Raul Ibanez’s No. 18 jersey hung in a Royals clubhouse for the first time in more than a decade. On the first day of his second act with Kansas City, Ibanez scanned the room in search of a contemporary from his tenure here from 2001 to 2003.
Ibanez saw so much youth, a collection of teammates who attended high school back then. At last, in a nearby corner, he spotted a veteran presence.
"How old is Bruce Chen?" Ibanez asked. Chen turned 37 a couple weeks ago, he learned. Ibanez smiled. "He’s young!" he said. "He’s a youngster."
At 42, Ibanez became the eldest member of the team when he agreed to a big-league contract. The Royals reached into their past in an attempt to improve their rickety bench. He joined the team on Monday night at the start of a 10-game road trip, alongside utility infielder Christian Colon, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2010, who was promoted to the majors for the first time.
Both manager Ned Yost and general manager Dayton Moore insisted they viewed Ibanez as more than a backup, and charted out something of an amorphous role for the new addition. Ibanez can aid the team in both outfield corners, at first base, at designated hitter and as a pinch hitter. At bottom, the organization viewed Ibanez as an upgrade over Justin Maxwell, who along with infielder Pedro Ciriaco was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster.
Ibanez batted .157 with scant power for the Angels this season, and received his release on June 21. He returned to his home in Seattle for a few days to consider the landscape. Ibanez indicated he chose the Royals over "more than five" teams with interest.
He maintains a fondness for the organization, which once had offered him his first full-time role in the majors. Team officials insisted his recent production was not indicative of a total decline. They appreciated his postseason experience – a 44-game slate accrued mostly with the Phillies and the Yankees.
"When he was released," Moore said, "all of our scouts and our entire major-league coaching staff felt that he could be a potentially important part of our team."
Added Yost, "He knows how to put together a professional at-bat. So we’re going to use him in a lot of different ways, depending on need."
The addition of Ibanez also provides the team with a viable, veteran insurance policy if they opt to option struggling first baseman Eric Hosmer to Class AAA Omaha. Ibanez played five games at first base for the Angels this season, and has appeared there 136 times in his career. He could also fill in as the designated hitter if the Royals move Billy Butler back into the field.
Hosmer entered Monday’s game batting .193 in June. Yet team officials insist his defense is critical to the club’s success. Yost batted aside a question about a potential demotion.
"That’s so far back off the radar, it’s not even close," Yost said. "Not even on the map. There’s been no consideration, or talk, of doing that. Or even a thought of it."
It will be curious to see how Yost deploys Ibanez. His value as a fielder is negligible, according to both rival evaluators and advanced metrics. Last season he ranked last among the 113 outfielders with 500 innings in the field in Ultimate Zone Rating, an advanced metric that measures how many runs a defender saves or costs his team.
Ibanez flourished as a hitter after he entered his mid-30s. Even last season, he swatted 29 home runs. Yet only five fell during the second half of the season. Ibanez posted merely a .640 on-base plus slugging percentage during that stretch. His OPS was .523 in Los Angeles. Ibanez blamed his woes on a lack of balance at the plate.
"I’ve been trying to hold too much weight on my back leg," Ibanez said. "It’s about just being athletic, and getting back to even, and hitting through the ball."
He spent his early afternoon tinkering toward that goal. Ibanez joined a sizable Royals contingent for early batting practice.
As Ibanez settled into his new digs, Colon did likewise. His arrival caught him by surprise, he admitted. He was hitting .296 for Omaha, but had been passed over for promotion several times already this season. He split his time between second base, third base and shortstop for the Storm Chasers, but Yost indicated he felt most comfortable with Colon at second.
"Nothing that he does really jumps out at you," Yost said. "He’s just been pretty consistent, and a pretty solid player."
To Yost, both players serve the same purpose: "Their role is to help us win baseball games any way they can." For Ibanez, a player familiar with this franchise’s history, the goal is clear.
"Nothing would please me more to be part of something that hasn’t been done here in a long time," Ibanez said. "And that’s getting into the postseason. I’d love to be part of that."