It hasn’t been an easy 2021 for either Adalberto Mondesi or Kansas City Royals fans, especially those who had such high hopes for Mondesi as he entered his sixth season at the Major League level. Mondesi has already had multiple stints on the 10-day IL, and when he returned after his latest stint, there was some hope that Mondesi had turned a corner, especially after this massive bomb he hit at Kauffman Stadium against the Boston Red Sox last Friday night:
I mean, Christ…he hit that one into the Rivals sports bar. That is something.
But unfortunately, Mondesi’s most recent return to the Royals lineup was short lived. After playing on Friday, he sat out Saturday, which was not a good sign. And even though he was back in the batting order on Sunday, he left the game early due to discomfort.
By Monday, Dayton Moore made this announcement to a group of reporters in regard to the Mondesi’s injury status:
Not too long after Moore’s announcement, the Royals released the official move on their Twitter account:
In 38 plate appearances, Mondesi is posting a .361/.378/.833 slash with a wRC+ of 224. He has already accumulated a 0.8 fWAR, according to Fangraphs, even though he’s missed 60 of the 70 total Royals games this season, With the Royals 32-38 as they head out for perhaps their toughest road trip of the season (they play the Yankees, Rangers, and Red Sox on the road), it’s a bit mind-numbing to think what this Royals team could have been had Mondesi been at least somewhat healthy this season.
That being said, Mondesi’s struggles with injury also demonstrates the value of not only Nicky Lopez, who’s filled in admirably at shortstop this year, but the importance of depth in general, as the Royals, among other teams, have had to adjust to numerous injuries to key players with the transition back to a full 162-game season in 2021.
Today, KC Star columnist and former Royals beat writer Sam Mellinger wrote a poignant column that pretty much summed up Royals fans’ frustrations with Mondesi. Here is a snippet from that piece that particularly sticks out the most:
The problem with Mondesi is not talent. Well, actually, maybe the problem is talent, but not in the way it is for most:
If Mondesi wasn’t this talented, the Royals would not have a problem with his absence. Heck, if he was merely a nice player, and not a potentially transcendent one, the team would rest easier.
Mondesi hit two doubles on Sunday, scored twice and once again made playing big-league shortstop look like performance art. Then he left in the seventh, Royals manager Mike Matheny did not have much information afterward, and the next morning the team put Mondesi on the Injured List. Again.
He is the Royals’ best player when he’s healthy, but he’s now rarely healthy.
He can really play, as scouts might say, at least when he can play.“The Kansas City Royals and Adalberto Mondesi have the same problem. It’s a tricky one” by Sam Mellinger; KC Star
The Royals have not done Mondesi a lot of favors over the course of his Major League career. They rushed him up to the Majors in 2016, even though he posted only a 77 wRC+ the season before in Double-A. In his first two seasons, Mondesi posted a 33 wRC+ and 17 wRC+ in 72 games and 209 Major League plate appearances in 2016 and 2017 combined. In 2018, it seemed like he was turning a corner, as he posted a 113 wRC+ in 75 games as a 22-year-old with the Royals. In that breakthrough second-half, Mondesi hit 14 home runs and stole 32 bases in only 291 plate appearances. Thus, it was understandable to think that Mondesi was on his way to reach superstar status, especially at a position (shortstop) that was so crucial to success both in the lineup and on the field.
Of course, by 2019, the injury issues hit, and Mondesi has been bothered by them ever since. He played in only 102 games in 2019, and while he played in 59 out of 60 games during the COVID-affected season in 2020, he missed Spring Training due to recovery from shoulder surgery, and it took him about 30 games before he really turned things around and looked fully healthy.
What’s incredible about Mondesi is how he compares to other shortstops, despite playing in so few games due to injury. I decided to do an inquiry on Fangraphs to see how Mondesi compared to other shortstops who had accumulated at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2018. Of that grouping, this is how Mondesi fared, out of a sample of 35 qualified shortstops:
- Ranked 15th in fWAR, even though he ranked last of the sample in plate appearances (1,005).
- Ranked 2nd in stolen bases. He was five behind Trea Turner, even though Turner has 863 more plate apperances.
- Ranked 3rd in baserunning runs above average (15.2).
- Ranked 8th in defensive runs above average (Def), according to Fangraphs.
- Ranked 12th in Isolated Power (Iso).
