Thursday, April 5, 2012

Royals Report Card 2011: Part Eight.

Alright, we’re into the lightning round. Let’s do this fast.

Louis Coleman: B+

The Royals drafted Coleman in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, and he was seen as a signability pick – he was a college senior, so he had less leverage to sign. But he was an excellent college pitcher, the ace of the LSU staff and the guy who recorded the final out of the College World Series that year.

Because he didn’t throw that hard and threw from a three-quarters delivery, teams didn’t see him ever succeeding as a starting pitcher in the pros. But the Royals quite sensibly thought that he had the ability to be a situational right-handed reliever at the very least, and when it’s the fifth round, it makes perfect sense to draft a guy who may have a limited ceiling but also is a safe bet to have a major-league role in some capacity.

And that’s exactly what the Royals got. He made it to the majors in less than two seasons, after a minor league career that included a 2.16 ERA in 121 innings, just 76 hits and 31 walks*, and 141 strikeouts.

*: From now on, just assume that “walks” means “unintentional walks” in my writing. I’m tired of writing out the qualifier, but I think it’s silly to lump the two together.

Coleman was the first callup of last season, after he had whiffed 16 of the 30 batters he faced in Triple-A, and had a very good year: 2.87 ERA in 60 innings, 44 hits, 20 walks, 64 Ks. His fastball is a little straight, leading to nine home runs, and he not surprisingly had a big platoon split: right-handed hitters hit .180/.260/.360, while LHB hit .257/.371/.432. (Although that OBP against LHP is larded with six intentional walks in just 74 at-bats.) But let’s be honest: he would have been the best pitcher in the Royals bullpen in most years between 1996 and 2006.

And now, he’s back in Omaha, because the Royals felt he wasn’t one of their four best right-handed relievers. You could quibble with the decision to keep Everett Teaford ahead of him, but the Royals do need at least one reliever who can go 2 or 3 innings at a time, and Coleman isn’t that guy. This is a deep bullpen.

The gambit to take Coleman in the middle rounds of the draft worked so well that the following year, the Royals did the same thing, using their fourth round pick on a senior college left-hander out of Florida. Kevin Chapman may well turn out to be an even more useful bullpen piece than Coleman, but he’ll be doing so in Houston.

Tim Collins: C

The biggest compliment I can give Collins is that while he started last season as a bit of a freak show – hey, everyone, come see the “5-foot-7” pitcher! He looks like the batboy! – by the end of the year, what I was hearing about Collins were complaints from fans that he walked too many guys, and even some doubts about whether he was all that he was hyped to be. In other words, he was being treated like every other pitcher, height be damned. That’s a victory in itself.

No question, Collins’ control needs refinement. He walked 46 batters in 67 innings, or 6.2 per 9 innings. The only pitcher in the majors last year (min: 50 IP) with a higher walk rate was Aroldis Chapman.

But when I watched Collins pitch last year, I didn’t get the vibe that he couldn’t throw strikes, the way Mitch Williams, to name another 21-year-old left-handed rookie who walked a ton of batters, did. I got the vibe that Collins simply chose to work the edges of the strike zone, and was willing to walk a batter rather than give him something good to hit. It seemed to me like he wasn’t walking a lot of guys on four or five pitches, but that he was getting to 3-and-2 on everyone, and then daring them to take a pitch.

Of course, perception doesn’t always fit reality. But the data is suggestive.

While Collins had the second-highest rate of walks per nine innings, he had the tenth-lowest percentage of pitches that were strikes, at 59%. Kyle Drabek, at 55%, was the wildest pitcher in the majors by this metric, but other guys who threw fewer strikes than Collins included Francisco Liriano and Trevor Cahill.

Of the 295 batters Collins faced, 60 of them – over 20% - reached a full count. Of those 60 batters, nine struck out – but 26 walked, more than half the walks Collins surrendered.

I don’t have the data mining skills to know how those numbers compared to a typical pitcher. But I can compare him to Chapman, who faced 207 batters, and only 33 reached a full count. (17 walked, 8 struck out.) I looked at two other wild hurlers, Henry Rodriguez and Carlos Marmol. Rodriguez reached a full count on 60 of 295 batters; Marmol did so on 58 of 327 batters.

