Since the 2011 season ended and the offseason began, people largely assumed that Johnny Giavotella would break camp as the starting second baseman for the Kansas City Royals. He mashed Triple-A last year to the tune of .338/.390/.481 and was named player of the year in the Royals’ minor league system. Furthermore, the organization benched starter Chris Getz late last year in favor of Giavotella in hopes of grooming the 24-year-old for extensive big league action in 2012.
Despite those facts, the Royals optioned Giavotella to Triple-A Omaha yesterday and will begin the season with some combination of Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt at second base.
You read that correctly. On Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Royals actively chose a pair of players who both compiled an identical wOBA of .278 last season (average wOBA for an American League second baseman was .312) to split time at second base over a young player who posted a .390 and .381 wOBA in his past two minor league stops, respectively.
The decision did not simply boil down to offensive statistics, however. Nor should it. Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters on Sunday that Giavotella was sent back to Triple-A to work on his defense.
“(Giavotella) needs to continue to focus on his defense,” manager Ned Yost said. “Johnny is a much better defender today than he was at this time last year, but we had two better defensive options in Betancourt and Getz.”
Defense has long been an issue for Giavotella, coming up through the minors. The issues continued in the majors last season. Scouts say his range is well below-average. That played out in the numbers after his promotion, as his RngR was -1.4. Ultimately, he cost the Royals -2.5 runs defensively in just 46 games.
If Kansas City would have handed Giavotella the starting second base gig, they simply would have had to deal with his poor defense and hoped that he could hit enough to make up the difference.
In that context, it makes sense that the Royals would opt for a different starting second baseman. The problem, however, is that two significant questions surround Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt at second. They are as follows:
(1) Are Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt legitimately good defensive players at the position?
(2) If so, can Getz and Betancourt hit enough to warrant the defensive upgrade?
The first question seems simple enough. The Royals’ coaching staff has watched the two players all spring and believes in both of their gloves. Furthermore, Getz was +5.2 runs better than average at second base last season for the Royals, and Betancourt will be shifting to an easier position on the defensive spectrum, which suggests his defense should only improve from previous years at shortstop.
Of course, those defensive numbers for Getz only encompass a single season. He was worth exactly zero runs at second base in 1454.1 innings with the Chicago White Sox from 2008-2010. Should we willingly ignore his average defensive numbers until last season, when he increased his range factor significantly? That seems foolish. Perhaps Getz replicates his 2008-2010 stretch next season and does not provide much value with the glove. Suddenly, his career .290 wOBA becomes very difficult with which to cope.
Furthermore, the limitations Betancourt has with the glove are not suddenly going to disappear because he moves to second base. His range will continue to be well below-average. His penchant for committing careless errors and not getting in good defensive position to field the baseball will continue to limit his defensive value, as well. Betancourt has been worth -48.8 runs throughout his career at shortstop. That indicates more fundamental problems than just playing defense at the incorrect position.
The perceived gap between the defensive abilities of Johnny Giavotella and Getz/Betancourt seems a bit overblown. Then, consider the fact that Getz and Betancourt own a career wOBA of .290 and .294, respectively. The Royals can thus confidently expect below-average production with the bat at second base. That becomes scarier once one considers that Chris Getz was only able to generate +1.0 WAR in 2011 with his one season of good defense.
Ultimately, sending Giavotella down to Triple-A hinders his developmental process. He is what he is with the glove. Perhaps he improves to be a roughly average defender. Ultimately, though, his playing time will be dependent upon his bat, and Giavotella needs time to adjust to major league pitching. He struggled last year in his brief call-up, hitting .247/.273/.376 with two home runs. His walk rate dropped, and his strikeout rate rose. All the trademarks of a young hitter attempting to make the massive jump from Triple-A to the big leagues.
The Kansas City Royals are still a year or two away from seriously putting pressure on the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central crown. This season should bring about significant improvement, but too many holes in the starting rotation should keep them from overtaking the star-studded Tigers. The Royals should be optimizing their roster for that window of contention, and stashing Giavotella in Triple-A — where he has nothing left to prove with the bat — does not aid in his development for big league success. He will likely be relied upon to be the everyday second baseman in 2013, and the Royals would do well to allow him to make his big league adjustments this season, instead of doing so in the midst of what projects to be a potential postseason run.