Is Mondesi finally ready to be a star on this Royals team?

If Royals fans look at the Fangraphs Royals Depth Chart for 2020, a handful of things most likely will pique their curiosity:

  • They list Jesse Hahn as the no. 5 starter in the rotation. Having barely pitched the past two years, it is more likely that Hahn will find a bullpen role than a spot in the rotation, unless he really shows something this Spring Training.
  • Danny Duffy is projected to outperform expected Opening Day starter Brad Keller (not by a lot, but barely).
  • Greg Holland is expected to make the 26-man roster and find a role as a setup man in the bullpen, while Trevor Rosenthal will be the odd man out and not make the 26-man roster this Spring.
  • They project every Royal in the predicted starting lineup to hit 10-plus homers with the exception of Nicky Lopez (whom they project to hit 6).
  • They project that Adalberto Mondesi to hit 19 home runs and steal 51 bags in 2020.

Yes, that last bullet point caught my attention as a Royals fan too. 20 home run, 50 stolen base potential? That’s borderline superstar metrics there. Which begs us as Royals fans to ask this question:

Will Mondesi actually be one of the Royals star players to build around in 2020 and beyond?

Without a doubt, Mondesi may be the Royals’ most exciting player heading into the 2020 season, which is saying something with a roster that consists of Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield. While Soler hits mammoth home runs, and Whit is the model of consistency, Mondesi’s trio of speed, defense and hitting make him a unique player, especially in this day and age of analytics and risk-averse organizations where stolen base kings are on the decline. In fact, Mondesi lead all American League shortstops a season ago in stolen bases with 43, with Jonathan Villar of the Orioles finishing second with 40, despite Villar playing in 60 more games than Mondesi in 2019. That’s how effective Mondesi’s stolen base prowess was for the Royals a season ago.

While the 51 stolen bases projection for Mondesi is not surprising (after all, he stole 43 in a 102 games…it’s crazy to think what he would’ve been capable of had he played a full 162 games), the uptick in power was a nice surprise. In 2018, over a 75-game span, Mondesi flashed similar speed to 2019 (32 stolen bases), but the biggest difference from 2018 to 2019 was his big fly potential. In 2018 plate appearances, Mondesi hit 14 home runs and posted a .222 ISO over 291 plate appearances. Last year, those metrics regressed, as Mondesi only hit 9 home runs and posted a .161 ISO over 443 plate appearances. While Mondesi did up his triples total (he had 10 triples in 2019 compared to 3 in 2018), the regression in power was a bit disappointing for the former top Royals prospect. However, it seems like ZiPS and Fangraphs projections expect Mondesi to bounce back from that regression a year ago, and maybe find totals in home runs and ISO somewhere in the middle of his surge of 2018 and step back of 2019. And it’s understandable from a fan’s perspective as well, especially when you see the “big fly” potential in his swing from the past couple of seasons, as evidenced below:

The idea of Mondesi being a 20-plus home-run and 50-stolen base player with excellent defense is a tantalizing thought for Royals management and fans alike. That being said, the Royals always envisioned Mondesi with this kind of “five-tool” potential when they signed him out of the Dominican Prospect League for a $2 million signing bonus as a teenager. With his athleticism, tools and Major League pedigree (his dad being former big league outfielder Raul Mondesi), it seemed like the Royals signed a guy who could be a franchise cornerstone for years to come. And it wasn’t only the Royals that believed this, but most prospect experts as well, for even Baseball America ranked Mondesi as the Royals top prospect in 2015 and 2016, according to their Prospect Handbook rankings.

Unfortunately, as Royals fans know, Mondesi didn’t come up and mash right away as many would have hoped or expected. The Royals rushed Mondesi to the Majors initially, as he made his debut during the 2015 World Series, and added him to the Opening Day roster in 2016. However, he was not ready as a 20-year-old for a role on a team that was looking to defend their World Series title. Despite being the system’s best prospect at the time, Mondesi never got in a groove in 2016 or 2017, and even though he was only 22 at the start of the 2018 season, there were some Royals fans thinking that Mondesi would end up being a bust with the Royals.

