While the Royals went 0-2 during the Opening Weekend of Spring Training (with losses to the Rangers and fellow division rival, the Cleveland Indians), there were some bright spots to be had from the Royals’ first two Cactus League games of the Spring.
First, Brady Singer, who made his long-anticipated debut, looked stellar in his first work of the 2020 season. In an inning of work, Singer struck out two and looked pretty impressive, as evidenced in the Tweet below:
Also, Scott Blewett pitched well in two innings of work today against the Indians, as he allowed no hits or walks and struck out one. Those are impressive metrics, especially considering this may be a “make or break” season for him when it comes to staying on the 40-man roster out of Spring Training.
As for position players, outfielders Nick Heath and Khalil Lee have been making an impact both at the dish and on the basepaths, as both have stolen bases already this Spring. As for Lee, he’s had a couple of hits already this Spring, and nearly won the Royals’ opener, as the fly ball he hit to end the game went all the way to the warning track. As for Heath, he’s continued to transition his patient eye at the plate to Spring Training, as he has drawn two walks to go along with a base hit through two games.
However, while there are other stories worth noting early on this Spring (Soler, O’Hearn, and Starling’s bombs), the player that has stuck out the most so far in Surprise may be third-baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, the 17th-best prospect in the Royals system last year, according to MLB Pipeline.
Which makes Royals fans wonder: is Gutierrez going to surprise everyone in 2020 and make Dayton Moore regret signing Maikel Franco this Winter?
Gutierrez was acquired along with outfielder Blake Perkins in the Kelvin Herrera trade of 2018, and at least, unlike Perkins, he has at least somewhat lived up to expectations and made it to the Major League level. (It appears that Perkins won’t amount to much as a professional.) Gutierrez has always profiled as a solid defensive third baseman with a rocket arm (Pipeline graded his arm as a 60), and he has showed potential to hit for decent average at the Major League level. That being said, his power has been slow to come around, as he has only hit 27 home runs in his Minor League career since he broke into professional ball in 2016. However, the Royals seem to believe that his power can grow with better instruction and development, as evidenced by this quote from his scouting report on Pipeline:
“Gutierrez has always hit from the right side of the plate, showing a knack for making hard contact to all fields. What hasn’t shown up consistently yet is his power, but the Royals think there’s more in there. Much of it has to do with his hitting philosophy. Because of his advanced bat-to-ball skills, Gutierrez would often catch the ball too deep in the zone and not get his bat head enough. There could be more over-the-fence power if he can find a better point of contact…”MLB Pipeline Prospect Rankings 2019
Gutierrez did show some promise in his Major League debut in 2019, as he posted a .260/.304/.356 slash over 79 plate appearances and 20 games with the Royals. While he did strike out a lot (30.4 K percentage; 0.21 BB/K ratio), he did have a home run and 11 RBI, thus showing that he could be a good run producer at the bottom of the lineup for the Royals.
Unfortunately, injury derailed Gutierrez’s promising start, as Cheslor Cuthbert ended up taking the backup third base job from Gutierrez due to Gutierrez’s struggles to stay healthy in 2019. When Hunter Dozier went down for a bit in May, it seemed like Gutierrez was in line to succeed him, but Kelvin went on the IL in late May as well, and Cuthbert stepped in, and ended up having a hot streak that May and June, making it impossible for the Royals to part ways with him at the time. And when Cuthbert cooled off and stopped hitting, and the Royals expanded roster in September, Gutierrez ended up fracturing his toe, which basically meant the end of his 2019 season. Thus, while Gutierrez got some much deserved playing time during last year’s rebuilding season, his inability to stay healthy prevented the Royals from taking an extended look at him in 2019.
At 25-years-old, Gutierrez is still relatively young, so he remained on the Royals 40-man roster this Winter. However, the Royals decided to pick up Franco from the Phillies this off-season, which consequently resulted in the Royals moving Dozier to the outfield. And thus, with Franco expected to be the starting third baseman in 2020, and the bench most likely belonging to out of options outfielders like Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, it seemed like a done deal that Gutierrez would be starting the year in Omaha for a second-straight season.
That being said, the Dominican-born infielder is doing all he can to prove that he deserves a spot on the 26-man roster this Spring, as he has scorched the ball so far this Spring. Gutierrez already has three hits in four at-bats, including two doubles, and two RBI. And his performance so far this Spring has caught the attention of the Royals media as well:
Granted, it is only two games, and it is possible that Gutierrez may hit a slide and see his numbers regress to what his normal for him, which would probably be a .260-ish, sub-.700 OPS hitter. However, if Gutierrez continues to show some pop, and is able to flash his glove and arm at the hot corner this Spring, there is no question that he could earn a spot on this roster as a utility infielder, as he has played some shortstop in the Minors (though he probably would profile sub-par as a shortstop or second baseman in terms of lateral quickness).
While Gutierrez’s bat will certainly be follow this Spring, his defense will also be scrutinized by Royals management and fans as well. While Gutierrez earned raves for his defense in the Minors as a prospect, he didn’t impress at the Major League level, as he rated one out BELOW average according to Baseball Savant, and was prone to make mistakes in the infield on seemingly routine plays. Though it is nice to see Gutierrez hit well early this Spring, he needs to make sure that he’s producing with the bat AND glove this Spring to prove he is worthy of that coveted 26th roster spot.
Even though Franco is off to a slow start this Spring (he’s 0-for-4 with two strikeouts), it is highly unlikely Gutierrez steals the third base job from the former Phillie, even if Gutierrez out-produces him this Spring. Franco is the guy and he will get every opportunity for at least a couple of months to prove that he was worth acquiring this off-season. While the Royals cut ties with another free agent flyer like Chris Owings quickly last year, Moore and the Royals seem far more invested in Franco this year than Owings a season ago.
Nonetheless, there has been little talk this off-season about Gutierrez earning a utility infield spot on this Royals active roster on Opening Day. Considering there are a dearth of options right now for that role in the Royals organization (only Erick Mejia and Matt Reynolds are being considered, and they are both Non-Roster invitees), it would make sense for the Royals to give Gutierrez that role should he continue to rake and improve in the field this Spring. After all, Gutierrez showed some promise a season ago, and could have produced better numbers had he been healthy when rosters expanded in September.
As stated before though, it’s only two games (and Spring Training games to boot). It is important for Royals fans not to overreact with Gutierrez just as it is important to not overreact on Franco’s lackluster start to Spring Training. That being said, Gutierrez is suddenly capturing Royals fans’ attention in a positive way, and if he keeps it up, then it may be hard for the Royals to justify not keeping Gutierrez on the active roster at the conclusion of Spring Training.