The KC Royals made a legitimate five-tool player their first round draft pick in 2019. He may present the club with a problem when he’s ready for the majors.
No one was particularly surprised last amateur draft season when the KC Royals, after stocking up on top-flight pitching the year before, selected a position player with their first round pick. Nor was it a shock when their choice was Bobby Witt Jr., rated by everyone as a can’t miss, can’t pass up, shortstop.
The Royals took Witt, the son of former major leaguer Bobby Witt, with the second overall pick. He’s a five-tool player–he can hit, hit with power, throw, play good defense and run well. Although his power didn’t show during his premiere professional season last summer in the Arizona Rookie League –he hit one home run in 180 trips to the plate–he has it and there’s no serious doubt it will be a feature of his game. And his .261 average is sure to improve as the 19-year old’s game matures.
Until the pandemic, projecting Witt to reach Kansas City in 2021 at the earliest (most likely as a late-season call-up) seemed reasonable; now, with the 2020 minor league season certain to be shortened (or possibly canceled), 2021 may be out of the question. Witt is too valuable an asset to rush to the big leagues and, with Adalberto Mondesi firmly established at shortstop and Nicky Lopez fully capable of playing there, no pressing need exists to expedite Witt.
The Royals will bring Witt to Kauffman Stadium when he’s ready to hit major league pitching and hit it with power. But with him will likely come a problem–he’s a shortstop, just like Mondesi, another player upon whom the club is betting its future. Who gives up playing shortstop will be the first question; where to move that player will be the second.
Clearly, leaving Witt at short is the path of least resistance and disruption; adjusting to the big leagues and everything that goes with them is hard enough without having to learn a new position. A Mondesi transition to second would be, for him, relatively seamless because he’s played there in the minors and majors and likely wouldn’t miss a defensive beat.
Would those moves leave incumbent second sacker Lopez the odd man out of the Kansas City infield? Not necessarily–Lopez started his college career (Creighton) at third and switched to shortstop his sophomore season, so he’s familiar with the position; big league third base demands more than college third, but the fundamentals are the same.
Moving Lopez to third presumes, of course, a vacant hot corner. Whether current third baseman Maikel Franco will be there when the KC Royals deem Witt ready for The Show remains to be seen–he’s on a one-year contract that ends whether the 2020 season is played or not and whether he re-ups is anyone’s guess. In any event, Lopez likely occupies a deeper position in the club’s long-term plans. (Hunter Dozier could return to third, but the Royals seem committed to making him an outfielder, a solution to their misgivings about his defense).
A point not in Lopez’s favor is his lack of power, a deficiency atypical of ideal corner infielders but far more acceptable for second basemen. He hit two homers in 103 games last season and is averaging slightly better than five in four professional campaigns. (He’ll also need to improve his .240/.276/.325 slash).
All things considered, then, Witt may be the best choice to transition to a new position if the Royals want to leave their infield largely undisturbed. He’s sufficiently athletic to tackle the switch and his arm is strong enough for the long cross-diamond throws it requires; if his natural power manifests itself as anticipated, Witt should be a good third base fit.
The problem Witt presents is simple–how to add a can’t miss player without losing another (Mondesi) or an excellent one whose bat should come around (Lopez). Because it’s solvable and the solution could make the club better, it’s a pleasant problem to have.
Bobby Witt Jr. won’t play for the KC Royals if baseball resumes this year and may not see Kansas City next season. Whenever he’s ready, the club needs to make room for him. Third base could be promising.