SURPRISE, Ariz. — It is here, in the desert heat of the Instructional League, where one of the Royals’ prioritized seeding programs is in full bloom. Shortstops with upside seem to clog every field during the morning workouts and afternoon games.
“It’s like quarterbacks in the NFL,” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, who directs the club’s scouting and player-development departments. “There’s just not enough of them. There are 32 teams in the NFL. There are not 32 real good quarterbacks.
“It’s the same thing at shortstop. If you don’t have a shortstop at the major-league level, you have to sign the best of what’s left. And the best of what’s left is not going to be Derek Jeter. When teams do get a premium shortstop, they lock him up long-term.”
That’s exactly what the Royals did last February in signing Alcides Escobar to a club-friendly deal that runs through 2017. Escobar is still just 25, and with a flashy glove and an increasingly reliable bat, offers the promise of long-term stability.
The promise … but no guarantee.
“When we came here to Kansas City (in 2006),” general manager Dayton Moore said, “we didn’t have a shortstop prospect in the organization who we felt could help us win a championship.
“Our scouting and development people have done a terrific job in filling the pipeline. We feel we have some good young guys coming, but you need multiple guys coming to make it through your system.”
The Royals invested nearly $5.4 million for five amateur shortstops in 2010: Christian Colón, Michael Antonio and Alex McClure in the draft; and Orlando Calixte and Humberto Arteaga as teenaged Dominican free agents.
A year later, the Royals overpaid the draft’s slot system in luring Jack Lopez away from the University of Miami and shelled out another $2 million for Adalberto Mondesi, a 16-year-old Dominican.
Is it possible the Royals now have too many promising young shortstops?
“You can’t have too many,” Picollo said, laughing, “but deciding how we navigate through the next few years with all of these guys … that’s the hardest part.”
It beats the alternative.
Club officials still cringe in recalling the pre-Escobar years when they fished desperately for answers after Angel Berroa proved he wasn’t the cornerstone shortstop that his 2003 American League Rookie of the Year season once suggested.
The Royals tried Andres Blanco, Tony Peña Jr., Mike Aviles, Willie Bloomquist and were one year into Yuniesky Betancourt’s first tour when, in June 2010, they decided enough was enough.
Positional need, as much as anything, prompted the decision to select Colón, a college All-American, with the draft’s fourth overall pick after outfielder Bryce Harper, pitcher Jameson Taillon and infielder Manny Machado came off the board.
There was no clear No. 4, and the Royals, not surprisingly, opted for an advanced college shortstop — despite knowing Colón, who received a $2.75 million bonus, might eventually need to shift to second base.
(And, yes, left-hander Chris Sale, as it turns out, would likely have been a better choice.)
Two rounds later, the Royals chose Antonio, a high school senior from New York City. He was a raw talent with size and upside but who also seemed likely to switch positions — to third base. He received $411,000.
The Royals took McClure, another collegian, in the 11th round. He had a suspect bat but showed good hands and plus arm strength. The reasoning was this: Even if his bat doesn’t develop, he can catch the ball. At the time, that was good enough. He got $110,000.
It was just the start.
Momentum increased later that summer when, in less than two months, the Royals shelled out $2.1 million to sign two promising Dominicans: Arteaga, then 16, and Calixte, then 18.
Both are true shortstops, and each quickly established himself as a legitimate prospect.
Calixte already flashes the potential for an impact bat that draws comparisons to a young Alfonso Soriano, while Arteaga is now generally viewed as the organization’s most fundamentally sound defensive shortstop.
Picollo characterizes Calixte, currently playing in the Arizona Fall League as “toolsy and athletic,” and adds: “You see him for five days, and you know this guy is a guy.”
Arteaga has an emerging bat along with instincts that, Picollo said, “allow his range to play better than his pure foot speed.”
The Royals landed Escobar in December 2010 from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, but Escobar was no sure thing at that point. He was coming off a rookie season in which he batted .235 with a .286 on-base percentage at Milwaukee.
And Escobar was struggling to stay above .200 the following June when the Royals ponied up $750,000 in the 16th round for Lopez, who dropped that far because of signability concerns.
Lopez, who turns 20 in December, also offered a baseball pedigree. He is the nephew of former Royals shortstop Onix Concepcion, and his father, Juan, is the Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen coach.
The Royals followed a similar approach in late July 2011 by outbidding several clubs for Mondesi, a switch-hitter whose father is former big-league outfielder Raul Mondesi.
The general view at the time was the Royals overpaid the market in signing Mondesi for $2 million, but that was before he put down a claim as a rising star this summer despite being four or five years younger than most players in the Pioneer League.
Mondesi might, in fact, be the best prospect in the bunch.
“He’s ahead of any 17-year-old we’ve ever had,” Picollo said. “Not just from a defensive standpoint but also from an offensive standpoint — and he’s just starting to grow into his body.”
Escobar’s development over the last two years lessened the need for a ready-now alternative. Accordingly, the Royals plan to shift Colón, 23, increasingly next season to second base.
Antonio, 20, shifted this past season to third base. McClure, 23, remains at short but has yet to prove he can hit and could soon be passed on the organizational depth chart.
“If we didn’t have Escobar,” Picollo said, “(Colón) would be playing short. He’d be our next option who is closest to the big leagues who can handle shortstop. In our situation, he just fits more at second base.”
Finding the right fit next year for Calixte, Arteaga, Lopez and Mondesi will likely fuel a debate among club officials throughout spring training. All are in line for duty with full-season clubs, but none have played above Class A.
“We might not break spring training with them on different clubs,” Picollo said. “They might still be on the same club. Because of the number of them, they’re probably going to have to play some second base just to get them all on the field.”