Granted that it’s a feeling not supported by any evidence at the moment, I have a feeling this is going to be one of the busier Winter Meetings we’ve seen in a while. MLB’s savvy decision to move up the various arbitration/non-tender deadlines means that teams have already made preliminary roster decisions, cleared the dead space on their roster, and dumped a bunch of players into the free-agent pool.
On top of that, it seems like a lot of teams have a ton of money burning a hole in their pocket. (Unemployment is still 10%, but the rich seem to be doing awfully well for themselves these days.) That’s a recipe for some big contracts, and hopefully some big trades as well. We’ve already seen some of the former (Victor Martinez, Adam Dunn), and today we saw one of the latter (Adrian Gonzalez).
The Royals enter the meetings with everyone’s favorite trade chit in Zack Greinke, and – particularly if they trade Greinke – a surprising amount of payroll space they can fill. Consider that the only major-league player under contract for 2012 is Joakim Soria, on a very team-friendly deal. (Noel Arguelles and Aaron Crow both have guaranteed contracts in 2012.) So there’s no particular reason why the Royals can’t be one of the most active teams in baseball this week.
I don’t think they will; I’m still not buying the national consensus that the Royals have to trade Greinke, or even that they will. I think that the Royals hold all the leverage here – if they don’t trade Greinke today, they still have the opportunity to trade him in July, 2011, or January, 2012, or even July, 2012 under the right circumstances.
Maybe I’m giving Dayton Moore too much credit here, but I only see the Royals trading Greinke for a monstrous package – one MLB-ready player with star potential, and at least two Grade A-/B+ caliber prospects. Could that happen? Given the dynamic of this year’s market, I think it could, particularly since both the Rangers and the Yankees have the prospects to make it happen, so whoever loses the Cliff Lee sweepstakes will have both the motivation and the talent to make it happen. But I still think the odds are 50/50 at best.
Nevertheless, I think the Royals should rock the baseball world and make the biggest transaction of the Winter Meetings. And I’m not referring to a Greinke trade.
I think the Royals should do whatever it takes – up to and including a seven-year, $140 million contract offer – to sign Carl Crawford.
Hear me out here. In the next 4000 words, I hope to convince you:
- That Carl Crawford is worth an enormous contract in general;
- That Crawford fits the Royals’ needs particularly well;
- That the Royals can afford him.
I probably won’t succeed. But it’s worth a try.
1) Carl Crawford is worth an enormous contract.
- A seven-year contract is a risk for any player, but Carl Crawford mitigates that risk more than any free agent on the market.
First, let’s point out the obvious: Carl Crawford is a hell of a player. His career line is .296/.337/.444, which includes his formative years from ages 20 to 22. Over the last six seasons, his line is .302/.347/.463. In five of the last six seasons, he has had an OPS+ of over 110. Last year was the best season of his career, as he hit .307/.356/.495 into the teeth of a league-wide offensive turndown.
His triple slash numbers are good, but they’re not $20-million-a-year good. However, they understate his value significantly, because they don’t incorporate his speed and defense, both of which are top of the line.
He has led the AL in steals four times in his career; he’s probably not as fast as he once was, but just two years ago he stole a career-high 60 bases, finishing second in the league to Jacoby Ellsbury. His 82% career success rate is outstanding.
Crawford is perhaps the best defensive left fielder in baseball. He won a Gold Glove this year, which is virtually unheard of for a left fielder – the Gold Gloves almost always go to center fielders. Gold Gloves mean almost nothing – but STATS’ Fielding Bible Awards do mean something, in that they’re voted on by people who actually pay attention to defense. Crawford finished second to Brett Gardner this year, which was an upset, given that Crawford had won three consecutive Fielding Bible Awards for left field – and only one Fielding Bible Award is given out to both leagues combined.
The fielding stats can’t agree as to whether Crawford’s defense is excellent (worth 10 runs a season) or spectacular (20 runs). Personally, I’m fine with either assessment.
Crawford is durable – he’s been on the DL just once in his career, I believe. He’s consistent – he’s had just one off-season (2008) in his career.
Add it all up, and he’s one of the best players in baseball. Per baseball-reference.com, Crawford was worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement last year, and has averaged 3.7 WAR over the last seven years. Per Fangraphs, he was worth 6.9 WAR last year, and has averaged 4.6 WAR over the last seven years. (Fangraphs really, really likes his defense.)
