With the fifth-lowest payroll in the American League, the Royals aren’t exactly a “poor” team by any means, but they are not competing with the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox when it comes to out-spending for players. In a plain sense, the Royals are a classic, stable “small market” team: they can afford enough for some key players through free agency or trade, but they are never going to get that “superstar” player unless they develop him within their own system.
But it’s not just “superstars” that higher-payroll teams sport an advantage over small-market clubs like the Royals. When it comes to building depth on the 25-man roster, small-market teams have to be creative, as they are unable to pay that “little bit more” to solidify their bench and make sure their regulars are well-rested. Utility players who can help a club in multiple ways at multiple positions is more valued than ever, as the Ben Zobrist’s and Howie Kendrick’s of Major League Baseball are earning more than ever, which only favors the richer clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Los Angeles Angels (the top-3 highest payrolls in the American League).
So what do the Royals do to build depth on this roster, not just when it comes to a starting lineup, one through nine, but also the bench? How can they build this club so that if players need days off or get injured, the Royals aren’t experiencing dramatic swoons in production?
Surprisingly, the answer for Dayton Moore and this Royals organization may be easier than they think: they have some good options currently in the Royals system who are relatively young and inexpensive.
Let’s take a look at three players currently on the Royals’ 40-man roster who may be good “utility” options for the Royals off the bench in 2020.
Erick Mejia, UT
.227/.333/.273, 67 wRC+, 27 PA with the Royals
Mejia, previously in the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers systems, was acquired in a trade that sent Scott Alexander to the Dodgers and Joakim Soria to the White Sox, back in the winter of 2018. Mejia also came with Trevor Oaks, a pitching prospect who spent all of 2019 on the shelf due to injury, but is currently on the 40-man roster and had a cup of coffee with the Royals in 2018.
Mejia was added to the 40-man roster as part of the Royals’ September call-ups (along with pitcher Gabe Speier). Though he will be 25-years-old in a month, and last September was his first taste of Major League ball, Alex Duvall of “Royals Farm Report” was pretty optimistic that Mejia could be a valuable utility player for the Royals in 2020. Duvall had this to say about Mejia when he was called up to Kansas City:
“Erick Mejia, the utility infielder that KC acquired in the Joakim Soria debacle, had a good season with the bat at Omaha. In 552 PA, Mejia hit .271/.340/.381/.721 34 XBH and 19 SB. The power hasn’t quite arrived yet for Mejia, but he’s got above average plate discipline and ought to fill in nicely as a utility man for KC. He plays all over the field and should provide Ned Yost with some added versatility off the bench.”Alex Duvall, “Breaking: Gabe Speier and Erick Mejia round out Royals September call-ups,” Royals Farm Report, September 2, 2019.
Mejia originally broke in as a middle infielder with the Mariners, but the Royals started playing him in center field when they acquired him in 2018 in order to boost his value and utility as a player. This season, Mejia played 311 innings in the outfield in Omaha, with a majority of those innings coming in center field. In Kansas City, he mostly played center field, as 46 of of his 53 innings came in the outfield in 2019.
While Mejia flashes good speed on the basepaths, he’s no Adalaberto Mondesi or Jarrod Dyson. He stole 19 bases on 25 attempts in Omaha a year ago, but he was caught 17 times on 51 attempts in Northwest Arkansas a season ago. Mejia does not offer much power, and he has a slap-hitting approach, which is not necessarily a bad thing as a switch hitter. However, considering he had a soft-hit percentage of 43.8 percent with the Royals last year, the Royals will primarily value him less for his bat and more for his glove and especially speed on the basepaths. Thus, he has to continue to be more efficient on the basepaths if he wants to make an impact on this Royals roster in 2020.
Mejia isn’t a total loss at the plate, but honestly, he won’t “wow” Royals fans with the bat (he post a 67 wRC+ in 27 plate appearances a year ago). That being said, he does offer a decent approach, as you can see in the highlight clips below, and could be an Erick Aybar or Billy Hamilton type of hitter at the plate if given more regular at-bats.
If Mejia stays on the 40-man (and he still has minor league options left, so it would be surprising if he didn’t), then it’s possible to see him be incorporated on the Royals roster in a bench utility role in 2020. While the Royals are still looking for a manager, Mejia can play nearly every outfield position, and can play third, second, or short, which gives him tremendous value in terms of giving Royals starters rest, or filling in as Royals starters nurse a nagging injury that requires a day off or two. Mejia should also be valuable if the Royals decide not to keep utility infielder Humberto Arteaga on the 25-man roster, who really doesn’t have much of a better bat, and can’t play as many positions as Mejia.
Ryan McBroom, 1B/OF
.293/.361/.360, 95 wRC+, 83 PA with the Royals
McBroom was acquired from the New York Yankees for cash considerations at the start of September to add versatility to their roster, and depth to the OF and first base position. McBroom is the classic, possible “four-A” player: obviously too good for Triple-A, but maybe not good enough for the Major Leagues. He doesn’t wow defensively, and though he did mash in the International League with 26 home runs and a .574 slugging in 2019 while in the Yankees system, his power is considered suspect for a first baseman and/or corner outfielder, as he has only hit more than 20 home runs in the minors one other time (2016 in High-A, when he was in the Blue Jays organization).
Despite the skepticism, McBroom performed decently with the Royals and may give Royals management the kind of utility bat they need to boost their offense, especially at the end of the lineup. While the power didn’t translate from the IL to the Majors (zero home runs, .067 ISO in 83 plate appearances with the Royals), he made solid contact and hit for average, as evidenced by his .293 average and 95 wRC+, which were much better marks in those categories than the Royals regular 2019 first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, who posted a .195 average and 69 wRC+ in 370 plate appearances, respectively.
