This off-season Royals signed former Orioles second-baseman Hanser Alberto on a Minor League deal and invited him to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. The deal seemed to be a pretty clear cut one for both Alberto and the Royals. For Alberto, it gave him a shot to make a Major League roster after being non-tendered by the Baltimore Orioles at the conclusion of the 2020 season. For the Royals, it gave them a possible veteran utility infielder off the bench who could also provide some production against left-handed pitching. In fact, it seemed plausible at the beginning of Spring Training that Alberto and Nicky Lopez, the Royals’ starting second baseman last year, could platoon at second base over the full course of the 2021 season.
However, with roughly a week left in Spring Training, Alberto has proven that he should not be seen solely as a platoon option for the Royals off the bench. Rather, Alberto has made an argument that he could be a candidate for the Royals’ starting second base position on Opening Day, especially amidst Lopez’s struggles at the plate last year and this Spring.
Thus, will Lopez still be the Royals starting second baseman on April 1st at Kauffman Stadium? Or will Alberto continue his torrid Spring and earn the starting nod at the keystone in Kansas City in nearly a week?
Let’s take a look at what Alberto and Lopez have done, and what the outlook could be for the Royals at second base not just for the remainder of Spring Training, but in 2021 as well.
Alberto found new life in Baltimore in 2019 after only playing 89 games over three seasons in the Rangers organization from 2016-2018. Two seasons ago with the Orioles, Alberto posted a slash of .305/.329/.422, a wRC+ of 97 and a 2.0 WAR, according to Fangraphs. Unfortunately, the former Oriole regressed a bit in year two in Baltimore during the shortened 2020 season, as his batting average fell to .283, and wRC+ and WAR also fell to 89 and 0.6, respectively. Furthermore, his defense also struggled over his 54-game stint in 2020, as his OAA (outs above average) went from seven outs above average to three runs BELOW average, according to Baseball Savant. Thus, with little to no pop, and some question marks defensively last year, it’s not a surprise that Baltimore non-tendered him last year, especially considering he’s 28-years-old this season.
That being said, even though on paper it makes sense that the rebuilding Orioles would non-tender a player of Alberto’s status this Winter, it seems like the infielder from the Dominican Republic took it personally. He is using the Orioles’ decision as motivation to make the Royals roster, as evidenced from an interview with Carlos Parra Machado, the Royals beat writer for the Spanish-speaking baseball site “Con Las Bases Llenas”. Here is a snippet from that interview (it is in Spanish):
Here is what Machado’s text says in the Tweet translated into English:
The Dominican Hanser Alberto was surprised that the Orioles let him go free. Here’s his statements He’s at Spring Training with the Royals fighting for a position as a utility player.Carlos Parra Machado Interview with Hanser Alberto; Twitter; March 23rd
So far, in 10 games and 25 plate appearances, Alberto is posting .409/.480/.500 slash with two doubles and three walks to only two strikeouts this Spring. Additionally, the 28-year-old infielder has also flashed some defensive versatility, as evidenced by this fantastic play on March 19th against the Angels:
Alberto’s offense and defense as a Royal this Spring has been impressive, and he has also showed some improved plate discipline as well, as he is posting a BB/K ratio of 1.5, which is nearly 1.3 points higher than his career BB/K ratio (0.21). While it’s unlikely that Alberto is not a 1.5 ratio hitter, it could be a sign that Alberto is honing his batting eye at the plate, which would only complement his supreme contact skills as a hitter nicely.
That being said, as typical with any players’ Spring Training numbers, Alberto’s stats should also be taken with a grain of salt. According to Baseball Reference, his opponent quality score this Spring is 7.6, which is fourth-highest of Royals infielders, but still translates to roughly Triple-A competition, if not slightly below. Therefore, while Alberto is looking impressive now, it will be interesting to see how his stat line would fare if given the full-time position at second base in Kansas City in 2021.
It’s tough to tell whether Alberto is ready for the Royals’ starting second base position just yet. At the very least though, he has earned a spot on the 26-man roster, and should at the very least be seen as a utility infielder off the Royals bench for Mike Matheny to use in 2021.