Using the industry rule of thumb that one win is worth around $4.5 million, then depending on who you trust, Crawford was worth somewhere between $21 million and $27 million this past season. Even if he declines a little going forward, and even if we don’t see any salary inflation over the next few years, Crawford figures to be worth in the range of $18-20 million a season.
Most free agents decline, of course; that’s the curse of signing free agents. But then, most free agents are on the wrong side of 30, and as Royals fans know, there are few things more futile than hoping that the 31- or 32-year old outfielder your team just signed isn’t about to slow down. Jose Guillen might be the archetype of this phenomenon, but ask the Mets how they feel about Jason Bay. Ask the Rangers (or the Royals, or the Indians) how they feel about Juan Gonzalez. (And maybe, just maybe, ask the team that signs Jayson Werth how they feel in two or three years.)
Crawford, on the other hand, is just 29 years old, which isn’t terribly young for a free agent, but young enough that he should have at least a few years before his decline phase sets in.
Also, Crawford has the skill set of someone who should age very, very well. It’s an accepted bit of sabermetric wisdom that players with “old player’s skills” – hitters with low batting averages, but lots of walks and power – tend to age very quickly. (The seminal example of this was Alvin Davis; more recently, think Ben Grieve or Brad Wilkerson.) When the ability to lay off bad pitches and hit cripple pitches for power constitutes a player’s entire skill set, then even a slight loss of bat speed can be devastating. To a lesser extent, pure speed players – think Luis Polonia or Alex Cole – also do not age well, because once their legs go, so does their value.
The players who are most likely to maintain their value well into their 30s are players who mix both power and speed. Generally, as these players get older, they lose their speed, but compensate by developing their ability to pull pitches in their happy zone. The classic example of this would be Barry Bonds, but we’ll ignore him for obvious reasons.
Think Bobby Abreu, who had a long peak from ages 25 to 30 and then has gone through a very gentle decline since – last year, at age 36, he still managed a 119 OPS+. Or think Derek Jeter, who may be in decline now but had one of the best seasons of his career at age 35. Or think Eric Davis, one of the most electrifying power/speed players of my lifetime. Sadly, while Davis may have had 80 power and 80 speed, he had 90 fragility, to the point where he had to retire at age 32. But after two years away from the game, he came back at the age of 34 and was an absolute monster for three years.
Crawford is in a subclass of power/speed players, with true world-class speed but just average power. Besides Crawford, just 10 players in history have amassed 300+ steals and 100+ homers by the end of their age 30 season. I’ve divided them into two groups:
Roberto Alomar, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan
Lou Brock, Cesar Cedeno, Marquis Grissom, Jimmy Rollins, Juan Samuel
The players are separated by their walk rate; the players in Group A walked more than 10% of the time, Group B walked less than 10% of the time. Group A, as you can see, has three Hall of Famers – likely to be four in a month – and Bobby Bonds. If you have an elite combination of power and speed and you walk a lot, well, you’re a superstar.
Group B consists of five guys who had power and speed, but who didn’t walk a lot, and consequently were never as good as they were perceived to be – and perhaps never as good as they could have been. Crawford happens to fall into Group B. But let’s look a little deeper.
Cedeno is a special case; he was one of the greatest young players of all time, but was always dogged by accusations that he didn’t give maximum effort, and suffered a severe injury mid-career – I want to say he broke his ankle – and was never the same player afterwards.
Samuel was a power/speed dynamo in his early years, but also swung at damn near everything – he led the NL in strikeouts each of his first four years. He had his last good season at age 26, although he was a great bench player into his mid-30s.
Marquis Grissom was never a great player – his power numbers benefited from coming up in the mid-90s – but he aged very well. At the age of 37, he was the everyday centerfielder for the Giants and hit .279/.323/.450, which is pretty much what he was doing in his mid-20s.
It’s too early to evaluate Jimmy Rollins yet; since he won the MVP award in 2007 he’s been in steady decline, but he’s also battled various injuries; it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he bounced back in 2011.
And that leaves Lou Brock, who I think is the most illuminating comparison to Crawford. Brock was an All-Star caliber player starting in 1964, when he was 25, but he didn’t walk very much in his 20s. In 1967, at the age of 28, Brock walked just 24 times all year despite leading the NL in at-bats.
But in 1969, at age 30, he set a then-career high with 50 walks. (The redefined strike zone no doubt helped.) And his walk totals continued to increase, to 60 the next year, and 76 the year after that. He maintained most of his newfound discipline through his mid-30s.
