The Battle of Who Could Care Less

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Headed into Spring Training 2016, the Kansas City Royals have very little when it comes to major concerns on their roster. There is right field (which looks like a platoon between Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando), the 5th spot in the starting rotation, the backup catcher battle and a few bullpen spots. But there also is a battle at second base, where Omar Infante looks to reclaim his spot while upstart Christian Colon looks to pry playing time away from the veteran. It would appear on first look that it is Infante’s job to lose, but there is always a chance Colon could take over, especially since Infante’s numbers the last few years have been less than stellar. Word last month from the almighty GM, Dayton Moore was that Colon would get a chance to win the job away from Infante this spring. So this begs the question: who should the Royals start at second base?

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Let’s start with the man we all figure will win the job, Omar Infante. Infante is getting ready for his age 34 season, year 3 of a 4 year deal with Kansas City. To say Infante has been lacking offense the last two seasons would be a bit of an understatement. Infante’s OPS+ the last two seasons has been 76 and 49(league average is 100), miles away from the 115 he produced for Detroit back in 2013. He was actually able to produce a positive WAR in 2014(0.8) but slipped to -0.8 in 2015. Pretty much every offensive statistic has suffered in his two years in Kansas City, although he did have a number of clutch hits for the team in 2014. It’s not even just the main offensive numbers; fly ball % is down, his groundball rate is up and his hard hit rate has suffered as well. None of this is too surprising, as Infante is at that age where regression starts to sit in, so a dip in the numbers shouldn’t be too shocking.

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Defensively, it has been a different story, as Omar actually held his own on defense this past year. Infante was able to post a positive dWAR, a big bump in his UZR, and a slight increase in his defensive runs saved. If ever you wondered why manager Ned Yost continued to pencil Infante into the lineup everyday, looking at his defensive numbers should explain it. The real detriment to Infante the last two seasons(and why there is at least some optimism in his return) has been the litany of injuries that he has dealt with during his time in Kansas City. In just two seasons, Infante has dealt with a jaw sprain, a shoulder sprain, an oblique strain(which sidelined him at the end of 2015), and a bone spur in his right elbow that required surgery this past November. Outside of the first week of the 2014 season, I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen a completely healthy Infante during his time in Royal blue. A healthy Infante would go a long ways toward not only sewing up a starting spot but also increasing his value in any way possible.

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So what about Christian Colon? Well, his numbers are a bit harder to decipher because of limited time in the majors. Offensively, he has been better than Infante the last two seasons numbers wise, but once again this is in limited action. Colon has put up an OPS+ of 139 and 91 the last two seasons, but that is in 21 and 43 games. He has compiled a positive WAR(0.7 and 0.6) and defensively has been a slightly above average fielder. I went ahead and looked at his numbers in AAA Omaha, and Colon played about how you would figure; an average hitter with little power, decent speed and a positive increase in his BB/K rate. It’s hard to really get a read on what kind of major league player Colon would be, but it would appear he is about replacement level.

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If you believe Moore, this will be a serious competition between the two players.  In fact he all but said that last month when talking to MLB.com:

“We’ll just evaluate,” Moore told MLB.com. “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. I don’t know if Omar, at this point, is going to play 162 games.”

Go ahead, look at that last sentence. Moore basically implies they aren’t for sure Infante can stay healthy the whole season. You can understand why, after the list of injuries I mentioned above, but this also makes you wonder if something else is in the mix.

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There is something else in the mix, and that ‘something else’ would be hot prospect Raul Mondesi Jr. Mondesi is entering his age 20 season and finished last year in AA Northwest Arkansas in the Royals farm system.  Mondesi is still a very raw talent, but it is conceivable he could make a big jump this season. One downside is that Mondesi has only played 18 professional games at second base, although it will be interesting to see what they do with him when he starts the year in the minors. If he is playing second fairly often early on, then it is possible the Royals would be looking at him as a possible solution in the big leagues later in the summer. I don’t think we will see Mondesi in the mix to start the year, but I have a hunch we will see him before the year is up.

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So what is the final verdict? Going just off of numbers, it would seem like a dead heat. Infante and Colon’s ‘Steamer Projections’ are fairly similar: Infante has a projected line of .253/.284/.352 with a wRC+(weighted runs created) of 71, while Colon’s line would be .264/.316/..352 with an 83 wRC+.  The numbers show that Colon might have a slight edge offensively, but not by much. It would seem Infante would have the edge defensively, which the Royals highly value. Infante would probably also have the edge because of his contract; it’s hard to justify benching the guy who’s making $7.8 million this year, especially since he is almost untradeable. Here is what I believe will happen: Infante will win the job out of Spring Training and will hold onto it until/if he gets hurt. Even if Infante is able to stay healthy, I really believe by August we will see Mondesi holding down the second base job. The Infante-Colon combo is not a permanent answer, especially for a team that has aspirations of making the postseason again this year. Instead it is the current answer, not the permanent one. Come August, second base could look much different for the Royals.

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