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Versatility will be key for Royals' final roster spot

@FlannyMLB
February 25, 2020

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- While the Royals’ everyday lineup appears close to set -- there is still a battle between friends Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom at first -- there is a really intriguing fight for what might be the final position roster spot.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- While the Royals’ everyday lineup appears close to set -- there is still a battle between friends Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom at first -- there is a really intriguing fight for what might be the final position roster spot.

Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier are set in the outfield, with Maikel Franco, Adalberto Mondesí, Nicky Lopez and likely O’Hearn around the infield. Salvador Pérez will be back at catcher and the reigning American League home run champion Jorge Soler is the DH.

Cam Gallagher seems likely to be the backup catcher, though Meibrys Viloria is not out of the conversation. Viloria, 23, probably would benefit more from playing every day at Triple-A.

That’s 10 spots. And if the Royals choose to hold onto inventory -- which is often their pattern -- Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, who are both out of options, could take up the 11th and 12th spots.

That means one spot would be open among McBroom, Matt Reynolds, Erick Mejia, Kelvin Gutierrez and Humberto Arteaga.

Outfielder prospects Khalil Lee and Nick Heath certainly have a future in the big leagues but probably just not now, simply because they don’t have the positional versatility to land the coveted final roster spot.

“You’re basically talking about the 26th guy,” manager Mike Matheny said. “How do you define the 26th man? Someone who can run for you? Someone who can pinch-hit? A defender? I think more often than not you’ll see a defender in that role.

“Ideally you would look at a guy who can play the middle infield and also play the outfield. You look at a Mejia or a Reynolds. Both of those guys would be in anybody’s thought process -- it doesn’t get any more versatile than that. Then you add into the equation that Mejia is a switch-hitter.”

Here’s a look at the options for that 26th spot:

Ryan McBroom, 1B-OF
McBroom, a right-handed hitter acquired from the Yankees late last season, would give the Royals some protection at first base for O’Hearn against tough lefties. “McBroom is definitely in the conversation,” Matheny said. “He could also be protection because we’ve talked about keeping O’Hearn in favorable situations. McBroom can also be that big bat off the bench.” McBroom has options, which will be a factor.

Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
Gutierrez has impressed Matheny throughout the early camp. And while Gutierrez has played shortstop in the Minors, he might not have the versatility for the role of 26th man. Matheny has pointed out that the decision about Gutierrez comes down to whether the organization wants him to play every day to continue his development. Gutierrez has options.

Erick Mejia, Utility
Mejia has played third base, shortstop, second base and the outfield in the Minors. He played a total of 36 games in center field between Triple-A and the Royals in 2019. “A switch-hitter who can run a little and play outfield and infield – the only thing he could do more is play catcher and that would be the ultimate utility guy,” Matheny said. Mejia, though, is not on the 40-man roster.

Matt Reynolds, Utility
Reynolds, 29, was a non-roster invitee signed in November who, like Mejia, fits the bill of a 26th man. Reynolds can play all infield and outfield positions, Matheny said. And Reynolds has 127 big-league games under his belt with the Mets and Nationals. “One of the reasons you go get a Reynolds who has big-league experience is he can play shortstop and center field,” Matheny said. “You get those types of guys and just let them compete.”

Humberto Arteaga, Middle Infield
Arteaga, a non-roster invite, played in 41 games last season when Mondesi was hurt. Arteaga is not much of a threat at the plate (he hit .197 in 2019), but is a solid defender, with Matheny raving about his heady play at shortstop. Arteaga probably doesn’t have the versatility to grab that final spot.

The Phillips/Starling question
The Royals certainly don’t have to keep both Phillips and Starling simply because they are out of options. It’s just that the Royals, like many teams, prefer to keep inventory when they can.

“I’m with you on holding onto your assets,” Matheny said, “but when we’re talking about doing everything you can to win, it comes down to what is our best team? Sometimes you have to evaluate [your philosophy on keeping assets]. Fortunately, that’s not my decision.”

The Mondesí question
The dynamics of roster construction would change dramatically if Mondesí, coming off shoulder surgery, would not be ready by Opening Day -- all indications are that he will be. But to be safe, Lopez is going to play a lot of shortstop early in camp, and Merrifield, of course, will get plenty of reps at second base.

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @FlannyMLB.