And Brock aged spectacularly well. His power disappeared in his 30s, but from 1971 to 1976, when he was 32 to 37 years old, Brock hit .306/.364/.399 – in the low-offense 1970s, remember – and averaged 71 steals a year. He posted an OPS+ of 107 or better each season.
The reason this is germane to Crawford is that, over the last two years, Crawford has quietly begun to add a dash of plate discipline to his game. Through 2008, his career high in walks was 37; the last two seasons he has walked 51 and 46 times. Whereas someone like Samuel had already allowed his free-swinging ways to undermine his career by his late 20s, Crawford has learned to control his aggression, and is a better player than ever.
In addition to his improving walk totals, there are other reasons to think Crawford will follow the Lou Brock career path instead of the path of the other guys in this group. Unlike Cedeno, he’s very durable; in eight full seasons in the majors, he’s played 150 games six times, and 143 games in a seventh season; only in 2008 (when he played 109 games) did he miss significant time. Unlike Grissom and Samuel and even Rollins, Crawford is a legitimately good hitter. Crawford has had an OPS+ of 110 or better five times in his career. Samuel and Rollins did that just once by age 30, Grissom twice.
Crawford is getting better – his OPS+ of 134 last season was a career high. And the kicker – this group consists of players with 300 SB and 100 HR after their age 30 season. But Crawford just finished his age 28 season. Only two other players in history – Rickey Henderson and Cesar Cedeno – had reached both plateaus by that age.
After all that, the player in recent history who I think is most comparable to Crawford is a player who just missed our cutoff (he had 263 steals and 120 homers by age 30.) It’s our old friend, Johnny Damon.
Damon was in the majors at age 21, Crawford at age 20. Both are very, very durable. Both are high-average, high-speed, moderate-power players. Crawford has been a better hitter – a lot more steals, a few more homers – than Damon in his 20s. Damon led the league in triples once; Crawford has done it four times. Damon struck out less. But really, they’re very similar players.
At least at the plate, Damon hasn’t surrendered anything to age. His speed has slowly evaporated, but his power has solidified, and he’s taking a few more walks in his old age. From the age of 29 to the age of 35 – the timeframe of a seven-year deal for Crawford – Damon hit .291/.363/.450 with an OPS+ of 110, and averaged 144 games a year. Factor in that Crawford is a slightly but clearly better player than Damon was at the same age, and those numbers look pretty good.
Seven years is a long time, and there’s a very real risk that Crawford will suffer a serious injury in Year One and whoever signs him will be stuck with one of The Worst Contracts Of All Time. But excepting the apocalyptic scenario, Crawford seems to be almost a certainty to contribute an above-average bat, and game-changing speed and defense, for the bulk of his contract.
Everything above makes Crawford a great signing for the Royals, but also makes him a great signing for any team.
2) Crawford fits the Royals’ needs particularly well.
For one thing, he fits the ballpark to a T.
Kauffman Stadium may no longer have the Astroturf of its heyday, but the ballpark plays very similar to the way it did in the 1970s – it’s a great park for speed, a lousy park for power, and neutral to offense overall. According to the Bill James Handbook, over the last three years Kauffman Stadium has reduced home runs by 19%, but increased batting average by 12 points, and increased triples by 36%.
Carl Crawford is a Kauffman Stadium kind of player. He might not hit 19 homers again like he did last year, but he’ll hit .300 every year, and ought to be good for double digits in triples. (And he’ll be the Royals most dangerous inside-the-park-homer threat since Willie Wilson.) The larger outfield in Kauffman Stadium also makes defense more important, and a huge amount of Crawford’s value is in his glove.
Among other weaknesses, the Royals in recent years haven’t taken advantage of their ballpark, probably due to their lack of speed. Over at Baseball Prospectus, Matt Swartz ranked the 30 major-league teams by the degree of their home-field advantage over the last three years, and the Royals had the fifth-smallest home-field advantage in the game. Crawford would help the Royals win anywhere; he would help them win even more at home.
And then there’s the fact that going forward, the Royals need defense more than offense.
The Royals have been a truly awful defensive team for most of the past decade, and as promising as their future looks overall, even if the rebuilding project pans out, defense is still going to be the team’s Achilles’ heel.
The ideal roster construction in 2013 would have, I suppose, an infield of Moustakas, Colon, Giavotella, and Hosmer, an outfield of Lough/Derrick Robinson/Brett Eibner, and Wil Myers catching. Or if you want good defense, you could move Myers to the outfield, replace Lough, and put Salvador Perez behind the plate.
