He can seemingly do it all.
Despite wowing coaches, players, and fans with tape measure home runs, blazing speed, and tremendous defense, phenom Bobby Witt, Jr. will begin the season in the minor leagues to gain some in-game experience he missed out on in 2020. It seems just a matter of time before he is in the big leagues, but it is less certain what position he will be playing once he makes the big leagues.
Witt’s natural position is shortstop, but players athletic enough to play that position can usually play anywhere on the diamond if they’re given time to practice. We should also keep in mind that the position a player debuts at is not always the position they spend their career playing. Alex Gordon began as a third baseman, Billy Butler’s debut was in left field, Mike Sweeney was a catcher his rookie season. With that in mind, let’s consider where Witt may at least begin his career with the Royals if he is up in the next year.
This is the position Witt played the most in spring training, and it seems the position in need of immediate help, at least if the Royals are committed to playing Whit Merrifield in the outfield. The Royals rave about second baseman Nicky Lopez’s defense, and he was a Gold Glove finalist last year, but he has hit an anemic .228/.279/.307 in 159 career MLB games. He is still just 26 years old, and perhaps he could improve his numbers now that he is back to focusing on putting the ball on play rather than hitting for power. But if the Royals are looking to emphasize winning more, they may not have time to give Lopez a long leash to figure out his offense.
Dayton Moore did say that Witt doesn’t have much experience at second, and they don’t want to throw him there at the big league having to learn the position. There isn’t an obvious future second baseman in the organization, although Gabriel Cancel has some intriguing offense, and 2020 first-round pick Nick Loftin could end up at second base. Second base would seem like a bit of a waste of Witt’s arm, but his kind of offensive potential would be amazing for a second baseman.
Shortstop is Witt’s natural position, and evaluators seem to agree he has the defensive skills to stick at the position, with Baseball America writing he can be a “top-tier shortstop with elite hands, a quick first step and good body control”. If Witt can become a shortstop with above-average defense, good speed, who is an offensive force he would become one of the most valuable players in baseball.
The big issue is that Adalberto Mondesi is currently playing shortstop, and plays it defensively at a very high level. The Royals have him under club control for three more years, and there are rumors they are interested in extending him beyond those years. Mondesi could move to another position, but he is such a good defender, it is hard to imagine Witt would be better. In the past three seasons, Mondesi has the fourth-best UZR per 150 games among all shortstops. On the other hand, perhaps moving to another position keeps Mondesi on the field more. But then do you want a franchise player like Witt at such a physically demanding position, risking his health?
If Witt is not a shortstop, third base seems like the best use of his defensive abilities. He has a strong arm and good reflexes, and his power potential would certainly play at third base. The club once moved a high school shortstop to third by the name of George Brett with pretty good results. The Royals already have a third baseman in Hunter Dozier who they recently committed to with a four-year contract. But it is clear they are not enamored with Dozier’s defense (which is below-average according to the metrics), having already moved him off the position once. Dayton Moore told reporters that Witt will concentrate on shortstop and third base in the minors, and that Dozier is willing to move back to the outfield if needed this season.
Jeffrey Flanagan has hinted before that Witt could end up in the outfield – possibly center field, and the Royals did give Witt some work in the outfield this spring. It makes sense to explore all opportunities at this point in Witt’s career, and he certainly has the athleticism to make a transition to the outfield, a move that proved to be very successful for Alex Gordon. Witt’s bat certainly seems like it could play there, and with no real long-term answer in center field in the organization right now, he could solidify a position that has always been very important in Royals history.
Still, there would be a learning curve to transition to the outfield, with no guarantees he would be as good defensively as he is as an infielder. And the offensive threshold for outfielders is higher – many outfielders can hit for power, but not nearly as many middle infielders show his kind of pop.
Ultimately, this is a good problem to have. The Royals value positional versatility, and having a player who is willing and able to play anywhere on the field – and potentially play it very well – is a great thing to have.