Is the clock ticking in Kansas City for Hanser Alberto?

Dayton Moore initially signed Hanser Alberto as a minor league free agent this off-season as infield insurance off the bench. Going into Spring Training, it was expected that Nicky Lopez was to be the Royals’ starting second baseman, Whit Merrifield would be in right field, Hunter Dozier would be at third, and Alberto would be a backup option who could also offer the ability to platoon at either first or third, mostly due to his strong history against left-handed pitchers.

However, things in the Royals infield, and lineup in general, have changed wildly since Spring Training. Whit has essentially become the Royals’ starting second baseman, and for the most part, despite some early defensive struggles, he’s handled the position well. Currently, according to Baseball Savant, he ranks in the 95th percentile in outs above average, which is one of the better marks of his career. As a result, Lopez has moved to a utility role, even though he filled in at shortstop admirably the first two months of the year as Adalberto Mondesi recovered from an oblique injury (though he suffered a hamstring injury and may miss more time).

These two developments with Whit and Nicky have had an effect on Alberto’s playing time, especially considering he is only posting a 71 wRC+, and is posting an overall fWAR of -0.2, 93 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, Alberto has seen a further cut in playing time with the recent call up of third-baseman Kelvin Gutierrez from Omaha. Granted, Gutierrez hasn’t lit things up with his bat, as he is only posting a 60 wRC+ in 57 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. However, Gutierrez has offered more defensive upside than both Alberto and Dozier at the hot corner. Furthermore, even though he is hitting too many groundballs, a point analyzed recently by Matthew LaMar of Royals Review, Gutierrez is posting a 91.6 MPH exit velocity on batted balls, and his max exit velocity ranks in the 85th percentile for MLB hitters.

Therefore, Lopez and Gutierrez offer some defensive flexibility and offensive upside off the bench in the infield, which puts Alberto in a predicament. Do the Royals really need him around, especially when they have dire pitching needs in the bullpen that they have to fix soon? (They have more position players than pitchers currently, as of June 2nd, though that could change on Thursday).

What makes Alberto such a difficult situation for the Royals is that he is a great clubhouse presence. Even when Alberto was acquired, he was known for having a positive effect not just in other clubhouses, but even with Royals fans specifically, as evidenced by this video of him playing catch with a Royals fan while a member of the Baltimore Orioles back in 2019:

As a member of the Royals so far this year, Alberto has done what is necessary to bring energy to this Royals clubhouse, which isn’t taken for granted by Moore and Mike Matheny over the course of a full 162-game season. Yes, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy are known for their clubhouse leadership, but a MLB team needs those role players who can keep the clubhouse up and energized, especially during the rough patches of the season (how this team bounced back after an 11-game losing streak shows the strength of the clubhouse).

In addition to bringing energy, Alberto has also pulled through on occasion, as he did come up with a huge hit on April 21st against the Tampa Bay Rays, which helped the Royals pull out a victory at Kauffman Stadium over one of the best teams in the American League.

Yes, Alberto is fun, and fun guys are great for the clubhouse and fanbase, especially in Kansas City. However, at the end of the day, while personality is important, production and value are what matters to a club most at the end of the day, especially for one that is trying to get back into the playoff race this Summer.

And right now, it is hard to see what kind of value Alberto provides at this moment.

When the Royals acquired Alberto, they expected him to be a lefty-mashing machine who could give perhaps Lopez a day off at the keystone. Unfortunately, Alberto hasn’t been as productive against lefties this year as advertised. According to his splits, Alberto is only posting a .237/.250/.289 slash with a .539 OPS overall in 41 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers in 2021.

Surprisingly, he is actually hitting better against righties than lefties this year, as he is posting a 91 wRC+ in 52 plate appearances against righties (in comparison to his 46 wRC+ against lefties). However, even though his hitting has been better against right-handed pitchers, that hasn’t been enough for him to get the nod for more playing time over Nicky or Whit in the middle of the infield.

To make matters worse, Alberto really hasn’t offered much at the plate, even when he is able to make contact. His hard hit rate at 20 percent is the lowest of any Royals hitter with 20 or more plate appearances, according to Baseball Savant. In fact, Lopez is posting a higher hard hit rate (22.7 percent) than Alberto. That is not a good sign for Alberto if he wants to keep a spot on the Royals bench this summer.

On a positive note, the 28-year-old Dominican hasn’t struck out much, as he is posting a strikeout rate of only 12.9 percent, and High Heat Stats on Twitter mentioned this interesting factoid about Alberto and his lack of Ks over the past 162 games:

While Alberto’s ranking with that group may be a positive for Alberto and his profile on this Royals squad, his “lack of strikeouts” don’t tell the whole story. For instance, his 18.8 whiff rate is still higher than Lopez (13.3 percent) and Whit (13.2), two players he is primarily competing for when it comes to playing time in the infield. Also Alberto hasn’t walked at ALL this year (literally). Through 93 plate appearances, Alberto has not drawn a single base on balls, which even for Royals standards, is pretty incredible.

Alberto has also led the league in most plate appearances without a walk for a while too, if this Tweet is any indication:

Thus, on an offensive end, it doesn’t seem like Alberto really brings anything to the table for Kansas City. He doesn’t make a lot of hard contact (his weak contact rate at 10 percent is second-highest on the team with Cam Gallagher). He doesn’t walk and get consistently on base. And he is providing negative value defensively, as he is posting a -1.2 Def on Fangraphs, which means that he is more detrimental than beneficial on the field when it comes to his glove.

With all these things considered, it may be in the Royals’ best interests to explore something involving Alberto on the open market that could perhaps net a package in return, even if it may be modest, at best.

Without a doubt, this isn’t an easy situation with Alberto. He definitely is a fan favorite and his excitement and energy for the game definitely makes it fun to root for him and this Royals team as a whole. That being said, it’s hard to see a spot for Alberto with how the roster is constructed now. While Gutierrez isn’t hitting much better, his hard hit rates signal that he has more upside than Alberto, and could see some improvement, especially if he can iron out his launch angle issues. Also, Whit seems to be the starting second baseman for at least the remainder of 2021, and Lopez seems comfortable filling in and producing when needed, especially as Mondesi struggles through another injury.

And let’s not forget…there another middle infielder in Double-A Northwest Arkansas who is starting to heat up (I think Royals fans know who it is):

Maybe the Royals hold onto Alberto for another month. Maybe Jorge Soler moves to the IL, which in-turn, gives Alberto a few more at-bats or innings in the field during this crucial month of June. But after being utilized heavily in April, he was a bit more absent in May, as he played in 17 games after playing in 19 during the first month of play. Yes, Alberto was always seen as a temporary option (otherwise, he wouldn’t have been given a Minor League deal in Spring Training). But right now, it seems like Alberto’s time in Kansas City will only last a few more weeks rather than a few more months, like it seemed back in April.

Who knows, of course. Baseball can change quickly, especially with all the injuries the Royals have dealt with thus far in 2021. If Mondesi does go back on the IL, maybe that could give Alberto the opportunity he needs to stay on and contribute to this Royals roster…

Or maybe it will be his last hurrah, and Alberto will be in another organization, be it the Major League level or Triple-A, by the All Star Break.

Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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