Without a doubt, the hype among Royals fans right now, especially as the Royals are 58-70, is centered on the future of this organization. More specifically, a lot of the excitement in Royals fandom circles is focused on Bobby Witt, Jr., who continues to mash Minor League pitching in Omaha:
What Witt, Jr. is doing in Triple-A is borderline ridiculous, as he is posting a 154 wRC+ in 158 plate appearances with the Storm Chasers, according to Fangraphs (though this may be updated later today). Thus, after absolutely mashing Double-A and Triple-A pitching, the assumption may be that the Royals should be penciling in Witt, Jr. as the Opening Day shortstop in 2022, which in the process would displace either Nicky Lopez or Whit Merrifield, who have been the Royals’ regular starting shortstop and second baseman this season.
That being said, while Witt, Jr. is probably ready for the big leagues soon, it will not be easy to simply make Witt, Jr. the Royals’ starting shortstop right off the bat. And that conundrum is primarily due to the work Nicky and Whit have done this season not just offensively, but defensively as well.
Thus, let’s take a look at why Nicky and Whit have made their case to continue to be the Royals’ starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively in 2022, and what that could mean for not just Witt, Jr., but also Adalberto Mondesi, who will still be under contract for the Royals next season.
On an offensive end, both Whit and Nicky have really been a productive pair up the middle, especially in the second half of the year. For the season, Whit is posting a 97 wRC+ in 565 plate appearances while Nicky is posting a 98 wRC+ in 415 plate appearances. The two have been particularly good on the basepaths, as Whit has stolen 38 bases on 41 attempts while Nicky has stolen 18 bases on 18 attempts. The fact that the pair have stolen 56 bases combined (and are due for much more with about a month left in play) is a big reason why the Royals are the top-ranked team in baseball when it comes to stolen bases.
However, what the pair have done in the second half of the season at the plate has been remarkable and should make Royals fans feel hopeful that the pair can continue to damage offensively not just in September, but also in 2022.
In the second half alone, Nicky has posted a 110 wRC+, which includes a .761 OPS over that time-span, according to Fangraphs. Granted, Nicky has seen his K rate slightly spike up in the second half, as it rose from 13 percent to 15.1 percent from the first to second half, respectively. Also, he has seen his BB/K ratio drop from an impressive 0.86 in the first half to a more mediocre 0.41 in the second half. However, he has traded walks for base hits, and I think that is something Royals fans can be okay with, especially with Nicky being the Royals’ primary No. 2 hitter as of late (a place in the order where hits are more valuable).
Compared to Nicky, Whit hasn’t been as impressive in the second-half overall. His second-half wRC+ is only 99, just two points higher than his season total. That being said, Whit is posting a 112 wRC+ in the month of August, and he has also seen his K rate and BB/K ratio go from 19.2 percent and 0.25 in July to 13 percent and 0.47 in August, which are both positive improvements. Therefore, it seems like Whit is getting into a groove, and it is totally plausible that he could challenge for the AL hits crown by the end of the season if he continues this trend (Cedric Mullins of the Baltimore Orioles only leads Whit by three hits).
Hence, on an offensive basis, Whit and Nicky have certainly made their case that they can continue to be two dependable hitters in the Royals lineup on an everyday basis not just for the remainder of the season, but for 2022 as well. However, their defensive progress and ability this season should also be a primary factor when it comes to what decisions manager Mike Matheny and general manager Dayton Moore should do this off-season.
Royals fans already know about Nicky’s defensive prowess at second base, as he was a finalist for the Gold Glove last year during the shortened 2020 season. However, many Royals fans wondered if Nicky could handle the shortstop position, which became an extended stint as Mondesi has missed most of the season due to injury.
So far, the results have been REALLY positive for Lopez, and consequently, the Royals’ infield defense.
When it comes to Statcast’s Outs Above Average, Nicky ranks third overall for shortstops, as he has been 14 outs above average, according to Baseball Savant. His OAA is the best mark of any shortstop in the American League, which includes Andrelton Simmons of the Twins (13), Carlos Correa of the Astros (11), and Tim Anderson of the White Sox (8). Thus, if Nicky made a strong case for a Gold Glove last year at second, it is safe to say that his case at shortstop this year is just as strong, if not stronger.
Furthermore, even when going beyond the advanced metrics, Nicky has wowed the Kauffman faithful time and time again with incredible plays such as this one below:
While Nicky’s defense should be understandably lauded, Whit amazingly has had quite the defensive campaign himself in 2021, which was not really expected on Opening Day back in April.
