Opinion

Ask Rustin: Kendrys Morales and the DH spot, Hunter Dozier’s resurgence and more

Kansas City Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales.
Kansas City Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Just sixteen days ago, the Royals were 17-19 after a 5-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves. On Monday morning, they were back in first place after a weekend sweep of the Chicago White Sox. They have won 10 of 13; Whit Merrifield can’t stop hitting; they are in first place by themselves for the first time since April 22.

They are doing it with three All-Stars out of the lineup.

And now, the #Mailbag is back for an abbreviated version entering the final three games of this home stand. The Royals will play host to the Tampa Bay Rays beginning on Monday night. So let’s get to it.

The podcast recommendation this week is Joel Goldberg on the SportsBeat KC pod last week. (Yes, a self plug.) The album recommendation is “Teens of Denial” by Car Seat Headrest, which is maybe not as good as the hype, and not quite “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain,” but still pretty awesome.

OK, let’s start here. The Royals have been pretty adamant that this idea is a nonstarter. They continue to stress that they will be patient with Morales, who has returned from a sprained right middle finger, which surfaced last week.

But the splits are the splits:

Morales as a right-handed hitter: .311/.373/.467

Morales as a left-handed hitter: .138/.207/.252.

Should Morales try to hit exclusively from the right side? Obviously, his numbers would go down substantially from the right side with a larger sample size and without the platoon advantage. Of course, he is also hitting .138/.207./252 as a left-handed hitter.

How bad is that? Morales’ .459 OPS from the left side would rank 16th among National League pitchers. (Among the pitchers ahead of Morales: Former Royals lefty Brandon Finnegan, who is batting .227/.261/.273 in 24 plate appearances. Who would have thought the Royals would miss Finnegan’s bat more than his arm?)

There is some recent precedent of switch-hitters going full-time to one side. Pablo Sandoval started hitting exclusively from the left side last season before deciding to switch-hit again during spring training*.

*The Sandoval thing has a Royals connection. If you remember, Sandoval was a rather atrocious hitter from the right side in 2014, hitting just .199 in 205 plate appearances. In Game 4 of the World Series in San Francisco, Ned Yost summoned left-hander Danny Duffy to face Sandoval in the fifth inning, turning him around to the right side. He singled to left field during a two-run inning, tying the game at 4-4, and Sandoval later notched another hit from the right side against Brandon Finnegan.

And then there is Shane Victorino, who stopped hitting left-handed in 2013 for a period because of health issues, including a balky back. Victorino had limited success with the move; he eventually returned to switch-hitting. But is there a decent analog for Morales, a veteran who dropped switch-hitting in his early to mid 30s and found success? If there is, it has not happened recently.

So what to do with Morales? The injuries to Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon have limited the options — for now. Before the collision in Chicago, the Royals could have perhaps used the versatility of Whit Merrifield and a flexible roster to rotate other players (Moustakas, Gordon, Lorenzo Cain) into the DH spot against right-handed pitching. Now, that option doesn’t really exist.

Brett Eibner could also see some more starts at DH, but he is three games into his big-league career.

For now, the best option is Morales snapping out of his prolonged funk, which is obvious and is not necessarily something the Royals can control. But here is the thing: It is also almost June, and the Royals are a team with postseason aspirations. Which is to state the obvious again: They can not continue on indefinitely with their designated hitter batting under .200.

The Rich Hill story is a wild one. But here is an opportunity to reiterate something Sam wrote about earlier this season. Unlike last season, the Royals lack the minor-league inventory needed to pull off a major deal before the deadline. That does not mean the Royals won’t be active — the injuries to Moustakas and Gordon and the ineffectiveness of Morales will force the club to monitor the trade market. The Royals could perhaps use another bat for a stretch run. Their starting pitching still has question marks. But for the moment, this appears to be the roster moving forward.

In a season with some organizational disappointments — the health of Kyle Zimmer, the suspension of Raul Mondesi — the improvement of Hunter Dozier has been a bright spot. Dozier, a 24-year-old third baseman, batted .305 with a .400 on-base percentage and eight homers in 26 games at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Since his promotion to Class AAA Omaha, he is batting .277 with four homers and a .772 OPS.

This comes after a 2015 season in which Dozier, a former first-round pick, hit .213/.281/.349 in 128 games at Northwest Arkansas.

According to scouts, Dozier has become more disciplined at the plate. He has stopped chasing off-speed pitches. He has already equaled his 17 walks from a season ago. His timeline to the big leagues, though, is still somewhat fluid. He has only had 83 at-bats at Omaha, and he will need more polish at that level. He could be in line for a September callup, but barring an injury, he will probably not see Kansas City before that.

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez talks about his injury suffered in a collision with teammate a Cheslor Cuthbert and his hope to return in seven to 10 days.

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