So, despite his lack of playing time, Mondesi has been one of the most dynamic players in the league. Whether it’s through his baserunning, his glove, or his surprising power, when healthy, Mondesi ranks up there with the better shortstops in the league. Furthermore, to compare, on a fWAR basis since 2018, Mondesi has been better than Didi Gregorious, Gleyber Torres, Dansby Swanson, Jose Iglesias, and Brandon Crawford. That’s a pretty decent list of shortstops, and while Royals fans may want Moore to jettison Mondesi from Kansas City out of frustration, the fact that he’s outperformed those big-name shortstops in fewer plate appearances demonstrates the value Mondesi brings to the Royals when he’s healthy.
Of course, it’s going to require some patience for Royals fans. At this point, it is likely that the Royals may only get 50-60 games from Mondesi, and even that may be optimistic. But if the Royals let Mondesi fully recover, and quit playing the “is he coming back or isn’t he?” game, then maybe Mondesi can fully settle, and play to his full potential, without worry of re-aggravating anything. Yes, the Royals may be out of the playoff race by the time he returns, but it would be better for the Royals and their long-term future to see Mondesi 100 percent in the lineup rather than 70-80 percent, which has seemed to be the case in his recent returns off the IL.
Furthermore, the Royals have had a pretty good fill-in at shortstop in Lopez, who has demonstrated that he could have a spot in Kansas City for quite some time.
As of Monday, Lopez is currently posting a .260/.350/.329 slash with a 93 wRC+ in 63 games and 205 plate appearances. Lopez was demoted near the end of Spring Training, but Mondesi’s late injury in Spring Training prompted the Royals to make Lopez the Opening Day shortstop in Kansas City.
Lopez continues to be a slap hitter, as he has not barreled a ball yet this year, and his hard hit percentage ranks in the bottom 2nd percentile of the league, according to Baseball Savant. However, Lopez has demonstrated excellent contact ability and plate discipline in his third MLB season, as his 0.89 BB/K ratio is nearly double the mark he posted a year ago, and his K and whiff rates rank in the 95th and 98th percentiles, respectively, according to Savant.
What’s been so key to Lopez’s hitting this year is his ability to go to the opposite field again, which went away last season. In 2020, Lopez pulled the ball 32.8 percent of the time, which was nearly four percent higher than his mark in 2019, his rookie year. This season, that pull rate is only 24 percent, and his oppo batted ball rate is 31.3 percent, which is a career high. Take a look at what Lopez has done with his hits this year, according to his spray chart via Savant:
Notice the number of batted balls to left field, especially down the line. He has four extra base hits this year from balls hit down the left field line, which was something I thought Lopez could be good at due to his speed, when I wrote about him in December possibly incorporating an “oppo” approach to get back on track. Here is an example of Lopez going with a fastball on the outer edge of the plate and legging out a double against the Pirates’ Ka’ai Tom at Kauffman Stadium on May 31st:
Lopez’s hitting has been a welcomed surprise for Royals fans, especially after posting wRC+ numbers of 56 and 55 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, according to Fangraphs. The former Creighton Blue Jay has especially excelled in June, which is a good sign for him and the Royals going forward, especially with Mondesi’s health going to be an issue this year. Here’s a look at his advanced splits over April, May, and June this season, according to Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see, Lopez did regress a little in May, as he hit only .209 in May, and posted a wRC+ of 69, which was 16 points worse than his mark in April. However, in June, Lopez has simply been on a tear. His wRC+ is 144, his average is .366, and what’s been most impressive is that he’s walking nearly 4.2 percent more than he’s striking out. Lopez is seeing the ball better than ever, plain and simple. So, even though the Royals may be better off with Mondesi at shortstop in the grand scheme of things, Lopez is proving to be a satisfactory replacement at this moment.
Furthermore, Lopez is not only hitting better, but he is also getting better defensively as well after a slow start to the year. He currently ranks in 92nd percentile in Outs Above Average, according to Savant, and he has been three outs above average at shortstop, and one out above average at second base in 2021. Lopez may not have the arm or natural athleticism of Mondesi, but his sense of the game cannot be matched in the Royals infield. Check out this heady double play he pulled against the Red Sox in Friday night’s win:
Again, I am not sure what kind of long-term future Nicky Lopez has in Kansas City, especially with Bobby Witt, Jr. now the best shortstop prospect in the Minors in the wake of Wander Franco’s promotion to Tampa Bay. Ultimately, due to his limited ceiling, this may be the best we see of Lopez, which may make him a utility infielder once Mondesi is healthy and Witt, Jr. is ready to make his debut in Kansas City.