According to Fangraphs’ Def, Whit was a negative defensive player in 2019 (-7.4) and was a replacement-level defensive player in 2020 (0.0). On an OAA basis, he was three outs BELOW average in 2019, which included a minus-four OAA at second base that season. While he did improve to two outs ABOVE average in 2020 at second base, it was a limited sample, especially considering the condensed 60-game format. Therefore, it was assumed that moving Whit to the outfield would be the best decision for the Royals on a defensive basis, especially since Mondesi and Nicky could be dynamic defensively up the middle.
This season though, Whit has proven that he deserves to be a regular at the keystone position in 2022, especially when diving deep into his defensive metrics. This year, according to Baseball Savant, he is the fifth-best defensive second-baseman in the league on an OAA basis, and second-best when it comes to AL second baseman (he’s behind only Rougned Odor of the Yankees). While Whit is 32-years-old, he has shown incredible progress in terms of making defensive plays toward the first-base side, according to Savant.
In 2019, Whit was three outs below average when it came to making lateral plays toward the first base-side. In 2020, he improved that number to only one out below average. This season, he is posting a zero OAA, which shows considerable progress in this defensive facet of his game. Furthermore, he is also posting a four OAA in terms of making defensive plays toward the the third base side, which is a four out improvement from 2020, and three out improvement from 2019.
Furthermore, when looking at his Savant visuals, Royals fans can see how effective Whit has been when it comes to making plays up the middle (more red/pink is good; more blue is bad, for context).
Hence, while Whit may be able to play the outfield in the future, Whit is showing that he is not just serviceable up the middle, but actually pairs well with Nicky to make one of the best middle infield combos in the American League this season.
According to Fangraphs data, both Nicky and Whit are individually posting fWAR totals of 3.2 so far, and they could each hit the four win mark by the end of the season. Both players excel not just in the field, but on the basepaths and with the bat, even if they do not offer the most power upside.
Thus, if Whit and Nicky can handle things up the middle in 2022, what should the Royals do with Witt, Jr. and Mondesi?
Obviously, that will be determined by Royals brass in the off-season, but honestly, if the Royals weren’t already thinking about moving Witt and Mondesi to third base and the outfield, respectively, then that should be more firm on their radar now.
Moving Witt to third base would be an easy move: he’s played some hot corner already in Omaha, and considering the options on the active roster are Hunter Dozier and Emmanuel Rivera, Witt wouldn’t be blocking anyone of note. Yes, Rivera has been decent since returning off the IL, but he seems to be closer to a Cheslor Cuthbert-type than a Mike Moustakas.
So, it is plausible that Witt, Jr. could be the Royals’ starting third-baseman on Opening Day, and that seems to be getting some steam on Royals Twitter as well:
However, what about Mondesi in the outfield?
While I do not think the move would do much to “preserve” his health, Mondesi could be a valuable option out there, especially in center field, should he get the opportunity to get some time to practice there this off-season and Spring. The Royals will have Andrew Benintendi back in left field, and Edward Olivares, Kyle Isbel and maybe Dozier will be battling it out for innings in right field this Spring (though I think Dozier could see some time at DH and first, which he has been doing). Centerfield though is a bit of a trickier situation, and right now, it doesn’t seem totally out of the box to think that Michael A. Taylor may be back in Kansas City in 2022, especially considering how good defensively he’s been.
That being said, Mondesi has been primarily playing shortstop in his rehab stint in Omaha, which negates the idea that Mondesi will try some outfield when he come back off the IL (or IF he comes back, considering his injury history). Yes, when healthy, Mondesi can be one of the Royals’ most dynamic players, especially on an offensive, defensive, and baserunning basis. However, the Royals are getting that production already from Nicky and Whit, and they are more dependable health-wise. While I, and many other Royals fans, want to give Mondi a chance for at least the duration of his time in Kansas City (he will be a free agent after the 2023 season), he probably shouldn’t be given priority in the middle infield over two guys who have proven that they can handle things now and most likely in 2022 as well.
Mondesi will be an interesting dilemma for both Matheny and Moore this off-season, and one has to wonder if some kind of transition will be happening for Mondesi soon, whatever that could be (I still think trading him would be foolish, especially since they will get nothing of value for him right now).
Nonetheless, if the Royals are serious about winning in 2022, and building for a future that would produce more consistent winning, they need to play players who will give them the most consistent production on the field.
And right now, that seems to involve Nicky at shortstop, Whit at second, and Witt, Jr. possibly at third.
I guess Royals fans will see how Mondesi will fit in that equation when he returns to Kansas City, whether it’s this September or next Spring.
Photo Credit: Colin E. Braley/AP