For Royals outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, rookie season has been powerful

On a Friday in late May, in the 92nd at-bat of his major-league career, Jorge Bonifacio cradled a bat in his hands and dug in against Cleveland reliever Andrew Miller, the bearded, dominant face of the 2016 postseason.

Bonifacio, the Royals’ rookie right fielder, had seen Miller just once, striking out 20 days earlier in a loss at Kauffman Stadium. Bonifacia would call it one of the most daunting matchups of his professional career, a baptism by sheer power stuff. He could not pick up Miller’s three-quarters arm slot, and his slider was a sweeping beast. The fastball came in at 96 mph, and it was in this moment that Bonifacio realized there were few encounters like this at Class AAA Omaha.

“One of the toughest guys I’ve ever faced,” Bonifacio said.

So as Bonifacio stared out at Miller on May 26, the Royals tied 4-4 with the Indians in the eighth inning at Progressive Field, he tried to simplify: He would look for a fastball, and he would sit on the pitch until he found one. Only Miller did not cooperate. As the at-bat began, Miller snapped off a slider that fooled Bonifacio, causing an awkward check-swing strike, and now having seen the pitch up close, Bonifacio reversed course.

“He threw him a slider and he said, ‘To hell with that, I’m just sitting on a slider,’ ” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “And then he got one and drilled it.”

Ahead in the count, Miller left a slider on the inner half of the plate. Bonifacio ripped it to the wall in left-center, scoring two runs in a 6-4 victory. More than two weeks later, Yost was still thinking about the at-bat — the combination of skill and aptitude, the ability to cover both sides of the plate, the perfect distillation of a breakout rookie season.

The at-bats, Yost says. This is the secret to understanding Bonifacio, the 24-year-old outfielder who has debuted with aplomb in 2017. Bonifacio once occupied terrain among baseball’s top prospects. He witnessed his reputation backslide over the last few years. And then he arrived in mid-April and began hitting immediately. In his first 43 games, Bonifacio is batting .255 with a .319 on-base percentage and eight homers, which ranked tied for eighth among American League rookies. His numbers dipped during a 1-for-19 stretch that continued on Saturday here at Petco Park. But his overall production has stoked optimism within the organization, while his start has put him on pace to do things only a select few Royals rookies have accomplished.

In franchise history, only eight Royals rookies have hit more than 15 homers in a season, the last one being Alex Gordon in 2007. Only six have reached 15 homers with a batting average better than .260, an on-base percentage above .330 and a slugging percentage better than .450.

“I just see a good hitter,” Royals designated hitter Brandon Moss said. “Obviously, what he’s done is impressive. But I just see a good hitter having good at-bats.”

For now, Bonifacio’s season has been limited to a 43-game sample size. His performance at the plate has earned him regular duty in right field, forcing Jorge Soler back to Class AAA Omaha. Yet Bonifacio’s defense in right field is a work in progress, prone to circuitous routes and curtailed by undeveloped instincts. The Royals see upside. Bonifacio continues to work with first-base coach Rusty Kuntz, the club’s outfield coordinator. Bonifacio has made visible strides, even as the rough patches still surface. And yet, his long-term value remains tied to his ability to hit. The Royals still believe in the bat.

“He’s not a guy that has gaping holes,” Yost. “They can adjust to him. But he’s going to be a pretty solid guy.”

This is the hope, and it is a familiar one. In some ways, it’s why the Royals took a chance on a Dominican teenager more than eight years ago.

On a fall day in 2009, Royals general manager Dayton Moore and assistant general manager Rene Francisco landed in the Dominican Republic for a workout at the club’s academy. One of the players in attendance would be Bonifacio, a 16-year-old from Santa Domingo.

The youngest of six children in a middle-class family, Bonifacio had grown up dreaming of playing professional baseball. But his parents, he said, put a greater focus on education. His father owned a supermarket. His mother watched after the household. When his older brother, Emilio, wanted to sign a professional contract in 2001, Bonifacio says his father nearly forced his brother to finish school first.

Eventually, he relented. And eight years later, the Bonifacio family understood what baseball could mean. Emilio had debuted in the majors two years earlier. Now Jorge was waiting for the right organization.

The Royals were interested. They liked his ability to hit. Moore liked his intangibles. He was secure and confident and intelligent. And he had the family pedigree. Still, the bonus demand was high, and other teams were skeptical of his athleticism. Bonifacio lacked the speed to play center field. He would likely end up as a corner outfielder.

“A lot of clubs didn’t care much for him because he was a little chubby,” Francisco said. “People kind of ran away from him because of the asking price. But we saw somebody that had the ability to hit.”

