A long look at the Royals middle infield depth in the minor leagues

At the beginning of the season there was a bit of conversation about who was going to fit where in the middle infield at Kauffman Stadium. Whit would be given second base outright, while Mondesi would flash leather at shortstop. Those were specified. Lopez looked destined to go back to Omaha for the first time since 2019 when slashed .353/.457/.500 in 31 games. But an injury to Mondesi put Nicky on the opening day roster and ‘Shorts’ became the shortstop in Kansas City.

But what about the organization’s depth in the minor leagues? Well, it turns out pitching isn’t the only spot in which the Royals have options. As 2021 winds down and we look forward, newly minted GM J.J. Picollo is likely going to be busy ironing out the middle infield for years to come. Whether they use the depth to pursue trades, explore position changes, or a combination of the two, the current state of affairs allows for two spots on the field and a logjam of potential talent across every level of the minor leagues.

We’ll take this one step at a time, beginning with The Columbia Fireflies in Low-A.

Brady McConnell, SS/3B/OF

Brady McConnell’s professional career has gotten off to a rough start. After an impressive 2019 at The University of Florida in which he slashed .322/.385/.576 with 15 HR, McConnell was drafted immediately behind Bobby Witt jr. and expectations were fairly high. He posted a .667 OPS in 38 games with Idaho Falls to begin his professional career before missing a shot to bounce back with the 2020 minor league season cancelled.

McConnell opened 2021 in Columbia and played just 30 games before suffering a season ending injury in late June. Initially drafted as a shortstop, before the injury he played only three games at short, spending far more time in the outfield and at DH. The short sample this year didn’t allow much chance for improvement at the plate, as he went .196/.289/.355 in those 30 games. McConnell will have to look to 2022 for another shot at a bounce back. At this point the likelihood of him continuing to play up the middle seems slim, but third base or a corner outfield spot should allow him a chance to right the ship.

Herard Gonzalez – 2B/SS

Gonzalez is a 20-year-old player out of the Dominican Republic who signed in 2017. He’s currently slashing .231/.368/.361 with 13 SB. His 16.1 BB% is nice but quickly overshadowed (and doubled) by his 32.2 K%. As we often see, guys with the kind of eye talent to draw a high number of walks also produce a lot of strikeouts. He has 24 XBH in his 299 AB so speed and the ability to get on base will be the key to his success.

He’s started 56 games at second and 22 at shortstop for the Fireflies this season. He’s committed 15 errors in 487 innings while posting a .938 fielding percent at second base.

Gonzalez clearly has talent but seems pretty raw at this point. While he’s not currently old enough to buy a beer he is holding his own in A ball. For now he’s a prospect to keep in mind with a bit of development still in front of him.

Tyler Tolbert – 2B/CF/SS/RF/LF

Tolbert was selected in the thirteenth round of the 2019 draft out of UAB. Tolbert played 80 games in Columbia prior to being promoted to Quad Cities on 9/11/21. With Columbia he slashed .219/.352/.357 while stealing 49 bags – only getting caught twice.

Tolbert’s Spd (Speed Score) is off the charts at 9.8. To provide some context, Jarrod Dyson achieved a 9.6 Spd in 2015. And we all know what speed do.

His .709 OPS is largely propped up by his 14.7 BB%. But, much like Herard Gonzalez, the unfortunate flip side to those full counts is a 27.4 K%.

The valuable wrinkle that Tolbert brings to the table is defensive versatility. In Columbia he was thedefinition of a super utility player. Making 39 starts between second and short and 38 starts across all three outfield positions. For an organization thin on centerfield prospects this is encouraging news. At 23-years-old, Tolbert isn’t exactly young for Low-A ball. He possesses some eye talent and a God-given level of speed that cannot be taught but for continued success and advancement he will have to clean up the strikeouts. Tolbert’s athleticism, and the excitement he can bring to a game are more than enough to make him a prospect to watch.

Next, we’ll take a look at the middle infielders that finished the season with High-A Quad Cities.

