The awkward wait for what everyone understood to be inevitable ended Wednesday afternoon when the Royals pushed Omar Infante off the roster.
Infante had essentially been the Royals’ third-string second baseman, without a start in two weeks, and that’s no way to go through a big-league season. He is a proud veteran and wants to play. He is frustrated, had become useless to the team, and he knew it.
The somewhat complicated mechanics of baseball rosters dictated that the Royals not designate Infante for assignment until they had to, because you can’t predict injuries, but this day was coming. He was among the worst hitters in baseball the last two years, and this season his range and throwing deteriorated to the point of being unplayable. So this was always going to happen.
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In the end, it was because Dillon Gee worked three innings of relief the night before and the Royals needed another pitcher. The winds of a baseball season are fickle. But, really, it could’ve been for any number of things. Brett Eibner will be back from the disabled list soon. Alex Gordon after that. Infante’s expiration date in Kansas City was approaching.
Infante’s struggles — he was hitting .225 with a .245 on-base and .319 slugging percentage since the beginning of last year — made him an easy target for mockery. He had taken Billy Butler’s place as the most popular fan punching bag, and his inclusion in All-Star voting leaders was always an inside joke — “Royals fans are so crazy they’ve got that guy up there.”
But there is no point in that. Not anymore, if there ever was. Infante was not lazy or apathetic. He was not a problem in the clubhouse or the community. His jaw broke from a Heath Bell fastball in his sixth game with the Royals, and he was never the same hitter. His shoulder weakened to the point he stopped even throwing around the horn after strikeouts. He is 34 years old and has played 1,507 games. There is no shame in no longer being a good player.
Kansas City is one of baseball’s smallest markets, and the biggest (by far) payroll in franchise history ranks 14th in the sport. Money is always a concern here, and Infante’s four-year, $30.25 million contract was always part of the frustration.
But, if we’re being honest, the deal he signed before the 2014 season wasn’t quite as bad as it was sometimes said.
The Royals were desperate for a second baseman — the year before, Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson made it among the least productive positions for any team in the league — and the front office liked Infante’s steady personality.
They were ready to win, with a sizable hole in their lineup, and so they added a fourth year to their original offer to win the bidding. Now, they are releasing him with about $14.7 million and a little more than 1 1/2 years left on the contract.
Among the second basemen being paid more this season than Infante: Howie Kendrick (hitting worse than Infante this year) and Chase Utley (hit .202 last year). A year ago, Dan Uggla was released in a season in which he was making more than $12 million.
There is a strong case to be made that the Royals would not have made the 2014 playoffs (and thus the World Series) without Infante. He was certainly better than another year with Getz and Johnson, and the baseball operations department did not think Christian Colon was ready for the big leagues. That 2014 season is littered with big hits by Infante. The last two postseasons include big moments that Infante was involved in. He homered in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series.
None of this means it wasn’t a bad contract, or a big mistake. General manager Dayton Moore said as much on Wednesday. It is believed the Royals have never eaten this much money on a player.
But the Royals, and baseball, are past the point of this being a crippling mistake, even for one in a small market. Moore is humble enough to not mention the contract didn’t keep the Royals from winning two pennants and a World Series in Infante’s two seasons here, and the team has two better options to play second base.
Free agency is a notoriously risky proposition, and the Royals have generally treaded lightly and by rule avoided contracts that could become albatrosses.
Moore and his assistants made a mistake with Infante. They’ve made enough good decisions that they’re better at second base without him. A season moves on. There’s an opening for fan punching bag.
Now would be a good time for Kendrys Morales to start hitting.