It’s now more than five years since the Royals made the incredibly controversial trade of Wil Myers (and some others) to the Tampa Bay Rays. At the time the trade was made, Myers was basically big league ready and the Royals were also about big league ready, so the deal was one that was a little shocking. One thing that stuck with me for a long time was that the Royals mentioned Jorge Bonifacio as a reason they felt comfortable giving up Myers to bring back the rotation help they so desperately needed.
It was a little weird at the time given the team’s proximity to contention that they would mention a 19-year old who had just finished a stint in low-A with good enough, but not great, numbers. Still, either the organization truly believed in Bonifacio’s development or they tried to appease a fan base that was growing weary of the current regime’s ability to build a winner.
You know the next few years went. They contended in 2013, won the pennant in 2014 and won the World Series in 2015. At no point in that time did they have a right fielder on the level of the potential they traded away. That was okay because of the results, but the promise of Bonifacio seemed less and less likely to come to fruition, especially after hitting .240/.305/.416 as a 22-year old in AA in 2015. Luckily for the Royals, not all development curves are alike and he hit .277/.351/.461 in Omaha in 2016 and started off 2017 by hitting .314/.386/.608 in 13 games in Omaha before being promoted to Kansas City to stay. That was after hitting .414/.433/.628 in 30 spring plate appearances and really impressing everyone with the team.
He had a really up and down rookie season, ending the year worth -0.5 WARP. By that alone, you’d think there wasn’t much to write home about, but I believe the Royals did him a disservice in 2017 and that he has a chance to break out in the next couple seasons while the Royals are working to find the next winning formula.
When he was brought to the big leagues, it was essentially to help jumpstart a dead in the water offense. They had already brought Whit Merrifield up to replace Raul Mondesi and couldn’t hold Bonifacio down any more with how poorly Paulo Orlando was playing. He hit third in his second big league game, which was weird, but after that, they treated him as you should any secondary prospect and let him get his feet wet hitting mostly toward the bottom of the order. And he excelled. From May 1 to June 4, he played in most games and hit .278/.336/.515. He was striking out a fair amount (26.2 percent) but also walking a decent enough amount for a rookie (8.4 percent).
Then they made their first of two mistakes with him. They moved him to the top of the lineup. Looking back, it’s hard to remember that being as big of a mistake as it truly was because his time in the number two spot directly coincided with the best two months of the season for the Royals. Still, though, he wasn’t good. He hit .242/.318/.410, which isn’t horrible or anything, but it’s not good. His walk rate rose to 9.1 percent, but his strikeout rate rose too, to 28.3 percent. To me, this mistake isn’t about the profile of the player on the field but rather how to handle a young player like him. Given his struggles in the minors in recent years and his pedigree as a not nearly top prospect, I just don’t see the logic of putting that kind of pressure on him, especially when they had multiple better candidates to hit there, including Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, two proven big league players.
So he struggled. And when the Royals looked like legitimate contenders (don’t forget, they were in a playoff spot at the deadline), they went out and they added some offense by acquiring Melky Cabrera, which is where mistake number two came into play. Getting Cabrera wasn’t the problem. Getting Cabrera and taking at bats away from Bonifacio was the problem. When you have Alex Gordon struggling to outhit Alcides Escobar and Brandon Moss streakier than a toddler’s pull-ups, there were certainly better candidates to take playing time away from than Bonifacio. From the point of the trade forward, the Royals played 59 games. They won 25 of them. Bonifacio started just 20 of those games. And this was the second disservice the Royals did to him.
Whatever you think of Bonifacio’s future and in a similar argument, Cheslor Cuthbert’s, I think it’s fair to be aware that young players who have never been part time players might struggle to be part time players. I’m not sure why I remembered him slumping leading up to the trade, but he had hit .310/.356/.524 in the 10 games preceding it. A small sample, sure, but he’d been making adjustments at every step of the way, so maybe this was the latest.
Either way, I think the Royals hurt Bonifacio’s development in 2017. It certainly didn’t cost them a playoff spot, I don’t think, but I guess you never know. I’m personally pretty excited to see what Bonifacio can do when given 140 games to make his mistakes, learn and grow as a player. He struggled with fastballs, which is going to be a problem if he can’t fix that, but he mauled breaking pitches, hitting .277 with a .580 slugging percentage and nine home runs against sliders and curves in 119 at bats. He swung and missed a lot, but he was able to do some serious damage on mistakes. His 8.3 percent ending walk rate was fourth best on the team and tied with Alex Gordon. His 31.5 percent swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone was slightly below average and fifth best on the team, but that’s a pretty solid number for a rookie (among 26 rookies with 300 PA, he ranked 14th in that percentage).
There’s room for improvement, no doubt, but I like Bonifacio’s chances to be a solid contributor for the Royals in the batter’s box. I’m not that worried about his defense either. He won’t be a gold glover, but outside of some gaffes at Fenway, it was clear to see that he was beginning to feel more comfortable and getting better. Maybe Bonifacio isn’t going to be good enough (or play long enough if the rebuild drags on) to be on the Royals next championship caliber club, but the Royals went to a World Series with Nori Aoki in right field and won one with Alex Rios. Bonifacio has a chance to be better than both. I think Bonifacio is beginning to get a little overlooked, and I’m excited to see how he responds to that and the ups and downs of his rookie season.