After one workout, Moore and Francisco saw enough. The Royals offered a six-figure bonus. Bonifacio accepted, signing on Dec. 9, 2009.

“You knew he was going to have to hit,” Moore said. “He wasn’t playing a premium position. He wasn’t that type of athlete. It was betting on the bat.”

The Royals always thought highly of Bonifacio, Moore says, maybe even higher than the industry as a whole. They put him on the 40-man roster early, protecting him from exposure in the Rule 5 draft. When the club traded top prospect Wil Myers, then a corner outfielder, to the Tampa Bays Rays in a December 2012 deal that netted James Shields and Wade Davis, the presence of Bonifacio in the system softened the loss in the front office.

“Did we think he was going to have the raw power of Wil Myers? No,” Moore said. “And it’s hard to predict power production. But we liked his ability to hit. We liked his ability to play defense. And we loved his makeup. We felt they were both going to be quality major-league players.”

Bonifacio was just 19 at the time. His next four minor-league seasons would offer a mix of highs and lows. He batted .298 with a .372 on-base percentage while splitting time at three minor-league levels in 2013. He would regress the following year, batting just .230 with four homers at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He struck out more than 120 times in three straight seasons from 2014-16.

In some ways, scouts view Bonifacio as a classic Royals hitter. He can be a free-swinger at times. Yet he has a knack for contact. His approach is simple: He seeks to drive the fastball the other way and pull breaking pitches into the seats in left field. But in the last two seasons, Bonifacio says, he has put a focus on being more selective and seeing more pitches.

“When I was starting my career at rookie ball, I was swinging a lot,” Bonifacio said. “I had a pretty good (feel for the) strike zone. But I had to see more pitches.”

The change in approach paid dividends. In 2016, he backed up a solid performance at major-league spring training by batting .271 with a .351 on-base percentage and a career-high 19 homers at Omaha. In one stint last season, he even led off, a role that forced him to take more strikes. He’s maintained the approach in winter ball and during his first months in the big leagues. His strikeout rate remains high (31.7 percent of plate appearances). His walk rate is closer to his career average (8.2 percent). But the club remains encouraged by the consistency and quality of his at-bats.

“You can see guys that have holes,” Yost said. “Fastballs in or down and a way, or slow stuff way. But he hits the ball to all fields.”

In most ways, Royals general manager Dayton Moore says the performance of Bonifacio has not been a surprise. The club believed in him, he says. They saw the improvements to his approach in winter ball. He simply required opportunity in the big leagues, and as the team began the season with designs on a third postseason appearance in four years, Bonifacio did not fit into the immediate plans.

The framework of the organization’s championship core remained intact. Outfielder Paulo Orlando was coming of a productive season. Bonifacio returned to Omaha to begin the season.

“You go with what you know,” Moore said.

In other ways, though, the timing offers an intriguing question. In the months before Bonifacio clobbered eight homers in his first 42 games, the Royals sent closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for Soler, acquiring a slugging outfielder with an unrefined defensive skill set.

Soler, a 25-year-old former top prospect from Cuba, had logged 765 career plate appearances across three injury-plagued seasons in Chicago. The Royals believed he had worked through the growing pains of developing as a major-leaguer and was positioned to help them win in 2017. But an oblique injury in late March sidelined Soler until May, and he hit just .164 with one homer in his first 18 games.

For now, Soler is back in Omaha, collecting at-bats and defensive reps as Bonifacio starts in the Kansas City outfield. The roster situation could require some creativity moving forward. Soler and Bonifacio are not identical players, yet they offer similar attributes.

Soler is under club control through 2020. Left fielder Alex Gordon is under contract through 2019 at $20 million per year over the next two seasons. Bonifacio, a rookie, has been the most productive offensive perfomer. The Royals could use the designated hitter position as a way to utilize both Soler and Bonifacio at some point in the future. But the answers will come later.

For now, Bonifacio is still adjusting to the major leagues, still focusing on upgrading his defense, still working to make the most of every at-bat. The game is faster here, he says. The opposing pitchers are smarter. Every day there is something new to learn. Inside the clubhouse, he tries to be a sponge. He listens to Eric Hosmer. He studies Gordon’s routes during batting practice. And then there are the at-bats, the precious moments each day where he can offer the most value.

At 24 years old, his offense has carried him to the majors leagues. Now he wants to see how much further it can take him.

“I was impressed with this kid when he was 17, 18 years old, going to watch him in the minor leagues,” Yost said. “They’ll make some adjustments (against him), but I don’t think it’s going to be some huge adjustment period for him where he’s going to have to really struggle with it.”