Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Live From The Winter Meetings.

Hello from Indianapolis. Between the sub-zero temperatures, biting wind, and multiple forms of precipitation we’ve had today, this convention puts the Winter in the Winter Meetings.

It seems like every year we read that this year’s meetings are the slowest yet. Well, since I’ve been down here I’ve heard three different people tell me that this is the slowest…Winter Meetings…ever. We have one massive trade that was just made official (great for Yankees, okay for Tigers, bad for Diamondbacks), and a whole lot of waiting. From the Royals’ perspective, this is almost certainly a good thing.

As the bitter taste of the 2009 season slowly gets washed out, it’s time to face the reality that, miracles aside, the Royals are not going to be a contender in 2010. As such, it’s time to acknowledge that whether the Royals can be deemed to have a successful season next year has next-to-nothing to do with their win-loss record.

This is not an easy thing to accept. After 15+ years of almost ceaseless irrelevance, it’s not easy to swallow the notion that we’ll have to wait at least one more season to dream again. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. The alternative is to delude ourselves into thinking that adding the right mix of players this winter might be the difference between success and failure in 2010.

The Royals deluded themselves into thinking that two years ago, when they signed Jose Guillen. They deluded themselves last winter when they signed Kyle Farnsworth and Willie Bloomquist and traded for Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp. (Granted, if they also deluded Zack Greinke, then it was all worth it in the end.)

This winter, there are no illusions. And that’s a blessing if it means that the Royals can get back to doing what they should have been doing exclusively since Dayton Moore was hired: building towards a future that, if you squint, has finally started to move from the distant horizon to a spot on the landscape two or three years away. So the fact that the Royals haven’t made any moves during these meetings is almost certainly good news. As my friend Joe Sheehan put it, this free-agent pool calls to mind WOPR's line from WarGames that "the only winning move is not to play."

Granted, the Royals have had a lot of discussion with the bargain basement of the free agent market, particularly with catchers. They were in hard on Ivan Rodriguez before the Nationals swooped in with their 2-year, $6 million deal, graciously keeping the Royals from re-living the Chuck Knoblauch era. But they’ve been linked to Jason Kendall, Rod Barajas, even Jose Molina, all guys who share two characteristics: 1) they’d all come fairly cheaply, and 2) they’re all worse players than the incumbent they’d be replacing, John Buck.

Now’s the time where I’d ordinarily foam at the mouth about the fact that the Royals want to release Buck, who hit .247/.299/.484 last year (his OPS+ was 103, meaning he was an above-average hitter despite playing a premium defensive position) and is just 29 years old, and replace him with someone like Kendall, who hit .241/.331/.305 in the inferior league last year and is 35. But it’s not that simple.

If the Royals really think Kendall or Barajas will help the Royals in 2010 more than Buck, then we would once again have to seriously question their ability to make even the most basic baseball decisions. But I’ve become increasingly convinced that the desire to replace Buck is rooted in finances more than anything else. Buck made $2.9 million last year, and would probably be due close to $3.5 million in arbitration for next year. The Royals seem to have a cap of about $2 million they’d like to pay to whoever Brayan Pena backs up in 2010.

While the Royals do have some issues with Buck’s defense – deservedly, as he’s thrown out exactly one-sixth (20 of 120) basestealers the last two years – I get the impression that the biggest issue they have with him is simply his price tag. If they could sign him to a $2 million contract, we probably wouldn’t be hearing anything about Kendall et al. But that can’t happen – literally, as a player can not have his salary cut by more than 20% in arbitration.

Having said that, if the Royals are convinced that they can’t afford Buck’s salary in arbitration, I don’t understand why they haven’t released him already. My thinking is that once Buck is a free agent, he has a chance to find out what the market for him is. If it turns out that the market is not that strong, then the Royals might be able to sign him for a better price than he would have earned in arbitration – particularly since the Royals would be able to offer Buck the same carrot they offered Kendall and Ivan Rodriguez, regular playing time, that a lot of other – better – organizations aren’t in a position to offer. The way the Royals are playing this game, they might well sign Kendall for $2 million, release Buck, and then find out that they could have signed Buck at a price similar to what they paid for Kendall.