And then, Royals fans saw what happened in 2018 and all that “bust” talk went out the window. Furthermore, though Mondesi didn’t have the kind of season he wanted in 2019, he still showed that he was an above-average shortstop, and the Royals seem to be optimistic about his future, as they credit injuries as a big reason why Mondesi didn’t match his 2018 power metrics at the plate. After a full season of recovery, the Royals expect Mondesi to bounce back toward those 2018 numbers in 2020, as even manager Mike Matheny seems to hold the 24-year-old in high regard as Spring Training workouts begin in Surprise.

The big questions in 2020 will be if Mondesi can stay on the field, and if he will embrace a “star” role on this Royals team, especially if he is able to get off to a hot start out of the gate. The Royals players, management, and even ownership are talking about the Royals “winning now” and in order for that to happen, the Royals need a healthy, effective Mondesi playing at least 150-160 games at shortstop in 2020. While Nicky Lopez is good, the Royals won’t win games if he and Humberto Arteaga are holding down extended time at the shortstop position in 2020.

Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to Mondesi’s success this year, in addition to his health, may be his plate approach and contact issues, as I have noted before on this blog. A 63 percent contact rate and 21 percent swinging strike percentage won’t cut it in 2020, or at least not cut it on the hitting end, anyways. However, if he can get those numbers closer to or even above his 2018 metrics, which happened to be a 67 percent contact rate, and 18.2 swinging strike percentage, it is more than plausible that his 2020 numbers will be much improved, especially over the course of a full campaign.

That being said, it is understandable if there are analytic-heads who may be doubtful that Mondesi can put it all together and be a star, especially at the plate. While metrics do point that Mondesi is already one of the better defensive shortstops in the American League (he ranked 3rd in Def score of AL shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs), his sub 70 percent contact rate and near 20 percent swinging strike percentage may make fans question whether his hit tool will develop enough for Mondesi to develop into a bonafide star.

While those metrics are discouraging, they are not necessarily career-ending by any means. First off, he’s only 24, still two years away from his “peak” season, and he has not yet played a full Major League campaign. Second, there have been examples of shortstops with Mondesi’s profile who have excelled at the Major League level, even recently. The best comparison to Mondesi? Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Baez, who also has swing and miss issues at the plate (he has a career 67.1 contact rate and 17.6 swinging strike percentage), but is a perennial All-Star and considered one of the game’s best two-way shortstops. What’s all interesting is that it took some time for Baez to break out as well, as he didn’t really thrive into his current mold until 2018, which was his age 25 season. (One could argue that it was 2017, as he did have a .796 OPS, but even then, it seemed like Baez was considered a very good shortstop then, not the game’s best.)

Now, will Mondesi become Baez 2.0? Well that’s hard to tell as Baez had two full seasons under his belt until his 2018 all-star campaign. Mondesi has not even had one. Furthermore, Baez rates better as a defensive shortstop and power-wise than Mondesi now, but it will be interesting to see how that would look in 2020 if fully healthy. Nonetheless, while Mondesi may not be a Baez clone, it does suggest that Mondesi may still be able to excel at his position, even if his contact rates and whiff percentages may raise some red flags for analytical Royals fans.

Two years ago, Whit Merrifield broke in and solidified his position as a Royals star player. Last year, it was a combo of Soler and Hunter Dozier, who showed that the Royals could build around these guys offensively at least for the next year or two. In 2020, it is unclear of the current Royals hitters who will take the next “step” as a Royals “cornerstone” player. Some think it could be Lopez, who bulked up this off-season to add some power to his highly-developed contact tool. Some think it could be O’Hearn, who has always demonstrated the power the past two seasons, but he has a tendency to hit too many groundballs and strike out too often.

But when we really think about it as Royals fan, it become clearer whom the Royals NEED to be the breakout player this season: Mondesi. The Royals need a healthy Mondesi not only to win games this year, but also give the fans and the organization encouragement that this club will be able to improve and compete for a pennant again in the near future.

Mondesi’s health will be key to watch this Spring. Because if he is back at it, and looking good and healthy in the Cactus League this February and March…well…2020 could finally be the year where Mondesi starts to live up to or perhaps even surpass his once massive prospect hype.

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