KC Royals: Why it’s decision time on Kelvin Gutierrez

(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals need to decide what to do with a capable utility infielder.

Between now and Opening Day, the Kings of Kauffman writers are analyzing how various KC Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is infielder Kelvin Gutierrez.

MLB Pipeline’s newest Top 30 Prospect Rankings are out for each team, and conspicuously absent from Kansas City’s Top 30 list is talented and versatile infielder Kelvin Gutierrez. It’s the first time Gutierrez hasn’t been ranked since coming to the Royals in the 2018 trade that sent Kelvin Herrera to Washington.

Worse for Gutierrez, though, is his recent demotion to Triple-A Omaha, a move the club made last Monday. Given his place as the organization’s best utility infielder without a spot on the Opening Day major league roster, Gutierrez will likely head for the alternate training site before he sees Omaha.

Cutting him was a certain consequence of Kansas City’s offseason acquisition of Hanser Alberto, a proven major league infielder with a better bat and more versatility than Gutierrez. This isn’t the first time circumstances beyond his control have put Gutierrez on the outside looking in—he appeared squeezed out last season by the signings of third baseman Maikel Franco and veteran utility man Matt Reynolds before injury sidelined him most of the campaign.

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Now, without an injury to Alberto, or to a starting infielder that forces Alberto to assume an everyday role, Gutierrez will resume his work in the minors. Besides Alberto, Gutierrez’s bat is the other factor impeding his path to the majors: although he’s a .284 career hitter with a .346 OBP in the minors, he’s hitting .244 in 82 at-bats with a .308 OBP in the majors.

So, will Gutierrez find his way back to Kansas City this season? How will he perform if he does?

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs projections for Gutierrez’s KC Royals year

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs both foresee Gutierrez playing in Kansas City this season, but view his potential performance quite differently.

Baseball Reference predicts he’ll receive plenty of playing time (224 plate appearances), display far more power (seven home runs) than he has in parts of two previous campaigns with the Royals (one homer), but slash only .241/.317/.397.

FanGraphs (Depth Charts version), on the other hand, projects just 28 PAs for Gutierrez with no homers, three RBIs and a .233/.294/.344 line.

How will Gutierrez do if he returns to the KC Royals for part of the season?

Gutierrez is the kind of player who’ll visit the majors at least once every season, so expect him back in Kauffman Stadium in 2021. He won’t play as much as Baseball Reference projects, but he’ll get more time than FanGraphs predicts. He’ll fill in where he’s needed and finish with offensive numbers consistent with his previous big league statistics. In other words, this season will be more of the same for Gutierrez.

That’s why it’s time for the KC Royals to decide where he stands. Gutierrez won’t improve measurably at the plate without the big league at-bats he won’t get in the minors, nor will he spend enough time in the majors to get those at-bats while Hanser Alberto is a Royal.

The question for Kansas City, then, is this: Does the club hold onto Gutierrez in anticipation of Alberto staying only one season, or package him in a trade designed to reap more immediate value?

Keeping him seems the better option—Alberto was Baltimore’s primary second baseman for two seasons before coming to Kansas City, where he’ll probably start only if Nicky Lopez fails at the plate or Hunter Dozier is injured, and then only if the club doesn’t deem Bobby Witt Jr. ready for the majors. Alberto can’t be blamed if he wants to seek a starting role elsewhere.

An Alberto departure would clear the decks for Gutierrez, who represents plenty of team control. He isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2025 season; that, and his suitability for a utility role, make continuing their investment in Gutierrez wise for the Royals.

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Kelvin Gutierrez may not spend much of the season in Kansas City, but the Royals still need to keep him. He’s too valuable to let go.