Saturday, December 14, 2013

As Easy As 1 And 2.

“At some point, I hope they make some moves that make the team better for 2014.”me, three weeks ago.

Well, they’ve made some moves that make the team better for 2014. Let’s start with the first one: trading Will Smith for Norichika Aoki.

My initial reaction when this deal was finalized was colored by the fact that, the night before the trade was completed, the enterprising bloggers at Royal Revival reported that a trade was in the works, and the report had enough credibility that I took it seriously. What I didn’t know at the time was that as part of his initial contract with the Brewers when he came over from Japan, Aoki was made a free agent at the end of his initial three-year contract.

So for the better part of twelve hours, I was under the impression that the Royals might be trading six years of Will Smith for four years of Aoki, which was such a slam-dunk triumph that I was crestfallen when the trade was consummated and I learned that the Royals were only acquiring Aoki for one year.

And let’s not sugarcoat this aspect of the trade: the Royals traded six years of Will Smith, the first two of which will be at near the major-league minimum, for one year of Aoki. No prospect in the Royals’ system surprised me as much over the last two years as Smith, who progressed from being a finesse guy who couldn’t miss bats in Double-A to a strikeout machine. In 2011, Smith whiffed 108 guys in 161 innings in Double-A. This year, he struck out 100 batters in 89 innings in Triple-A – and 43 batters (against just seven walks) in 33 innings in the majors.

Even if Smith is just a reliever in the end, he’s a valuable asset for the Brewers to acquire for one year of a non-star player. I totally get the trade from their standpoint.

But I also totally get it for the Royals. Aoki is a really useful player, and at least to the casual fan is likely to be really underrated. Please don’t be that fan.

Aoki’s skill set is very similar to peak-era David DeJesus, and I mean that as a compliment. Like DeJesus, Aoki is seen by many as just a really super fourth outfielder but not a guy who should play everyday. Both guys make great exhibits for why a stat like WAR is so important – by quantifying everything a player does, it can reveal that a player that does nothing spectacularly but everything competently has tremendous value.

In 2007, DeJesus hit .260 with seven homers, and the casual fan sees that and thinks he’s a below-average starter. The casual fan misses that he walked 64 times, and led the AL with 23 hit-by-pitches, and hit 29 doubles and nine triples, and was a good baserunner and a solid defensive centerfielder, and that the overall package was worth 2.6 bWAR, which made him a slightly-above-average everyday player. In fact, in DeJesus’ seven full years with the Royals, he had at least 1.9 bWAR every year, even though he hit just .289 and reached double digits in homers just twice.

Aoki hit just .286 with eight homers last year, but was worth 3.0 bWAR, because he walked a decent amount (55 times), and got hit by pitches 11 times, and was a fabulous defender in right field. Like DeJesus, Aoki is playable in center but a real asset in the corner. He didn’t have to play centerfield much in Milwaukee because of Carlos Gomez, and he hopefully won’t have to play centerfield much in Kansas City because of Lorenzo Cain.

Hopefully he’ll play right field, and hopefully he’ll play every day. The Royals could platoon him with Justin Maxwell, but Aoki has no platoon split to speak of – in his two years in the majors, he’s hit .304/.351/.395 vs. LHP, and .279/.357/.402 vs. RHP.

Presumably Aoki takes David Lough’s job, and as valuable as Lough was in 2013, the fact that the Royals aren’t taking his rookie season seriously is a very good thing. Superficially, Lough and Aoki had the same year – Lough hit .286 and slugged .413 and played great defense in right field. But he also walked 10 times in 96 games, which is why his OBP (.311) is 45 points lower than Aoki’s.

Lough actually led all AL rookies in bWAR because his defensive numbers were off the chart, but given the variability in defensive stats, I can’t take those numbers too seriously. Aoki is a huge upgrade in the one skill (OBP) that the Royals need the most, and his defensive numbers have been stellar in right field for roughly three times as many games as Lough has played there – I have much more confidence that his defense will continue to be excellent.

There’s also this interesting fact, which is that Aoki has reached base on error 29 times over the last two years, which is more than anyone else in the major leagues. (Elvis Andrus is second with 25. Mike Trout is tied for fifth with 19, because Mike Trout is awesome and does everything well.) As Ben Lindbergh pointed out, relative to the average hitter, that would raise Aoki’s OBP 12 points if we counted reaching base on error in the formula. Now, reaching base that way may seem like a random fluke, but in fact reaching base on error is at least partially a skill. Consider this: errors are much more likely to occur on ground balls than on fly balls. Aoki’s groundball rate the last two years is 58%, one of the highest rates in baseball.