Not counting intentional walks, Chapman walked a batter on four pitches 9 times. Marmol did as well. Rodriguez did so 12 times. Collins only did so 7 times.

The sample size is small, and the differences may well be meaningless. But I’m glad to see that the data is at least suggestive that my theory makes sense. If Collins’ high walk rate was partly a matter of choice, it would seem to be an easier problem to fix than if it was a matter of him simply not being able to find the plate.

Mind you, there are other, more fundamental reasons to think his walk rate will improve this year. He was just 21 last year, and a rookie, and young pitchers tend to improve their command more than any other skill as they reach their mid-20s. While he was wild in the minors, it wasn’t nearly to this degree – he walked 94 batters in 223 innings, or 3.79 per nine.

It’s possible Collins takes the Mitch Williams path and never learns to harness his command. But I’m optimistic he goes more the Scott Radinsky route. Radinsky was a 22-year-old left-handed fireballer who walked 35 batters in 52 innings as a rookie. The following year he walked just 21 batters in 71 innings, and was one of the best left-handed relievers in the majors. Despite a shoulder injury that cost him the 1994 season, Radinsky still had an ERA under 3 five times in an eight-year span before his career petered out.

Aaron Crow: B+

I mean, sure, Crow was coming off a season in which he managed a 5.73 ERA in 163 innings split between A-ball and Double-A, so yeah, I’d have to say he exceeded expectations. He made the All-Star Team as a rookie; when he was selected he had a 1.36 ERA in 40 innings, having allowed just 26 hits and 15 walks with 39 strikeouts.

In his very next outing, he allowed 3 runs in 1.2 innings and blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning on July 4th. From that point until the end of the season, Crow threw just 22 innings, allowed 29 hits and 14 walks, with a 5.24 ERA. He missed several weeks with a sore shoulder.

Still, it was a successful year overall, and if the goal was to give Crow a year to acclimate himself to the majors by pitching in the bullpen, allowing him to gain confidence in getting hitters out by airing out his fastball and concentrating solely on his fastball and slider, with the intention to then move him to the rotation – you know, the way teams used to break in promising young arms – it would have been a great stepping-stone year.

But that’s not how it works anymore, unfortunately. Teams have placed such an emphasis on their bullpen – even as we know that it’s much easier to find quality relievers than quality starters – that they’re afraid to mess with success. They can’t risk losing 70 good innings, even if it might one day lead to getting 200 good innings. The Royals officially moved Crow back into the pen after Joakim Soria’s injury, but the odds were always slim that he was going to be in the rotation this year. And the Royals have already made noises about how Crow, having thrown only 62 innings last year, would have to be gently moved back to a starting role by stretching out his arm.

I’ve tried to be polite about this in the past, but it hasn’t worked, so pardon me for being more explicit: THE VERDUCCI EFFECT IS BULLSHIT. There is NO NO NO evidence that a pitcher who exceeds his previous year’s innings total by 30, or 40, or even 200, is more likely to get hurt than a pitcher who doesn’t. Yes, if you take a list of young pitchers who exceeded their innings total, some of them will get hurt the following year, and some will see their performance erode. But young pitchers get hurt. And young pitchers who exceeded their innings total probably did so because they were pitching better than they have before. When those pitchers decline the following year, that’s not the Verducci Effect: that’s regression to the mean. Every serious statistical study that has looked at this concept has come to the same conclusion: there is no magic threshold of innings increase that a young pitcher should not cross.

Aaron Crow threw 163 innings in 2010. That’s actually an incredibly high total for a minor-league pitcher in today’s era. I don’t have the time to check, but I’d wager that’s the most innings thrown by a Royals’ farmhand in the last five years. But you’re trying to tell me that because he threw only 62 innings last year, now Crow is suddenly incapable of throwing more than 100 or 130 innings this year? Please.

The injury concern I have with young pitchers is more general: they shouldn’t throw too many pitches in any given start. Thankfully, the baseball industry has completely overhauled their approach to pitch counts in the last 20 years, to the point where that hardly is a concern at all.

