KANSAS CITY -- One of the biggest questions the Royals face heading into the 2022 season is the alignment of their infield.
In Adalberto Mondesi, Nicky Lopez and top prospect Bobby Witt Jr., who is expected to make his debut at some point in 2022, Kansas City has three elite shortstops who are all able to move around the infield. Then there's Gold Glove Award-finalist second baseman Whit Merrifield, a veteran who can and is willing to move to right field and be just as good of a defender there.
“We have three really talented shortstops that we believe can all play that position, play at a high level,” president of baseball operations Dayton Moore said. “We also believe all three of them can be impactful on the offensive side in multiple ways. They’re very dynamic. But we’ll make that decision on March 31 [Opening Day], when we have to.”
The answer to the overarching infield question won’t be found until the beginning of Spring Training, which is still a long way away. But the subtext to all this is Mondesi’s health and whether he can stay on the field. The 26-year-old was hurt for most of the 2021 season, with right and left oblique strains and a left hamstring injury, and played only 35 games. Mondesi has never played more than 102 games in his big league career, which began in 2016. Only once has he played 75.
Both he and the Royals want to fix that, and the search for the remedy has already started, with how he trains in the offseason.
When the season ended, the Royals spoke to both Mondesi and his agents about employing a different training regimen than in the past. He’s spending a month at home in the Dominican Republic, then he’ll go to Florida, where he will be closer to Mike Tosar, the Royals’ special assignment hitting coordinator. Tosar has helped Salvador Perez and Jorge Soler, among plenty others, make tweaks in their swings to unlock production.
The Royals want Mondesi to go to Spring Training earlier than he typically has, which will allow him to build up the time on his feet in Arizona before official workouts begin.
Both Mondesi and the Royals hope this new winter plan leads to different results in the summer.
“It’s never that he comes into Spring Training unprepared,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “It’s just a matter of, how do we keep him healthy? And that’s why we’re looking at different ways of training. … If he can build up to more of an endurance-type athlete, it may translate better for him to be on the field every night.
“The other part that’s tough with him is that it’s unpredictable. It’s different types of injuries. … That’s why we’re starting to look at it as more total-body structure in this training, to try to combat the unpredictability.”
Once 2022 begins, the Royals will sort out their infield and figure out where Mondesi fits in. And the focus on keeping him healthy won’t stop on Opening Day; the organization has discussed ways to make sure he gets built-in off-days over the course of the season -- similar to how they operated with Lorenzo Cain in center field.
Moore, Picollo and the rest of the front office and coaching staff have also thought about how Mondesi's situation might affect the rest of the infield. If Mondesi is considered the everyday shortstop but can’t play every day, would it be better to have him man third base and let Witt (at shortstop) and Lopez (at second base) work together every day?
Or, if Witt isn’t in the big leagues yet -- another question the Royals must address in Spring Training -- the Royals could have Lopez and Merrifield continue their rapport from this season up the middle.
“Typically, you don’t want to break up your middle,” Picollo said. “As we go through March, that’s the type of discussion we’ll have. There’s an argument to be had that if Bobby Witt Jr.’s your future shortstop, put him there now. … We have to discuss that. I think if we went the other way with Mondi at shortstop with off-days, we have enough confidence in the mental toughness of Lopez and Whit that they can slide in. Lopez goes to short, Whit at second.”
The situation will play out over Spring Training and the course of a long, 162-game season, but the planning begins now, with Mondesi’s offseason training.
“He’s got a good plan, he just has to follow it,” Picollo said. “He’s got to commit to it. He’s just so freakishly talented that he’s never really had to train for anything. But now the lightbulb’s coming on that he’s got to be on the field.”