Batting title just the next step in D.J. LeMahieu’s ongoing evolution

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September 21 2016: Colorado Rockies Infielder, DJ LeMahieu (9) during a regular season Major League Baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals at Coors Field in Denver, CO. (Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire)

Flip through whatever TV sports networks you prefer for Major League Baseball highlights, and see how often you catch a glimpse of D.J. LeMahieu. Okay, maybe not as unlikely as Sasquatch or a herd of unicorns, but the Colorado Rockies’ second baseman certainly isn’t an attention magnet by current media standards. After the season he […]

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Ryan Schimpf took a while, but has put together nice feel-good story

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August 13, 2016: San Diego Padres Infield Ryan Schimpf (11) [10539] bats during the game between San Diego Padres and the New York Mets at Citi Field in Flushing, NY. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire)

Pro baseball is full of stories of players fulfilling dreams after a tough and twisting journey. The current culture of high bonuses paid to unproven players in the draft is a major part of the underlying current because some guys with major league skills are often passed over because they haven’t cost as much in […]

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JaCoby Jones’ rollercoaster journey finally leads to MLB

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August 30, 2016: Detroit Tigers third baseman JaCoby Jones (40) has water dumped onto him by Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann (34) and Detroit Tigers left fielder Justin Upton (8) at the conclusion of the game during a regular season game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers played at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

A lot of young baseball players encounter similar potential for pitfalls along their paths. Sophomore slumps. Times when attitude doesn’t quite match up with talent and ability. Struggles to adjust to a higher level. And in some cases, straying far enough off from rules in place to get punished. In JaCoby Jones’ case, all of the above […]

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Crossroads season is here for Brett Eibner and Royals

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24 June 2016: Kansas City Royals left fielder Brett Eibner (12) on third base of an American League game between the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. (Photo by Scott Winters/ICON Sportswire)

Sometimes an important crossroads arrives simultaneously for a player and a franchise. The perfect union of a team in need and fish-or-cut-bait time for the player.

With the Kansas City Royals in survival mode right now as an injury big continues to take pounds of flesh at the worst possible times, outfielder Brett Eibner seems to be at that intersection.

Eibner’s window of opportunity is propped wide open right now. In fact, it has opened for the second time in as many months for the former Arkansas standout.

Twice this season, veteran Royals outfielders have gone done with injuries that have landed them on the disabled list – Alex Gordon in late May and Lorenzo Cain last week.

Each time, Eibner has been called up from Omaha and the results have been mixed. Part of that has to do with an injury Eibner suffered himself that cost him some down time.

Since coming back from a sprained ankle that halted his major league debut after only four games, Eibner has bounced between KC and Triple-A Omaha. In nine games for the Stormchasers since coming back from a sprained ankle, he is 7-for-35 with five RBI in nine games; in 10 big-league games, he is 5-for-28 with five runs chased home.

That combined swoon is an about-face from Eibner’s early impact, when he was 9-for-25 in his initial seven games.

What the wide pendulum of results leaves to question (for Kansas City fans and the front office alike) is whether Eibner will ever be a big-league regular.

Drafted in the second round with the 54th overall pick in 2010, Eibner was expected to be a future fixture in the Royals outfield at some point, but he scuffled badly at times in Double-A and Triple-A with considerably more strikeouts (498) than hits (323).

To be fair, there weren’t a lot of spots to grab in his first few years, and the free-agent signing of Alex Rios between the 2014 and 2015 seasons delayed Eibner’s chance by another year.

During the 2015 season, Eibner delivered the best season of his career in Triple-A, swinging at a .303 clip with 21 doubles, 19 home runs and 81 RBI in 103 games. Eibner even stole 10 bases, showing another element to his game that fit the parent club well.

Kansas City went into spring training five months ago with the right field job essentially up for grabs after not re-signing Rios. Veteran Jarrod Dyson was the most likely heir-apparent, but he got hurt in early March and missed several weeks with an oblique injury, again opening a chance for Eibner.

But when camp broke, it was Reymond Fuentes who was Kansas City’s starter in right and veteran Paulo Orlando as the fourth outfielder. Fuentes didn’t exactly light the world on fire and was sent back to Triple-A. The next time KC needed an outfielder, Eibner got the call and performed well right off the bat.

