When Dayton Moore strives for confidence about Mike Moustakas, he does not have to search far for a comparison. He still recalls the pessimism swirling around Alex Gordon after several disappointing seasons at the outset of his Royals career.
Gordon, Moore was told, he was a bust. The organization believed otherwise. Like Gordon, Moore explained last week, “Mike Moustakas has an incredible amount of talent. As long as the talent remains, the production will come.”
In the spring of 2010, when Gordon was 26, the Royals demoted him to Class AAA Omaha in hopes of vivifying his bat. Gordon returned after almost two months. He posted the best offensive season of his career the subsequent season and won the first of his three Gold Gloves.
As they face a roster decision on Tuesday, hoping to add a reliever to their bullpen, the Royals are contemplating a similar maneuver with Moustakas. At 25, he is mired in the worst slump of his career. A demotion is one of several options under debate within the front office. The decision would rob the big-league club of their best defender at third base, but could also allow for a mental break to create confidence in the former No. 2 overall pick.
“We’ve exhausted every possible scenario to get him locked in,” hitting coach Pedro Grifol said. “It’s going to take a day where he goes out and goes three for four, squares two balls up and he feels good about himself. The next day, he’ll go out there and hopefully he does it again. That’s how you catch on.”
The situation is complicated. Second baseman Omar Infante missed five games because of inflammation in his lower back. The team recalled Johnny Giavotella to take his place. By Tuesday, the Royals need to dispatch a position player to make room for a pitcher.
There are several choices. They could send Giavotella back to Omaha. He boomed a go-ahead, three-run homer in Sunday’s victory over Seattle, and has long intrigued the fans with his offensive potential. He has spent most of his time in the minors this season at third base, but team officials worry about his arm strength on throws across the diamond.
There is also Justin Maxwell, the talented but lately unproductive backup outfielder. Maxwell has four hits in 39 at-bats, and has seen his playing time shrink. The Royals would likely lose Maxwell on waivers.
Or, there is Moustakas. A demotion for him would not represent a change of the guard, a referendum on their hopes for Moustakas. Instead, team officials would frame it as an attempt to galvanize a stalled player. The organization lacks a qualified long-term replacement, rival evaluators believe.
In the past two weeks, six different men have appeared at third base for the Storm Chasers: Giavotella, Christian Colon, Jimmy Paredes, Brian Bocock, Pedro Ciriaco and Jason Donald.
“They just aren’t protected there,” one American League talent evaluator said. “And truthfully, it is a hard spot to be protected at.”
Thus, they would seek a stopgap solution that could involve more steady playing time for Danny Valencia, who currently platoons with Moustakas. Valencia is a defensive downgrade. But almost any major-league hitter would be an offensive upgrade.
Moustakas has been one of baseball’s least productive hitters. Among the 210 batters with at least 100 plate appearances, he ranks 209th in batting average (.147), 209th in on-base percentage (.215) and 201st in on-base plus slugging percentage (.536).
One American League scout described him as “lost” at the plate. Grifol offered a more charitable assessment. “It’s just that he’s not in sync,” he said. When asked for what positive signs he sees with Moustakas, manager Ned Yost lamented, “Nothing really in the game.”
To Grifol, the confounding part is Moustakas has improved his approach. He is swinging at pitches outside the strike zone 29.2 percent of the time, down from a career average of 35.6 percent, according to FanGraphs.com. Moustakas is making contact at an 82.9 percent rate, also slightly above his career average.
But Moustakas has been unable to barrel up when he does swing. He has been one of the worst fastball hitters in baseball this season. He has been worth 6.9 runs below average on heaters, according to FanGraphs’ pitch-type values, which ranks 178th among 181 qualified batters.
When Grifol observes Moustakas, he sees a series of minor glitches. Sometimes Moustakas will pull his head up too soon. Sometimes he drops the barrel of the bat an increment too low. Sometimes his timing is too disjointed for proper contact.
“If one little part breaks down,” Grifol said, “then the swing is off.”
Until the team makes a move, they will continue to support Moustakas. They believe in his talent, even if his production has yet to appear.
“You’ve got to look at what the alternatives are at this point in time,” Moore said. “He helps us win games right now.”