, they are also putting up impressive performances defensively, even though this adjustment to the Major League was a huge change for them. Neither player hit well last year in the Minors, and though they have had fleeting success at the dish in the Minors this year, it was expected for both of them to struggle offensively as they adjusted to Major League pitching. However, they have continued to be strong defensively, as Viloria is posting a Def of 1.6 in 20 games (which is pretty impressive considering the short time span) and Starling is posting a Def of 0.7 in 31 games. Hitting will probably be a question mark for both players this year and perhaps next Spring, but they should provide good gloves for the Royals going forward, and should be serviceable backups on the 25-man roster next year at the very least.

On the Fence

Brett Phillips, OF; Humberto Arteaga, MI; Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B/1B

After putting up a .371 wOBA in Omaha, the Royals finally gave Phillips a shot at the Major League level. Phillips, the crown jewel prospect in the Mike Moustakas deal a year ago, has struggled offensively at the Major League level, and it will be interesting to see if he can transition his prowess in the PCL this year to the Major Leagues in some way during this tail stretch of 2019. Phillips’ arm and athleticism are legitimate tools and up there with Starling in some ways (he definitely has the better arm), but his struggles to make contact consistently as a professional make his future a little more questionable. If he has a strong September, I think he may be in the Royals’ future plans. If he continues to struggle, then the Royals may cut loose with him sooner rather than later, especially considering how log-jammed the outfield is in the organization overall.

Arteaga has been a dependable middle infielder for a while in Omaha, as he provided good defense and hovered around .300 batting average-wise with the Storm Chasers the past two seasons. However, at the Major League level, he probably is a glove-first backup at-best, which is fine on most teams, but may be a bit superfluous on this Royals team. He’s not a better hitter or fielder than Lopez (his batting average and WAR are both lower than Lopez’s), and Whit Merrifield provides the kind of defensive flexibility at second that pretty much makes Arteaga irrelevant. If Merrifield or Jorge Soler depart ways with the Royals this off-season, then maybe Arteaga merits consideration on this roster going forward. That being said, since those possibilities are highly unlikely, the 25-year-old Venezuelan infielder most likely will be an odd-man out when it comes to the 25-man roster next year, and probably will be starting another season in Omaha should he still be in this organization next Spring.

As for Cuthbert, Royals fans are starting to see why the Royals released him from the 40-man roster after the 2018 season ended. Cuthbert has been flat out bad this August, as he is posting a putrid .429 OPS in 67 plate appearances. His late-season slump, combined with mediocre defense at both corners, has earned him a spot on the bench, as Ryan O’Hearn has supplanted him at first base since O’Hearn was re-called from Omaha. Cuthbert has been a streaky player, and I think he still has a chance to find that player he was in June (105 OPS+) over the course of a full season considering his surprisingly young age (he still is younger than Hunter Dozier). That being said, it seems like he’s lost the confidence of the organization, and it seems more and more likely he’ll be on the outside looking-in when it comes to the Royals figuring out who’s worth keeping on the 40-man after September ends. I think he still can be a valuable part of this Royals organization, but as a blogger who makes a teacher’s salary for a living, that isn’t my call to make.

Not worth it

Ryan O’Hearn, 1B; and Nick Dini, C

O’Hearn is an interesting conundrum for the Royals organization and Royals fans in general. It’s obvious he can mash Pacific Coast League pitching. When sent down to Triple-A, he mashed, putting up a triple slash of .295/.383/.597 in 281 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. And he has demonstrated the power before, as his 12 home runs, .398 wOBA and 153 wRC+ in 170 plate appearances in 2018 gave Royals fans a tantalizing idea of what O’Hearn could be at first-base spot. In many ways, O’Hearn gave Royals fans the idea that he could be a more powerful Eric Hosmer, though without the glove.

However, O’Hearn has just been bad at the plate this year. He is striking out a ton (a 26.3 percent K rate) and he did that too in his “breakout” call up in 2018 (26.5 percent K rate). He is posting a 43 wRC+ and his defense has continued to be sub-par, as his Def is 6.1 runs BELOW average (i.e. negative and costing the Royals runs). Maybe this is pessimistic thinking, but the Royals could find a better option than a player who’s best case scenario may be Lucas Duda…and Royals fans know how that turned out.

As for Dini, he’s a feel-good story. He’s a kid from Jersey, he’s got a cool name, and he’s a catcher who can hit a bit (or at least he did in the minors). But defensively, he’s questionable, and with Salvador Perez ready to assume the mantle again behind the plate, I would rather see the Royals invest in Viloria who’s younger, better defensively and possesses more upside as a prospect overall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dini as the primary backup in 2020 (after all, Viloria would be better served by getting more at-bats). However, I can see Viloria being the heir-apparent to Salvy when it’s all said and done.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for Dini.

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