A viral movement carries consequences. It can spark outrage among a public apparently unable to conquer the All-Star Game system as Kansas City fans have. It could force the Royals to dole out $500,000 in incentives to a second baseman they may actively try to replace in the coming weeks.
And it can produce a sheepish look on the face of that second baseman, Omar Infante, as he ponders the meaning of his lead in voting for the Midsummer Classic.
“I know I don’t have the numbers,” Infante said. “But I don’t have control over that. The fans voted for me. I appreciate that.”
The Kansas City fan base’s ongoing takeover of the All-Star process reached either its apex or its nadir on Monday afternoon, depending on your perspective. In the latest round of voting, eight Royals would start for the American League. The group includes Infante, who based on metrics both advanced and basic is the worst everyday hitter in baseball.
The results produced howls from opposing fans on social media, fist pumps from Royals partisans and shrugs inside the office of manager Ned Yost. As the manager of the American League this year, he already intended to bring his entire coaching staff. Now he may bring the overwhelming majority of his lineup.
“It would be hard if I wasn’t a Kansas City Royal or a Kansas City Royals fan,” Yost said before his team began a two-game series Monday against the Brewers. “But our fans have gone out and they’ve voted. How can you take away from that?”
He added, “Everybody’s free to vote. It’s not like, ‘Oh, nobody else can vote but the Royals fans. You can’t vote.’ It’s not like that.”
Infante expressed no embarrassment about the situation. He heaped praise upon Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, who he usurped as the leading vote-getter at second base. Infante called Altuve his favorite player to watch.
The boomerang of unintended consequences could also affect Kansas City’s payroll. If Infante plays in the All-Star Game, it triggers a bonus clause in his contract. He would earn an extra $250,000 in both 2016 and 2017. The extra dollars would only salt the wound created by Infante’s four-year, $30.25 million deal.
For the Royals, the All-Star voting is a red herring. Second base has long been a sinkhole for this club, a problem the team hoped to solve when they signed Infante. On Monday, the day he unseated Altuve, the reigning AL batting champion, Infante possessed a .204 batting average.
The Royals still hope to recoup value from their investment in Infante, 33, who Yost continues to tout as a better option than utility infielder Christian Colon. Yet, they also intend to reach the playoffs. At some point, those two pursuits may not be compatible.
As the season continues, the Royals could consider either internal or external alternatives. While Colon does not appear to be an option, top infield prospect Raul Mondesi Jr., has begun playing second base about twice a week for Class AA Northwest Arkansas to improve his versatility.
Any analysis of Infante’s statistics only invites woe. He became a full-time big-leaguer in 2004 with Detroit. In the intervening years, including an All Star campaign in 2010, he has posted an on-base-plus-slugging percentage below .500 in only two months: September 2005 and July 2007. His current OPS after more than two months of play is .496.
Infante has come to bat 197 times this season. Among the 172 players with at least 190 plate appearances, he ranks last in both OPS and weighted on-base percentage. No player makes outs at the frequency he does, with his league-worst .213 on-base percentage.
“I feel like I’m jumping at the ball,” Infante said. “Sometimes I try to pull a lot. A lot of problems. I have to make adjustments. Keep working.”
Rival executives and talent evaluators expect the Royals to at least inquire about infielders through trades in the next six weeks. The market is thin. The Royals could pursue Oakland’s super-utility star Ben Zobrist, but the list of Zobrist’s suitors will be lengthy.
Philadelphia may listen to offers for former All-Star Chase Utley, but he entered Monday hitting .184. Utley can also veto any trade, as can Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips.
In these scenarios, players rarely use no-trade protection because they refuse to play for a club. The clauses instead operate as cudgels in bargaining. Phillips could refuse to accept a deal unless the other team adds an extension to his contract, which already owes him $27 million through 2017. With $45 million in vesting options left on his current deal, Utley could look for a guarantee before agreeing to any trade.
A club like the Royals lacks interest in taking on sizable salaries that last past 2015. They already owe Infante enough. Plus, their farm system may harbor a viable alternative. Mondesi doesn’t turn 20 until July. But Kansas City officials view him as a special, precocious talent, and the industry agrees: Baseball America rated him the No. 28 prospect at the start of the season.
Mondesi missed April because of a mild back strain. He has caught fire in recent weeks at the plate, with a .361 average in his previous 10 games heading into Monday. He also played second base twice last week, part of the team’s strategy for readying him for the majors.
When Mondesi arrives, which could be as soon as this September, Alcides Escobar is still expected to be the starting shortstop. So the team hopes Mondesi can transfer the instincts he already carries at shortstop to the other side of the bag. He could aid the Royals as a pinch runner and late-game defender later in the season.
But Mondesi is still a teenager. The Royals cannot rely on him. They will stick with Infante. He may be suffering through the worst season of his career, but he still could become an All-Star.
“If I go, I’ll go,” Infante said. “I don’t complain about that. If I don’t go, that’s good, because I don’t have a good enough season to go to the All-Star Game. That’s why I don’t have to feel bad. I think I have to keep working, keep playing hard, and we’ll see.”