With the exception of Hosmer, none of those infielders grade out as better than average. The outfield has more potential, but it’s very much a work in progress – Robinson is a second-tier prospect, and Eibner has yet to bat as a pro. If Jarrod Dyson turns into the second coming of Gary Pettis, it might not matter – but that’s still wishful thinking.
The Royals badly need a true plus defender somewhere in the field. Crawford is simply the best defensive left fielder in the game. With so much young pitching coming up, the Royals need to back them up with a defense they have confidence in. And remember: most of that young pitching is left-handed. That means most of the batters they’ll be facing are right-handed. Batters tend to pull the ball. That means a preponderance of balls headed to left field. Where Carl Crawford can catch them. The circle is complete.
Assuming Alex Gordon can adapt to right field – and physically there’s no reason he can’t – a Crawford/Blanco/Gordon outfield would be above-average. Or the Royals could go balls-out for defense, start Jarrod Dyson in center, and have one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.
3) The Royals can afford him.
Ah, yes. Cost. Can the Royals afford to pay one player – any player – close to a quarter of their entire payroll?
I say yes, and here’s why: if Mission 2012 is successful, the Royals are going to have somewhere between 16 and 20 players on their roster who are 0-3 guys – players who are not yet arbitration-eligible, and therefore making somewhere between $400,000 and $700,000 a year. Let’s split the difference – on Opening Day, 2013, the Royals will have 18 guys on their roster making somewhere around $10 million – combined.
That leaves only seven other spots to fill on their roster. The Royals had a $75 million payroll last year, so there’s no reason to think they can’t afford at least a $75 million payroll in 2013, if not more.
So let’s say the payroll is $75 million. That means the Royals will have $65 million to pay the other seven players. One of those players will probably be Joakim Soria, at $8 million. So that’s six roster spots to fill, and $57 million to play with. (Let’s make it $55 million to account for Crow’s and Arguelles’ contracts.)
In other words, the Royals are rapidly facing a situation where they almost have to spend big money on free agents, because if they miss the playoffs in 2013 by five games with a payroll of $25 million, there will be hell to pay. The advantage of having so many young players – so many cheap players – is that you have money to spend. But you have to spend the money. And if you’re going to spend it, spend it on an elite player. And there is perhaps no more elite player on the market this winter than Carl Crawford.
Put it this way: even if the Royals give Crawford $19 million a year, that still leaves them $36 million for the other five guys, an average of $7.2 million per player. The Royals absolutely can afford one elite, $15-million-plus player on their roster going forward.
And if the Royals are going to sign an elite free agent, they should probably target an outfielder. Pitchers are simply too unpredictable and too risky; even if you hit on them early, the odds that they get hurt at some point in a long-term contract is huge. (See Meche, Gil.)
And if they’re going to sign a hitter, it makes sense if they avoid signing a player at a position where they already have an elite prospect who’s expected to man that position in a year or two. So no elite third baseman (Moustakas) or first baseman/DH (Butler/Hosmer/Ka’aihue). The Royals have a lot of options at second base, between Aviles and Giavotella and possibly Christian Colon (if he moves) or Jeff Bianchi (if he’s healthy).
That leaves shortstop, catcher, and the outfield. The best catcher on the market this winter has already signed (Victor Martinez), and so has the second-best catcher (John Buck – yes, John Buck.) The best shortstop available is…Derek Jeter? Juan Uribe? Miguel Tejada? Edgar Renteria? It ain’t pretty, folks.
And then there’s the outfield, where you have Crawford, then Jayson Werth, then a big gap.
So Crawford is clearly the best free-agent hitter on the market at a position where the Royals need a long-term solution. But not only that…Crawford is a better hitter at a position of need than anyone on the free-agent market next year.
When the Royals nabbed Gil Meche for an extra year and an extra million per, one of the stated reasons Dayton Moore gave for the deal was that while the Royals might not have been in a position to contend in 2007, they felt that it was better to sign Meche a year earlier than they might have needed him, because they liked him better than any of the pitchers who were expected to be free agents the following year. You can argue with their assessment, but the thought process is sound – better to sign the right guy today than have to sift through a barrel of lesser options tomorrow.
Right now, 2012 is shaping up as a good year for free agents overall – but keep in mind that every year people complain that the following year’s crop of free agents look better than the current one – because over the ensuing 12 months, a bunch of those players will sign extensions with their current teams.