The evidence that we do have, dating back to Craig Wright’s book The Diamond Appraised, is that the concern with pitchers is primarily before the age of 25. You can’t find a 20-year-old pitcher who threw 250 innings in the live-ball era that didn’t live to regret it. You’ll only find a few 22-year-old pitchers who did the same. But once a pitcher turns 25, you can ramp up the pitches and the innings a little.

Aaron Crow turned 25 this winter. I think he can handle the workload. When Nolan Ryan turned 25 years old, he threw 284 innings, and he did just fine, in large part because he threw relatively few innings before he turned 25. The year before, he threw just 152 innings. That’s a 132-inning bump in one year. Verducci Effect, my ass.

Sorry, Tom. You’re a great writer. But you’re not an analyst, and you really need to stop promoting this debunked concept.

Anyway, the sad thing about the Royals and Crow is that they’re hardly out of step with the industry on this one. Look at how the Yankees screwed up Joba Chamberlain, or how the Reds are doing their best to screw up Aroldis Chapman. Or look at the Astros, who have taken Brett Myers – who has averaged 220 innings with an above-average ERA the last two years! – and made him their closer. That’s right, because there’s nothing the worst team in baseball needs more than a closer.

At least the Rangers, after using Neftali Feliz as their closer for the past two years, are finally willing to gamble that he can render more value throwing 180-200 innings than throwing 60-70. The Rangers, of course, take their cues from Nolan Ryan.

I have no idea if Crow can succeed as a starter; some scouts whose opinions I respect very much don’t think he can. But don’t you have to find out? Especially when you already have a phenomenally deep bullpen, and a rotation that most consider among the worst in baseball? Maybe the Royals are taking the Feliz route with Crow, and have every intention of moving him back to the rotation soon. But if the Royals aren’t willing to do so now, you have to wonder if they ever will.

Kelvin Herrera: A

A year ago, Herrera was full of promise, and completely devoid of health. He was talented enough that he reached a full-season minor league at the age of 18, making three appearances for the Burlington Bees in 2008 (and pitching well.) He then pitched in a total of nine games in 2009 and 2010 combined. He slipped onto the back end of Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, ranking 30th in the Royals’ system this time last year.

An oft-injured starting pitcher can make for an often-healthy reliever, and that’s what we saw from Herrera last year. He jumped three levels in one season, from high-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the majors. In 68 minor league innings, he allowed 42 hits, walked 13, and struck out 70. Those of you who saw him pitch on TV a couple of days ago saw why – in addition to throwing a high-90s fastball, Herrera throws a changeup that’s almost unfair.

A lot of prospect experts – I’m thinking of Kevin Goldstein here, although it holds true for almost all of them – hate using comps for prospects. Every player is unique, and comparing a prospect to a major-leaguer is inaccurate and usually overly optimistic. I get their concerns, but personally, I love comps, because it makes my life easier. It’s hard to keep track of literally thousands of different ballplayers from the majors down to rookie ball. Maybe it’s not entirely accurate to say that Eric Hosmer resembles Will Clark – but it’s accurate enough, and it conveys a skill set much more succinctly than to say “Hosmer is a left-handed hitting, slick-fielding first baseman with the ability to challenge for a batting title, hit 30+ home runs, and even steal a few bases.”

Anyway, for the past six months or so I’ve been using one particular comp for Herrera: Rafael (not Yuniesky) Betancourt.

They’re obviously not identical – Betancourt actually started his career as a middle infielder, didn’t convert to pitching until he was 22, blew out his arm and missed most of three seasons, and didn’t reach the majors until he was 28. But the similarities are real:

- Both throw upper-90s heat
- Both throw excellent changeups
- Both have outstanding control
- Neither throws a good breaking ball

Betancourt’s control is beyond outstanding, actually. In 560 career innings, he has 99 walks (unintentional, again). When Herrera hit the very first batter he faced in the major leagues, he equaled Betancourt’s career total – Betancourt has hit one batter in his nine-year career. From 2005 to 2009, he threw two wild pitches – total.