While Alberto’s strong Spring has warranted him consideration for the Royals’ starting second base position, this possibility wouldn’t be a discussion if Lopez was raking this Spring. Unfortunately, after posting a 56 and 55 wRC+ in his first two seasons in the Majors (2019 and 2020), things have been pretty bad for the light-hitting, glove-first middle infielder in Cactus League play.
In 15 games and 38 plate appearances, Lopez is posting a .121/.237/.152 slash with a .388 OPS. Considering Lopez has a career .586 OPS in 548 plate appearances, this current stat line this Spring is not necessarily a promising sign that Lopez is on the upswing offensively for 2021.
What has been particularly alarming about Lopez in Cactus League play has been the extraordinary amount of strikeouts at this dish. Lopez currently has struck out 13 times, which leads all Royals infielders, and is the third-highest total for Royals hitters. In fact, Lopez is only behind Jorge Soler (15) and Ryan O’Hearn (14), who are two Royals hitters known for swinging and whiffing at the plate the past couple of seasons. However, Soler and O’Hearn have power to make up for the swing and miss tendencies, as they have combined for seven home runs this Spring.
Lopez on the other hand has only one extra base hit this Spring (a double).
Unfortunately, this has been a trend for Lopez, who increased his whiffs significantly in his sophomore season in Kansas City. Known for being a high-contact hitter in the Minors, Lopez posted a 21.4 percent strikeout rate in 2020, a nearly nine point jump from his 12.7 percent mark in 2019. Furthermore, the highest strikeout rate Lopez posted in the Minors, according to Fangraphs, was 11.5 percent in 2017 during his first stint in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. While an adjustment period to Major League hitters was to be expected for Lopez, a strikeout rate above 20 percent last year, and little improvements made in that area this Spring, should have Royals fans worried about the outlook at second. Hence, it’s not surprising that Alberto is being considered for the position, in addition to Bobby Witt, Jr., who may be a August or September call-up and take over at second as well, should he tear up Double-A pitching in 2021.
I have talked about this before, but it will be interesting to see if Lopez will find a way to cut down on his swing and utilize that “oppo” approach that made him so effective at Creighton University and in the Minors. With the hype about gaining weight and strength, it seemed like Lopez tried add more power behind his swing in 2020, and it proved to be fruitless: his ISO actually regressed from .084 in 2019 to .065 in 2020. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if Lopez could focus more on contact and plate discipline in 2021, and less on a “power” approach, which only hurt him at the plate last season.
That being said, it seems like Lopez has been in his head this Spring, unable to shake the “ghosts” that have haunted him at the plate since debuting in 2019. Lopez certainly has the potential to be a better hitter, and his glove is legitimately Gold Glove worthy. If all things click, it’s possible that Lopez could be a Kolten Wong-lite kind of player. However, with Whit Merrifield having the ability to play second base, and Alberto lurking, Lopez will have to prove quickly in 2021 that he can hit well enough at the MLB level to be not only a starting infielder, but even a utility one as well.
As Spring Training comes to a close, all signs point that Lopez is still slightly in the lead, especially in the midst of the demotion of Kyle Isbel, who was absolutely raking this Spring. Matheny and Dayton Moore value defense, and Lopez is significantly better defensively than not only Alberto, but even Whit as well.
That being said, the bat has to come through for Lopez to keep the position, and he has to be able to show significant improvement within the first month of play. A slow start in April could not only mean a lost starting position for Lopez, but perhaps a demotion to Triple-A Omaha, as the Minor League season begins in May.
And if Lopez is demoted, it will be interesting to see then if Alberto will get a full-time shot at second.
He’s been impressive so far this Spring. Therefore, Royals fans have to wonder if Alberto could replicate his 2019 performance in 2021 in Kansas City.
If he does put that kind of performance, that could be a huge boost to the Royals’ chances of improving in the AL Central.
Photo Credit: Will Newton/Getty Images