Michael Massey, 2B

Michael Massey was selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. The 23-year-old played his college ball at Illinois and was largely a contact hitter, batting .342/.367/.485 with 17 HR in 159 games. 

2021 has been a breakout year for Massey. Batting .291/.354/.540 on the season, he’s been an offensive force for the River Bandits, leading the club in hits (110), HR (21), 2B (27), RBI (87) and runs scored (75). He’s striking out less than 15% of the time and has put up a 139 wRC+. With a .249 ISO and a very sustainable .297 BABIP virtually every offensive number for Massey this season is somewhere between good and excellent.

It doesn’t appear the organization is currently interested in playing Massey anywhere other and second base and with good reason. In college he played 129 games at second, including a stretch of 60 straight games without an error as a sophomore. As a pro he’s posted a .989 fielding percent and committed just 3 errors in more than 666 innings at second; that’s an error every 24 games. 

Some compare Massey to Whit Merrifield and they’re not off base. Both play second base and the two do have similar physical builds. But Massey’s surging power numbers surpass anything Whit came close to as a developing young pro. If Massey can carry this success, or even a portion of it to the higher levels he’s a virtual lock the man the second bag in the bigs someday. Let’s hope it’s at The K.

Nick Loftin, SS/2B/3B

Loftin may be a more familiar name due to his draft position. Selected 32nd in the CB-A round of the 2020 draft, Loftin played his college ball at Baylor where he put up numbers not unlike Massey’s. He batted .311/.370/.479 in 122 games with the Bears.

With the 2020 minor league season cancelled, 2021 has been our first chance to get a look at Loftin as a pro. On the year he’s batting .289./374/.466. Loftin has been a cornerstone in the River Bandits’ lineup, contributing 37 XBH and an .840 OPS. His 14.9 K% and 10.4 BB% both grade above average. He’s carrying a 131 wRC+ and his .323 BABIP doesn’t necessarily point toward regression as his other numbers don’t indicate he’s a lucky hitter.

While Massey has been cemented at second base, Loftin has had the opportunity to rove around the infield this season. He’s made 47 starts at short, 20 at second and 11 at third. His fielding numbers are acceptable but not as clearly defined as Massey’s. Loftin’s offensive potential would appear to be enough for the organization to prioritize getting him at bats, which may mean relocating to a corner outfield position to keep him in the lineup. Loftin’s defensive versatility and potential at the plate put him firmly on the short list of prospects to watch. I would expect to see him in the organization’s Top 5 by this time next year.

Maikel Garcia, SS

Garcia, a twenty-year-old Venezuelan player who signed with the Royals in 2016,  opened 2021 in Columbia and was promoted to Quad Cities in mid-July. With virtually an even split between the two leagues he slashed an impressive .303/.409/.415 in 51 games with COL and .281/.350/.400 in 50 games with QC.

Garcia is the speedster in the middle infield for QC, having stolen 36 bags on the year between Low and High-A. With COL he achieved an astounding 16.0 BB% against 13.9 K%; since joining QC he’s seen those numbers slide to 9.8 BB% and 16.6 K%. The majority of his 32 XBH between the two levels this year are doubles and triples and largely a result of his speed. Currently listed at 6’1”/145, there’s reason to believe Garcia’s power could improve as he fills out his frame.

On to the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals.

Clay Dungan, 2B/SS/3B

Dungan was drafted in the ninth round in 2019 out of Indiana State and assigned to Idaho Falls. He made easy work of Pioneer League pitching, posting a .921 OPS in 65 games. 

He’s spent the entirety of 2021 in AA, slashing .284/.353/.401 in 106 games and leads the team in hits with 124. He isn’t a power bat with just 29 XBH, but he offers some speed and plate discipline with 28 steals, 14.6 K% and 8.1 BB%. He’s had a respectable year at the plate for NWA but has been somewhat overshadowed by the dominant play of some of his teammates. He’s started 70 games at second and 35 at short, with second being the more comfortable position for him.

Dungan brings some tools to the table but he may end up lost in the logjam of middle infield talent.