Betancourt has never been entrusted to be a closer – at least until this year, when the Rockies finally acknowledged the fine work he’s done over the last decade. (He throws so many strikes that he’s susceptible to the homer, having allowed 59 in 560 innings, which might have held him back.) But he has a 3.18 career ERA, including a 3.00 ERA since joining the Rockies in 2009. With the exception of one awful season (2008), he’s alternated between being good and being very good from year to year. I argued at the time that his 2007 season was the best season by a middle reliever ever.

The arc of Betancourt’s career, as a pitcher who hasn’t quite been good enough to be an elite closer, but certainly good enough to be an elite set-up man, seems like a reasonable expectation for Herrera. That will play.

Greg Holland: A+

The best grade for 2011 goes to the guy who didn’t even make the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects list, a guy I ranked behind Blake Wood before the season began, a guy who started the year in Triple-A, then came up in mid-May and had, inning for inning, one of the most dominant relief seasons in the franchise’s history. His 11.10 Ks per 9 innings ranked second in team history (min: 50 IP), behind Soria’s 2009. His 5.55 hits per 9 innings ranked third, behind Soria’s 2008 and Robinson Tejeda’s 2009. (I love how two different Soria seasons rank ahead of him.) Holland’s WHIP of 0.933 ranks fourth, behind Soria’s 2008, Roger Nelson’s 1972, and Dan Quisenberry’s 1983.

Not only did Holland have a 1.80 ERA, he allowed only 2 of 33 inherited baserunners to score, which lowered his teammates’ ERA by a considerable amount. While acknowledging that relievers are fickle and he could turn into a pumpkin as quickly as he busted out of one, he’s pretty clearly the best reliever on the roster at this moment.

Which is why I’m pleased that Ned Yost just announced Jonathan Broxton will be the closer.

While the closer is an important role, so is the role of the guy who comes in with the game tied, or who comes in with men on base and the game on the line. If Holland had been named the closer, he wouldn’t have seen 33 inherited runners – he might not have seen five all year. Let Broxton take the glory role, particularly since he’ll be a free agent at year’s end. If Holland were named the closer, all those saves would just increase his salary come arbitration time in two years. Furthermore, if Soria does come back, it will make for a lot less drama if the guy who kept his closer’s spot warm was on his way out the door anyway.

Jeremy Jeffress: D

The stuff is still there. Jeffress still throws 100, and his curveball still buckles hitters’ knees and flutters scouts’ hearts. Pitching in the Arizona Fall League All-Star Game, Jeffress came in and struck out the side – including two players named Bryce Harper and Derek Norris.

He was only pitching in the AFL because he couldn’t throw enough strikes to stay in the majors after breaking with the team on Opening Day. After walking 11 in 15 innings, he went to the minors and walked 40 more in 56 innings, with just 44 strikeouts – necessitating a demotion all the way to Double-A. (He also got arrested – though the charges were later dropped – on a domestic assault charge this winter. Idiot.)

The stuff is still there, and I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the chance that the light bulb goes on at some point and he becomes an elite reliever overnight. But for now, I’d treat Jeffress as a lottery ticket. Maybe you cash in at some point, but for now you just stuff him in your wallet and check back later.

Joakim Soria: D+

I’ve already said everything I need to say about Soria. If he never throws another pitch for the Royals, I’d still put him in the team’s Hall of Fame whenever he becomes eligible. By bWAR, Soria’s first four seasons were all better than Holland’s 2011, and all rank among the 15 best relief seasons in team history.

Robinson Tejeda: F

Listed more as a cautionary tale than anything else. Tejeda was claimed off of waivers from the Rangers in 2008, and for the next two-and-a-half seasons was a very valuable reliever – valuable enough to start seven times, and do well in that role. In 174 innings, he allowed just 120 hits. He walked 92, but struck out 184, and allowed only 12 home runs and a 3.47 ERA. He was great.

