The team that wants to win now is giving regular at-bats to a man they know is overmatched against most major-league pitchers, because that team also wants to build for the future and thinks he will soon be a star.
This is the Royals’ 2017 dilemma, neatly wrapped in a 21-year-old who was born two weeks after his father played in an All-Star Game, and made his big-league debut in the World Series.
Raul Mondesi is not just wildly talented, a natural shortstop with some power and loads of speed. He is also a symbol of this team’s attempt to juggle today with tomorrow, to serve two masters simultaneously (three, if you count payroll management) and keep this franchise revival going into the future.
“There will be some mistakes along the way,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “But you have to continue to develop at the major-league level.”
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Mondesi has started nine of 10 games at second base for the Royals. Christian Colon offers more experience, and Cheslor Cuthbert more production. Combined, they have made four starts at any position, while Whit Merrifield — who could be the team’s best option at second base right now — is slugging .885 in the Pacific Coast League.
This was the Royals’ most interesting roster decision of the spring, and they surprised most by choosing the player they originally included in the competition as a courtesy as much as anything else.
They chose potential over certainty, speed and defense over offense. The bet was that a veteran club used to winning could bring out Mondesi’s best, and that some added power and production could help cover any struggles at the plate.
Particularly when they could’ve potentially pushed his free agency back a year while allowing him to develop in the minor leagues, it’s a curious bet.
Mondesi’s tools can be compared to Indians All-Star Francisco Lindor — a switch-hitter with power, speed, and what scouts call a plus arm.
He may hit 30 home runs someday. His 436-foot shot to dead center on an 0-2 pitch on Wednesday is the Royals’ longest homer of the year. Only 14 of their 147 homers last year went farther. But for now, Mondesi is young and raw enough that he often bunts.
He thinks of the current version of himself as “small ball,” using that phrase four times in a four-minute conversation recently.
“I’m still learning,” he said. “Just come every day, work hard. I just need to keep working on my stuff. I’m the guy for small ball. I need to get on base for those guys and score runs.”
And later in his career, when he’s fortified by experience and strength and confidence?
“I really don’t know,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. They say I will get bigger, but I don’t really know. I just focus on right now.”
The “right now” is mixed. He is hitting .138, with a .167 on-base and .241 slugging percentage. He is making contact on 69.5 percent of his swings, a number lower than all but 45 of the 503 non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances last season.
When Mondesi’s talent flashes, it goes big. In Houston, he turned a double play that nobody else in the organization could’ve made. Against Oakland, he robbed a hit and started an inning-ending double play. His range going back on shallow fly balls makes the outfield defense better, and with some development he would be the Royals’ best option to play shortstop next season.
He is not the reason the Royals have started 4-6. And when judged on expectations, he is not even a primary reason they are 14th in the American League in runs. But because he is the only member of the regular lineup without a history of big-league competence, he could be among the first changes depending on how long and deep the struggles go.
Royals manager Ned Yost is famously optimistic about young players with talent, which has been his most important trait in Kansas City. In his first full season with the Royals, Yost promised to never pinch hit for Alcides Escobar, even if meant him making an out in a key spot. Yost believed in Escobar, thought he’d develop, and Escobar was the MVP of the 2015 American League Championship Series.
He’s taking a similar approach with Mondesi.
“A little bit,” Yost said. “A little bit. At least for the first month. Give him a fair first full month, and see where we’re at at the end of that. It does take some time.”
So Mondesi may very well be a star, someday, but the 2017 Royals don’t have a lot of time — even this early in the season. They showed that by demoting Matt Strahm seven games in. To be clear, this is not to make a direct comparison. Strahm was broken mentally, while Mondesi can find ways to help even while going 0 for 4.
But at some point, Mondesi is going to have to hit, and to cut down on the occasional missed play defensively. The franchise Moore took over could and often did give seemingly unending chances to talented prospects.
The franchise he has built doesn’t have time for that.
“I think he gives us the best chance to win right now — I do,” Moore said. “For what we’re trying to do right now, what we expect to be. The more opportunity we can get him up here, the better.”
Moore was part of the Braves’ 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005, a run of consistent success without match in modern baseball. They debuted 104 rookies during that time.
Moore probably doesn’t know that number, but he talks often of the need to win and develop simultaneously in the big leagues. When he talks about players on other teams, he often points out the young ones doing well on good teams, believing strongly that winning cultures protect otherwise vulnerable players from some of the sport’s pitfalls.
He’s talked about it countless times over the years, on both sides, about some guys playing better for winning teams, and others not realizing their potential in losing organizations.
This is among his most fundamental baseball beliefs, that a good culture can help make talent shine. Mondesi becomes a critical test of that now, both in Mondesi’s progression as a major-leaguer and the culture Moore helped create.
The inconvenient reality is that at the moment, he’s not helping them win, and could be stunting his development while a potentially better option is in the minors.
Moore and the Royals have earned trust. But this is a long shot bet they’ve made, part of a long-shot chase to win now, build for tomorrow, and control costs while doing it.