Thursday, March 6, 2008

Grudzielanek Keys Middle Infield for KC

This is the fourth installment of a position-by-position look at the 2008 Kansas City Royals. Previous stories: C, 3B, SS

Mark Grudzielanek is set to play in his first spring game of 2008 during Friday's Cactus League contest against the Colorado Rockies, but no, the veteran second baseman hasn't been injured. Rather, first-year manager Trey Hillman has taken a new approach with Grudzielanek and fellow veteran Jose Guillen, allowing them the freedom to set their own timetable for when they're ready to play.

Hillman's decision pleases Grudzielanek, who earned a Gold Glove for his stellar defensive play in 2006, but was hampered by two knee operations in 2007. He has made comments this spring that hint at the fact that he was pushed to play too soon in the spring under former manager Buddy Bell.

"I love it. I'm glad we're on the same page," he said, in a story written by the Kansas City's Star's Bob Dutton. "We talked, and came up with a plan to make sure I get myself right and feel strong."

Even with the knee surgeries last year, Grudzielanek still managed to bat .302/.346/.426 with 137 hits, 70 runs scored, 32 doubles, three triples, six home runs, 51 runs batted in, and a 100 OPS+. Despite those numbers, and his solid defense, he still seems to draw criticism from many fans, who feel the Royals would be better off with someone other than the 37-year old Grudzielanek.

To give you an idea of the kind of player Grudzielanek has been over the course of his career, here is a comparison of two second basemen's career totals, also when they were 37-years old:

Player A was batting .257/.293/.389 with 1847 hits in 2107 games, 858 runs scored, 371 doubles, 56 triples, 156 home runs, 829 runs batted in, and an 86 OPS+ in 16 seasons.

Player B was batting .281/.335/.358 with 1949 hits in 1769 games, 913 runs scored, 278 doubles, 47 triples, 54 home runs, 550 runs batted in, and a 95 OPS+ in 14 seasons.

So, who are those players? Well, Player A has his number retired and proudly displayed on the base of the Kauffman Stadium scoreboard -- yes, it's Royals Hall of Famer Frank White. Player B is former Dodgers, Yankees, White Sox, and A's second baseman Steve Sax.

Did I fool you by making you think one of those players was Grudz? Well, here are the numbers for the yet-to-be-mentioned Player C -- Mark Grudzielanek. For those critics out there, Grudzielanek has batted .289/.331/.395 with 1911 hits in 1686 games, 900 runs scored, 367 doubles, 36 triples, 87 home runs, 605 runs batted in, and a 90 OPS+ in 13 seasons.

**By the way, Ryan Shealy just hit a game-winning home run against the Diamondbacks as I'm sitting here writing this, and so I couldn't resist joining the new trend, and adding my first-ever Pozterisk.

It's obvious that Grudzielanek is nearing the end of an outstanding career, but it's also still quite obvious that he's a very dependable defensive second baseman, who puts up solid offensive numbers. In my opinion, he should remain the Royals' starter at second base until an injury once again prevents him from playing, he's traded, or his contract expires.

This season, though, Grudzielanek will be challenged by Alberto Callaspo, who was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade for pitcher Billy Buckner during the offseason. Callaspo was Arizona's Minor League Player of the Year in 2006, and he comes to the Royals with an impressive baseball resume.

In six seasons, Callaspo hit .317/.370/.437 with 151 doubles and 353 RBI. What might be most impressive about Callaspo, though, is the fact that he's very disciplined at the plate, with just 141 strikeouts in 2897 plate appearances.

Callaspo is definitely considered the heir apparent to Grudzielanek at second base, but when that change takes place is still up in the air. Callaspo is batting .222/.222/.444 with a double and a home run in seven spring games so far this spring. But a season spent learning from a player like Grudzielanek certainly can't hurt his development.

Mark Grudzielanek Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/AP

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