Perhaps David DeJesus isn’t the best comp for Aoki – perhaps a better comp is a poor man’s Ichiro Suzuki, a left-handed bat control artist who deliberate hit the ball on the ground and ran like hell. That was Aoki’s reputation in Japan, where he became the first player ever to get 200 hits in a season twice. (Ichiro only did it once, but I believe the length of the Japanese season was extended after he came to America.) In 951 games, Ichiro hit .353/.421/.522 in Japan, with 199 steals in 232 attempts; in 984 games, Aoki hit .329/.402/.454 with 164 steals in 215 attempts. Aoki was a regular from ages 23 to 29, while Ichiro was a regular from 20 to 26. Ichiro is very clearly the better player, but then Ichiro was a consistent five-win player in the majors until he was 35. The Royals are hoping that Aoki can be a three-win guy in 2014, and it’s a good bet.

I actually wonder if Aoki might be capable of an even better performance than he’s shown, because despite being an incredibly tough guy to strike out – he whiffed just 40 times in 597 at-bats this year, the lowest strikeout rate in the majors for anyone with 400 at-bats – he only hit .286. He reversed his K/BB rate this year; as a rookie, he walked 43 times and struck out 55 times, but this year those numbers were 55 and 40. That’s a phenomenal ratio, and it’s somewhat surprising that he hasn’t hit .300 yet.

He hasn’t because his BABIPs the last two years are .304 and .295. That’s right around the major league average, but unlike pitchers, hitters have a fair amount of influence on their BABIPs, and Aoki’s style of hitting – left-handed, groundball-heavy, and fast out of the box – is conducive to high BABIPs. Ichiro’s career BABIP is .344. I don’t think Aoki’s would be that high, but given that nearly 14% of his groundballs have turned into infield singles the last two years, I could see .315 or .320 being his true level of ability. In which case he might hit .300 for the Royals.

Even if he hits .280, he’s going to be an upgrade. Aoki finally gives the Royals a prototypical leadoff hitter; as much as I liked the Royals’ decision to use Alex Gordon in that spot given their options, I agree that he would have more value lower in the order (although by “lower”, I mean “#2”, not #5.) It’s just one year, but it should be a good year.

In return the Royals gave up Smith, who by year’s end was the #1 lefty in their bullpen. He should be a good reliever for as long as any reliever can be expected to be good. Which is to say, probably no more than two or three years, because that’s what happens to relievers. And as I’ve been saying for like two years now, the Royals have to cash in some of their bullpen depth. Even with Smith’s departure, the Royals still have Greg Holland, and Luke Hochevar, and Wade Davis, and Aaron Crow, and Kelvin Herrera, and Louis Coleman, and that’s just the right-handed relievers. From the left side they still have Tim Collins, and Donnie Joseph could be a very effective situational guy if he can just learn to throw a few more strikes, and Chris Dwyer could very well be 2014’s Will Smith. But even now, the Royals need to trade at least one and maybe two of their right-handed bullpen arms.

So long as Smith stays in the bullpen, it’s unlikely that the Royals will ever regret the trade. Even if he turns into a consistently excellent left-handed set-up man, a Matt Thornton-type, that’s not the sort of sacrifice that’s going to haunt the Royals. The only way this trade leads to real regret is if Smith returns to the rotation and becomes something more than a #5 starter.

I’m not discounting the possibility that this happens. Smith’s strikeout rate had spiked in the minors before he ever moved to the bullpen, and I advocated for the Royals to try him in that role in the second half of the season. But the Royals had clearly decided that his future was in the bullpen, even though they had a far greater need for starters than relievers. The Brewers seem to think he has a chance to succeed in that role, which is why the Royals were able to trade him for Aoki in the first place. If they’re right, this will look bad for the Royals, but if he had stayed in KC he never would have had the chance in the first place. By trading him the Royals were able to leverage value from him that they themselves didn’t think he had.

And I’m not discounting the possibility that Aoki has such a good year – maybe he hits .310 with an OBP approaching .400 – that it behooves the Royals to make him a qualifying offer (likely to be around $15 million for one year) next winter, in which case they’ll obtain a supplemental first-round pick when he signs elsewhere. That pick alone would be almost worth as much as Smith. There’s a higher chance that the Royals sign Aoki to an extension either before or during the season, although given his age, it’s unclear whether that would be a wise thing to do.

In isolation, you’d rather have six years of Will Smith than one year of Norichika Aoki. But given where the Royals stand – on the fringes of playoff contention last year, with one more year of James Shields to take advantage of – selling a few wins down the road for a few wins in 2014 was an eminently sensible move.