But considering he was expected to start in the Minors in late March, what Lopez has done with the Royals this season has been much welcomed, and he has been a key reason why this team is 32-38 and still somewhat in the thick of things in the Central, even if it looks incredibly bleak at this moment.
It’s just too bad there are not many other “depth” success stories for the Royals at other positions or on the pitching side of things this season.
How teams would be able to handle injuries this season was a big storyline going into 2021 for nearly every Major League team, not just the Kansas City Royals. It was expected that the transition from a 60-game season to a 162-game one was going to be tough on lineups and pitching staffs, and in order to be competitive, teams were going to have to build substantial depth in their lineups, rotations, and bullpens.
When looking at the Royals’ current roster of players on the injured list, it can be tough to stomach:
- Jesse Hahn (60-Day)
- Daniel Tillo (60-Day)
- Ronald Bolanos (60-Day)
- Danny Duffy (10-Day)
- Andrew Benintendi (10-Day)
- Cam Gallagher (10-Day)
- Adalberto Mondesi (10-Day)
Without a doubt, as Royals fans, it’s easy to look at this list and think “what if?” Duffy was producing a sterling season before getting injured. Bolanos was looking like a potential stalwart in the middle innings before suffering forearm issues. Benintendi was proving to be a worthy heir for Alex Gordon in left field before suffering a fractured rib cage. And though Gallagher regressed a bit at the plate from a year ago, he had a framing acumen that made him a nice change of pace from Salvador Perez behind the plate.
That being said, the Royals haven’t been the only team who have been stricken by the injury bug. The White Sox lost sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert early in the season, and just lost Nick Madrigal long-term as well. And yet, the White Sox lead the AL Central by 2.5 games. The Indians have just recently lost Shane Bieber to the IL, and they are 39-30. And even the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have seen numerous injury hits to their roster, and yet they have the best records, not just in the National League, but in all of baseball.
And why are those teams succeeding?
Because they have plenty of organizational depth.
Unfortunately, the Royals just don’t have that kind of depth yet. Yes, Lopez has filled in well for Mondesi at shortstop. Jarrod Dyson has been a great fourth outfielder who may be starting soon if Michael A. Taylor doesn’t turn it around. Kyle Zimmer has filled in well in a high-leverage role, which was much needed after Hahn hit the IL early on in the season. Zimmer came in huge in Sunday’s game, helping the Royals get out of a key jam in the eighth inning:
After those few examples though, the Royals have not gotten much. Kelvin Gutierrez has showed flashes, but he still hits too many groundballs and bumbles routine plays far too often at the hot corner. The Royals haven’t gotten much from their young starters, sans Brady Singer, as Kris Bubic and Jackson Kowar have moved to the bullpen to work on some mechanical issues. And while Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier have struggled offensively, they have not gotten much from Ryan O’Hearn, Ryan McBroom, or Edward Olivares, though the Royals seem to be keen on giving O’Hearn one last chance with this latest call up.
While it is frustrating, these depth issues do not necessarily come as a surprise. If the Royals were going to compete in the Central this year, they needed healthy years from 80-90 percent of their lineup. Losing Mondesi and Benintendi has hurt that ability to compete, and the struggles of Dozier and Soler certainly haven’t helped things either. The fact that the Royals are only six games under .500 is honestly a minor miracle, and with this tough road trip coming up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Royals continue to plummet with all these injury issues as of late.
Thus, for the Royals to compete after 2021, it will be essential for the Royals to continue to develop depth, preferably from within the system. That is why it’s important to see the Storm Chasers succeed in Omaha, as well as Witt, Jr., Nick Pratto, and M.J. Melendez make gains in Northwest Arkansas. Maybe the Royals will continue to slide in 2021, but as long as promise is being shown in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, the Royals and Royals fans have plenty to look forward to.
The struggles of Mondesi certainly don’t make things easy for Royals fans, especially as the club plays their way out of contention. That being said, the positive growth of Lopez, and the depth being developed in the upper minors, should be signs for optimism in Kansas City.
It just may not be until August and September when Royals fans start to see those positive signs…
Photo Credit: Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports