Virtually every off-season discussion surrounding the Kansas City Royals has centered (rightfully so) on starting pitching. The acquisition of Jonathan Sanchez was just step one in what most Royals’ fans assume will be at least a two, maybe even three, step process. With the bullpen well stocked and eight of nine positions locked in, Dayton Moore certainly should be spending the bulk of his time focused on improving a starting rotation that was second worst in the American League last season.
That said, what about the ninth position? I refer to second base, of course.
While most people believe and I tend to agree that Johnny Giavotella will get the first crack at being the team’s regular second baseman in 2012, he is hardly a sure thing. While Johnny possesses a minor league resume that is probably better than those carried by Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez, he lacks the one thing all three of those players possess: a plus defensive skill.
Save for a magical stretch in mid-summer, Escobar hit sporadically at best for most of the year, but because he played a premium defensive position and played it very well, Alcides came home with a fWAR of 2.2. Salvador Perez hit well for the Royals in his limited time, but more importantly displayed the type of defensive abilities behind the plate that will keep him in the lineup and allow him to be a positive impact even if he does not hit. The jury is out on what type of defender Cain will be in the majors, but all indications are that he will be a plus defender if not more. At one point there was some talk about Cain’s routes to the ball, but those were mostly due to his relatively late start in baseball and I heard little about that being a problem this past season in Omaha.
Bottom line, all three have at least one ‘plus’ skill and all three have athletic upside. Giavotella, who made some spectacular defensive plays in 2011, is never likely to become more than an average second baseman, if that. His body type does not lead one to envision the ever elusive ‘projection’ that we prospect hounds crave and Johnny is not tremendously athletic. All of those things lead us to a player that will have to hit and hit early or the organization will begin looking elsewhere. Alex Gordon could hit .195 as a rookie and you could still look at him and say ‘that guy should get better’. If Giavotella hits .195 in his first 300 at-bats this year, people are rightly going to start thinking ‘well, this is who is’.
Now, I am 100% willing to give Giavotella a bunch of at-bats to either prove he it the .305/.375/.437 hitter his career minor league line reflects. He just might be the player who in four full minor league seasons (all at A ball and above) never posted an on-base percentage below .351. While Johnny’s numbers have benefitted from playing the last two years in hitter-friendly parks, he managed a respectable .258/.351/.380 in the hitter’s graveyard that is Wilmington. Frankly, if Giavotella could hit .260/.350/.400 and not terribly screw-up in the field, that might be good enough playing between a Gold Glove shortstop and hopefully MVP level first baseman.
The current alternative to Giavotella is Chris Getz. When the Royals acquired Getz for Mark Teahen, I defended him (yes, I actually was on the GETZ TRAIN) by pointing out that his minor league numbers (.286/.363/.380) and partial first major league season were remarkably similar to those of Brian Roberts. Heck, Robinson Freaking Cano had similar minor league numbers! Truthfully, it was worth a shot and the Royals have won that trade simply because Teahen cost real money while giving the White Sox not much more, if any more, than Getz has given the Royals.
Getz, for his part, hit .237/.302/.277 in 2010 and followed that up with a .255/.313/.287 line in 2011. He did post his best fielding numbers (by any metric) of his career in 2011. If you believe that three years of fielding data is equal to one year of batting data, then Getz is slightly above average in UZR and decidedly below in Defensive Runs Saved. There cases to be made for both metrics, but let’s blend them and say he is an average defensive second baseman. Watching him, that would be my uneducated analysis.
While Getz appears to be a guy who will work the count and get on base, he simply has not done it over the long haul. I am not sure there is a place in modern baseball for a player who cannot slug over .300 (in fact, I am almost certain there is not), but I KNOW there is no room for a player with zero power who gets on base at a .315 clip (career mark) and plays just average or a tick above average defense.
I can make a case that Getz, because he can run and handle the bat (yes, every once in a while I can see the need for a sacrifice bunt – I really can!), could be a nice utility player. Except, Getz has little experience playing shortstop or third base and is widely considered to have neither the arm nor the range to handle the left side of the infield. Unlike some, I don’t have a problem bringing Getz to spring training, but he has done his best to prove he cannot be a regular major league second baseman and simply has not shown he can be more than an emergency fill in at any other position.
After the above two players, one of who will almost certainly be in the opening day lineup at second, the Royals offer Irving Falu, who has spent nine seasons in the organization, played everywhere and only kind of hit (.275/.342/.350). You have to like his versatility and on a young team where the lineup is going to be basically the same every day, I could see Falu being on the Royals’ bench in early 2012. This is not a player whose development you are concerned with stunting and you could buy yourself another roster spot simply because Falu could not only be your utility infielder, but also serve as your fifth outfielder.
Of more promise at the AAA level is Yamaico Navarro, acquired for Mike Aviles late in the summer. Now, Yamaico is a shortstop with some pop (.430 minor league slugging), who has some time at third, short and even a little in the outfield. He has the look of someone with potential. The downside is that Navarro has played 312 minor league games at short and just 23 at second. If I had to guess, Navarro starts 2012 in Omaha and plays shortstop more than second as insurance against an Escobar injury or, and this is actually possible, the chance that Alcides hits .201/.240/.260.
I say the above, because I believe that the organization still has high hopes for Christian Colon (keep in mind, this organization has a pretty broad stubborn streak) despite hitting an unimpressive .257/.325/.342 in Northwest Arkansas. Drafted as a shortstop, Colon moved over to play 15 games at second last season and I have to imagine he will spend most of his time there in 2012. Truthfully, he has yet to show anyone much of anything to make one believe Colon is going to be a major league regular.
Down the line one more tick is Rey Navarro. It is quite possible he is the best defender (at second or short) of anyone we have talked about today. In 2011, Navarro hit an outstanding .285/.337/.484 in Wilmington and a pretty mundane .271/.332/.330 in Northwest Arkansas. Prior to this past season, Navarro really had not hit anywhere and so I doubt there is a risk of losing him in the Rule 5 draft (as has been postulated in various spots). I have not seen enough to get on the Navarro bandwagon yet and I think it is more likely that he becomes Irving Falu than anything resembling a major league regular. Certainly we have not seen enough to consign him to the minor league journeyman scrap heap, but there is plenty that remains for him to show before we start our ‘Free Rey’ campaign.
This discussion, again, leads us back to the ‘can the Royals contend in 2012 or not’ debate. If not, then you see what happens with what you have. If you believe 2012 is a contending year, however, then you almost have to address second base. With a young team, plugging in a Rafael Furcal or someone similar as a veteran presence at second might make some real sense. I probably will take the chicken way out here and say the Royals should give Giavotella a shot and, should he be struggling but the team contending in July, THEN make your move for a veteran second baseman.
Without question, Kansas City is going to have a number of in-house options at second base over the next two to three years, I am just not convinced any of them will turn out to be good options.