But that hasn’t lasted since Eibner’s injury and return.

The good news for Eibner is that the third and fourth outfield jobs are still somewhat in flux. Dyson will continue to be a factor because of his game-changing speed and what he brings defensively. Orlando earned some postseason stripes a year ago and has shown he can perform in spurts as a major leaguer.

Where can Eibner fit in, considering how highly he was drafted and what his projected upside was back in 2010? That’s a question that seems to remain unanswered in a season when Kansas City is struggling to recapture some of the magic of the last two seasons.

If Eibner can find a consistent level of play and build on the season he had in 2015 and was on the verge of after he made his big-league debut, he could fit in nicely with Gordon and Cain because he has the potential to be a plus defender with the best arm of any of the current Royals’ outfielders, as well as a run supplier.

Right now and the rest of the season give Eibner a chance – maybe a final chance – to show he can be the kind of player who fits the Royals’ MO well enough to be a regular in the future.

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Whit Merrifield a perfect fit for the Royals

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28 June 2016: Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield (15) bats in the fourth inning of an interleague game between cross state rivals the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. The Cardinals won 8-4. (Photo by Scott Winters/ICON Sportswire)

To rise to the top of the American League for two seasons in a row and to the top of the Major League Baseball heap last October, the Kansas City Royals relied on players who fit a prototype.

Versatile. Gritty. Aggressive at the plate. Get-the-job-done mentality.

The first three months of the 2016 season have seriously tested KC’s staying power because the Royals have gone – and will go – chunks of time without some of the major pillars.

What Kansas City has discovered during its recent growing pains, though, is that the team has another potential building block for now and the future in Whit Merrifield.

Losing Ben Zobrist in the offseason was a blow for the Royals, although he only played the second half of the season with KC. He was the quintessential glue guy, somebody that Ned Yost could plug into a variety of positions.

To be fair, Merrifield isn’t quite Zobrist 2.0 yet. But he has certainly flashed signs of being that kind of player – maybe with a few more bells and whistles included.

For all the time it took for Merrifield to break though and get the big-league call up after starring at South Carolina, he is certainly making up for lost time.

Since joining the parent club on May 18, Merrifield has swung at a .315 clip with 26 runs and 15 RBI in 39 games. He has started at second base, third base and in the outfield while hitting from the top of the batting order as well as the lower-third.

Much like Mikey from the old Life cereal commercials, the 27-year-old rookie has been willing to try just about anything he has been asked to do. That alone has made him an effective fit with the Royals in a spot where Zobrist would’ve been a natural.

14 June 2016: Kansas City Royals left fielder Whit Merrifield (15) fields the grounder in a divisional game between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. The Royals won 3-2. (Photo by Scott Winters/ICON Sportswire)

(Photo by Scott Winters/ICON Sportswire)

Beyond that, though, Merrifield fits Kansas City’s MO offensively in that he is a fast, heady baserunner and is aggressive at the plate, often taking his hacks early in counts when he sees a pitch to his liking.

In those 39 games, Merrifield has walked only five times. That may seem like a detriment for most young hitters in most offensive systems. Not so much for the Royals, who have compensated for their lack of power by bucking trends with low walk and strikeout totals, instead putting the ball in play, relying on speed and daring and seeing how the defense handles it. That fits Merrifield’s style perfectly and vice versa.

The other element of Merrifield’s impact has been the perfect timing. Simply put, the Royals needed a shot in the arm emotionally and performance-wise when those aforementioned pillars started falling.

May 22 was a day that accentuated Merrifield’s value but not for the best of reasons. That day in Chicago, Kansas City veterans Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon smacked knee-to-knee as they chased a foul ball. Gordon missed a month with a broken bone in his wrist and Moustakas, after trying to gut out the pain, was diagnosed with a torn ACL three days later that ended his 2016 season.

Just like that, the Royals were down two former All-Stars and two of their defensive cornerstones. Merrifield was summoned from Triple-A Omaha to replace sputtering Omar Infante at second base, so that’s where his primary spot will remain. But he can move around and KC’s defense doesn’t suffer a bit, which helps Yost move other players in and out of the lineup as needed – finding the spark that Gordon and/or Moustakas could be counted on to light.

