There’s no question that baseball teams and general managers have to make tough decisions when it comes to building a roster. Already, Dayton Moore has had to make some challenging decisions in regard to clearing space on the 40-man roster for some potential moves this Winter. Those moves have mostly focused on the pitching side, as Moore allowed Ian Kennedy, Greg Holland, Mike Montgomery, Kevin McCarthy, and Matt Harvey to become free agents this off-season. While there is some talk that Holland could come back, McCarthy has already signed with the Boston Red Sox, and it seems unlikely that neither Kennedy, Monty, or Harvey will be playing the Royals organization in 2021 either.
However, the Royals roster decisions with the current 40-man roster are far from over, especially with “virtual” Winter meetings looming in less than a month. The Royals will have some tough decisions to make, especially in regard to their position players on the 40-man roster. Jorge Soler and Maikel Franco will be entering their final seasons of arbitration, while Hunter Dozier, Adalberto Mondesi, and Franchy Cordero will be entering arbitration for the first time. And thus, it will be interesting to see which players Moore will sign to extensions (with Mondesi being a possibility), and which ones could possibly be non-tendered or traded (unlikely, but that could be the case with Franco).
However, two players who didn’t contribute much last year and could be on the chopping block may be third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez and catcher Meibrys Viloria, especially considering they are blocked by other options on the Royals roster, and have limited Minor League option flexibility. Thus, let’s take a look at both Gutierrez and Viloria, and what the Royals could do with both of them leading up to the 2021 season.
Gutierrez and Viloria are both relatively young players (26 and 23, respectively) who have been yo-yo’d between Kansas City and Minor League affiliates the past two seasons. Gutierrez came to the Royals as a decently-heralded Washington Nationals infield prospect in the Kelvin Herrera trade back in 2018 (along with outfielder Blake Perkins and pitcher Yohanse Morel). Gutierrez poses some potential as a hot corner candidate, as he was rated as the 16th best prospect in the Royals system, according to Fangraphs’ Top 43 Royals rankings. Here is what Eric Longenhagn said about Gutierrez in his rankings:
Perhaps a swing change away from a mid-20s breakout, Gutierrez has the highest average exit velo in this system but among its lowest average launch angles. The makeup of his offensive DNA (plus contact, an aggressive approach) as currently constituted would play in a reserve role, some kind of 3B/1B platoon that also includes good defense. The Maikel Franco signing was a potential impediment to that.“No. 16: Kelvin Gutierrez”: Royals Top 43 Prospects by Eric Longenhagen; Fangraphs.com
Since being called up in 2019, Gutierrez unfortunately has underwhelmed at the Major League level. In 24 games and 91 plate appearances as a Royal, the 26-year-old Dominican-born corner infielder has posted a .244/.308/.329 slash along with a wRC+ of 69, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, his defense, which was highly lauded in the Minors, has been a bit inconsistent at the Major League level, as he has a career UZR of -0.5, and DRS of 2. Granted, those are small sample sizes, but considering defense was his calling card in the Minors, the early returns in Kansas City are not promising metrically.
Additionally, injuries have derailed Gutierrez’s career the past two years, as he had landed on the 60-day IL for extended periods of time in both 2019 and 2020. If he can get healthy, there is potential that Gutierrez could be a serviceable option at the hot corner, especially since he poses some interesting bat and glove tools that seem to be refining, even if the process may be coming slower than the Royals (and Royals fans) may want. That being said, Franco’s bounce back season in 2020, and likelihood of coming back in 2021, may be a roadblock for Gutierrez not only in terms of getting playing time in Kansas City, but staying in the Royals organization in general.
Though Gutierrez is older than Viloria, the third-baseman is actually in a more favorable state than the Colombian-born catcher. While Gutierrez still has a Minor League option (he likely will start the year in Triple-A Omaha if he remains with the Royals), Viloria will be out of options in 2021, and it is unlikely that he will gain much more playing time in 2021 after solid seasons by Salvador Perez and Cam Gallagher in 2020.
Due to Salvy injuries in 2018 and 2019, Viloria was advanced quickly through the Royals farm system, as he made his Royals debut in 2018, appearing in 10 games down the stretch despite playing most of the year in high-A Wilmington. Furthermore, Salvy missing the entire 2019 season due to Tommy John recovery also opened the door for more playing time for Viloria, as he played in 42 games and garnered 148 plate appearances while splitting time with Gallagher behind the plate.
However, despite the near-50 game sample as a 22-year-old, he only posted a slash of .211/.259/.286 with a wRC+ of 40. Furthermore, he struggled to show much plate discipline (0.23 BB/K ratio) and failed to hit many line drives or balls in the air (2.26 GB/FB ratio in 2019) in his limited extended stint two seasons ago. And defensively, he paled in comparison to fellow catcher Gallagher, as his framing cost the Royals four runs on extra strikes in 2019, according to Statcast Data.
Thus, it is not surprising that Viloria did not earn much playing time in 2020, especially with Salvy posting a 1.9 WAR in his return, and Gallagher posting a 0.5 WAR and 117 wRC+. Viloria spent some time early on in the season on the IL, and when he returned, he only garnered 24 plate appearances in 15 games. And unfortunately for Viloria, 2020 proved to be a replica of his 2019: lackluster production (52 wRC+), questionable plate discipline (0.22 BB/K ratio), and an inability to hit line drives or the ball in the air (6.00 GB/FB ratio).
At this point, Viloria is in a difficult spot, for he not only seems well behind Salvy and Gallagher on the depth chart, but he also seems to have lost some momentum to catching prospects such as MJ Melendez and Sebastian Rivero, who made some major impressions on the Royals brass at the Alternate Site this past season.
At the end of the day, both Gutierrez and Viloria are not going to move the needle much for the Royals in 2021. If Moore does part ways with one or both of them, the Royals roster will be fine, as Moore most likely will replace them with internal options or cheap free agents who will likely be on one-year contracts. However, while both players are not “franchise-changing” players, they are players who once carried mid-level prospect status in the past two-to-three years. And thus, while it was to be expected that Gutierrez and Viloria wouldn’t “break out” at the Major League level, it is disappointing that they couldn’t at least surprise, and give the Royals some kind of return on their value in Kansas City.
Of course, their careers in Kansas City are not over, officially. Gutierrez is currently playing Winter ball in the Dominican, and if he can parlay a solid Winter league campaign into a good Spring Training, then it is possible he could at least justify to Moore that he merits a spot on the 40-man roster, even if most likely would result in him starting the year in Omaha. Furthermore, Viloria still is young, and if he show some growth this Spring Training, then it is possible that Moore could trade Gallagher, for Gallagher could garner some value on the market for teams that are desperate for a catcher.
That being said, the odds are long for both Gutierrez and Viloria, and they will have their work cut out for them this off-season. If Moore is aggressive this off-season in free agency or trades, and acquires a position player to boost this lineup, then it would not be surprising to see Moore clear a spot on the 40-man roster by DFA’ing one of these two players.
And if that happens, let’s just hope as Royals fans that neither player comes back to haunt the Royals by succeeding on another team in 2021 or 2022.