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The Answer to Royals' Backup Middle Infielder Problem is... Danny Valencia?

As most of you probably know, the Royals are poised to go into the season with five outfielders and no backup middle infielder on the Opening Day roster. I talked about the folly behind such a decision a couple of weeks ago, and I’m not alone in that opinion. With spring training officially underway, the topic is being discussed once again, and this time, the Royals are explaining their thoughts on the matter a bit more clearly. In this article from Jeffrey Flanagan, Dayton Moore points out that rosters change as the season goes on, and if adjustments need to be made along the way, they’ll make them. While that is true, I believe Moore’s statement misses the point of the criticism behind his strategy. Obviously if Alcides Escobar or Omar Infante requires a trip to the disabled list, they’ll be replaced on the 25-man roster. Not having a backup middle infielder is unaffected in a case of an injury that severe. However, the biggest problem remains what the Royals would do if either Escobar or Infante gets banged up early in a game or has to miss just a couple of games.

It may seem unlikely this kind of situation would present itself early in the year, but it’s also unlikely the Royals need to go with a 12-man pitching staff early in the year. The Royals correctly point out that there are more off days in April, plus the possibilities for rainouts, which will offer days to rest players as needed. For some reason, though, the organization doesn’t use that line of thinking in regards to their bullpen. This is yet another instance of the Royals taking a good idea and using it incorrectly, but I’m getting off topic.

Now, it seems the team may have the solution to their backup middle infielder problem. According to Ned Yost, Danny Valencia is going to be taking some reps at second base.

Yes. That Danny Valencia.

The Royals appear comfortable taking a poor defender at a less difficult position and moving him to a position he’s never played professionally that requires more range and better hands. This, for a team whose pitching staff has three starters who must have excellent defense behind them to produce good results. What could possibly go wrong?

Again, I fully understand that such a situation may not present itself in the regular season. I also understand that Valencia might only have to fill in at second for a game or two. But, the Royals should understand that in their current position on the win curve, they can’t be giving away runs defensively. One or two games could very well be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home for yet another October.

I like the idea of having Valencia on the roster, especially as a potential platoon partner for Mike Moustakas, and for the right-handed power he brings to the bench. But despite Valencia’s and Yost’s claims that the former is more than just a lefty masher, he hasn’t had an OPS over .630 against right-handed pitching since 2010. Valencia simply doesn’t offer any real versatility. He’s a third baseman who hits left-handed pitching well, and that’s fine. There’s value with that kind of player. The team has also said they like his defense at first base better than Billy Butler‘s, which I find interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Valencia has played all of 28 professional games at first base in his career, and just 6 since 2009, so there isn’t a whole lot of evidence on which to base their claim. Also, the Royals apparently find it more important to have a 2nd backup first baseman than to have a backup middle infielder. For a team that relies on defense, that’s a pretty bold strategy.

I’ll grant that we’re still a few weeks away from Opening Day, and the team’s thoughts on the matter could change, but the fact that they appear set on going without a backup shortstop or second baseman is troubling. There are quite a few scenarios in which this roster decision could come back to bite the Royals, even if they do eventually add a utility infielder a couple of months into the season. To me, it makes more sense to go with a 6-man bullpen and someone like Pedro Ciriaco on the bench early on, then adjust as needed. That would give the team more flexibility for late inning situations, and it would prevent the Royals from having a bad defender in a more important defensive position. Valencia is a solid player to have on the bench, but a second baseman he is not.

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