You think Omar Infante is going into spring training as the Royals starting second baseman? Not so fast.
From our main man, Dayton Moore:
“We’re going to play the best players. Omar is a terrific second baseman. I know offensively he has not performed the way he has liked or the way we expect him to. I just know we’re going to put the best team out there each and every night, and I know Omar is capable of being that guy. But we like Christian Colon, too. But you need them all to win, as you know. It’s a team, and you count on everyone to perform.”
This is the kind of red meat that gets you to sit up and take notice. The Royals owe Infante, who has more than 12 years of MLB service time, around $17 million for the next two seasons. Contrast that to Colon, a relative major league neophyte, who will earn around the major league minimum. Baseball is a funny sport in that with the guaranteed contracts, teams will stand beside their sunk costs even while they’re busy sinking the team. Infante was not part of the Royals run through October, marginalized by Ben Zobrist and injuries. It’s always been a safe assumption that with Zobrist moving on and Infante still cashing the big checks, that second base would return to the latter. Well, assuming they can’t unload him on a another team.
Of course, plenty of things are said in the winter, then forgotten once the club assembles for spring. Will Colon truly get a chance to supplant Infante? Or is this just a way the Royals are using to light a fire under Infante? A way to send a message they expect him in Surprise in a few weeks ready to play. Tough call at this point.
This post is about Christian Colon. Yet his potential contribution to the Royals over the next couple of seasons is tied to Colon.
We are all familiar with Colon’s pedigree. Of more importance is what he has done for the Royals.
If nothing else happens in his brief career, Colon will have cemented himself firmly in Royals lore. The high chopper in the Wild Card game plated Eric Hosmer with the tying run in the 12th. And his liner brought home the go ahead run in Game Five last November. Think about this. The Royals have played 31 post season games in the last two years. Colon has come to the plate three times. He has two of the biggest hits in Royals history. (His other plate appearance was a walk. Colon has a tidy 1.000/1.000/1.000 career postseason line.)
As Colon rose through the minors, his contact rate was his bread and butter. Contact rate is often something that translates as you progress from level to level and Colon is no exception. He’s maintained a healthy to put bat on ball in his limited major league action. The annual average contact rate is close to 79 percent. Colon, in a small sample of 168 career plate appearances, owns a contact rate approaching 85 percent. As we know from watching the Royals in the last couple of seasons, that contact skill set is something the club values a great deal. Put the ball in play. Move the line.
Since we’ve watched Salvador Perez the last couple of seasons, you may catch yourself thinking high contact is synonymous with free swinging. That’s sometimes the case, not always. By contrast, Colon’s high contact rate comes from working the count, getting into favorable hitting situations, and then joining bat and ball. The Royals as a team eschew the free pass, but given a proper chance, Colon may not fall into that trap. In his limited action, he’s managed to draw a base on balls in 8.3 percent of all plate appearances, which is better than the major league average. That’s right in line with a minor league walk rate average of slightly above eight percent.
With the ability to maintain a high contact rate, combined with a strong knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to stay patient to accept a free pass, Colon could give the Royals a solid on base candidate in a lineup where they can always use that skill set. On the flip side, Colon has limited power potential. He’s more of a gap to gap hitter whose power profile will be molded in the form of doubles and the occasional triple.
The projections don’t have enough of a major league track record on Colon to formulate numbers that make a great deal of sense. Steamer projects him at .264/.316/.352 with a 6.6 walk rate. Marcel projects a .277/.337/.391. Both systems have Colon as a part timer. ZiPS, which doesn’t attempt to project playing time, has the Royals utility man at .268/.317/.351. Maybe the truth can be found somewhere between the high and the low projections.
And that’s really the question surrounding Colon. Can he deliver with enough consistency to justify a full-time major league job? Last year, the Royals envisioned Colon as someone who could fill in at third, short and second. He filled in at all three positions at various times in the first half of 2015. In fact, as he’s progressed through the minors, his likely role seems to have adjusted to major league utility man. His upside is a steady, yet unspectacular second baseman.
Is Colon a viable defensive candidate at second base? All the evidence (the metrics and the eye test) suggest yes. Let’s start with the metrics. It’s limited at the major league level, but over the last two seasons according to Inside Edge, Colon has had 63 chances to record an out in 160 innings. Of those 63 chances, 56 have been classified as “routine,” meaning the average second baseman will make 90 to 100 percent of the plays. In Colon’s case, he’s converted every single chance in that category. He’s had seven non-routine opportunities and come away from those with just one out. That confirms the eye test that Colon is steady, but unspectacular with the glove at the keystone position. He possesses average range, a strong arm, and is good enough on the double play pivot you feel confident in his ability to turn two. What he lacks in ability, he counters with superior instincts. He has a feel for the game around second base. That helps him keep and edge and allows him to translate what are averageish defensive tools into an above-average package at second.
Same thing goes for baserunning. He not a burner by any stretch, but his speed is helped by good instincts on the bases. He knows when to take the extra base and doesn’t seem to take foolish chances on the bases. It’s an aspect of his game that can be an asset.
The only question Colon has to answer is: Would he be better than Infante? This is the question the Royals have to answer not just in this case, but in every situation throughout their organization. With payroll increasing to all-time highs every winter, they can ill afford to set money on fire by giving it to an underperforming veteran when they have someone with limited experience who can provide the same – or better – major league production.
That’s the Christian Colon question.