The infield would look different if the season started now for the KC Royals.
Absent significant post-lockout moves, here’s how Kansas City’s infield could look if the 2022 campaign began today.
First base: Carlos Santana is the probable 2022 Opening Day starter.
This isn’t the result most fans, and perhaps even the Royals, probably prefer. But it’s the one they’ll likely get.
Leading first base prospect Nick Pratto rebounded in 2021 from a miserable 2019 to regain his spot on Kansas City’s first base radar—splitting the season between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, he hammered 36 homers, drove in 98 runs, and slashed .265/.385/.602. MLB Pipeline considers him the organization’s second best prospect.
Santana, meanwhile, clubbed 19 homers for the Royals, but his .214 average and .319 OBP fell woefully short of his .245 and .362 career marks. That 2022 is the final year of his contract makes him a trade candidate.
But lockout or not, an offseason deal isn’t likely, and Kansas City might prefer to see if Santana shakes the hip injury that hurt his 2021 numbers. Starting Santana at first allows them to do that and give Pratto a bit more time at Triple-A (whether he needs it or not). Pratto, though, will be at first before long.
Second base: Look for Whit Merrifield to stay where he is for the KC Royals.
Unless Kansas City finally moves him to right field, Whit Merrifield will start the 2022 season at second base. Merrifield’s .277 last season was the lowest average of his career, but he excelled at second, falling just short of his first Gold Glove, and that alone should cause KC to keep him where he’s most valuable and looks most comfortable.
Shortstop: The KC Royals should keep Nicky Lopez at his breakout position.
Nicky Lopez wasn’t stepping into entirely uncharted waters when he took over at shortstop for injured Adalberto Mondesi in 2021—he’d played 37 games there over his first two seasons—but few foresaw how well the move worked. Lopez’s was the epitome of a breakout season: he committed fewer errors than any other qualified American League shortstop, led that group in fielding percentage, and spectacular plays became his norm. He also hit .300, the first Royal to do so. Moving Lopez, even to make room for Bobby Witt Jr., should be off the table.
And why break up the Merrifield-Lopez double play combo, which may be the best in baseball, or disrupt the club’s superb middle defense?
Third base: It’s time for the Royals to promote their top prospect to KC.
He’s played only two minor league seasons, but Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City’s No.1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has nothing more to prove. Making the jump from rookie ball to Double-A and then Triple-A in 2021, Witt hit 33 homers, drove in 97 runs and slashed .290/.361/.575 in 123 games.
With those numbers and a more than adequate glove, and absent some blockbuster move that dictates he play elsewhere, Witt should be at third when the Royals open the 2022 campaign. Few will criticize his promotion, but more than a few will argue he shouldn’t be moved from shortstop, his natural position.
The latter argument ignores Witt’s superior athleticism. And George Brett, originally a minor league shortstop, did quite well when the Royals made the same move with him.
(The Royals could move Merrifield to right, Lopez back to second, Mondesi to third and leave Witt at short. But Mondesi’s propensity to injury complicates that scenario).