Once the Kansas City Royals signed Omar Infante to pair with Alcides Escobar in the middle infield, it became apparent that they weren’t going to spend more than $3 million for a utility infielder like Emilio Bonifacio. As expected, the Royals ended up designating him for assignment and the top utility infielder in camp now is Pedro Ciriaco, a 28 year-old with some speed, some range on defense and not much else. When camp started a month or so ago and Escobar and Infante were healthy, the idea that the Royals might not carry a backup middle infielder was a bit scary. Since that time, both Escobar and Infante have suffered from shoulder injuries that both took longer to heal than the Royals expected. Escobar’s injury hasn’t even healed yet. He was expected to play today, but now he’s not expected to play until Saturday. That’s troubling. And then we found out before Monday’s game that Infante is now dealing with elbow issues.
As a Royals fan, it’s pretty much the standard act to think the worst and think that Escobar is looking at a DL stint to start the season. If that is the case, Pedro Ciriaco is likely the guy to start the season at shortstop and batting ninth. You might be wondering why. Or you might not. Either way I’m going to tell you. Ciriaco is out of options, which means he can’t be sent to AAA without first having to clear waivers. The other player in this battle who is still with big league camp is Jason Donald, and the Royals signed him to a minor league deal this off-season, which means he can be sent down without the risk of losing him. Both have actually had their solid moments this spring, and Donald has surprised me quite a bit with his defensive range as he’s had a chance to show that off with Escobar missing most of spring training action to this point.
The issue underscores the lack of depth the Royals have in the upper levels of the organization in the middle infield. I understand the reasoning behind DFAing Bonifacio even though I don’t agree with it, but they’re now left in a situation where the best options are guys who the Royals have shown they have no faith in for various reasons. The Royals thought so highly of Christian Colon that they traded for Alcides Escboar in the off-season after drafting him. With the shortstop position seemingly locked up for awhile, Colon’s path to the big leagues seemed to be second base, so the Royals signed Omar Infante to a four year deal. Johnny Giavotella is the other guy who could be in line for second base reps if Infante can’t go, but he’s been in the big leagues in parts of three years and whether you think he’s had a real chance or not, he hasn’t gotten the job done.
So then the other options are players who their previous teams let go for nothing in return. Jason Donald, if you’re unfamiliar with his body of work, was in the Phillies system before being traded to the Indians as part of the Cliff Lee deal a few years back. He was really good in the minors through AA, but then hit a bit of a wall when he got to AAA. After being in the Indians system for a year and a half or so, he had a solid year in AAA and reached the majors for the first time where he hit pretty well and then followed it up the next year with even better offensive numbers. The metrics didn’t like him at shortstop, but he didn’t have a ton of time there with Asdrubal Cabrera the starter in Cleveland. Then in 2012, the wheels fell off in the big leagues and Donald became the Reds issue where he put up a line in AAA similar to the one that Escobar put up in the big leagues. Defensively, Donald has been impressive this spring, getting to a few balls I didn’t expect him to get to, but I have my doubts about his offensive game.
Between Donald and Ciriaco, the Royals have two middle infielders with big league experience and big league success. Still, that’s just not a recipe for success for a team that has their eyes on the playoffs. After the performance of Yordano Ventura this spring, I think there’s a sense of optimism that there is that other high end pitcher to pair with James Shields and give the Royals a shot. But then there’s up the middle. If Escobar and Infante are healthy, I think they’re good enough to make the playoffs if a few things break their way. Without one of them for a short period of time, the Royals could be fine. Without one of them for an extended period, things get iffy. Without both of them, that could be a problem.
Maybe this isn’t an issue right now, but Omar Infante has played more than 140 games three times in his career. One of those times was when he was 22. A big reason for playing so few games is that Infante simply wasn’t a starter early in his career, but he also has had his injury issues throughout his career. What’s been highlighted already is how thin the organization is up the middle, and even if both Escobar and Infante are fine for the start of the year, the grind of the season could really be a problem for a team with playoff hopes. We’ll see what happens, but at this point, it really makes you wonder if even if both players are healthy to start the season if the Royals might change their plans a bit and maybe keep Ciriaco around and try to pass Valencia through waivers. The next few days will be very telling, but the lack of middle infield depth could prove to be a huge problem for this team during 2014.
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