KC Royals Opening Day: Not the lineup we expected

Opening Day is here. The KC Royals’ lineup isn’t what was anticipated.

The roster news breaking from the KC Royals Wednesday afternoon wasn’t what fans were looking forward to. Instead of discovering who made the Opening Day roster, they learned Thursday’s first game lineup won’t be what anyone expected when spring training ended Monday.

Instead, Adalberto Mondesi will start the season on the Injured List. The Royals recalled Nicky Lopez, who only Sunday found himself out of his second base job and on the way back to the minors, and he’ll start in Mondesi’s place.

And Kyle Isbel will make his major league debut in right field, the position left vacant when Lopez’s demotion forced Whit Merrifield back to second:

While no other changes to the lineup the Royals reshaped during the winter are expected (Carlos Santana at first base, Hunter Dozier at third, Andrew Benintendi in left field, Michael A. Taylor in center, Salvador Perez behind the plate, and Jorge Soler at DH), Mondesi’s absence and the additions of Lopez and Isbel are significant, and could weaken the Royals until Mondesi returns from the oblique issue that landed him on the IL.

The KC Royals have little choice but to start Nicky Lopez at shortstop

At first blush, replacing Mondesi with Lopez seems questionable. After all, newcomer Hanser Alberto is readily available after being added to the active roster Monday; Alberto can play short and hits better than Lopez, whose well-chronicled battle with his own bat is the only reason the club demoted him. Lopez’s career .228 average pales in comparison to Alberto’s .278, he hit .201 last season while Alberto hit .283 for Baltimore, and Alberto’s .355/.412/.419 Cactus League slash was far better than Lopez’s .118/.231/.147.

But there may be method to this apparent madness. The Royals signed and kept Alberto primarily as a good-hitting utility infielder; his versatility is second only to Merrifield’s, and definitely exceeds Lopez’s. Starting Lopez at short certainly protects Alberto and preserves him for the critical backup role he’s being paid for. It’s a logical way to approach the situation, especially because Lopez is less suited to be a backup than Alberto. And Alberto can step right in if Lopez can’t hold his own at the plate.

And Lopez is no stranger to shortstop—he’s played there 37 times in the majors, 272 in the minors, and 99 in college.

Having Lopez sub for Mondesi may also help Lopez. Although he’ll hit lower in the order than Mondesi, Lopez will still see plenty of big league pitching, the nemesis to be overcome before he can get his regular job back. He’ll have time to work in the cages with the club’s hitting staff and work against high-caliber live game pitching. Perhaps it will help.

Kyle Isbel is a risk, but he’s the best current choice for the KC Royals

Until recently, Kyle Isbel appeared headed for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Royals’ new High-A affiliate, or perhaps Double-A Northwest Arkansas. That he’d never played above High-A made an Opening Day jump to the majors improbable.

Isbel, though, who owns a good glove and a two-year .284/.347/.455 minor league slash with 35 stolen bases, began playing regularly and well as a non-roster invitee to spring camp. He slashed .333/.420/.548 with three doubles, two homers and two steals in 27 games. The performance enhanced his already excellent chances to join the Royals no later than next season, and possibly later this year.

Now, Isbel will begin patrolling Kauffman Stadium’s right field today, and take his first regular season crack at major league pitching. Were there other options for the Royals, choices they could have made to allow Isbel to continue his minor league seasoning?

Jarrod Dyson can play right, but Kansas City didn’t bring him back to play every day. He’s the backup outfielder, late-inning defensive replacement, and pinch running specialist all rolled into one.

Right field is really the only defensive position designated hitter Jorge Soler plays, but who would DH like he can?

And Bubba Starling is presumably still available (he’s on a minor league contract as of late Wednesday night), but he can’t hit much better than Lopez.

So, right field belongs to Isbel. He is the best choice among present alternatives, but he’s also earned the job. How long he’ll keep it remains to be seen, but it could be for a long time. He has the potential to stay.

The KC Royals open their season today. They just won’t have the lineup everyone thought they would.