By itself, it’s not enough to make the Royals real contenders. But it helped to set up the Royals next move, as yesterday they signed Omar Infante to a four-year, $30.25 million contract.

Infante, who will likely be the last surviving member of the legendary 2003 Detroit Tigers*, has developed from an overqualified utility player in his mid-20s into a solid everyday second baseman, largely because of his ability to put the bat on the ball.

*: And Infante did his part, hitting .222/.278/.258 as a 21-year-old rookie shortstop.

Infante wasn’t always a contact hitter. In 2004, he struck out 112 times in 503 at-bats, but also hit .264/.317/.449 with 16 homers, and given his age and power, it was assumed that he would develop into an above-average middle infielder with 20-homer power. But he cratered the next season, hitting .222/.254/.367, and changed his approach over the years to favor contact over long fly balls. Look at his strikeout rate (strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances) since 2006:

2006: 20.1%
2007: 17.5%
2008: 13.9%
2009: 13.8%
2010: 12.2%
2011: 10.5%
2012: 11.1%
2013: 9.2%

Then consider that in 2006, the AL strikeout rate was 16.2%, and this year it was 19.8%. Infante has cut his strikeout rate by more than half during a time frame when the rest of baseball was striking out 20% more often. That’s incredibly impressive.

Thanks to his ability to put the ball in play, Infante has hit .293/.330/.410 since 2006, hitting at least .271 for eight years in a row. He’s coming off his best offensive season, having hit .318/.345/.450 for the Tigers this year, setting career highs in OPS and OPS+. And as many people have pointed out, if the Royals are paying Infante to replicate what he did in 2013, they’re probably going to be disappointed. They call them career years for a reason.

But at the same time, I don’t think 2013 was a complete fluke. Infante’s .318 average didn’t occur in a vacuum; it was accompanied by the best contact rate of his career. He hit .305 for the Braves in 2008, and .321 in 2009, with higher strikeout rates. Infante’s BABIP this year was .333, which is higher than his career mark of .310, but not egregiously so. If you adjust his BABIP to correspond to his career mark, his batting average drops…all the way to .300. If you’re a second baseman who hits .300, you’re a damn fine player even if you don’t walk much and don’t hit for a lot of power. Infante has also generally been an excellent defender at second base for years; he may be declining in that regard, but he still projects as at least average.

Which is why Infante was one of the guys on my short list of hoped-for upgrades at second base. As you know, I had suggested a few times that the Royals go after Howie Kendrick, who the Angels had hinted was available. I think Kendrick is the slightly better player, because he’s two years younger and he has a freakish ability to hit line drives, which is why his career line is .297/.335/.439 – a tick better than what Infante has done over the same eight years – even though his strikeout rate is much higher. (Kendrick has also toiled his entire career in Angel Stadium, and a move to a friendlier ballpark would presumably help his average, although for his career he has actually hit slightly better at home.)

But even if Kendrick is a slightly better player, you would have to trade talent to the Angels to get him. Maybe it wouldn’t take Yordano Ventura, but it would take more than just a fringe guy either. And Kendrick will actually make more money the next two years ($9.35 million in 2014, $9.5 million in 2015) than Infante. Infante costs the Royals less money and he doesn’t cost them any talent.

What he does cost them is a commitment in 2016 and 2017, and Infante will be 35 years old in the final year of his contract. Which is why, as much interest as I had in him as a solution to the Royals’ second base woes, word of a fourth guaranteed season worried me. I was particularly worried when the rumors were that he wanted 4 years and $40 million to sign.

Instead, he got 4 and $30, and like Jason Vargas, while I don’t like the fourth guaranteed season, the per-year average is so reasonable that if you just think of it as a three-year deal with the fourth year thrown in for free, it’s actually quite reasonable. Given the ownership limitations that have been placed on the budget, Dayton Moore couldn’t entice players with a higher annual salary, so instead he improvised by adding length to their contract, keeping the 2014 budget down. It means the Royals may have to pay the piper in 2017, when 35-year-old Infante and 34-year-old Vargas will combine to make around $15 million. But even if they’re both useless by that point, it’s not much more dead money than the Royals spent on Jose Guillen alone for most of his contract. Dead money at the back end of a contract is the price you pay for value on the front.

So this deal can still work for the Royals even if Infante is useless at the end of it, so long as they get value at the beginning. But will they? Age 32 is the age at which league-average hitters tend to fall off a cliff, and Infante turns 32 in two weeks.

