Going into this year’s Spring Training, the Royals have plenty of depth in the infield, especially with Bobby Witt, Jr. on the Royals’ Cactus League roster for a second-straight season.
After all, Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield were sterling last season in the middle infield at shortstop and second base position, respectively. And even though he didn’t get a whole lot of time at the Major League level, Emmanuel Rivera showed flashes of potential at third base as well.
However, the real key and wild card to the Royals’ infield situation, and maybe outlook overall in 2022, is once again Adalberto Mondesi, the talented, but oft-injured multi-tool infielder.
After one day of Royals Spring camp in Surprise, Arizona, Mike Matheny has already made it known what kind of role he envisions for Mondesi on Opening Day, as evidenced in this Tweet from 610 AM Royals insider Josh Vernier, which came from Matheny’s interview with Bob Fescoe on Tuesday morning:
Additionally in the interview with Fescoe, Matheny also went into the hopes and outlooks of other Royals infielders on the 26-man roster this Spring, which included Lopez and even Witt, Jr.:
While the confidence in Lopez, and even the support of Witt, Jr. this Spring, is encouraging for Royals fans, the amount of faith that Matheny and the Royals are putting in Mondesi is a little head-scratching.
After all, last season in early August, as Mondesi struggled in his recovery, Dayton Moore made it known to the media and Royals fanbase that Mondesi couldn’t be “counted” on for a regular position in 2022.
Now, it seems that the Royals’ front office and management tune has changed, as they are not just recognizing that Mondesi is healthy, but that he is ready to be the Royals’ everyday shortstop again, as they have envisioned when they signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic.
Are the Royals doing the right thing by fully putting their trust in Mondesi again, even with his long injury track record the past few seasons?
Or is there something else at work this Spring in Surprise going on behind the scenes that Royals fans are not quite seeing at the surface level?
Should Royals Fans Be Optimistic About Mondesi?
There’s no question that Mondesi’s health will be important to watch this Spring.
Last season, Mondesi hurt himself toward the end of Spring Training and didn’t make his 2021 debut until May 25th. After re-injuring himself on June 20th, he didn’t play again until September 1st, where he pretty much played the remainder of the season at third base, albeit with regular days off built in to preserve his health down the stretch.
Now, there were some positives to be had from Mondesi’s abbreviated 2021 campaign.
While Mondesi continued to show a free-swinging approach at the plate (31.6 percent K rate; 0.14 BB/K ratio), he finally began to tap into his power on a more regular basis in 2021. His .723 OPS was his best mark since his 2018 campaign (.804 that year), and he also posted career-highs in barrel rate (12.8 percent), launch angle (16.1 percent), and max exit velocity (112.6 MPH), according to Baseball Savant.
Mondesi was particularly lethal against lefties last season. In 41 appearances against left-handed pitchers, he hit three home runs and posted an OPS of .831. To demonstrate, here’s an example below of Mondesi batting from the right side of the plate crushing a ball thrown by Detroit’s Tarik Skubal into the fountains at Kauffman Stadium in a June 16th day game:
To compare, Mondesi hit three home runs and posted a .675 OPS in 95 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in 2021. That is a far more pedestrian mark, though, to be fair, Mondesi did show some sensational signs of power from time to time when batting from the left side of the plate.
In a June 18th game against the Boston Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium, Mondesi, hitting lefty, hit his furthest home run of the season against Nick Pivetta at 464 feet:
In addition to showing some improvements in power at the plate in a limited sample in 2021, Mondesi also continued to demonstrate excellent defensive ability in the infield, even while not 100 percent.
Mondesi ranked fourth in Outs Above Average last season of Royals fielders in 2021 (4 OAA), even though Mondesi played in just 35 games, a fraction of what the other higher-rated Royals fielders played a season ago (Lopez, Taylor, and Merrifield). In addition, on a success rate added end, Mondesi actually tied for the best mark on the team, which shows the impact Mondesi can have if he’s on the field and healthy every day.
That can be seen in the table below, as Mondesi is tied at the top with Lopez:
I’m guessing that Moore and Matheny are using these kinds of metrics when it comes to evaluating the infield situation. Thus, this kind of defensive data definitely backs up their decision to not only play Mondesi at shortstop over Lopez (who probably is a better fit at second base anyway) but perhaps Witt, Jr. as well.
After all, playing third base may be an easier transition for Witt to handle, especially in his first stint at the Major League level.
Considering the expectations for Witt from not just the Royals organization, but Royals and baseball fans in general, it is likely that Moore and Matheny want to take the pressure off of Witt wherever they can, especially since hitting against Major League pitchers will be a big adjustment as well.
Thus, letting Mondesi handle the load at shortstop, and having Witt play a less demanding position in the infield initially, could be the right decision for now, especially if the Royals are looking out for Witt’s long-term outlook in Kansas City beyond 2022.
Are the Royals Trying to Increase Mondesi’s Market Value?
While it seems like Mondesi has a vote of confidence from Matheny this Spring, it is still difficult to envision Mondesi’s future in the Royals organization. Mondesi will be a free agent after the 2023 season, and negotiations for an extension stalled last Spring and could be likely dead after Mondesi suffered so many injury issues in 2021.
Mondesi is definitely a polarizing talent, who seems to be overvalued or undervalued, depending on who you talk to (this is certainly the case in the fantasy baseball world). That being said, shortstops with Mondesi’s power and speed toolset are rare, and the recent news of another talented shortstop suffering an injury suddenly put one club with playoff aspirations in a hole to start the year.
The Royals and Padres have a history of dealing with one another before. Furthermore, Mondesi could be a nice fit in San Diego both in the short and long term.
If Mondesi is healthy, he could fill in at shortstop for the Padres for a few months until Tatis is healthy. When the Padres’ franchise star returns, manager Bob Melvin could move Mondesi around in the infield, either at second base or third, depending on the need.
For the Royals, they could not only solve a logjam in the infield (as well as move Whit back to his more natural position of second bases), but they could also get a decent prospect and maybe bat in return, as I proposed in this Tweet below:
Of course, this is a longshot idea, and I doubt a deal like this gets done, especially before Opening Day. However, I am not the only Royal fan who seems to be thinking that naming Mondesi as their projected “Opening Day” shortstop is a maneuver by the Royals to drum up league-wide interest on Mondesi in the trade market:
It’s still a long Spring, and the Royals haven’t even played in a Cactus League game yet. It is certainly possible that by the end of March, Mondesi is hurt, and the Royals are back where they were last Spring, with Whit sliding back in at second and Nicky returning to shortstop.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of buzz surrounding Mondesi at Royals camp so far in a multitude of ways…
Let’s hope in 2022 that Mondesi is able to build on that buzz in a positive and upward fashion this Spring.
Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/Getty Images