There will be competition. Royals manager Ned Yost declared five positions — and maybe more — to be open as the club continued workouts Thursday in preparation for its first full-squad session on Monday. The team will hold camp battles for starting jobs at first base, third base, center field, right field and designated hitter in the coming weeks.
The implication, of course, is that four positions are fairly firm. Salvador Perez is a lock a catcher, while Alex Gordon is expected to start in left field. Alcides Escobar and Whit Merrifield are favorites to start at shortstop and second base, respectively.
Then again, even those positions are not set in stone. Yost said Thursday that Gordon is also a candidate to see time in center field, while Merrifield’s versatility could result in him roving around the diamond. The competition at first base could end quickly if Eric Hosmer re-signs during camp. And then there is infielder Raul Mondesi, a wild card who could shake things up by pushing Merrifield at second base.
While Merrifield appears certain to play every day, his ability to move around could allow the Royals to slide Mondesi into the lineup at second base. The question: Is Mondesi performing?
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“How’s he doing?” Yost asked, entertaining a hypothetical question about Mondesi. “Is he doing (expletive)? Or is he doing great? Last spring, he did great. If he’s doing great, we want him playing every day in the big leagues. If he’s doing (expletive), we want him playing every day in Omaha. It’s as simple as that. It’s a question you can’t answer right now.”
For now, the Royals have others questions, too.
Let’s start in the outfield, where Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns and Bubba Starling will compete for a job. Orlando would appear the slight favorite, though Yost pushed back against too many presumptions. Burns remains out of options, which could help him snag a 25-man roster spot. Yost also named Gordon, Merrifield, non-roster invitee Tyler Collins and Terrance Gore as players to evaluate in center field.
One player who is not expected to compete in center field is Mondesi. He may take outfield reps as a “courtesy,” Yost said. But his future is at shortstop or second base.
The competition in right field will feature most of the same players, in addition to Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler. The latter two could also be options to log time at designated hitter. The Royals will toy with multiple lineups in spring training, including one that has Gordon in center field.
“You look at Gordon,” Yost said. “He’s not the prototypical center fielder. But like (bench coach) Dale Sveum and I were talking about yesterday: He saw Jim Edmonds at 40 years old play a phenomenal center field in Milwaukee.”
Yost said Burns could also receive a strong look in center field. Acquired in a midseason trade from Oakland in 2016, Burns has played in just 31 games in the major leagues since. Yet he offers speed, the ability to switch hit and has one season in 2015 in which he batted .294 with a .334 on-base percentage in 125 games for the A’s.
“Billy’s game is a little unorthodox,” Yost said. “But he gets it done. He can do some things.”
For now, Yost is hesitant to make sweeping pronouncements. The club has often defaulted to defense first in the outfield. But the presence of Soler and Bonifacio could change that. There is also the presence of wild cards such as Collins, who played parts of the last four seasons with Detroit.
“I don’t know who’s going to be better in the corners,” Yost said. “I don’t know what (Tyler) Collins is going to bring. Here’s a guy that had some flashes in Detroit. A left-handed bat. Can we get him in a platoon situation?”
The competitions at third base and first base could be a little more simplified. Cheslor Cuthbert appears positioned to win the job at third base, while Hunter Dozier could compete there and at first base. Prospects Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel will get a look at first base. Ramon Torres has the ability to play multiple positions and could compete at third base while also projecting as a natural backup infielder.
Yet the wild card in the infield is Mondesi, who won the starting job at second base last spring before being demoted to Omaha when his performance at the plate suffered.
In a move designed to give Mondesi time to develop, the Royals re-signed Escobar to a one-year deal in the offseason. That could mean that Mondesi begins the season at Class AAA Omaha, piling up at-bats and waiting for an opportunity in Kansas City.
The Royals, however, will also allow Mondesi to compete with Merrifield at second base this spring. They want him to work on his body and improve his durability. They want more consistency at the plate. They want answers there — and at many other positions.
They have a full camp to find them.
“Every where else is just a little fluid right now,” Yost said. “We’re going to see.”