Except lumping all “league-average hitters” together is inaccurate. It’s true that hitters of a certain type – right-handed, not-particularly-athletic outfielders with average power and average contact skills – can fall off a cliff. (Again: Jose Guillen, everyone. Kevin McReynolds. Jason Bay. Etc.) But Infante is a very different type of player – a middle infielder (which implies a certain level of athleticism) with extreme contact skills. How should we expect him to age?

To answer that question, I tried to come up with a list of comparable players, but found that rather difficult. Over the last three years, Infante has hit .288/.318/.414, so I came up with a list of players who, over the same age range (from age 29 to 31), in at least 1000 plate appearances:

- hit between .273 and .303
- slugged between .399 and .429
- on-based between .303 and .333

And I also limited it to players who struck out in fewer than one in every eight plate appearances, i.e. 12.5% or less. I went all the way back to 1981. I expected to find a couple dozen players who fit the criteria. I found two.

One was Johnny Estrada, and man is that not a comp you want to associate with Infante. Estrada hit .278/.296/.403 as a 31-year-old catcher for the Brewers. At age 32, he batted 55 times, hit .170/.200/.170, and was never heard from again.

In fairness, that’s a weird comp. Estrada had the same offensive profile but was a very different player – he was a catcher, he was bad defensively, he switch-hit, and he was a late-bloomer, not sticking in the majors until he was 28.

The other player was Freddy Sanchez, who also shows up as Infante’s #1 comp according to PECOTA. Sanchez is an excellent comp – he hit .289/.323/.410 over the three years in question, and hit .293/.326/.416 at age 31 in 2009. He then signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Giants. Sanchez hit well for the next two years – he batted .292/.342/.397 at age 32, and .289/.332/.397 at age 33 – but injuries kept him off the field a lot. In 2011 he signed a one-year, $6 million extension, which turned out to be wasted money as Sanchez missed all of 2012 with a torn labrum in his shoulder. He hasn’t played since.

That’s the real risk for Infante – not that he stops hitting suddenly, but that he gets hurt. Second basemen get taken out on double play slides a lot, and unlike shortstops their back is frequently to the runner. We can hope that MLB’s sudden realization that injuries are not just “part of the game”, and their move to eliminate home plate collisions, will also lead to steps being taken to keep second baseman from being destroyed by a baserunner. But in the meantime, that has to be a concern. Infante has never played 150 games in a season, and last season he missed a month with a torn ligament in his ankle.

While he didn’t meet the criteria I set exactly, Placido Polanco is sort of the harmonic ideal of what Infante can be – an extreme contact hitter who smokes line drives all over the park. As a 31-year-old second baseman for the Tigers this year, Infante hit .318/.345/.450, striking out in 9.2% of his plate appearances; as a 31-year-old second baseman for the Tigers in 2007, Polanco hit .341/.388/.458, striking out in 4.7% of his plate appearances. Polanco aged very well over the next four years; he hit .307, .285, .298, and .277, and his OPS+ declined gently from 102 to 90 to 94 to 86. I’d be very happy if Infante followed the same route.

Realistically, Infante will probably be a league-average second baseman for the next two years. He’s probably going to miss 30 or 40 games a year, by 2016 he’s going to be below-average if still playable, and by 2017 it’s a good thing that the Royals will have Raul Adalberto Mondesi.

And you know what? That’s okay. As Ben Lindbergh wrote, no position in baseball has been a bigger hole for its team over the last three years than second base has been for the Royals. Adequacy has its virtues. Yes, it’s possible that Emilio Bonifacio would be adequate, but it’s also possible that he’d turn into a higher-paid Chris Getz. It’s possible that Johnny Giavotella would be up to the task, and if I were a rebuilding team I’d be looking to acquire him for peanuts, but now is not the time for a gamble; the time for the Royals to invest patience in him was two years ago. It’s possible that Christian Colon turns into an everyday player; it’s also possible that the Sphinx in Egypt might be covered in snow tomorrow. (No, it wasn't.) Infante is just average, but average is a hell of an upgrade, and average players get $10 million a year on the open market. The Royals are paying $7.5 million a year for an average player they really, really needed.

This has the ripple effect of making Emilio Bonifacio a super-utility player, who in a pinch is capable of playing literally every non-battery position. Bonifacio is the first guy off the bench if Infante, Alcides Escobar, or Mike Moustakas gets hurt, and is capable of filling in for weeks at a time if needed. As a switch-hitter there will always be times when his ability to get on base will make him a useful pinch-hitting option, and he’s the first pinch-runner off the bench not named Jarrod Dyson. Ideally I could see him doing what Mark McLemore did for the Mariners late in his career, playing six different positions, getting on base at a .350 clip and stealing 30 bases a year while batting 400 times. (That’s basically what Bonifacio did in 2011.)

