Motivated veteran or a postseason hero at second base? Life is good for the Royals.
Days away from the spring training opener, the Royals are all but set at every position except second base. The incumbent, Omar Infante, battles Christian Colon, and this is not a case of the lesser of two evils.
Infante has held the position since signing a four-year, $30 million contract with the Royals after the 2013 season. The former All-Star enters his 15th major-league season.
Colon has appeared in 64 games over the past two seasons but is better known for his playoff heroics in the 2014 AL Wild Card victory over the A’s and the game-winning hit in the clinching Game 5 of the World Series against the Mets last year.
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Little mystery remains around the rest of the diamond and a couple of pitching slots.
The best candidate will play, say general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost, and the choice is between the familiar.
“Competition is a competition,” Yost said. “You feel a little bit better when you have guys with experience that are competing.”
Infante is coming off his worst offensive year, a .220 batting average and .552 on-base plus slugging percentage. He lost his job to Ben Zobrist in September and was shut down the final couple of weeks and the postseason because of an oblique strain.
In November, Infante had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. He tried to play through the discomfort during the season, icing the elbow after games.
“I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do,” Infante said. “But it’s much better now.”
The rehabilitation process is in its final stages. Infante gets in his throwing early and is expected to miss the first few days of the spring training schedule, which begins Wednesday.
“Not many games,” Infante said. “Five games maybe. I’m still building back the strength in my arm.”
One way that’s happening is through weight lifting. The injured elbow prevented Infante from upper body reps in the weight room. He’s hopeful that building up will translate into more production as the plate.
Infante had two home runs and 44 RBIs in 124 games last season; six homers — one more in the World Series — and 66 RBIs in 2014. Three times in his career he’s had a double-digit home run season, including the 10 he hit for the Tigers in 2013.
Even with falling offensive numbers, Infante’s defense remained strong. Yost said Infante’s season in the field approached “spectacular.”
As for the position battle, Infante, 34, said he welcomes the challenge.
“This is a business,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent here. I didn’t have a good season last year, I know that. I’m going to compete. That’s fine. I’m going to do what I know I can do. I feel better, I’m healthy.”
Colon, a former first-round pick, said his approach to spring doesn’t change, even if the circumstances do.
“On paper, things are different, but I’ve always treated every season as a competition, every year,” Colon said. “I’ve tried to do my best to earn a spot, open up some eyes. I’m going to go out there and do what I do.”
Colon’s versatility adds to his value. He’s played second, shortstop and third base in his brief major-league experience, and as his .303 career batting average attests, there’s more pop in his bat than Infante.
Plus, he’s part of every Royals’ postseason highlight compilation. He not only scored the winning run in the Wild Card Game, his infield hit drove in Eric Hosmer with the tying run.
Last year, Colon’s line single to left drove in pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson with the 12th-inning run that gave the Royals a one-run lead on their way to the 7-2 triumph in the decisive World Series game.
The evaluation process at second base will unfold over the exhibition games and the decision will come down a collection of opinion among coaches and evaluators.
“People think this is all my decision,” Yost said. “It’s not. As a group we’ll sit down and we discuss, there will probably 15 of us sitting in a room discussing the pros and cons, why do you like this guy, why don’t you like this guy at this spot.
“You feel pretty comfortable about the decision because there are so many good baseball minds in there helping you make it.”