In 2011, he started the season with no velocity on his fastball, was disabled after 7.1 ineffective innings, and when his velocity didn’t come all the way back, he was placed on waivers. No team was willing to pick up his modest $1.55 million salary, so he toiled the rest of the year in Omaha, finished with a 3.80 ERA and decent peripherals there, and signed a minor-league deal with the Indians this winter.

With relievers, it’s easy come, easy go. The Royals may have a great bullpen today, but it could fall apart in a hurry. And with as many arms as they have, they’d be fools not to trade one or more of them while their stock is still high.

Blake Wood: B

He wasn’t exactly good last season, but Wood was certainly adequate, and that was more than I expected from him. He was drafted as a starter in the third round in 2006, the transitional draft when Dayton Moore had been hired when no one was in control, the draft that gave us Luke Hochevar as a #1 pick and the execrable Jason Taylor in the second round. Wood looked like a blown pick himself, as a starter who simply didn’t have the command to get guys out. But he started 2010 in the bullpen, his velocity ticked up, and he showed at least a glimmer of hope.

Then last season, in 70 innings, he allowed 66 hits, walked 25, and struck out 62, with a 3.75 ERA. If that’s your eighth-inning guy, you have problems. But at this point, even if he were healthy he would be the last guy in the Royals’ bullpen at best. I don’t think he’s got more upside than what he showed last year – his fastball is too straight to fool batters more often than he did. And I don’t see where he fits on this team even after his elbow heals up.

But he’s 26 years old, he’s not arbitration-eligible until next year, and he’s five years from free agency. There are probably a few teams out there that would be happy to have a guy like Wood on their roster. Holding on to him is kind of pointless, and I’d be happy to see him traded away for some magic beans that may or may not sprout in a few years. If not Wood, then someone.

The Royals have a wealth of relief talent, but it’s not going to do you any good in Triple-A, and it’s likely to evaporate soon enough, so best to extract as much value out of it now as possible. Moore has shown an admirable ability to build bullpens on the cheap in Kansas City – his one big failure was the year he actually decided to throw money at the problem. If you’ve got that ability, you ought to be aggressive in cashing those guys in at their peak, knowing you have the resources to replace them soon enough.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


(The Royals open their season in less than 72 hours, and I’ve got contracts to review, spring training decisions to cover, last year’s report card to finish, and who knows what else. I’ll do my best to get through them all, but I may not be as thorough as usual. Which is probably a good thing.)

Lee Judge, who when he isn’t making fun of sabermetrics actually does a good job of covering the Royals from an inside perspective, had a story about Alex Gordon last week. Gordon had taken a bite of a cupcake.

This was apparently big news within the Royals’ clubhouse. Gordon does not eat cupcakes. He does not eat pizza. He presumably does not eat anything that might be construed as the slightest bit unhealthy.

It’s a silly anecdote, a throw-away one-liner about what happens inside the clubhouse. But when I read that anecdote, the first thing that crossed my mind was, “Damn, the Royals have to get him signed.”

They did. And suddenly, this doesn’t look like the spring training from hell anymore.

Dayton Moore can keep screwing up the little things as long as he keeps getting the big things right. Yes, I’m annoyed that Johnny Giavotella is in Omaha while Chris Getz and Yuniesky Betancourt platoon at second base. But if, two weeks ago, you had told me that Giavotella would get optioned, but that Gordon would sign a long-term deal before Opening Day, I would have taken that deal in a heartbeat.

Baseball fans outside of Kansas City may not appreciate just how fantastic Gordon was in 2011. He was, in many ways, the quintessential five-tool player, finally showing off the breadth of talents that were on full display in Wichita in 2006. He hit for average (.303) and hit for power (72 extra-base hits, 23 homers) and stole bases (17 for 25) and played defense (a Gold Glove in left field, although Brett Gardner would have been a much better selection) and showed off a cannon arm (a major-league leading, and Royals franchise record, 20 baserunner kills.)

He did important things that don’t fall under the rubric of the Five Tools. He showed patience at the plate, leading the team with 67 walks. He grounded into only 9 double plays all year. According to, he was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement last year. While Gordon got a couple of MVP votes – he finished 21st overall on the ballot – he was actually one of the ten best players in the American League last year.

