Last week, Alec Lewis of the Athletic wrote an article about the Royals front office’s plan for the offseason, and one of the highlights of the piece was Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo’s focus on Adalberto Mondesi‘s training plan in preparation for Spring Training in 2022:
Without a doubt, it was a disappointing season for Mondesi in a myriad of ways. While Mondesi did post a 91 wRC+, his highest mark in that metric since the 2018 season (when it was 113), the 26-year-old former top Royals prospect struggled once again with injuries, as he accumulated only 136 plate appearances in 35 games for the Royals a year ago. While Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield held it down both in the field and at the plate in Mondesi’s absence, it’s interesting to think what the Royals could have done in the Win-Loss column, had Mondesi been able to play at least 100 games in 2021.
Despite playing in 24 fewer games in 2021, Mondesi’s 0.6 fWAR was only 0.8 runs lower than his mark in 59 games during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. Thus, while Mondesi’s inability to stay on the field was disappointing, he did show some promise when he did play in 2021, which puts him in an interesting situation in preparation for 2022.
There will likely be a logjam in the infield once players report in February. Lopez and Whit should be penciled in to begin Cactus League play as the Royals’ starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively. However, after that, things become more complicated in the infield.
Mondesi played perfectly well at third base in 2021, as he was two outs above average at the position, according to Baseball Savant. In fact, when looking at who played third base in Kansas City in 2021, Mondesi was the best fielder there on an OAA basis, which is crazy considering that Mondesi only accumulated 175 innings at the position last year.
Take a look at how much better Mondesi was than other Royals options at the hot corner in 2021:
Of the five Royals players who spent time at third base last year, only Emmanuel Rivera and Hunter Dozier remain in the Royals organization in addition to Mondesi. And comparatively, Mondesi was five outs better than Rivera and 10 outs better than Dozier.
Thus, at the surface level, Mondesi sliding to third base seems like an easy decision for Moore, Picollo, and even manager Mike Matheny next season.
But that’s before considering the Bobby Witt, Jr. situation…
And Witt’s outlook should be a key reason why Mondesi should not start the season at third base, but rather designated hitter.
Now, Mondesi does not fit the mold of a traditional “designated hitter” by any means. Typically, designated hitters are known for hulking power, consistent run production, and not a whole lot else.
Jorge Soler personified the classic designated hitter mold over the past three seasons as the Royals’ regular DH. Furthermore, it proved to be beneficial to the Royals in 2019, as he set the Royals’ home run record with 48 home runs that year, becoming the first Royals hitter in franchise history to hit more than 40 home runs in a season. (Which Salvador Perez tied this season.)
However, the Royals struggled to get much production out of their DH spot in 2021, both when Soler was in Kansas City and after he was traded.
For the season, according to Fangraphs, the Royals ranked 2nd to last in the American League in DH fWAR, as Royals’ designated hitters accumulated a minus-1.9 fWAR. Only the Texas Rangers got less out of the DH spot last season (their fWAR was minus-2.3).
There needs to be more run production from the DH spot in 2022 if the Royals want to improve upon their 74-88 record from 2021. Granted, the DH spot is a bit complicated, as it is expected that next season Salvador Perez will take days off from catching by hitting in the DH position, most likely a couple of days a week. Salvy after all will be 32-years-old next May, and he will be starting his new, four-year contract next season. Thus, the Royals will want to preserve their franchise player’s long-term health.
Therefore, the Royals need a designated hitter who can not just be productive as a DH but can also offer some flexibility on the defensive end as well.
Which makes Mondesi the perfect designated hitter candidate for 2022.
The most important goal for the Royals with Mondesi will be preserving their talented player’s health next season. Mondesi has the ability to play multiple positions in the field, including outfield, due to his plus speed and defensive tools. That being said, even Lewis in his piece seemed to hint that while the Royals are open to having Mondesi play in the outfield, they are not sure how that will affect his health, especially considering the demands of playing outfield in Kauffman Stadium.