Lastly, bringing Merrifield up has given Kansas City another player with a quality that isn’t always measurable in numbers but one that the Royals have made a major ingredient of their success: Raw hunger.

Kansas City took a lot of years to get back among the American League elite, and a major part of the final impetus starting in 2013 came from players like Gordon, Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain – guys who had scratched and clawed through the minors and endured the roughest of times in the major leagues before they found some light at the end of the tunnel.

Part of that equation is missing for Merrifield because he is joining KC at the top level in the midst of the franchise’s renaissance. But five seasons climbing the minor-league ranks for a former college star can be plenty enough to test his mettle. A lot of players don’t endure that to get to the top rung of the ladder.

That’s where Merrifield is now, though. And the first impression he has made sure seems to indicate that the Royals have another budding under-the-radar star to build around for now and in the future.

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Bregman’s promotion comes at a perfect time for him and the Astros

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27 MAR 2016: Alex Bregman of the Astros during the spring training game between the Houston Astros and the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. Bregman was the second overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft out of LSU. (Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

What seemed inevitable may have accelerated this week when Alex Bregman’s career elevator took another rise up.

Could the Astros’ decision to promote Bregman to Triple-A have some not-so-hidden meaning as well, though?

Bregman more or less forced Houston’s hand by taking a quantum leap at the Double-A level. He made himself sort of like a new car purchase: The driver wants to see how hard he can be pushed once there is a certain comfort level.

Now the Astros can knock out a few birds with one stone with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft:

1) See exactly how ready Bregman is for the kind of big-league pitching he would see day-in, day-out – how can he adjust and persevere.

2) Put him on display as July baseball heats up and see what kind of trade value he might generate.

Those two elements are tied together by a lot of strings.

It has been written about, rehashed and opined on that Bregman playing shortstop in Houston any time in the near future is an almost non-existent possibility because of Carlos Correa.

Not a bad problem to have, obviously, but still a major hurdle for Bregman, and by proxy, the Astros at this point.

Sliding Bregman to second base sounds like a great plan … except for that Jose Altuve guy putting up MVP numbers this year and endearing himself to the Houston fan base with every swing, every stolen base, every dynamic play in the field.

27 MAR 2016: Alex Bregman of the Astros during the spring training game between the Houston Astros and the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. Bregman was the second overall pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft out of LSU. (Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

(Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

So where does that leave Bregman? In limbo, but maybe also in a perfect spot for him and the Astros as well.

An upswing in Bregman’s power numbers this season could ostensibly give Houston more flexibility in terms of giving him a look at third base or as an outfielder. He has slammed 14 long flies in 236 at-bats covering 62 games off of Double-A pitching. Maybe that gives the Houston brain-trust some flexibility in terms of shifting and moving Bregman to another position.

Thing is, it’s hard to picture Bregman dislodging any of the Astros’ current outfield mainstays: Carlos Gomez, George Springer or Colby Rasmus. And while Luis Valbuena’s offensive stats are middle-of-the-road (.254, 8 HR, 25 RBI in 66 games) compared to most MLB third baseman, those stats are an upgrade from the rest of his career; in fact, he is on pace for the best offensive season of his career.

And Valbuena is a proven third baseman at the big-league level, which translates to no on-the-job training with the spotlight’s glare on him like Bregman would have to endure.

Not that Bregman isn’t likely to make whatever adjustments are needed quickly and very well. He is that rare breed of player who seems adept at making himself good at whatever he is asked to do.

There is one major part of the equation to consider as well, though: The Astros are suddenly a factor in the American League wild card race after a staggering beginning. Had Houston muddled through another stretch of bad play and been less likely to make a charge, bringing Bregman up and letting him stick his toe in the water as a third baseman-in-training was a much more viable option.

Now, that’s not as appealing a luxury because the Astros, although young, are built to win now and not dabble in the future as much as other teams. Again, a good problem to have.

Which loops back around to what promoting Bregman could give Houston a chance to do: Put him front-and-center for another contender who has some personnel capital to spend.

Right now Bregman is almost as valuable as a trade piece as he would be had he gotten to the big leagues and made a splash. He looms as a building block for a team ready for a fire sale or a potential final piece to the puzzle for a team on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Bottom line is that the timing couldn’t be any better for Bregman or Houston to move him closer to the MLB level and see what he can do or what he might attract.

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