He probably won’t be that good again this year, and may not be that good again in any year. He doesn’t have to be. Even a regressed Alex Gordon is an above-average left fielder, and even if he regresses Gordon will likely be worth the money he’ll earn.

While I was hoping that the Royals would have been able to get a club option in the deal – or at least avoid a player option – I also expected the dollars to be more. Gordon’s contract replaces his $4.775 million deal for 2012 with a $6 million salary, then $9 million next year, $10 million in 2014, and $12.5 million in 2015. Gordon holds a player option for 2016 at $12.5 million.

(It’s worth noting that a team’s ability to get club options in a long-term deal is directly correlated with how far the player is from free agency. Salvador Perez, six years away from free agency, gave the Royals three option years. Alcides Escobar, four years away, gave them two option years. Last year, Billy Butler (three years away) gave them one option year. Neither Gordon nor Zack Greinke (two years away) gave them any.)

The player option is all downside; if Gordon is as good as we think he is, it won’t be exercised, but if last year proves to be a massive fluke, then the Royals will be saddled with a $12.5 million commitment. But look at it this way: while Gordon got an out clause for the final year, he also signed a 5-year, $50 million contract. For the same number of years, that’s less money than the Royals signed Gil Meche or Mike Sweeney for.

Of course, since Gordon was already signed for 2012, essentially this comes down to a $45.225 million guarantee for the next four years, with an out clause. That makes the deal look a little better for Gordon. But it’s still a good deal for the Royals even if Gordon falls back to earth a little. If he doesn’t, it’s a great one.

The only thing about Gordon’s 2011 that looks a little fishy is his batting average; it’s difficult to hit .300 and strike out 139 times without massive power. Gordon’s batting average on balls in play was .358. While hitters have a lot more control over that stat than pitchers, .358 is on the edge of sustainability. It’s more likely that he was a little lucky last season, and even with his new swing he’s more of a .330 BABIP guy. That would drop his batting average to around .280 or so.

If Gordon hits .280, but with the same amount of power, plate discipline, speed and defense he showed last year, he’s a hell of a player. He’s 28 years old now; he’ll be 32 the year of his player option. Contrary to popular perception, he is not entering his prime – most players peak at age 27, and we likely just saw Gordon’s peak season, when he was 27. But I think it’s likely he’ll perform at a level close to his peak for at least the next 3-4 years.

Gordon fits the profile of a player who is likely to age gracefully almost to a tee. He is a tremendous athlete, and he has both power and speed – players with both skills age better than both plodding sluggers and punch-and-judy speedsters. He takes such phenomenal care of himself that it’s a minor story when he takes a bit from a cupcake.

The one thing in Gordon’s profile that works against him staying productive into his mid-30s is his injury history. But he’s more durable than you’d think from looking at his stat line – he played 18 games in the minors in 2009 and 75 games in 2010. Counting his minor league time, his games played the last five years goes 151, 134, 67, 149, 151. He’s only been on the DL three times in his career, and two of those were fairly minor: a quad strain in 2008 cost him three weeks, and a fractured thumb from an awkward slide into second base in spring training in 2010 cost him the first two weeks of the season.

The only serious injury Gordon has suffered was the torn labrum in his hip he suffered early in 2009, which cost him three months. He recovered from surgery on schedule, and has had no sequelae since. He’s not Cal Ripken, but he’s not exactly Chris Snelling.

I could see Alex Gordon resembling another ex-Royal, in the sense of never having a season quite like last year’s, but still having a long and productive career into his mid-to-late 30s. In 2000, his last season with the Royals, Johnny Damon hit .327/.382/.495, led the league with 46 bases, and was worth 6.6 bWAR. (He was worth 20 runs with his legs alone – at the plate, Gordon had the better season.)

He would never again have a season that good again. But over the next 11 years, Damon was worth an average of 3.2 bWAR a year, and was worth 2.8 bWAR as recently as last year, when he was 37. Damon is amazingly durable – he’s one of the few players in history to have played in 140+ games 16 years in a row. But the two players have similar profiles in terms of how likely they are to age gracefully. Damon’s game was more speed and batting average based, which if anything made him more prone to ups and downs offensively. When Damon hit .327 he was a stud; when he hit .256 the following year in Oakland, he was a cipher with the bat. If Gordon hits .245, in today’s depressed offensive environment, he should still hit with enough power to provide some value.