One of the hidden reasons for the Royals’ success this season was that their roster was so healthy it was almost spooky. Perez missed a week with a concussion, Dyson missed a month with a high ankle sprain, and Lorenzo Cain missed a month with a strained oblique muscle. Chris Getz missed two weeks with a left knee sprain. Unless I’m missing someone, those are literally the only DL stints for a Royals position player all season. (The pitchers were equally healthy, and given the nature of the position that’s even more remarkable.)

Now, some of this is skill – the Royals are a young team, and they have a fantastic training staff. But this degree of health, where only four position players go on the DL at all, and none for more than a month, is a testament to luck as well. The Royals are unlikely to be this healthy in 2014. But by signing Infante, the Royals now have about as solid a bench as you can have in this day of 12-man pitching staff, where AL teams carry just four bench players. The Royals have Bonifacio to play anywhere in the infield, and two of Lough, Dyson, and Maxwell to play the outfield or DH, and George Kott…okay, they have three-quarters of an amazing bench.

(Seriously…what the hell were the Royals thinking with Kottaras? Bob Dutton strongly implied it was due to money, but I have a tough time swallowing that, because I just can’t stomach that any team – not even the Royals – would expose themselves at such a key position to save two hundred grand. Perez was already the team’s most important player, but now an extended injury to him would absolutely cripple the team. With Kottaras you’d take a defensive hit, but your lineup would survive for a month if need be. With Brett Hayes…you have an automatic out in the lineup. Given everything the Royals are doing to win in 2014, exposing themselves so brazenly behind the plate is unacceptable, and I have to think they’re going to sign a better backup at some point.)

Aside from catcher, the Royals can weather an injury anywhere on the field. Which is important, because they’re going to have an injury somewhere on the field in 2014.

Almost as beneficial as acquiring Aoki and Infante is who the Royals didn’t acquire: Carlos Beltran. Look, I love Beltran as much as the next Royals fan, and when the Royals season ended and Beltran shined on center stage again in October, I thought he’d look great in right field next year.

But once emotions wound down and I looked at the situation rationally, I realized how poor a fit he would be. Beltran is, at this stage of his career, a subpar defensive player. Given how integral the Royals’ league-leading defense was to their success last year, and given that they just signed another contact-oriented starter in Vargas to go along with Jeremy Guthrie, is it worth breaking up that defense to get Beltran’s bat? Even Beltran acknowledged that he would be better off playing for an AL team so he could DH occasionally and rest his legs, but the Royals have a full-time DH in Butler. You could trade Butler and play Beltran exclusively at DH, but how much better is Beltran purely as a hitter? Keep in mind that many studies have shown that there is a modest but real “DH penalty” – that a player who does nothing all game but swing the bat four times hits slightly worse than a player who stays in the flow of the game by taking the field every inning.

And even if Beltran, by virtue of his baserunning, is a better offensive player than Butler…is he so much better that he’s worth spending $15 million a year on? Is he worth giving up the #19 pick in next year’s draft for? The Royals seemed to be working through this exact set of questions over the past month, and seemed interested in Beltran – particularly if they could move Butler for a valuable piece – but only at a price that made sense. And it’s probably best for all parties that he signed with the Yankees instead.

The Yankees also wanted Infante, but this time the Royals beat them, and I’d much rather that they win the bidding on the player they actually won. Instead of paying Beltran $15 million, they’ll pay Infante, Aoki, and Butler $17.5 million in 2014. They gave up Will Smith, but they didn’t give up the #19 pick, and I’m honestly not sure which commodity is more valuable.

The only redeeming feature of signing Beltran was that the Royals could have traded Butler, and if they really could have gotten Nick Franklin for him straight up, that’s a hell of a tough call, because I think Franklin could be an above-average second baseman if not a minor star. But with the caveat that you never know what the Mariners are thinking – as Geoff Baker exposed, they might be the most dysfunctional organization in baseball right now – I just have trouble thinking the Royals could have pulled off that deal.

I know I’ve become a lightning rod over the past year for my visceral, vociferous hatred of the Shields trade, but I hope I’ve made it clear with this column: I understand that there are a times when a team is close enough to contention that they’re justified in sacrificing the long term for the short term. These are the types of moves you make when you’re all-in. You trade a potentially excellent reliever for one season of an everyday outfielder. You throw a little too much money or maybe one too many years on an everyday second baseman that you really need.

