URPRISE, Ariz — S. Possibly, there’s room to quibble over how to express the need the Royals had to sign a second baseman of Omar Infante’s caliber.
“It wasn’t crucial, I don’t think,” manager Ned Yost said.
And yet …
“It was big that we could,” he added.
But there’s no parsing or qualifying the essential matter:
Second base for the Royals has been a gap within a void inside a black hole. Not to mention a turnstile inside a revolving door atop a carousel.
In the first seven full seasons of general manager Dayton Moore’s tenure, 19 men have started games there for the Royals. Only two did it for more than 100 games in a season in that span, during which the other extreme was Robinson Cano starting 1,059 of 1,124 games for the Yankees.
Last year epitomized the instability. Six players started and combined to hit .243 with four home runs … without always distinguishing themselves defensively, either.
For a sense of context, it’s possible none of those six will be on a 2014 major league opening-day roster. Emilio Bonifacio with the Cubs likely has the best chance, but even that would be in a utility role.
Meanwhile, as the Royals were churning with that group, they kept encountering Infante, sizzling for the eventual American League Central champ Tigers.
In a return to form after two seasons hitting below .300, Infante hit .318 with a career-best .795 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) featuring 10 home runs and 51 RBIs — a chunk of which came at the expense of the Royals.
In 13 games against them, Infante hit .375 and knocked in seven runs. For that matter, he went 10 for 20 at Kauffman Stadium, where for his career he has hit .314 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 156 at-bats.
“He’s a far more consistent offensive performer than I gave him credit for when he was with Detroit at the beginning of the year,” Yost said. “I learned my lesson from the midway point to the end of the year. We couldn’t get him out.”
As it happens, Infante at the same time was struck by the Royals. Never mind that their appeal surely was reinforced by the four-year, $30.25 million contract they gave him in December.
“I watched this team last year, and I said, ‘Wow, they play with great energy,’ ” he said.
So the Royals managed a two-fer with him in more ways than one:
First, no longer having to deal with facing him within their division while adding him to their own roster.
Secondly, having him to stem the flux they’ve had at second in the field and in the batting order.
In that spot, he’ll follow first-year Royal Nori Aoki to fundamentally change the way the Royals start the game and theoretically spackle in their final offensive needs to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
Among his other attributes, Infante is a strong two-strike hitter who was the third-toughest to strike out in the American League last year. That presence helps realign the order and presumably enhances the middle of the lineup.
“To get a guy of his talent and ability and consistency at the top of the order with Aoki’s talent, ability and consistency,” Yost said, “we think is going to create a lot more scoring opportunities for us.”
Infante, a 2010 All-Star who has played in two World Series, never has won a Gold Glove. But he’s a sharp fielder, and Moore and Yost believe he’ll work nimbly with slick shortstop Alcides Escobar, who like Infante is from Venezuela.
There’s a caveat to all this, though, and it’s been lurking this spring.
Infante is 32 now and has had a creaky shoulder that’s kept him out of most of the Royals spring training games. He went two for four on Wednesday, but that was as designated hitter.
Now, by all indications, holding him back only has been precautionary. And Yost seemed unconcerned Thursday even as he now doesn’t expect Infante to play in the field until next week.
But it’s still a reminder that Infante has been injury-prone. Since his major-league debut in 2002, he’s never played 150 games and he’s missed 178 games with injuries since 2007 — including 35 last year.
So call it crucial or just call it big, but the Royals need him healthy to secure this pivotal spot and put an end to the quirky trend there.