Even so, at those positions (C, SS, OF), here are the best players who might be free agents next winter according to Cot’s Contracts:
Remember, those are the best free agents out there – assuming none of them sign an extension with their current team. Every one of these guys is either not nearly as good a player as Crawford, much older, or both. The only guy who might compare with Crawford going forward is Jose Reyes, who is still just 27 and is a very similar hitter. But Reyes has an ugly injury history, and anyway I’d be surprised if he didn’t sign an extension with the Mets between now and next winter.
So if the Royals pass on Crawford now, hoping to spend their money next winter instead, they’ll quickly find that there’s no one remotely as appealing as Crawford is today. There ought to be some elite starting pitchers available, but 1) pitchers are much, much riskier as long-term signings; 2) the strength of the farm system is in their starting pitchers; 3) if they really want an elite starting pitcher, they should just hold on to Zack Greinke.
If the Royals want to sign an elite free agent for 2012, their best bet is to sign the elite free agent of 2011.
Can they afford to pay Carl Crawford up to $20 million a year? Well, they just paid a combined $24 million to Gil Meche and Jose Guillen this year. I think they can afford to pay less money to a single player who actually helps the team.
Can they afford to pay Carl Crawford a quarter of their payroll? Conventional Wisdom in baseball states that teams should never put more than 20% of their payroll on one player. But then, Conventional Wisdom can’t account for a team that can put a minimum-wage top prospect at virtually every position on the diamond. The Royals find themselves in a unique situation; they can afford to take a unique approach to the market.
So while everyone expects the Royals to move Zack Greinke this week, I say, zig when everyone’s zagging. Sign Crawford, and suddenly you have a no-lose decision to make.
On the one hand, if you can convince David Glass to take a payroll hit just this one time, you can go into next season with both Crawford and Greinke on your roster. Shedding the team of Guillen’s $12 million and DeJesus’ $6 million almost pays for Crawford’s salary right there, although the payroll will have to go up because Greinke gets a big raise, Soria a smaller one, and some players are due salary increases in arbitration. But you’ll get a big chunk of that money back in 2012 when Meche’s contract comes off the books.
Best of all, you’ll go into 2011 with a legitimate shot at .500, if not better, and you can go to Greinke and say “Look, we just signed the best free-agent hitter on the market. We’re committed to spending the money to win. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, we’ve got the best farm system in baseball. Here’s a pen.”
If Greinke declines, you can always trade him later. If he accepts, then by 2013 you’re paying close to $40 million for two players – an elite all-around hitter and one of the best pitchers in the game, who by that point will be surrounded by talented players making the league minimum. Keep this in mind – any prospect the Royals bring up after June 15th or thereabouts won’t be arbitration-eligible until 2015. By 2015, Crawford would be in the fifth year of his contract. Maybe the Royals will find themselves in a payroll crunch in 2015, but frankly, if the Royals haven’t won something by 2015, Dayton Moore will have bigger things to worry about than a payroll crunch.
On the other hand, if Glass isn’t willing to stomach a payroll north of $85 million, then you can trade Greinke this winter, and lap the field for the best farm system in the game – seriously, the Royals would rank both first and last, and the Baseball America Prospect Handbook would just list the Royals’ Top 60 Prospects while cutting the Astros or White Sox out of the book entirely.
You’d save $13.5 million in 2011, and when Meche’s contract comes off the books next winter, that’s $25.5 million in savings – more than enough to pay Crawford, with enough money to sign a mid-tier free agent next winter if the opportunity presents itself.
The bottom line is this: from 2012 to 2014, the Royals ought to have as much minimum-wage talent on their roster as any team in baseball. But you can’t win with minimum-wage players alone. You have to spend your money somewhere, and if you’re going to spend it, you might as well spend it on the best talent available. Every good team is built on a foundation of star players, and Carl Crawford is a star.
Go ahead and argue that I’m being silly, that the Royals have no chance at signing Crawford, that Crawford would never go to a small-market loser like the Royals, and never mind that Gil Meche did just that when the Royals offered him the highest salary for the most years. You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, if the Angels offer Crawford 6 years at $18 million per, the Royals offer him 7 years at $19 million per. If the Angels pull a knife, the Royals pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Kansas City way, and that's how you get Crawford! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?
Sorry, got a little excited there.
Anyway, maybe the Royals don’t have a chance. Maybe their offer is DOA. But they’ll never know unless they make one. Sure, Crawford’s a risk. But so is passing him by and then waiting for another free agent of his caliber to come along in the future. It’s a risk either way. If you’re going to take a risk, personally, I’d rather take Crawford as well.