KC Royals: Kelvin Gutierrez should be next utility infielder

(Photo by Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)
(Photo by Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports) /

It looked like Matt Reynolds would be their utility infielder when the KC Royals signed him last year, but he’s gone and the club has a good internal choice.

The KC Royals, a team in search of solutions since losing their championship core following the 2017 season, revamped their lineup in the smoldering aftermath of 2019’s second consecutive 100-plus loss campaign. The retool wasn’t designed to make the Royals instant winners, but instead to accomplish a slight midcourse correction on their return path to relevancy.

Prominent among its winter moves, which included the highly successful signings of Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland, was the club’s acquisition of third baseman Maikel Franco, a transaction inspired at least in part to ease the team’s discomfort with Hunter Dozier’s glove. Dozier moved initially to right field, then transitioned late in the season to first base when neither Ryan O’Hearn or Ryan McBroom staked claim to the position. The switch immediately improved the Royals’ infield and proved an unintended, but good, consequence of bringing Franco aboard.

And Franco, of course, performed well for the Royals and stands to reap the dividends in arbitration or a deal General Manager Dayton Moore cooks up to avoid arbitrating with him.

But while the addition of Franco addressed one problem, it had nothing to do with another—who to use as a utility infielder if, as planned, the spectacularly versatile Whit Merrifield made the “permanent” move to center field. Moving Merrifield back to the infield if injury-prone Adalberto Mondesi went down for any appreciable length of time would restore unfortunate instability to KC’s outfield.

Kansas City, though, had signed Matt Reynolds, another versatile player, a month before agreeing to terms with Franco. The fact Reynolds had done just about everything in his professional career, including pitching a bit in the minors, appeared to ease the burden on Merrifield.

Fortunately, Mondesi stayed healthy in 2020. But Reynolds was never a factor. His poor spring (.132/.214/.263 in 16 games) probably had more to do than anything with his failure to make the club’s 30-man roster when the short season started, and he went hitless in 11 at-bats during a brief September call-up. The Roya’s DFA’d him four days after he made it to Kansas City, then outrighted him back to the alternate training site. He later elected free agency and is no longer with the club.

All isn’t lost, however. The answer to the utility infielder question is on the Royals’ 40-man roster. Kelvin Gutierrez should get the job.

His presence on the 40-man isn’t the only reason Gutierrez’s name should be familiar. He’s mlb.com’s 25th-ranked Kansas City prospect, and no stranger to the KC lineup, having played for the major league club in 2019 and 2020. He collected 11 RBIs in just 20 games with the 2019 Royals and hit .260 with a home run. A long stint on the Injured List with a right elbow strain robbed Gutierrez of almost all his 2020 campaign, but he recovered in time to get into four September contests. The rust showed: he went 1-for-9.

His seven-year minor league .284 average, and his .287/.367/.427 at Triple A Omaha in 2019, though, prove that Gutierrez’s ability to hit professional pitching isn’t in dispute.

And Gutierrez’s minor league OBP of .346 suggests he can get on base. He can also run: he’s reached double digits in stolen bases three times, including a career best 25 in 2016.

If there’s a strike against him offensively, it’s a perennial lack of pop. Gutierrez has primarily been a third baseman, a position of expected power, but averages fewer than four minor league homers a season. Adding to his downside is occasionally ragged glovework.

It’s this two-prong issue—lack of power and less than stellar defense—which prevents the 26-year old from breaking into an everyday major league lineup, and probably always will. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for him with the Royals.

Gutierrez may not be as versatile as Merrifield or even Reynolds, but he can play third and has time at shortstop and first base in the minors. Ability to move around the infield is something the KC Royals need, especially if they remain committed to keeping Merrifield in the outfield and having someone who can give other infielders time off.

Filling those roles doesn’t require power or Gold Glove defense; reliability is more essential for part-time players, and Gutierrez has averaged almost 80 games per season in the minors, a number skewed downward by campaigns spent in short season leagues.

And utilizing Gutierrez’s serviceable bat, even on a part-time basis, is better than wasting him in Triple A as a placeholder.

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The KC Royals need a utility infielder. Kelvin Gutierrez should be the choice going into 2021.