Whether Gordon is still a valuable player when he’s 36 is sort of irrelevant, because the Royals are only on the hook through his age-32 season. Compare Gordon to Joey Votto and it becomes even more clear how good this deal is. Both players are 28 years old (Votto is five months older than Gordon.) Both signed contracts two years away from free agency. Yet Gordon will make almost exactly half annually what Votto makes with his new deal, and the Royals are committed to Gordon for five years, compared to TWELVE years for Votto. The Royals are out from Gordon’s contract after his age-32 season; the Reds are on the hook for Votto until after his 40th birthday.

Sure, Votto is a better player than Gordon, but THAT much better? Gordon was worth 5.9 bWAR last year; Votto was worth 6.5 bWAR, but in the National League. Of course he has the vastly better track record, and he’s the safer bet going forward, etc, etc. But the Reds made a financial commitment to Votto that is FIVE TIMES what the Royals made to Gordon.

Six weeks ago, there was only one skill we could state, with a fair degree of certainty, that Dayton Moore’s front office possessed: they knew how to identify and develop talent. But with three players signed during spring training to contracts that buy out two years of free agency – I still have to get around to discussing Escobar’s deal – I think we can add a second skill to Moore’s ledger: he has the ability to get those players to commit to the organization long-term.

Yes, there are plenty of things Moore does which drive me nuts, and I’m sure he will continue to drive me nuts at times in the future. But really, if you’re the General Manager for a small-market team, and you could only do two things really well, aren’t these exactly the two things you’d ask for? Acquire amateur talent – when it’s still in your price range – and then sign that talent to contracts which make them fit into your payroll for as long as possible?

It might seem like a no-brainer for the Royals to offer these long-term deals. It might even seem like a no-brainer for Salvador Perez and Escobar and Gordon to sign those deals. But getting a player to commit to your organization isn’t simply a matter of dollars. It’s a matter of building a culture in the clubhouse that makes those players want to stick around. It’s a matter of developing a level of trust with your players, that they trust your ability to build a winning team around them, and that they trust your integrity enough to accept security in exchange for the chance to make more money elsewhere.

In the case of Perez and Escobar, you could argue that with free agency being so far away, and with neither player having earned enough money to be secure on their own, that they would have signed those deals no matter who their GM was. But Gordon was two years away from free agency, and counting the money he was due to earn this year, had earned about $12 million since he was drafted. If he didn’t trust Dayton Moore, he wouldn’t have signed. That he did sign says a lot about how the players feel about their front office.

Unlike the other team at the Truman Sports Complex, the Royals have kept virtually every player they’ve wanted to keep since Moore was hired. The one exception to that would be Zack Greinke, who nonetheless signed the same kind of deal Gordon did – a four-year contract when he was two years away from free agency. (The terms were virtually identical – Greinke got $38 million for four years, Gordon gets $37.5 million plus his option. Greinke’s deal was slightly more back-loaded, earning him $13.5 million each of the last two years.)

Greinke ultimately demanded an out, because he lost the trust in Moore’s ability to build a contender in Kansas City by the time his contract is up. But I don’t sense that Greinke lost trust in Moore as a person, and if he makes it to free agency next winter, I honestly think he would consider returning to Kansas City if the offer was there. Besides, the Royals got a good return in the trade. Greinke’s departure from the Royals would have occurred after the 2010 season even if he hadn’t signed a long-term deal, but instead of getting two draft picks as compensation, they got their starting shortstop (who himself is now signed through 2017), their starting centerfielder, a lottery ticket reliever, and one of their best pitching prospects.

Aside from Greinke, the Royals have kept everyone they’ve wanted to. You could argue that they shouldn’t have kept the players they wanted to keep (e.g. Bruce Chen), but it’s an impressive trait, given the Royals’ limited financial resources, that they’ve managed to convince every key player they’ve had in the last five years (Gordon, Butler, Soria, Greinke) to commit to the team past the point of free agency.