But I’m working on the assumption that the Royals are going to downgrade behind the plate from Buck to someone like Jason Kendall, and I’m okay with that. Why? Because at the same time that the Royals can’t find enough coins under their cushions to keep Buck, they could find enough money to sign one of the most intriguing Cuban players to defect in recent memory. The Royals have guaranteed $7 million to Noel Arguelles over the next five years – the contract seems to be official pending only things like visas granted and physicals administered. On the one hand, it’s not a lot of money – it’s less money than the Royals guaranteed Farnsworth last winter. On the other hand, it’s the largest amateur contract the Royals have ever handed out, domestically or internationally.

So on the one hand we have a team that can’t afford spending an extra 1-1.5 million dollars for their starting catcher in 2010, and on the other hand we have a team willing to spend $1.4 million a year for the next five years for a player that might not reach Kansas City until 2012. There’s one inescapable conclusion to draw from this: the Royals, finally, have placed a higher priority on amateur talent than on free agent talent. And not just rhetorically, but financially: they're putting their money where their mouth has long been.

This is such a no-brainer for a small-market team that it really shouldn’t even warrant a mention – except that, all around baseball, you’ll find that even small-market teams will spend millions on immediate help at the major league level but then pinch pennies when it comes to signing prospects. To pick another small-market team at random, the Cincinnati Reds – like two dozen other teams – passed over Rick Porcello in the amateur draft in 2007 to save a few million dollars, signing a high school catcher named Devin Mesoraco instead. (Mesoraco looks like a future backup at best.) The following winter, they gave Francisco Cordero a 4-year, $46 million contract to be their closer. The Padres took Matt Bush with the #1 overall pick in 2004 to save money, then turned around and plowed that savings into one year of 38-year-old innings sponge Woody Williams. And so on.

The Royals are certainly guilty of this – just look at the names listed above. But for all the money that Dayton Moore has wasted on bad free agents, that money never came at the expense of the amateur budget. The Royals shied away from Porcello like everyone else, a debatable decision at the time which looks much worse now, but Mike Moustakas was not a signability pick. Eric Hosmer certainly wasn’t – he signed for $6 million up front, a better contract than #1 overall pick Tim Beckham got (Beckham signed for $6.15 million, but spread out over time.) Aaron Crow was drafted because the Royals thought he was the best player available. Tim Melville, Wil Myers, and Chris Dwyer all got seven-figure bonuses after dropping because other teams shied away from their demands. The Royals spent $600,000 on Korean catcher Shin-Jin Ho, and $1.35 million on Nicaraguan third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert.

And now that the purse-strings have been tightened a little, it’s notable that the first budget to get slashed is not the amateur budget, but the professional one. It’s never a good thing when budgets get slashed, but by slashing the free agent budget first, Moore has done an excellent job of mitigating the damage. It's okay if the Royals can’t afford John Buck, as long as they can afford Arguelles, a young (19 or 20 in Cuban years, could be 23 or 24 for all we know) athletic left-hander with a strong build, who throws in the low-to-mid 90s with an excellent changeup and a promising curveball. Arguelles would almost certainly be a first-round pick if he were subject to the amateur draft, with Keith Law describing him as a probable top-ten pick overall. Along with Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer, Arguelles gives the Royals what has to be the strongest collection of left-handed pitchers in any team’s farm system.

The up-to-the-minute buzz is that the Royals might give Jason Kendall a two-year contract to get this thing done. This would be not just dumb but pointless: the point of keeping Kendall over Buck is to save money, but if you give Kendall a two-year deal, you run a very high risk that by Kendall plays so poorly in 2010 that the second year of his contract is dead money that needs to be eaten, and Kendall will probably make more in a two-year deal than Buck would make next season.

But if the worst thing that Moore does this off-season is give Jason Kendall a two-year deal…well, I’ve seen a lot worse than that. And there’s a good chance that will be the case, if for no other reason than the Royals simply don’t have the money to make a more expensive mistake. They might not have 7 million dollars lying around to sign Rich Harden or Mike Cameron or someone who could make a real impact, but they also don’t have 7 million dollars lying around to give to Hank Blalock or Xavier Nady or some other waste of payroll.

But they do have 7 million dollars lying around to give to Noel Arguelles. And for that, I am grateful, and more than a little surprised.

45 comments:

swimmerpie3331 said...

Glad to have you and your analysis back, Rany!

stand said...

Re the possible reasons for replacing Buck, What about the "Bull Durham" rationale? Hire the grizzled, veteran catcher to bring along the brash young pitching staff. I don't have any opinions about the strategy itself but that at least seems a plausible rationale the Royals might have behind having a go at IRod. Kendall, not as much.

Chris said...

