“Cactus Royals” Preview: Infielders

So in part one of my Royals Spring Training preview, I analyzed the catchers who were invited to the Royals Spring Training facility in Surprise, Arizona. In this post, I will take a look at the infielders, which includes not just the middle infielders, but the corner infielders as well.

Even though he has played second base, I have not included Whit Merrifield in this post. I will include him in my outfielder preview post, since it is likely that he will start out in right field to begin Cactus League play. However, I did include Ryan McBroom in this preview, even though he does play in the outfield as well. While McBroom may be more of a pinch-hitter (or at least that’s his outlook), I do think he profiles more as a first baseman than an outfielder defensively.

Anyways, let’s take a look at the tiers for Royals infielders.

The Stars/Starters

Carlos Santana

Adalberto Mondesi

Hunter Dozier

The Royals were looking to improve their on-base percentage in 2021 and Santana accomplishes that goal nicely. Santana’s walk and BB/K ratio numbers are insane. He’s never posted a walk rate below 13.2 percent over his career, and his career walk rate is 15.5 percent. Furthermore, his career BB/K ratio is 0.94, which has included ratios over one in four out of the past five seasons. To demonstrate how insane those numbers are, keep this in mind: of Royals hitters who have accumulated 100 or more plate appearances since 2018, the highest BB/K ratio a Royals hitter has had in that time span is John Jay, who had a BB/K ratio of 0.49. Thus, Santana’s BB/K ratio over his career is nearly double the BEST ratio any Royals hitter has done over the past three seasons.

So, Santana will be able to draw walks and get on base, which is a much needed boost for a traditionally “free-swinging” organization. However, will he also produce and drive in runs? Santana is coming off one of his worst seasons at the plate, as he only posted a wRC+ of 96 in 2020, the lowest of his career. While his BABIP was a career low (.212), Santana also saw serious regressions in ISO (.150) and hard hit rate (36.6 percent), according to Statcast metrics. However, the former Cleveland Indian has been known for being a slow starter, so one has to wonder if his regression was due to the short season, or if it is a sign of things to come. Hopefully, this Spring, Santana will start to show some of that 2019 form, which was one of his better seasons.

Even though Santana didn’t have the best season, he is a veteran presence who at least can be depended on in the lineup, even if he may not reach those 2019 levels again. On the other hand, Mondesi and Dozier offer some pretty considerable upside, but also carry some risk as well. If both of them have the seasons that they are capable of, then they could help push the Royals into playoff contention. That being said, if they struggle with inconsistency or injury, as has been the case the past three-plus seasons, they could also be the reason why the Royals only hover around that 72-win PECOTA projection.

ZiPS favors Mondesi a little more than Dozier (2.1 to Dozier’s 1.2), while PECOTA projects Mondesi and Dozier to be roughly the same player (they both are projected for a 1.3 WARP). Mondesi and Dozier offer contrasting skill sets. Mondesi offers speed, defense, and some power potential for his position. However, the soon-to-be 26-year-old struggles immensely with plate discipline and making consistent contact, and it will be interesting if he will be able to neutralize those issues over the course of a full 162-game season. As for Dozier, he showed growth in plate discipline, as his walk rate improved from 9.4 to 14.5 percent from 2019 to 2020, respectively. However, he will be 30-years-old in 2021, and he saw a decline in exit velocity (86.4 percent) and hard hit rate (30.9 percent) from 2019 to 2020. Furthermore, he has struggled to find a home defensively at the MLB level, and it’s hard to foresee where he will fit permanently as well, especially with Santana now at first base for at least the next couple of seasons.

Mondesi and Dozier will be two key players to watch this Spring, as their performance and health will be monitored closely in Cactus League play, not just by Royals fans, but the Royals organization as well.

Bench possibilities

Nicky Lopez

Hanser Alberto

The Royals acquired Alberto on a Minor League deal, and he could be a platoon option with Nicky Lopez at second base in 2021. Lopez obviously has the glove to be the Royals’ everyday second baseman, but he has underwhelmed at the plate, as he has only posted a 55 wRC+ in 594 career plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. As for Alberto, he has averaged a 93 wRC+ the past two seasons in Baltimore, but he doesn’t offer Lopez’s defensive upside, and his metrics against right-handed batters over his career leaves a lot to be desired.

However, a possible platoon could be a solution that could maximize both Lopez and Alberto’s skill sets. Alberto or Lopez may not necessarily be everyday players, but they both offer production in the right situations and could perhaps thrive in more specialized situations. Of course, Alberto is on a Minor League deal, so he will have to prove himself this Spring in order to garner a spot on the 40-man roster by Opening Day. That being said, unless he nosedives in Cactus League play, it’s difficult to see Dayton Moore not add him to the Royals’ 40-man roster by April 1st.

Bubble guys

Kelvin Gutierrez

  • 81 DRC+, 0.1 FRAA, 0.0 WARP (projections according to Baseball Prospectus)
  • .272 wOBA, 5.0 Fld, 0.3 WAR (projections according to ZiPS)

Ryan O’Hearn

  • 91 DRC+, -0.1 FRAA, 0.0 WARP (projections according to Baseball Prospectus)
  • .300 wOBA, -1.0 Fld, -0.3 WAR (projections according to ZiPS)

Ryan McBroom

  • 97 DRC+, 0.0 FRAA, 0.0 WAR (projections according to Baseball Prospectus)
  • .303 wOBA, 1.0 Fld, -0.1 WAR (projections according to ZiPS)

Lucius Fox

  • 69 DRC+, -0.2 FRAA, -0.1 WARP (projections according to Baseball Prospectus).
  • .280 wOBA, -2.0 Fld, 0.3 WAR (projections according to ZiPS).