Signing Gordon has a few other benefits. First, it keeps the lineup from becoming precariously right-handed over the next few years. With Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas, barring injury the Royals can depend on having at least three left-handed hitters in their lineup most nights. (They may have five in the lineup on Opening Day, with Chris Getz and Brayan Pena, but Perez will be back soon enough, and if Getz doesn’t lose his job to Giavotella, he’ll lose it to Christian Colon, both of whom bat right-handed.)

As I’ve pointed out before, the Royals’ top hitting prospects almost exclusively bat right-handed. There are 15 hitters in Baseball America’s list of the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, and twelve of them are right-handed. Clint Robinson (#21) and David Lough (#30) are left-handed, and Daniel Mateo (#28) is a switch-hitter. It’s hard to envision any prospect currently in the system who doesn’t bat right-handed becoming an everyday player for the Royals.

You can survive with three left-handed bats in your lineup. Losing Gordon and replacing him with a right-handed hitter would have crossed the tipping point, I think, where every team brings in their version of Louis Coleman in the late innings to rip through four or five right-handed bats in a row. Now, the Royals don’t have to worry about that possibility for the next four years, by which time they’ll hopefully have scrounged up a left-handed bat or two.

The other benefit to signing Gordon is that he was really the only key player on the roster who was eligible for free agency between now and the end of the 2014 season. Now, the Royals are well-positioned to lose a minimal amount of talent to free agency over the next five years, which means their window to contend should be over multiple seasons. These are the only players on the 40-man roster that have the right to leave as free agents at the end of each season:

2012: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, Humberto Quintero, Jonathan Sanchez
2013: Bruce Chen, Jeff Francoeur, Brayan Pena
2014: Chris Getz, Luke Hochevar, Mitch Maier, Jose Mijares, Felipe Paulino, Joakim Soria

In 2014, the only players currently on the roster that might have left would be a pair of backup catchers, a utility infielder, two starting pitchers of questionable worth, and an everyday right fielder – the one position where the Royals have an elite prospect likely to be ready in the next two years.

Before the 2015 season, the Royals might lose Hochevar and Paulino, but 1) they might not be worth keeping at that point anyway, and 2) if they are worth keeping, the Royals have three years to work out an extension.

After the 2015 season, both Gordon and Butler may be free agents, which would hurt. But that’s four years away. The Royals have four full years to build on their current roster before they lose a single one of their core players.

And finally, having signed Perez, Escobar, and Gordon in quick succession, the Royals have now increased the odds that they might get a long-term deal done with Hosmer. Now, “increased” is a relative term. I think the odds are still very slim – but six weeks ago I would have said they were non-existent.

Votto’s contract signals the new world we’re living in, where TV contracts are going through the roof and there’s more money for everyone – but where there’s potentially an even bigger financial gap between the haves and the have-nots. In such a world, if the Royals want to get a deal done with Hosmer, they need to do it now. Not next year: now.

If Hosmer is going to sign a deal, it’s going to be a straight contract, no option years – Scott Boras doesn’t operate like that. Does 8 years, $80 million sound reasonable? Hosmer’s going to make about $1 million over the next two years combined, so that’s basically a 6-year, $79 million deal once Hosmer reaches arbitration. That might sound ridiculous, but if Hosmer is as good as everyone thinks he is, he’ll challenge for $10 million his first year of arbitration, and could easily be at $15 million by 2016. If Hosmer goes year-to-year, he could easily make $50-60 million in his four arbitration years, and then another $50-60 million in his first two free agent years alone.

But $80 million guaranteed today might appeal to him more than the non-guaranteed opportunity to make $100-120 million over the same time frame. At the same time, 8 years/$80 million ought to fit – it’s a tight squeeze, but it will fit – into the Royals’ payroll structure.

Getting Gordon signed, on top of the contracts to Perez and Escobar, was a coup for Dayton Moore. But if those contracts lead to the biggest, boldest signing of them all, well, that would be a true revolution.