What can the Royals expect from Nick Dini during this recent catching crisis?

It was bad enough when the Royals announced that Salvador Perez tested positive for COVID and would be out for an undisclosed period of time at the beginning of Summer Camp at Kauffman Stadium. However, since Salvy’s positive test, a series of unfortunate events have continued to plague the Royals catcher position during this Summer Camp period. Here’s a list of what has happened:

Hence, to say that the Royals have hit a string of bad luck with their catching position this summer is quite the understatement. Instead of preparing for Salvy’s return and wondering if Gallagher or Viloria would be backing him up once baseball resumed at the end of July, Royals fans are wondering how long the three will be out, and who will step into their place in their absence.

As of now, the Royals have Nick Dini, MJ Melendez, and Sebastian Rivero (in addition to Hernandez) as catchers as options to fill in at the MLB level, though none of them are on the 40-man roster, and Melendez and Rivero have not played above High-A ball yet.

And thus, with Melendez and Rivero most likely staying put in camp once play begins on July 24th for the Royals, Kansas City sports fans are asking themselves this: can Dini, a non-roster invitee catcher who got a brief cup of coffee during a lost year with the Royals last season hold it down until Salvy, Gallagher, and Viloria’s return?

And even when they do return…what will happen to Dini and what will his future be in Kansas City beyond 2020?

This year has certainly been a rough start for Royals catcher, but it is a situation that the Royals organization has been used to. Last year, Salvy, the heart and soul of the Royals behind the plate, missed the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John surgery, which took place near the end of Spring Training. The loss of the six-time All-Star certainly had an effect on the Royals’ production behind the plate, as manager Ned Yost had to shuffle through four different catchers (Martin Maldonado, Cam Gallagher, Meibrys Viloria, and Dini) in 2019.

Dini made his debut in August of 2019 after an injury to Cam Gallagher which pretty much sidelined him the remainder of the year. A 14th round pick by the Royals in the 2015 draft out of Wagner University, Dini was having a solid year in Omaha before his call up to Kansas City, as he was posting a .296/.370/.565 slash to go along with 13 home runs and 36 RBI in 58 games and 213 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers. In 20 games and 64 plate appearances with the Royals, he only posted a slash of .196/.270/.357, and he struggled with contact at times, as he sported a strikeout rate of 28.6 percent. However, he did sport a 0.40 BB/K ratio, which shows that he can get on base other ways, and it would have been interesting to see how his batting eye would have adjusted at the MLB level had he been given a longer tenure of games behind the plate in 2019.

Dini does possess some pop, for in addition to the 13 home runs he hit in Omaha, he also hit 2 home runs with the Royals in his 20-game stint, which included this one against the Minnesota Twins below:

While offensively Dini possesses some potential, the big issue will be how he progresses behind the plate defensively. While he does have a decent arm (he threw out 40 percent of runners last year at the Major League level), other aspects of his defense have been questionable, according to his Minor League reports. Here is what Alex Duvall said of Dini in his scouting writeup on him on Royals Farm Report, as he ranked Dini as the 70th best prospect in the Royals system going into 2020:

I don’t want to completely write off Nick Dini yet, but time is running out on the Royals catcher. Dini has hit well in each of the last two seasons in the minors, but his defense leaves a bit to be desired behind home plate, and with Salvador Perez, Cam Gallagher, and Meibrys Viloria in the fold for the foreseeable future, I don’t know where Dini’s future is with this team.

“No. 70: Nick Dini” by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report

Of course, at this time, Perez nor Gallagher nor Viloria are in the fold either due to COVID or injury, which leaves Dini competing instead with MJ Melendez, Sebastian Rivero and Oscar Hernandez for the Royals job until those three return healthy. While it is likely that neither Melendez nor Rivero will see any playing time in Kansas City in order to preserve service time (both are on the 60-man for development purposes), they do rate as better defensive catchers than Dini, and even Hernandez, a journeyman in baseball, also is known more for his defense as well. Thus, if Dini wants to separate himself from this catching crop, he will have to demonstrate that his defense has improved during camp in addition to maintaining his hitting ability, which of the four, is probably the best currently (though Melendez probably has the most potential of the four).

It will be interesting how quickly Perez, Gallagher, and Viloria return. For Perez and Gallagher, it is more of a matter of making sure they will not spread the virus with anyone on the team, as they were asymptomatic, and noted that they didn’t feel affected at all physically before they tested positive. As for Viloria, his injury is undisclosed and it is indeterminate how long he will be out for. A lot of talk going into this season before it was delayed due to COVID centered on the Royals utilizing three catchers to lighten the load on Salvy, who missed a whole season of play in 2019. If Viloria’s injury is more serious than we think, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that Dini could fill in that “3rd spot”, even though the Royals would have to clear a roster spot for him.

It’s hard to not root for Dini. He, for the most part, has hit at every level he’s played at in the Minors, and he’s an infectious personality that’s easy to root for. Just check out this interview with Joel Goldberg after he hit his first Major League home run and it’s easy to see why fans in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha cheered for him so fervently during his stops in Double-A and Triple-A, respectively.

The next two weeks will be an intriguing one for Dini and the Royals. Originally pegged to be an after thought on this Royals roster after he was designated for assignment in November, Dini is thrusting himself back into the spotlight behind the plate during this most recent backstop crunch. Maybe Dini won’t have much of a cup of coffee in the Majors in 2020, but at this point, he seems to be the favorite to start unless Gallagher or Salvy can return fully healthy sooner than expected. That being said, while Dini may not have the most upside as a catcher for the Royals, he certainly can hold his own, especially at the plate. It will just be his defense and ability to call games that will make-or-break him at the Major League level.

Nobody thought the New Jersey kid would have a shot at being the catcher on Opening Day, let alone make the Opening Day roster at all in 2020. And yet, here he is, with that inside track as Salvy, Gallagher and Viloria recover.

One has to wonder if Dini will make the most out of this rare opportunity, and how it could affect his future not just in Kansas City, but in Major League Baseball in general.

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