Jeison Guzman – SS/CF

Guzman, a twenty-two-year-old international signing from the Dominican Republic, has been in the Royals’ minor league system since 2016. He began the season with QC where he posted an .817 OPS in 34 games. It has been an arduous move for Guzman since joining the Naturals. He’s hitting .222/.272/.333 in 30 games with a 4.7 BB% against a 31.5 K%. It’s a small sample size in Double-A but looking across his 378 career games as a pro his offensive production has been underwhelming.

What could keep Guzman in the mix is a position change. From 2016-2019 he played exclusively in the infield but this season he’s made 10 starts in centerfield, a position in which the Royals desperately need some depth. Guzman’s youth also keeps the door open for him and there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue to develop offensively, but the Royals find themselves with a number of early-twenties players who currently appear well ahead of him.

And now to the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers.

Bobby Witt Jr. – SS/3B

There isn’t much to say about Bobby Witt jr. that hasn’t already been said. He’s had a remarkably consistent year that has seen his numbers actually improve following his promotion to AAA. He’s regularly being discussed in prospect conversations on a national level. He appears, plainly, as ready for the bigs as any prospect in baseball. 

He opened the season with NWA and logged 61 games before being promoted to OMA in late July. He torched double-A pitching with a .939 OPS and didn’t miss a beat moving up a level, as he currently carries .970 OPS through 54 triple-A games. The rest of his numbers with OMA display as advanced a minor league hitter as the organization has seen since Will Myers in 2012.

He’s hitting .288/.358/.612 with OMA which equals an absurd .324 ISO and an equally absurd .407 wOBA. His .318 BABIP in triple-A doesn’t spell an impending regression and his 4.06 P/PA lead me to believe he could improve on his 9.3 BB% and 23.1 K%.

He’s made ten starts at third but continues to primarily play shortstop in Omaha. The prevailing belief is that Witt is your opening day third baseman in KC next season. If he does not make the opening day roster for the Royals next year we should hope to see wild and otherwise justified demonstrations throughout the streets of Kansas City.

Gabriel Cancel – 2B/3B

Cancel was drafted in the seventh round of the 2015 draft out of Puerto Rico. It feels like the 24-year-old has been around forever at this point, having logged nearly 500 minor league games with the organization. Always a doubles machine, Cancel drew some extra attention in 2019 when he belted a career high 18 HR to go with his 30 doubles. That pop continued into 2021 as he hit 13 HR in 53 games before landing on the 60 day IL in mid-July.

Cancel has been a model of consistency as he has advanced through the levels. While his ground ball and fly ball rates seem to be moving in the right direction, the increase in power is leading to an increase in strikeouts for him, carrying a 28.7 K% with OMA this season. With a .274 ISO, some amount of strikeouts is acceptable, but not 30%.

Primarily a second baseman throughout his career, Cancel has spent some amount of time at every infield position through his pro career. An infield utility role could be just the ticket for Cancel on a big league roster.

Lucius Fox – 2B/SS/CF

Lucius Fox was acquired in the Brett Phillips trade with Tampa Bay in August, 2020. A natural shortstop, Fox has primarily played second base with Omaha. He possesses elite speed, a tool that has allowed Omaha to explore him in centerfield this season for the first time in his five years as a pro.

The most concerning thing for Fox has been the steady decline of his batting average while he advances minor league levels. In 50 triple-A games this season he’s batting .211/.319/.292 with a 24.4 K%. Much like what we saw with Jeison Guzman, the athleticism is there with Fox and if centerfield is a realistic option for him he could broaden his opportunities, but to this point in his career he hasn’t shown enough standout offensive ability to emerge among the other players in the organization.

And, finally, we will round things out with the big league club in Kansas City.

Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF

Over the last 6 seasons Whit has evolved into one of the most beloved and longest tenured Royals on the current roster. Because of that adoration, from both fans and the organization, Whit has been given the opportunity to start everyday, batting leadoff while his production seems to be moving steadily in the wrong direction.