Again, you hit the nail right on the head, Rany. Why people dislike Buck I will never know. His stats show he's just as good as most catchers out there. No, he is not a Joe Mauer, but there is only one of those. Plus, he already knows the pitchers that will be caught in '10. A new catcher will have a learning curve to go through. Now throw in an extra year for Kendall and you save nothing if Kendall is a bust. People always think the grass is greener somewhere else but usually its like the field at Arrowhead, just painted dirt.

Anonymous said...

I think Olivo at 3.3m would have been the better stopgap.

Anonymous said...

@Anon Re: Olivo

Olivo can't catch the ball. As much as he appeared to improve near the end of the season, Miguel Olivo has pretty much proven that he cannot do either of the two most important things a major-league catcher must do:

1) Catch the ball;
2) Get on base occasionally.

Good luck hitting 20 HR again, Miggy.

Hayes said...

Hey Rany - as other's have said, good to have you back! Thanks for attending and posting. I would rather see Pena start and Buck backup, but primarily I have another question:

I agree with you that the FA budget should be slashed before the amateur budget, but regarding the examples you give: if you are a GM, what risk based discount rate do you apply to dollar spent on amateurs? You and your fellow writers are constantly talking about the failed #1 picks, so although $4M for chad cordero may be over paying, it's different than paying $4M for the next chad cordero in the draft.

I would rather spend money on an unknown with ceiling than a guy who has proved he has a low ceiling, but if I'm really performing an analysis, how much risk do I attach to amateur dollars?

Anonymous said...

I don't get why they don't give Bryan Pena a chance to see if he can be their everyday catcher.

Seems to me that he has a better chance to improve than the free agents they're chasing. And he's millions cheaper - he made just over 400K last year.

Anonymous said...

Rumor has it they are sending scouts to Chapman's workout...
...so maybe the signing of Arguelles is the precursor to an offer to Chapman. Who knows maybe these guys are friends and would want to play together again. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

re: olivo

What i meant was, better to suffer thru one additional year of Olivo (worked for zack!) at 3.3m (a known-known) than sign Kendall, etc, for 2 years 4-5m, or risk Buck getting a large arbitration raise. They don't really have a good option at this point, but i think locking in Olivo for one year beats throwing money at someone older, for two years, that is just as bad.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see we selected a braves farmhand in the Rule 5 Draft... Edgar Osuna, LHP, was in AA I believe.

Quality said...

Rany,

You understand instinctively that a pitcher with a career 4.50 ERA over 8 seasons who puts up a 3.40 ERA in his walk year may get overpaid in free agency based on a small sample size fluke.

Yet when D.Moore makes the decision to sign a young Cuban defector rather than give an extra $2 million to his backup catcher, you ascribe significance to the move beyond the signing itself.

Shouldn't you acknowledge that this move is at least as likely to be a one-time fluke (especially given the Guillen, Farnsworth, etc. contracts that constitute the majority of Moore's tenure) than the start of a promising trend?

Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

RANY,

WHY NO MENTION OF GOING AFTER RICK ANKIEL FOR CENTER FIELD

Anonymous said...

Jacobs released. The Process continues...

Jimmy Jack said...

Rany, what are your thoughts on the availability of Doumit? I realize his price tag would be significantly higher than what you are currently discussing, but some sort of deal could be made with Pitt I'm sure to alleviate either some of our current payroll (Them taking Meche/Farny/Guillen or some variation thereof) or Pitt kicking in some cash to cover Doumit's contract...thoughts?

Jimmy Jack said...

Nevermind, I just saw on MLBTR Doumit's arbitration salary...case closed.

Nathan said...

Quality,

This isn't a sudden change of direction for Moore. Whatever else one might say of him, he's consistently spent more money on player development than other small-market teams. Until recently, Glass was expanding the budget fast enough to enable Moore's free-agent habit. Now that the check's aren't flowing, it's pleasant, but not too shocking, to see the team rightly prioritizing amateur talent over free-agent talent.

GMs aren't just good or bad. Like everyone else in the world, they're usually good at certain things and bad at others. This is something Moore's good at.

Nathan said...

Rany, great to have you back. I second Hayes' question. How do we rigorously evaluate the correct price for amateur vs. free-agent talent?

Nathan said...

Like others here, I also don't see how Kendall is any better than Pena. But that should in no way overshadow the larger, more important point about priorities that Rany is making.

Anonymous said...