There’s risk in both these moves, but the downside is manageable. You don’t have to make every move with an eye towards the long term as well as the short term. You just have to avoid trading future stars making the league minimum. Dayton Moore improved the 2014 Royals with each of these moves, without mortgaging the future of this franchise.

So yes, I like both moves, and I think that together, the moves get the Royals closer to the top of the division. But they’re not there yet. My extremely preliminary projection on 810 WHB last week was 82-80; I’d revise that to 84-78 with the Infante signing. That may seem pessimistic, but teams that improve as much as the Royals did this year usually fall back the next, and so much of their success was predicated on a defensive performance that doesn’t seem sustainable. 84-78, in isolation, would be a perfectly good followup to 86-76.

But it won’t be for the 2014 Royals, precisely because Dayton Moore put up a huge roadblock at the end of the 2014 season, when Shields leaves as a free agent. The good news is that the division is very much for the taking, because I really don’t understand what the Tigers have done this off-season. I liked the Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler swap, even though Fielder is probably going to be better in 2014, because it freed up payroll that I assumed the Tigers would spend elsewhere.

But instead they gave up Doug Fister for a laughably bad return; Fister is basically 85% of the pitcher that Shields is, with two years left until free agency, and they got a potential #4 starter, a utility infielder, and a left-handed reliever. They then spent a good chunk of their savings on Joe Nathan, who is an awesome reliever and a Royal-killer extraordinare but pitches 60 innings a year. They just spent $5 million a year on Rajai Davis, who is a really good fourth outfielder and a fantastic basestealer and yet is not named Shin-Soo Choo.

The Tigers could be a significantly worse team on paper next year and still win 90 games, but that’s just it: I think 90 wins might be enough to take the division. The Royals are close enough to that goal that they could get there if everything breaks right. But that also means that a few extra wins, one more big move, would have a huge impact on their playoff odds next year.

At the moment, the Royals’ payroll stands at $94 million next year, which would be a team record, and like Sam Mellinger I don’t think David Glass deserves criticism for the team’s spending as it stands right now. But I also don’t think he deserves undue praise. There’s another $25 million coming in national TV revenue, and right now they’ve spent maybe $10 million of it on payroll. And that doesn’t count the increase in revenue from a higher attendance and higher ticket costs next year thanks to the team’s success this year. (The prices on Opening Day tickets have nearly doubled for some seats, for instance.) They can afford to go higher.

Which is why the rumors that the Royals have discussed a Billy Butler trade with the Blue Jays has me so intrigued. It’s not that I want the Royals to trade Butler – it’s that trading Butler and prospects would only make sense in exchange for a true difference maker. Could the Royals trade Butler and prospects for Jose Bautista? Could they deal Lorenzo Cain in a deal for Colby Rasmus, who has only one year left until free agency and the Blue Jays are reportedly shopping? (I won’t even mention R.A. Dickey, because I don’t want to get my hopes up and…damn. Too late.)

If you’re all-in for 2014, you’re all-in for 2014. The Royals are one more upgrade (and no, signing Nelson Cruz does not count) short of being serious contenders next year, and having gotten this far without having given up any minor league talent, they can afford – within reason – to trade some talent off their still-deep farm system. They can afford to take their payroll all the way to nine figures. Between their bullpen and their stable of outfielders – one of Lough, Dyson, or Maxwell will have to be moved – they have secondary pieces that they can trade without even feeling it. And if need be, they could even get instant payroll relief if they trade Greg Holland or Luke Hochevar or Wade Davis.

So right now, the Royals have had a pretty good off-season. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Vargas signing, mostly because he wasn’t Phil Hughes, but I didn’t hate it, and the Royals didn’t overpay. Aoki and Infante give the Royals a new #1 and #2 hitter (granted, Infante isn’t the team’s best #2 hitter, but you know that’s where he’ll bat) at a reasonable price.

But one more big move for 2014 would turn “pretty good” into “excellent”. I know the Royals are hinting that they’re done. I just hope that Dayton Moore is playing possum one more time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Dayton, More. (And More.)


If you thought it was incredibly easy to snark about the Royals’ press release on Black Friday that “ROYALS AND DAYTON MOORE AGREE TO TWO-YEAR EXTENSION”, you are right. I confess to succumbing to temptation on Twitter a time or two that day.

