It’s a good spot to be in. The Royals don’t have many questions about the starting lineup as spring training begins. The rotation is more or less set. The key bullpen roles are penciled in. But second base is definitely a battle to be resolved over the next five weeks or so.
While there are four candidates for the spot, I think a couple can be dismissed pretty quickly, unless one of them has an exceptional spring training. First up is Raul Mondesi. It’s apparent he has talent, but in his first extended major league action last year, he looked completely overmatched, hitting .185/.231/.281 with a rather amazing 48:6 K:BB ratio. It’s likely he starts the season at Omaha, and that’s probably best for all parties—Mondesi can get more seasoning, and the Royals won’t have a drag on the lineup. If he hits well at Omaha or the Royals fall out of the race, then by all means find out what he can do in the majors.
Meanwhile, the Royals keep making noise about Cheslor Cuthbert playing second base. Let me be charitable and say that I have big-time doubts about Cuthbert having the range required to play second base. He was adequate at third last season, but second base is a big adjustment for a third baseman. The fielding metrics weren’t as kind in their assessment (Cuthbert had a Fielding Runs Above Average score of -1.9, but I think most people would agree that he looked better than that). I won’t say it can’t be done, but I’d like to see him play well at second before I think it’s a good idea. Just learning the footwork for a double play pivot seems like it would be difficult, especially at the major league level. Our David Lesky had some ideas for other ways Cuthbert can make an impact for the Royals, and I think those are more likely.
So that leaves Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield. Merrifield might be considered the returning starter after appearing in 81 games last year and amassing 332 plate appearances. Merrifield had an up and down year, hitting .339/.356/.496 in his first 27 games, then .189/.245/.242 in the next 26, at which point he was dispatched to Omaha. When he returned in September, he hit .307/.360/.416 in 28 games. The funny thing was that his BABIP in that first stretch was .402, followed by a .273 in that middle third of his season, followed by a .388 in September. That could be a little concerning—were his overall solid numbers inflated by good luck? Overall, he had a .361 BABIP, which is likely to come down a bit.
Meanwhile, Colon was limited to 54 games and 161 PAs. In fact, in part-time duty over three seasons, he has fewer PAs (329) than Merrifield had just last year (332). Except for postseason heroics (driving in the winning run in the 2014 AL Wildcard game and in Game 6 of the 2015 World Series), Colon hasn’t shown much, especially disappointing for a fourth overall draft pick.
But Colon apparently rededicated himself over the winter, working out regularly with Alex Gordon and adding some muscle. Merrifield did much the same thing last winter, and it paid off with a successful season. I think most of us have been baseball fans long enough to laugh at the “best shape of his life” stories, or at least take them with several grains of salt. But perhaps Colon will be able to improve his offensive game.
Defensively, both Merrifield and Colon seem about equal to me. I dislike using partial-season defensive numbers since the sample size can be small, but Merrifield was 4.5 FRAA last year while Colon was at 5.6. I suppose the fact that Colon can and has played some shortstop in the majors shows that he’s got a slight edge on Merrifield with the glove. But is it big enough to overcome Merrifield’s apparent offensive advantage?
The thing is, the Royals’ projected lineup looks fairly solid, as long as the main cogs are performing as they are capable of. It’s not the best lineup, but a group with Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Jorge Soler, Salvador Perez, and Brandon Moss ought to be able to put up some runs (we’ll just take anything Alcides Escobar contributes as a bonus). That could give the Royals the freedom to emphasize defense at second base, giving Colon an edge. If the offense falters and Colon is not hitting, giving Merrifield more playing time is an easy possible fix.
The good news is that both players, based on PECOTA projections, look like they can be contributors this season. Merrifield’s projection is for 0.6 WARP, but in 346 plate appearances. Colon’s projection is for 0.5 WARP, but in 219 plate appearances. Put them together and you have a full-time second baseman at 1.1 WARP, which is nothing to write home about but at least is a positive contribution, given that their combined salaries probably barely crack the $1 million threshold. That’s better production than the Royals got from Omar Infante at a fraction of the price.
Perhaps the ideal scenario for the Royals is that Colon hits well enough to earn and keep the starting job. That allows Merrifield and his positional versatility to be a super-sub. That in turn would probably allow the Royals to keep Cuthbert (who is out of options and would likely be lost if the Royals tried to sneak him through waivers and back to the minors) on the roster. This scenario would give the Royals a bench of Merrifield, Cuthbert, Paulo Orlando, and Drew Butera. The only downside there is not having a left-handed hitter, but Ned Yost doesn’t pinch-hit much anyway. He will pinch-run, though, and Merrifield and Orlando are both good candidates for that.
While the second base battle is an interesting one to watch this spring, it’s good to know that the Royals will likely have a contributor there this season. And if one candidate falters, the other one is likely going to be able to produce. The Royals have plenty of options, and that’s always a good thing.