Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Much has been written about the Royals’ potential decision to start the season without a backup middle infielder. If that is the direction they go, that would be a decision many people – myself included – would disagree with. I’ve been over the folly behind such a decision numerous times before, so I won’t go over my reasoning again here. Instead, I’ll use this space to discuss why that decision may be much more difficult for the Royals to make, if a couple of key players are not able to get completely healthy.
The Royals have now played 15 games in spring training, and not a single one of them has included Omar Infante and Alcides Escobar playing together at second base and shortstop, respectively. Escobar missed some time due to the birth of his child, then Infante started dealing with some shoulder soreness, but once he came back, Escobar began dealing with some shoulder soreness of his own. After receiving a cortisone shot Wednesday, Escobar expects to be ready to play in a few days, and to be fully healthy by Opening Day. Likewise with Infante, he is feeling better and the team doesn’t foresee any further issues.
Despite the players’ and the team’s assertions, there absolutely has to be some level of concern in this situation. Baseball players and shoulder problems are two things that are never a good combination together, even if the problem is just inflammation. Particularly with players who will need their arm strength to make throws from deep in the hole or behind second base, these kinds of minor injuries can have a hugely negative impact if they linger. Granted, it’s not a guarantee that both players’ shoulders will still be a little sore in a few weeks, but that possibility should be on the minds of Dayton Moore and the rest of the front office. What may end up being the case is for Escobar or Infante to need a couple of weeks of rest to come back 100% healthy, and a trip to the disabled list may be in order. That’s probably a worst-case scenario, of course, but with the way the injuries have hampered both players, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if it comes to fruition.
I am curious, though, how the Royals would handle a situation in which one of their middle infielders went on the disabled list. Would they still be comfortable going without a backup middle infielder if they already have a backup middle infielder in the starting lineup?
First of all, there are a few primary options at this point who can play both shortstop and second base: Pedro Ciriaco, Christian Colon, and Jason Donald. Donald is not on the 40-man roster, but Ciriaco is out of options, so if the team goes with the former, the latter will need to be designated for assignment, thus creating the roster spot. If it’s Infante who goes on the DL, Johnny Giavotella could also be an option, but I think we all know how the organization feels about him at this point.
Part of the reason why the team feels they can handle not having a backup middle infielder is that both Escobar and Infante will not need to be lifted from games for offense or defense in late game situations. But are the Royals as confident about Ciriaco stepping to the plate as the tying run in the 8th inning? Would they be worried about Donald’s glove trying to protect a 1-run lead? Or, would they prefer to have another option available on the bench to give them a bit more flexibility?
Such a scenario could provide Ned Yost with some opportunities to be creative, but, since baseball managers and creativity generally go together like peanut butter and swamp mud, I’m not sure we’d get to see many outside-the-box solutions. If the Royals do think they’d need an extra middle infielder to provide insurance, how would he fit into the roster? Would they risk losing Justin Maxwell to waivers, or would they consider the (apparently) completely impossible 11-man pitching staff?
You may have noticed that I’m asking a lot of questions without providing any answers. There’s a reason for that. It’s because I don’t know.
I’d like to think the Royals would want to have a backup-backup middle infielder during this hypothetical two week period, if for no other reason that it makes more sense, but I really don’t know if they’d do that. Relying on Escobar or Infante, and Backup Middle Infielder X for two straight weeks of games – even if there are a couple of off days in that stretch – is kind of a scary proposition, and I do think the Royals understand that risk. Or at least, I hope they do. But at the same time, their current roster construction doesn’t have a ton of room for flexibility in this regard, since they wouldn’t want to risk the loss of Maxwell, just for a two-week stretch, which means they’d have to rid themselves of Danny Valencia, or go with a shorter bullpen. Neither of those options are all that appealing to the front office, so again I don’t know what the team would do. If I had to guess, I would say they would move forward with their plan of not having a backup middle infielder on the roster, but I am not sure the Royals believe that strongly in their backups right now.
Hopefully, Escobar and Infante will be able to rest enough in spring training, which, combined with the excellent Royals’ training staff, will be enough to get them back to 100%, which would prove this entire “what if” scenario to be totally pointless. But, we’re still a couple of weeks away from watching games that actually matter, so pointless hypothetical scenarios are about all we have to entertain ourselves for the time being.