I think Moore is after the veteran leadership of Kendall. I don't dislike the move. It is not earth shattering, but I think he helps the pitching staff, Davies, Hoch, Bannister.

I am concerned about our outfield. I think Guillen should be penciled in at DH. Who are we going to have play all three outfield positions. DeJesus is in left, but who plays center and right?

I liked Crisp while he was here. If he is healthy and can be had for the right price, I think he should be an option. Who else is available and who should we be in on? Of course Holliday would be incredible, but Mr. Glass would have to step up for that to happen. Don't think it will happen, but say that for some crazy way it came about, would we compete?

Mark said...

Hard to get excited this year, isn't it? If the best we can say is that the Royals did nothing at the winter meetings so they didn't make mistakes like last year. When a back-up centerfielder from either New York team would be a significant upgrade. When signing a pitcher who won't be major league ready for at least 2-3 years is our big news. When the Yankees of all teams get the first pick in the Rule 5 draft (!?).

So okay, last year's illusions turned into ashes in our mouths. Is this better? I'm not asking for delusions, just a little crumb of something to offer hope. What must Zack and Billy be thinking?

TychNine said...

Rany, it is a true pleasure to take in your insight once again. Although you took a brief leave of absence (I most certainly do not blame you), I can sense your enthusiasm and passion, which you have always displayed, creeping back throughout your last column. Your analysis, always based in infinite examples of quantitative data, is thoughtful and usually spot-on. I appreciate the continuous insight you have so generously brought forth, and anxiously anticipate your future analysis of this organization. The honestly and straightforwardness you represent is nearing extinction in modern journalism, and I thank you for your many influential contributions.

Anonymous said...

The main reason they aren't giving Pena the starting job is because he's simply attrocious behind the plate. His bat would play well there, but not his D. If it weren't for Guillen and his salary, Pena would be a great DH.

Anonymous said...

TPJ signed by the Giants.

steak said...

Glad to have you back on the analysis front, Rany.

As some other posters have questioned, could Buck's potential dismissal have something to do with his 'intangibles?' Leadership, game management, etc?

One of the fallacies of statistics is that only things that can be measured are worth analyzing. I'd like to get your take on Buck's maturity as a leader/games-man (assuming you have a take). If I recall correctly, the Royals weren't only atrocious at the plate, they were also terrible in making smart plays (and more importantly, not making stupid plays).

And now I must get back to writing my application letter to Hopkins' Radiology administration internship.

Sean said...

Why did KC even go to the Winter Meetings? We've had about 10 minor league FA fodder signings. This MLB roster is so so bad. I realize they have 0 tradeable parts so it's a catch 22 but man, I'm so frustrated when I read that they would look at Jose Molina as a starter, etc. We play guys that wouldnt have regular MLB jobs anywhere else. Bloomy loved it in KC last year? Why, cause he played every day for the first time...ala Ross Gload, Tony Graffanino, etc. Sorry for the rant, 2009 finally broke my back. '10 has all the makings of just as bad if not worse. Dayton only knows how to get fleeced in a trade, we overpay for FA that aren't on any other teams radar...when will this end?

Anonymous said...

0 tradeable parts? Every team in baseball would trade for Greinke or Soria for the right price. Just about every AL team would trade for Butler. Many would trade for Meche, Dejesus, Callaspo, etc.

We have obvious tradeable parts, but we also have obvious holes on the roster too.

The question is, do we trade one of our tradeable parts now or not? If we do trade one, do we trade him for major league ready players to fill other needs now, or for prospects to fill holes in the farm system?

Charles said...

re: Olivo

Let's try this again. Wasn't the option on Olivo a mutual option? If it was then the Royals may have discussed it with him and found that he was not interested in this possibility.

Inded, rumors today have the Rockies offering 5M+ for Miggy.

Jimmy Jack said...

So I just saw on MLBTR that the Rays may be non-tendering Dioner Navarro due to his $2+Mil price tag. This looks to be right up our alley in budget & would be a HUGE pickup. GMDM should definitely at least take a look before letting Kendall sign on the dotted line...

Anonymous said...

Royals sign Jason Kendall. Thoughts?

Rany said...

Dear God, it's worse than we thought. I wrote the above thinking that Kendall might get $2 million for one year, or *maybe* $4 million for two years.

Instead it's $6 million for 2 years. Which is probably more than John Buck will sign for with his new team. The Royals declined the option to keep Miguel Olivo for one year and $3.3 million - then guaranteed nearly twice as much money to a guy who hasn't slugged .330 in three years, and hasn't slugged .350 in five years.