…This fall, the Royals utilized technology during instructional league to track exertion levels for players on defense. Outfielders, Picollo said, tend to run almost three times the amount of infielders. Though the Royals believe Mondesi could be a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, they signed Michael A. Taylor for a reason. They also want him healthy.“Dayton Moore and J.J. Picollo outline Royals’ promotions, offseason plans and more” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mondesi in the outfield from time to time (right field seems like the most logical decision, based on how the roster is now), to think that Mondesi will be there full-time and long-term seems like wishful thinking for at least next season. The Royals know they only have two more years of team control of Mondesi, and if they want to give him a long-term extension, or generate enough value for a possible trade, they will need Mondesi to be playing at a position that will keep him the healthiest.
And thus, letting Mondesi focus on hitting and baserunning as the designated hitter may be the best option to accomplish that primary goal of getting Mondesi to play 125 to 140 games in 2022.
But in addition to Mondesi’s health being a primary goal of the Royals organization, they also need to find a way to get Witt, Jr. playing time in 2022.
Witt was absolutely sensational in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha this year, as he posted wRC+ marks of 145 and 142 in Double-A and Triple-A, respectively. On the latest episode of Royals Review Radio, Minda Haas Kuhlmann, who primarily covers the Minor League teams for Royals Review and is based out of Omaha, reiterated that Witt really has nothing to prove at the Triple-A level, based on his performance in 62 games and 285 plate appearances.
As long as Witt has a solid Spring Training, much like he did in 2021, then it should be expected that Witt will be on the Opening Day roster. And if he is, the most logical position to start him out at is third base. While he may be a solid fielding shortstop in the future, it would be better for Lopez to start out at shortstop to begin the year, with the hope to transition Witt to the position toward the end of the year, especially once Witt gets more comfortable at the Major League level.
Even Fangraphs’ Roster Resource Depth Chart projects Witt as the Royals’ Opening Day shortstop as well (and as a result, Mondesi as DH):
Mondesi moving to DH would be a win-win for the Royals when it comes to handling Mondesi and Witt on the Major League roster in 2022. Mondesi is put in a position where he can preserve his health the most in 2022, and Witt gets a chance to play at the Major League level every day.
Now, Mondesi wouldn’t play DH “every day”. Whenever Salvy becomes the DH, Mondesi would slide into RF or third base, and in the process, perhaps Witt can play shortstop and Nicky second base on those days (with Whit moving to RF if Mondesi is not playing there). Yes, Mondesi doesn’t fit the traditional designated hitter mold, but he posted a .222 ISO last year, which was 61 points better than the ISO Royals’ designated hitters produced in 2021 (.161).
And Mondesi’s power is maturing, based on Statcast data from 2021. He posted career highs in barrel rate (12.8 percent), average exit velocity on batted balls (92.3 MPH), launch angle (16.1 degrees), and hard-hit rate (44.5 percent).
Furthermore, when watching Mondesi’s swing this past year, it’s obvious that he has grown a lot in terms of developing a “power-hitting” swing.
Here’s a clip of Mondesi swinging on a four-seam fastball right down the middle against the Detroit Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull back in 2019, which produces a hard-hit single:
Now, let’s flash forward to two years later, as he gets a four-seam fastball in the same spot from Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Bailey Ober. As one can see in the clip below, it’s a much different result:
Mondesi could produce a 20 HR and 40 SB season as a DH, which would not only be better than what the Royals got from 2021 at the DH but would also help the Royals produce in the middle of the lineup in 2022, another area they struggled in last year. Furthermore, Mondesi would actually make the Royals defense better when he did play in the infield, a much-needed change considering the struggles of Soler defensively in right field the past three seasons.
It feels weird saying that the Royals should play Mondesi at DH regularly in 2022…
But at the end of the day, the move would be best for Mondesi’s career as well as the Royals’ chances of improving in the AL Central next season and beyond.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports