In the end, the Royals could not ignore the precocious talent of Raul Mondesi.
On Monday morning, seven days before Opening Day, Royals manager Ned Yost announced that Mondesi would be the club’s starting second baseman when the season begins next week in Minnesota. Once viewed as an afterthought in a four-man competition and likely headed for Class AAA Omaha, Mondesi, 21, delivered a sterling performance all spring, beating out Whit Merrifield, Christian Colon and Cheslor Cuthbert.
“He went from, in our mind, day one of spring training, going back to Class AAA, to outright winning the job,” Yost said.
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The news shook up a Royals camp that has been largely free of significant intrigue or surprises. Yet it was not the only development with roster implications on Monday. Yost also revealed that outfielder Jorge Soler sustained a strained oblique during a minor-league game on Sunday. Soler was diagnosed with a grade 1 strain — the mildest version — after an MRI on Monday. Club officials anticipated that he would likely begin the season on the 10-day disabled list.
Mondesi’s ascension and Soler’s injury added some mystery — and some clarity — to the Opening Day roster picture. Yost said that Merrifield and Colon were informed they were still competing for a final bench spot, while Cuthbert appears safely on the roster.
In theory, the injury to Soler could allow the Royals to keep Merrifield and Colon. But outfielder Terrance Gore has emerged as a frontrunner to occupy a bench role when the season begins. The Royals covet Gore’s late-game speed and club officials have been impressed with his defensive improvement. Paulo Orlando will be in position to open the season as the starting right fielder, while designated hitter Brandon Moss could also offer outfield depth. But Gore could offer value as a pinch runner and possible defensive replacement.
As he sat inside his office on Monday, Yost conceded that the decision on Merrifield or Colon features some simple calculus. Merrifield has options remaining, meaning he can be sent to Omaha without being placed on waivers. Colon does not have options.
“I’ve told them both this,” Yost said. “ ‘You’ve got options. You don’t.’ ”
The decision could come down to the final days. There is less debate on who will command the majority of the playing time at second base.
After making his major-league debut in the 2015 World Series, Mondesi, a former top prospect, made his regular season debut last July, batting .185 with 48 strikeouts and six walks in 149 plate appearances. He often looked overmatched at the plate. His pitch recognition and selection appeared raw. He appeared headed for Omaha in 2017, another assignment to refine his approach at the plate.
But then spring training began, and Mondesi began to turn heads and change minds. His elite speed remained a weapon. His defensive potential was apparent. He produced at the plate, entering Monday hitting .372 (16 for 43) with two homers and three doubles.
To ascribe too much meaning to Cactus League numbers is often a foolish endeavor. But the Royals believe the choice was clear.
“I don’t even look at the numbers,” Yost said. “For me, I knew this kid was talented. But he had to mature and grow up and believe in his abilities.”
On Monday morning, as he turned a corner inside the Royals clubhouse, Mondesi stopped in front of his locker. Yost had just delivered the news, and a collection of reporters awaited him. Catcher Brayan Peña emerged from across the room and delivered a violent fist bump. Mondesi smiled.
“First of all,” Mondesi said, “thank God for the opportunity and the Royals.”
Mondesi is expected to play close to every day and bat somewhere near the bottom of the lineup. On Monday, Yost said he was “90 percent” on having left fielder Alex Gordon return to the leadoff spot. But for now, the Royals are less concerned with Mondesi’s bat and more focused on his ability to impact a game on a daily basis. They believe in his speed and base running. They believe in his defense. They believe in his ability to bunt and create havoc.
“As long as he realizes,” Yost said, “that all he has to do is do something every day to help us win a game. It’s not about the batting average. It’s about the defense. It’s about the base running. Maybe putting down a bunt. Maybe it’s getting a hit and stealing second.”
As spring training began, Mondesi said he bought into the role. He sought to cut down on the “big swings” that caused him problems in the past. He focused on playing “small ball.” For now, he said, he will continue doing just that.
“I work a lot in the offseason, so I never put my head down,” Mondesi said. “I just came here and kept working hard and doing my little things. Nothing is impossible. Just put God in front and play hard every day.”