Two months from now, when the baseball season is over and the game’s winter has just begun, few KC Royals fans will instantly recall Hanser Alberto’s Labor Day return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the place he became an everyday big league ball player. Baltimore gave him the chance to play regularly in 2019; he appeared in 109 games and hit .305 with 12 home runs, then became the Orioles’ second baseman last season and hit .283.
Then came arbitration season and the O’s, in a move clearly motivated by finances, non-tendered Alberto, making him a free agent available to any club. The Royals signed him to a minor league deal in early February and, after making good on a non-roster invitation to spring camp, he headed North with the Royals for Opening Day. He’s performed well enough to play in 90 games since.
So, it wasn’t surprising to see him in the Kansas City lineup for Monday’s Labor Day matinee in Baltimore. Nor was the leadoff fifth-inning solo homer he clubbed to pull the Royals within one run of the O’s in the game they eventually won 3-2. Alberto seems to do what’s needed whenever he plays.
And wherever he plays. Manager Mike Matheny has deployed Alberto at second base, shortstop, and third base so far, and even summoned him to pitch a third of an inning in late April when the Royals trailed Tampa Bay by seven late. He faced and retired one batter.
Alberto probably misses the starting role he had with the Orioles, but can take solace in knowing he’s Matheny’s go-to utility infielder, a position of greater importance than usual this season considering the club’s need to use Whit Merrifield, its most versatile player, every day at second.
Fortunately, it’s a job Alberto does well. His bat hasn’t been as good as it was in Baltimore, a consequence of not being in the lineup every day, but he’s certainly been serviceable at the plate. He’s hitting .258 with 15 doubles, three triples, two homers and 20 RBIs; while his .273 OBP could be better, it doesn’t diminish his ultimate value to the KC Royals, which for this season is the ability to move around the diamond because Merrifield really can’t.
But what about next season?
It might not be wise for the KC Royals to move on from Hanser Alberto.
Barring serious injury to a Kansas City infielder, Alberto will never be a starter for the Royals. Not with Whit Merrifield at second, not with Nicky Lopez at short, and not with Adalberto Mondesi or, more likely, Bobby Witt Jr. playing third base primarily, which should happen next season.
That leaves Alberto in a combination bench and fill-in starter role…assuming he stays in Kansas City. Alberto is under team control for one more season, meaning he’ll be a Royal next year unless the club non-tenders or trades him this winter. With that control, however, comes the possibility of arbitration, where Alberto is sure to make more than the $1.65 million the Royals are paying him now.
The Royals can avoid the arbitration risk if they offer Alberto a one-season contract he finds palatable, or extend him; the former is more likely, and makes more sense, than the latter, unless KC so likes Alberto that principal owner John Sherman and General Manager Dayton Moore are willing to essentially buy out the first year of Alberto’s free agency.
The KC Royals would be wise to offer Alberto a one-year deal. Keeping him covers the club while next season’s crowded infield situation sorts itself out—as it stands now, Merrifield will start at second, Lopez should be the shortstop, and expect Bobby Witt Jr. to get first crack at third, especially considering Mondesi’s uncertain health. The club’s experiment with Mondesi at the hot corner shouldn’t be taken as anything more than giving him experience there to increase his versatility heading into what is sizing up as a less than full-time, but multi-position, 2022 role.
Some, however, might dismiss Alberto as excess baggage—after all, they’ll say, why keep him when Mondesi, a far more talented player, can do the same job Alberto is doing now? But that’s really not the case. Mondesi’s propensity to injury means he’ll probably never be an everyday player, but look for the Royals to play him whenever possible, including significant time as designated hitter. Under those circumstances, they’ll still need an adequate utility infielder.
And that’s what Hanser Alberto has proven himself to be.
Hanser Alberto has been good for the KC Royals, who should bring him back next season.