Two KC Royals offseason transactions made a pair of recent moves certain
Monday’s news that the KC Royals had optioned promising prospects Nick Heath and Kelvin Gutierrez to the minors should surprise no one. Two of the club’s more surprising winter moves preordained the transactions.
Although the Heath and Gutierrez options made the bigger splash, headed to Triple-A Omaha with them is switch-hitting infielder Lucius Fox, acquired in last August’s trade that sent Brett Phillips to Tampa Bay. Fox was the least likely of the three to make the Opening Day roster; Heath and Gutierrez seemed to have decent chances to make the 2021 club when the 2020 season ended. All three remain on the Royals’ 40-man roster.
The writing on the wall appeared for Gutierrez when the Royals unexpectedly signed free agent infielder Hanser Alberto in late January. Unlike Gutierrez, who’s played only 24 big league games, Alberto is a five-year veteran and spent the past two seasons as Baltimore’s primary second baseman. He also has a .278 career average and hit 12 home runs for Baltimore in 2019; Gutierrez’s (small sample) average is .244 and his professional home run high is the 11 he hit in Double-A three years ago.
Alberto is also more versatile—he’s done everything in the majors except catch and play center field, while Gutierrez has played third, although he’s also spent time at first and shortstop in the minors.
And Alberto was statistically ahead of Gutierrez when news of the latter’s option came. Alberto was 5-for-13 with a double, RBI and no strikeouts, better than Gutierrez’s 3-for-13 with an alarming six strikeouts.
At this point, Alberto is the Royals’ better choice for a backup infielder, and his greater versatility will be invaluable if the club wants to limit Whit Merrifield’s time away from right field. And, if the club adheres to its obvious plan to keep Bobby Witt Jr. in the minors for more seasoning, Alberto could take over second if Nicky Lopez’s hitting remains dismal.
Heath played less (seven games) than Gutierrez (10), but appeared to be in a more enviable roster position after Alberto arrived. That changed when, in a move perhaps more surprising than bringing Alberto aboard, Kansas City dipped into its past and signed former Royal Jarrod Dyson; Dyson’s major league contract all but guaranteed him the fourth outfield spot and left Heath facing another season in the minors.
Dyson immediately gives the KC Royals two things Heath doesn’t—extensive major league experience and championship savvy. Heath debuted just last season and played 15 times, while this will be Dyson’s 12th big league campaign, and he was a popular and vocal leader of Kansas City’s 2014 and ’15 World Series clubs. With the team’s turn for the better in sight, the major roles Dyson played in both Royal trips to the Fall Classic had to figure prominently in General Manager Dayton Moore’s decisions to pursue and sign him.
How will their options impact Gutierrez’s and Heath’s KC Royals futures?
In the short run, and assuming injuries or other developments don’t necessitate them being recalled, being sent to Omaha means Gutierrez and Heath will spend at least part of the 2021 season in Triple-A. It will be the players’ second time there—both played in Omaha in 2019, with Heath hitting .256 in with an excellent .392 OBP and 10 steals in 21 games, and Gutierrez .289 with a .367 OBP, nine homers and 12 stolen bases in 75 contests.
The Royals think highly of both players and won’t hesitate to summon either to Kansas City if the need arises.
In the long run, the major league potential Gutierrez and Heath both possess will attract other clubs’ attention. Kansas City’s abundance of infield talent, including prospects Witt Jr. and Nick Loftin, make Gutierrez the more likely candidate for a move elsewhere; Dyson may not stick with the Royals through the season, which means Heath, as one of the team’s best outfield hopefuls, probably isn’t going anywhere soon.
The KC Royals’ acquisitions of Hanser Alberto and Jarrod Dyson left no immediate room for Kelvin Gutierrez and Nick Heath. Sooner or later, though, Gutierrez and Heath will probably find their ways back to Kansas City.