It seems like McBroom has also the characteristics of a classic college hitter: disciplined, will hit for high average, but it is evident that his power probably benefited from the metal bat. Even when you watch him on tape, it seems like McBroom should hit for more power, but it seems like he’s more concerned with hitting line drives than trying to hit the ball out of the park, which is a classic “college hitter’s” mindset.
Of course, that’s not a bad thing, and it provides a nice complement to O’Hearn should they platoon the two in 2020. Ryan Garko fit that mold perfectly in Cleveland, and he became a useful utility player at the Major League level for about 4-5 seasons. If the Royals can get a Garko-like player in McBroom for a whole lot cheaper, then I think Moore would consider McBroom’s acquisition a victory for the club.
There are also a lot of positive reports about McBroom’s makeup and development at the plate. Though he did strike out 30.8 percent of the time with the Royals, he improved his plate discipline as he progressed in the minors with the Yankees. His K percentage dropped form 27.3 percent to 20.7 percent from 2018 to 2019 in Triple-A, and he also doubled his walk rate from over 6 percent in 2018 to a little over 12 percent in 2019. David Laurila of Fangraphs also said this about McBroom’s adjustment in plate discipline in his article about McBroom after the Royals acquired him in early September:
” [McBroom] feels his biggest strides have come between the ears. And not only has McBroom learned to relax, he’s become more disciplined at the plate. ‘Hitting is a mentality,’ he told me. ‘Since I’ve kind of put things together, my mindset is to stay behind the baseball in the middle of the field. That’s my approach now’.”David Laurila, “New Royal Ryan McBroom is a Late-Bloomer Who Rakes
Unlike Mejia, McBroom’s value won’t come necessarily from his glove or speed on the basepaths. However, with a solid spring and continued development this fall (he is currently playing in the Dominican Winter League), it would not be surprising to see McBroom turn into a useful utility bat who can fill in the corner outfield or platoon with O’Hearn when the Royals face left-handed starting pitching in 2020.
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
.260/.304/.356, 72 wRC+, 79 PA with the Royals
Gutierrez was one of the main position prospects acquired from the Nationals in the Kelvin Herrera trade last summer (along with OF Blake Perkins and RHP Yohanse Morel). However, though he has demonstrated flashes of promise with his bat and glove in the minors, injuries have derailed more opportunities for Gutierrez to find a regular spot on the Royals 25-man roster.
Though he missed the end of the season (and a potential September call up when rosters expand) in 2019 due to a toe injury, it is possible that Gutierrez could be a regular corner-infielder for the Royals in 2020. Gutierrez has relatively nothing to prove in Omaha, as he was posting a .986 OPS in August in the PCL before his injury, and .287/.367/.427 slash overall in 327 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. While the Royals would like to see him develop his power, it seems like his approach and defensive ability may be ready for the Major League level full time in 2020 as long he is fully recovered from his toe injury.
When it comes to his hitting, Gutierrez isn’t completely flawed. He swings and misses a decent amount, as his swinging strike percentage was 13.1 percent and his contact rate hovered at 70.1 percent when he was with the Royals, which aren’t exactly promising marks. However, he showed much better development in Triple-A, especially as the season progressed. His BB/K ratio was 0.49, which was much better than his 0.21 mark with the Royals, and he did post a 0.43 ratio in Northwest Arkansas a year ago, which also shows that this skill can transition as he progresses through levels. With more at-bats, it is possible that Gutierrez can also transition this plate discipline, which will make him a more valuable corner infielder on the roster.
What’s further interesting about Gutierrez’s hitting profile is that he hits the ball hard…he just hits the ball on the ground. While his hard hit percentage was 32 percent (with just a 12 percent soft hit percentage), 68 percent of the balls he hit were on the ground. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for more than just singles, which is a shame, because when Gutierrez did put the ball in the air, he made it count (12.5 HR/FB percentage with the Royals). This was further true in Omaha, as Gutierrez sported a high GB percentage (53.9 percent) and GB/FB ratio (1.75), which negated his decent HR/FB ability (13.4 percent).
There is hope that Gutierrez can tweak his launch angle a bit to improve his batted ball trajectory, as he has the body to hit for power. At 6’3, 215 pounds, he certainly fits the profile for a corner infielder who can hit 20-25 home runs. Even when you watch him in the clips below, it seems like he has the ability or potential to be a more powerful hitting third baseman, though in the clips, he needs to work a little more on swinging less out of the strike zone. It will be interesting to see how the Royals coaching staff will work with him this Spring, though his injury likely will cut into his development this Winter, unfortunately.
Gutierrez should have ample opportunity to seize at least a backup corner infield position in 2020. It’s likely that Cheslor Cuthbert will be gone, as he will be entering arbitration, and it’s unlikely that the Royals will tender him a contract after a second-straight negative-WAR season. Furthermore, while Hunter Dozier had a breakout season in 2019, his injury history and questionable defense at third may have the Royals questioning whether he is a long-term option at the hot corner. If the Royals move Doz to first, it could be possible Gutierrez could become the Royals’ regular third-baseman in 2020, especially if he can have a solid Spring at the plate and a solid start to the 2020 campaign (his glove is already Major League ready, though he did have some brain farts at the hot corner in 2019) .
And even if he doesn’t become the Royals starting third-baseman, he could give the Royals solid utility as a backup third or first baseman that could give Doz a day off or provide insurance should he get injured (which happened a year ago; Cuthbert was the one who filled in). That alone should be a prime reason why Gutierrez should open the year on the Royals’ 25-man roster in 2020.