And even now, I want to blast the extension, not because I hate Dayton Moore (I don’t) or because I want him fired (I don’t), but because it doesn’t sit right to me that finally putting together a winning season in your seventh full year on the job, after cashing in a substantial piece of the future to do so, should be rewarded so quickly. Once upon a time Moore criticized “our immediate-gratification society” when it came to Royals fans expecting a winning team. Well, this contract extension smacks of his own immediate gratification. Moore was already under contract for 2014; surely ownership could wait until mid-season to see if the Royals built on this year’s success before extending him.

Just like the last time he got a contract extension, back in 2009, Moore has more contract extensions (2) than winning seasons (1) during his tenure as GM. That’s a difficult morsel of information to digest. To be frank, I’m not convinced that Moore deserves an extension.

But that’s the wrong way to look at this. I’ve come around to the position that extending Dayton Moore’s contract for two more years was the right thing to do, for two reasons:

1) A General Manager does his job best when his interests are aligned with his organization’s interests;

2) I was focusing on the wrong word in the press release.

As I said on Twitter a few minutes after digesting the news, as my opinion on the extension continued to evolve*, if Moore had gotten this contract extension last November, would he have traded Wil Myers for James Shields last December?

*: In retrospect, working through my thought processes on social media in front of twenty-five thousand people probably isn’t the smartest thing to do, and I probably need to stop doing it.

I don’t know the answer to that question; in all honesty, I think Moore might have done it anyway. But this brings us back around to the concept of moral hazard.

To reiterate – I’ve said this before, but I don’t want to be misunderstood on this subject – I don’t think that Moore consciously let his decision to trade Myers for Shields be influenced by the fact that if the Royals didn’t win more games in 2013, he might be out of a job before he’d get the chance to reap the benefits of Myers in 2014 and beyond. Again: I think he might have made the trade anyway.

But the subconscious influence that job security has on a GM’s decisions? I think that has to be a factor, because job security is a factor in how we all make decisions in our job. I’m a doctor, and I’m aware that one of the reasons – admittedly one of several – health care costs are so high in this country is that every day, physicians make decisions about a patient’s treatment that have a direct effect on their own paycheck.

Every doctor in America will swear up and down that every decision they make, every test they order and every procedure they recommend, is done purely with the patient’s best interest in mind. And yet every study done on the subject shows that when a physician’s income is not directly tied to the amount of work that they do (like doctors who are employed for a fixed salary), that health care costs drop, sometimes dramatically.

I am self-employed as a doctor, and I know that every time I present treatment options to a patient, and it so happens that one treatment option can be administered by my office (and generate lots of revenue) and one treatment option is not, that there is going to be a subconscious influence on myself to steer the patient in a particular direction. I’m aware of that influence because the minute I stop being aware of it is the minute it starts impacting patient care. It’s the reason I rarely see drug reps in my office, and blocked my prescribing data from drug companies so that they cannot see my prescribing patterns and attempt to reward or punish me as they see fit. And in my experience, the physicians who take the most umbrage to the notion that they might let their own financial considerations affect the care of their patients are the ones who game the system the most.

Dayton Moore is by all accounts an honorable man, but he’s human, and I’m pretty sure he’s subject to the same kinds of subconscious influences that the rest of us are. And letting a GM go into the final season of his contract without an extension is a gigantic subconscious influence on him that the upcoming season is all that matters. It’s a huge conflict of interest between what matters to the GM – 2014 – and what matters to the organization, the fans, and the owners, which includes 2015 and beyond.

Extending Moore for two more years eliminates these specific concerns. Naturally, Moore has tremendous pressure on him for the Royals to win in 2014, which have nothing to do with the length of his contract and everything to do with the fact that it’s Year 8, and even his beloved model of the Long Rebuilding Project, Terry Ryan’s Minnesota Twins, won 94 games and went to the playoffs in Year 8. But this eliminates the temptation before the season to trade three wins in 2015 for one win in 2014. And if next season does go south in a hurry, it eliminates the temptation to not cash out quickly, whether that means trading James Shields or Alex Gordon or whoever.

The alternative would be to let a GM who just won the franchise’s most games since 1989 to twist in the wind. And as Sam Mellinger put it, “letting a GM go lame-duck a year after the franchise’s most successful season in a generation is the kind of nonsense the Royals used to do.” If Moore’s contract had run through 2015, I doubt we’d be talking about an extension right now. But the timing is what it is. The last year of a GM’s contract is a loss leader of sorts – the decision to extend or not has to be made the year before, which means eventually, that last year is going to be eaten when ownership decides a change has to be made*.

*: I’ve been told that Brian Sabean has worked on the last year of a contract multiple times in San Francisco, but aside from the fact that I’ve really never quite got a handle on how the Giants do business, it’s quite possible that a handshake agreement was already in place.