Bobby Witt, Jr.

  • No Projections from PECOTA or ZiPS.

There are a lot of infielders on the bubble, especially on the corners. Up the middle, I listed Fox and Witt, Jr. as “bubble” possibilities, but in all honesty, I am like 95 percent certain that they will both be starting the year in the Minors, with Fox in either AA or AAA, and Witt most likely in AA. However, I did list them because Fox could be an interesting utility infielder option who may emerge should injury beset Lopez or Alberto (or if Alberto doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training, which seems unlikely). As for Witt, Jr., his stock has risen so much over the past year, that it’s not out of the range of possibility to think that he could challenge for a roster spot in 2021 if he rakes this Spring like he did in Summer Camp. Furthermore, Moore and the Royals haven’t hesitated to bring up guys quickly, as evidenced by Brady Singer and kris Bubic last year and Mondesi back in 2015 and 2016.

It could be a battle between O’Hearn and McBroom much like last Spring, but this time, with different stakes. After competing for the first base job last Spring, both are probably PH/DH options would could serve as insurance for Jorge Soler, should he struggle with the injury bug again in 2021. With Santana now on the Royals, it seems unlikely that he will concede much playing time at first base, especially with Salvy getting some reps at first to save his knees a year ago (which kept his bat in the lineup). However, I do see either O’Hearn or McBroom being a possible option off the bench as a pinch hitter, since they both have displayed the potential to display surprising power in short stints.

Gutierrez is at a bit of a crossroads, as he may be a better defensive option than Dozier, but his bat has failed to translate at the MLB level. Granted, he’s been mostly hurt the past two years, so to say that he’s a Four-A player at this point may be a little rash to say until Royals fans get a bigger sample. Furthermore, he is coming off a solid Dominican Winter League where he posted a 1.096 OPS in 17 games and 63 plate appearances, which is a promising sign as he enters a crucial Spring. For those who don’t think LIDOM numbers are a big deal, keep this in mind: Gutierrez outperformed Franchy Cordero (.664 OPS), Jorge Bonifacio (.679 OPS), and Gregory Polanco (.618 OPS) in Dominican League play this Winter, and they are all hitters who have much more big league experience than Gutierrez. While this Winter may have been a flash in the pan, Gutierrez could make things really interesting this Spring if he transitions his raking from the Dominican to Arizona.

Strictly Minor League material

Nick Pratto, Gabe Cancel, Emmanuel Rivera, Erick Mejia, Jeison Guzman, and Clay Dungan

Pratto is not a surprise considering he spent the entire season at the Alternate Site last year despite struggling in High-A Wilmington in 2019. Alex, Joel and I talked about this when I went on the Royals Farm Report podcast, but it seems like the Royals Player Development crew is really selling Pratto as someone who could really bounce back and reclaim his once lofty prospect status (he was the Royals’ best prospect according to Baseball America going into 2018, but that was more due to a pretty poor system rather than Pratto’s talent). However, it’s hard to see Pratto turning into anything more than a fringe player at the MLB level at this point. Granted, he is only 22 years old, and he did show glimpses of maybe turning it around at Summer Camp and the Alternate Site, but he didn’t seem to impress like other prospects such as Kyle Isbel or even Seuly Matias. There was hope when he was drafted that Pratto could develop into a Eric Hosmer-lite player, but he is going to have to show some serious progress this Spring and in the Minors this year if he wants to live up to that comp in the long term.

Rivera is an interesting name on the list, as I didn’t peg him as a possible NRI last fall. However, he did really well this Winter, as he posted an .866 OPS and hit three home runs in 73 plate appearances in the Puerto Rican Winter League. That is pretty impressive, especially when compared to Khalil Lee, who only posted a .622 OPS in 51 plate appearances this Winter. Hence, it is likely that Rivera’s strong Winter campaign played a big part in his invite this Spring, especially since he was pretty mediocre in Northwest Arkansas in 2019 (79 wRC+ in 534 plate appearances).

Mejia, Guzman, and Cancel are all interesting, but incredibly flawed prospects who will spend the entirety of the year in the Minors, most likely in Northwest Arkansas or Omaha. Mejia can play a boatload of positions and has an interesting speed set, but he’s kind of like a Denny’s menu: he does a lot, but nothing really well. Guzman has an elite glove, but he hasn’t really showed anything with the bat, and the fact that the Royals released him from the 40-man in the off-season after adding him to the roster prior to 2020 is not necessarily a comforting sign for his outlook, especially since he was on the 60-man roster a year ago. And as for Cancel, he could provide pop at the keystone, but he is limited tools-wise, and he didn’t make the 60-man roster in 2020, which was peculiar considering he probably would have been the starting second-baseman in Omaha had there been a Minor League season in 2020.

The last player on this list was Dungan, whom I honestly didn’t expect as a non-roster invite this Spring. Dungan is an infielder in the classic college-mold: he’s a stable option at second and provides a decent approach at the plate (he posted a 0.88 BB/K ratio and 146 wRC+ in 65 games with Idaho Falls in 2019). However, while his floor may be a little higher than many Rookie League players, his ceiling doesn’t seem stupendous by any means, which makes one think conservatively in regard to his outlook (it also explains why he was only a 9th round pick). That being said, the same was said of Whit Merrifield, a former 9th round pick as well who didn’t wow scouts with his “upside” and didn’t debut at the MLB level until his age-27 season, but has been the heart and soul of the Royals the past three seasons.

Will Dungan be another Whit? It’s too early to say, but his Rookie League numbers were good, and it will be interesting to see how Dungan adjusts to his first MLB Spring Training camp. If he impresses, he could be a prospect who makes a lot of gains in the Royals system in 2021.

(Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

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