Finding Utility, or Irving Falu’s Uphill Battle


When you take a look at the Royals projected bench, you’ll see a reasonable backup catcher (Brayan Pena), a versatile outfielder who’s performed alright when pressed into near-everyday service (Mitch Maier) and then a group of infielders who may or may not have actual utility.

Let’s glance at the candidates:

Yuniesky Betancourt – Yuni could occupy shortstop if Alcides Escobar needed a day off. I say “occupy” because I’m not comfortable using the word “play”. Betancourt’s issues of fielding range and consistency are well-known and have been mentioned on this site and others as reason for concern. Now, Ned Yost is suggesting that Betancourt may be in line to start three to four times a week while spelling Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella as well.

If the problem was Betancourt’s defense, then maybe his bat would redeem him.

Problem is, while Betancourt has shown a bit of power here and there in the last few seasons, his overall offensive contribution is poor. There’s a stat designed to weigh a player’s contributions based on the relative value of the ways they get on base and the run values of those methods referred to as wOBA (weighted on base average). After calculating, it ends up looking like on base percentage and anything over .340 is pretty good. Betancourt’s wOBA in 2011 was .278, better than only three players. He’s just not good.

But he’s making $2 million this year and is the favorite to be the team’s utility infielder. He can’t do too much harm that way – unless Yost follows through and does give Yuni three or four starts a week (which works out to just under 300 plate appearances give or take).

Chris Getz – If you listen to the Royals in spring training, they’ll tell you that Getz is changing his stance and trying to add some more power. Chris Getz has Jose Lind power. In 1099 plate appearances, Getz has 42 extra base hits. Lind, in 4001 plate appearances had 181. Simply multiplying Getz’s numbers by 4 (and giving him 400 more plate appearances), he still falls short of Lind’s extra base hit totals.

Getz has played some third base and shortstop in the minors, but has only 35 innings in the big leagues at those positions. He’s basically a second baseman only. His one contribution is speed, as he’s stolen 62 bases in 74 attempts, but that doesn’t do much good if he isn’t getting on base (and his on base percentage is lower than the league average). Getz has an option left and is probably destined to head to Omaha for depth in case of injury.

Kevin Kouzmanoff – There’s some intrigue with Kouzmanoff. Touted as a top prospect when he came up with the Padres, Kouzmanoff didn’t make enough contact and was haunted by big Petco Park. He still showed some power, hitting 16 or more homers from 2007 to 2010 (with the final year being in Oakland, another poor home run environment).

Kouzmanoff presents a couple of problems as a utility player, though. For one, he’s a third baseman. Period. Sure, he could go to the other side of the diamond and fill in at first base, but he’s not going to be in the middle of the field. Secondly, he strikes out so much and walks so rarely that his career on base percentage is .300. His career wOBA is .315. He does have some value at third base, though, where he’s been a bit better than average. An obstacle for Kouzmanoff is his minor league contract that requires the Royals to make a move with the 40 man roster to get him onto the team. If he’s still in the minors on May 1, he’s free to seek other employment, per a clause in his contract.

Someone who’s going overlooked – and has gone overlooked for a while – is Irving Falu.

Let’s look at his resume: He’s one of those “played everywhere but pitcher and catcher” types. He’s the super sub that Esteban German wishes he could have been. Falu is best suited for the middle infield where John Sickels has called his second base play “slick”. He carries a reputation of being at worst decent at shortstop and third base.

Moreover, he has a patient plate approach and can make solid contact. A Royals farmhand since 2003, he’s struck out barely over 8% of the time. He’s walked more frequently than he’s struck out. Over the course of his minor league career, he’s put up a .275/.342/.350 line. No, he’s not a potential superstar, nor was he at any point in his development.

But the thing is, he’s probably a better overall option than the others, especially in a utility role (because he has actual utility as the role is perceived).

Maybe Betancourt was brought in as competition for Johnny Giavotella. It’s possible – even likely – that the organization knows that, barring injury or collapse this spring, Giavotella will be the every day second baseman. To keep him from being complacent and to push him to “win” the job, they brought in a veteran. I can see the idea behind that, but that doesn’t excuse signing one of the worst every day players since Neifi Perez.

Falu has been in the Royals system so long, he played Double A ball in Wichita. He, along with Mitch Maier, are the longest tenured players within the organization. At this point, he’s not going to develop into anything more than a utility player, but that’s just what the Royals can use. A player who can play a good infield at three positions, could play the outfield in a pinch, and has shown that he can get on base and avoid strikeouts as a professional has value.

Maybe he wouldn’t hit better than Getz, but he could get on base more often than Getz.

Maybe he won’t have the power of Kouzmanoff, but he likely won’t strike out as often and can play more positions.

Maybe Yuni has the inside track, but Falu should have better plate discipline and has the same ability to make contact that Betancourt has (and again, Falu can play more positions and better).

A player with Falu’s flexibility allows the Royals to potentially carry both Mitch Maier and Jarrod Dyson (who provides some late-inning speed) on the bench. Or Falu could allow the Royals to spell their infielders while not plugging Betancourt in the lineup as often.

So far this spring (and the standard caveat of March baseball applies), Falu has hits in four of seven at bats, including a home run. He wears a jersey number in the sixties (#64) in Surprise, so that’s not a good sign for his chances, but if he plays defense, gets on base and makes contact, he should get a look in the utility role.

For what it’s worth, Betancourt has one hit in nine at bats in spring training games. He’s gotten the ball out of the infield once.

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