On opening day 2022 Whit will be 33-years-old. While still a productive player, his .716 OPS this season is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season in 2016 and a far cry from the impressive .811 he put up in 2019. This isn’t to say Whit is not still a valuable player, he is, but his value could be even greater if the team made a few adjustments.

1. Use him as the super utility player he is. Cementing Whit at second base will likely not be the team’s best option with Lopez, a healthy Mondi, and presumably Bobby Witt jr. on the roster next year. So why not allow Merrifield to roam around the diamond, allow days off for his teammates, and take advantage of his broad defensive skill-set?

2. While he’s become a formidable leadoff hitter, does he really have to bat leadoff everyday? Is there not some tremendous value in him batting second, third, or fifth? This isn’t to say he should never lead off, but why not allow some flexibility in that spot?

3. Don’t start him every game just for the sake of a record. Whit’s already broken Alcides Escobar’s consecutive starts record and built on it, so give the guy a day off here and there. As mentioned, he’ll be 33 on opening day. Who’s to say Whit won’t actually play better with a few days off thrown in? What if Whit making 135 starts results in more “Two-Hit-Whit” and less “Oh-for” I don’t think any fans could argue with that.

Nicky Lopez – SS/2B

Nicky Lopez made the opening day roster due to the first of several stints on the IL for Adlaberto Mondesi. By early June it looked like the best of Lopez may have been what we saw in 12019. He was batting .224/.320/.301 and while he could draw a walk in a lineup that seems allergic to doing so, the lack of hits and power were more than enough to have us anxiously awaiting a healthy Mondi.

However, since June 13th, Lopez is batting .344/.396/.420. In those 83 games, he stole 14 bases without being caught and played Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop. During this stretch Lopez has a .399 BABIP. That number points pretty clearly to some eventual regression, but I think there’s reason to believe that Nicky can consistently achieve something closer to that than the .622 OPS he put up in the first 2+ months of the season. 

Nicky’s power will never be a big part of his game, but his defense and his ability to get on base make him a valuable piece moving forward. Offensively Nicky is actually pretty similar to Alcides Escobar with a more polished and patient approach at the plate. Will he be able to bat .330 over the course of the 2022 season? Probably not, but there’s more than enough reason to believe he can bat .290 with an OPS above league average.

Adalberto Mondesi – SS/3B

Mondesi has had a disastrous 2021. After missing opening day and bouncing back and forth from brilliant play on the field to multiple stints on the IL, Mondi wouldn’t be able to remain with the club for an extended stretch until September. To make things worse, when he has been on the field he’s been outstanding. In 26 games this season he’s posted a career best .817 OPS. He’s hitting for power and stealing bases at will. He’s had moments this season of fully displaying everything we know he’s capable of — when he can actually stay on the field.

At 25-years-old there’s still time for Mondesi. There’s still hope that he can achieve what Royals fans have seen glimpses of for the last several years. But it’s clear that the team is going to have to take steps to mitigate the possibility of injury as much as possible. This approach is already in action, with Mondi making it into the lineup every other day and playing third base since September 1.

How does this approach play out long term? Does the team go into 2022 just expecting Mondi to play 90 games? Could he be a realistic answer in centerfield? Will Mondi end up getting traded to make room for the flood of young talent due up in the next 12 months? 

The questions surrounding Mondi and just what to do with him are at once exciting and nerve-racking. It would seem a positional relocation is the first step. With what Lopez has shown us at shortstop, the options available with Bobby Witt jr. emerging from the minors, and a similar situation currently playing out with Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego, getting Mondi away form the explosive physical demands of shortstop could ensure more consistent time on the field.

The last thing Royals fans want to see is Mondi getting shipped out of town and putting up gaudy numbers for some other team, and it’s safe to assume the organization feels the same way. He’s still young, affordable and under team control for several years. If the team can find a solution that allows him to remain on the field, he could be a vital part of an October run when our next window opens up in 2023.

Photo Credits: Josh Franzen (@banditsphotog)

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