So you can strike all the optimism out of this post. I apologize for giving the Royals too much credit. Again.

At least they kept Disco...

(jake) said...

Missed ya Rany.

Chris said...

Rany, again took the words right out of my mouth. 6 mil for two years? Moore has officially lost it. I wanted to believe in him but obviously he's not a good GM, especially not the one the Royals need. Hope Wil Myer makes a fast track to the big leagues or we are screwed.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, they seem to want defense out of our catcher. Buck will be a good pickup for somebody.

Quality said...

@ Nathan: Jason Kendall. QED.

Anonymous said...

Been a fan since the 70's... stayed with the team throug the years and was thrilled when DM came riding into town. But now all I can do is scratch my head. We will do something that looks great and then make the most puzzling of moves. Last year it was Jacobs and Farns that made we wonder what was going on. This year it is Kendall. A washed up player we are overpaying. Unreal.

Jason said...

Kendall for two years and 6 million? Well, he'll only be 36 and 37 years old and he DID slug .305 last year. Navarro is available? Boston got Max Ramirez? And the Royals overpay for an over the hill catcher. Baaaaaad signing. Par for the course, though.

Carl Willingham said...

Until the Royals get a GM who is not a part of the baseball lifer fraternity and actually thinks outside the box they are doomed to failure. This will take a huge amount of courage as the easiest way for the baseball fraternity to keep things the same is to protect their cronies in any way possible, mostly by criticizing anyting that is not done in a traditional manner. Does Glass strike you as the type of guy who will hire a complete unknown to run his team? Right, I'm with you. Moore is not better than Allard Baird, just was given alot more rope to hang himself with as far a money. What a depressing club to pour your passion into.

Anonymous said...

Shotty signing? Yes.

But still it's not like it directly took money from the Noel signing. We're not suddenly only offering Noel $6M because we gave the most homeless looking player in MLB $3M instead of $2M a year.

I know it's impossible to overlook the degree of ass-clown the Kendall signing is, but sometimes you HAVE to focus on the positive.

And the positive is that money has been spent on the player development which is LIGHT years from what many of us every though was in the realm of possibilities for the Royals.

Anonymous said...

You all are overreacting here. Was the Kendall signing a good one? No. But it's not the end of the world. The Royals aren't going to contend next year regardless of whether it's Kendall or Buck behind the plate.

Carl Willingham said...

Yes, the Kendall signing by itself isn't a huge deal, but Kendall, Guillen, Farnsworth, Yabuta, Olivo and Buck at 6 mill last year, Jacobs at 3.2 instead of Kiahue at 400k, Mahay, Betancourt, hiring a complete bafoon to manage your club, letting above bafoon run your 55 million dollar man into the ground trying to avoid 100 losses...you get the idea. Moore has had a few success stories, but his rate of misses is staggering and shows a fundamental lack of understanding on what a replacement level talent is worth.

Anonymous said...

Carl, all the above people you mentioned were free agents. We are never going to win in Kansas City with free agents. We can't afford the top guys out there. We are going to win through drafting and developing our farm system. That is where Moore should be judged, not on free agency.

Could he do a better job in free agency? Sure. But at least he's not signing Jose Guillen's to ridiculous contracts anymore that we can't pay someone to take. This deal isn't one that would keep us from having enough money to give Billy Butler a contract extension (or something like that).

Kansas City said...

I'm afraid Carl is correct in his criticisms, and the Kendall deal for a 36 years old catcher sure makes you scratch your head. It must mean Olivo and Buck were just awful defensively, because even Moore has to know that Kendall is cooked at age 36 -- he offense is gone and his defense must be declining.

In today's paper, Moore tried to explain that the "market" went up for catchers (although one might ask who else was going to sign Kendall) and that he could mentor pitchers and younger catchers. Moore sure is willing to stick his neck out with moves like this and Betancourt. Plus, he seems to have an obvious weakness in judging veteran major leaguers -- which is odd because that seems the easiest call to make -- just look at recent numbers.

Anonymous said...

It appears that any semi-serious baseball fan has more common sense than DM. Who among us really thought that Gload, Farnsworth, Yabuta, etc. were good moves? Other GM's must be laughing at the Royals' "process".

Anonymous said...

Buck has significant structural back problems. Any long or short term contract will be wrong, good move Royals for a change.

Anonymous said...

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