I accept everything I just wrote rationally, but I’m still trying to accept it emotionally, because I’m still not over the Moral Hazard Trade of last winter. Or as Matt Klaassen tweeted, “Without job security, Moore might do something nuts like trade six years of a good hitting prospect for two years of a good starting pitcher.”

I know some of you want me to get over the Myers trade, and I’d like to get over it myself. But I can’t “get over” a trade that so many people still think was a good idea. The point of rehashing the trade over and over again is so that we might learn something from it, but too many Royals fans don’t think that there’s anything to learn. So long as that’s the case, I will keep doing my best to educate.

Giving Moore a contract extension this winter feels on some level like shutting the barn door after the horses got out, even if – in light of the Royals’ 86-76 season – it makes perfect sense that he got an extension this year instead of last. But this brings me to the other reason, the one that really convinced me to accept the extension:

The most important word in the press release isn’t “EXTENSION”. It’s “TWO”.

In 2009, Moore got a four-year contract extension. Four years is an eternity for a GM. Dave Dombrowski was hired by the Tigers in 2002; the Tigers didn’t even hit rock bottom until 2003, when they lost 119 games, and by 2006 he had the Tigers headed to the World Series. Andrew Friedman took over as the Rays GM after the 2005 season; four years later he had followed up an AL pennant with an 84-78 season that is the only year in the past six when the Rays haven’t won 90 games. I didn’t understand the extension then, but as I wrote at the time, “I’m fine with Dayton Moore getting a four-year contract extension…as long as it’s really a one-year extension with three option years.”

That’s obviously not how it works for a four-year extension. But for a two-year extension…well, having just established that the last year of a GM’s contract is really just window dressing, it’s safe to say that this time around, Moore really did get a one-year extension with an option for 2016.

And that seems reasonable to me. Moore deserves to keep his job; while the Myers trade may rankle me for a long time to come, it was made possible by drafting Myers in the third round in the first place. Moore made an enormous commitment to developing talent from Latin America, and for all the criticisms levied against Moore for the length of his timetable, when it comes to Latin American players it really does take eight years to turn a 16-year-old malnourished kid into a 24-year-old major leaguer. That pipeline has already delivered Salvador Perez and Kelvin Herrera, and Yordano Ventura just arrived, and more is on the way. The long-term contract for Salvador Perez may wind up being as much a net positive for the Royals as the Myers trade was a net negative.

It’s certainly possible that if the Royals fall apart next season, and start 34-47, this extension may save Moore’s job for another year. But I think that’s pretty unlikely. Much more likely on the downside is that the Royals regress a little and finish 79-83 or something. In which case, a contract extension now saves the Glass family from the difficult decision of whether to extend Moore next year, when at that point they wouldn't want to commit for more than another half-season.

If the Royals tread water in 2014, then 2015 becomes a pivotal year for Moore to show that, even without Shields, and with Alex Gordon and Billy Butler in their last contract year, they can win. This extension vastly reduces the odds that Moore gets fired in 2014 – but it really doesn’t change the odds for 2015 at all. If they don’t win by then, everyone’s job is on the line – Moore in the next-to-last year of his contract, and Ned Yost in the last year of his. There’s a massive housecleaning pending in 2015 if the Royals don’t take the next step, and I’m sure that even with a contract through 2016, Moore is well aware of that. You can’t eliminate moral hazard entirely, but you can contain it.

Does Dayton Moore deserve a contract extension? To quote William Munny from Unforgiven one more time, Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. This is what’s best for the Royals as an organization, and that’s all that really matters.

- As you might have noticed, Phil Hughes signed with the Minnesota Twins last week. He got a three year deal for $24 million, which means that he’s making the same annual salary as Jason Vargas, but was guaranteed one less year.

I don’t know how to process this, other than to say that I evidently have a much different view of Hughes than pretty much the rest of baseball. I mean, I can criticize the Royals all I want, but 28 other teams didn’t see Hughes as worth more than $8 million a year either. And even within the analytical field, there are a lot of people who think that the Twins overpaid or overcommitted to Hughes, both national baseball writers (e.g. Keith Law, Jay Jaffe) and Royals-specific ones (e.g. Craig Brown).

But I’ll stand by what I’ve said before, which is that Phil Hughes looks to me like a league-average starter with upside, that getting out of Yankee Stadium will have a huge positive impact on his career, and that a 3-year, $24 million contract looks to me like a bargain.

Consider this: Jason Vargas has a 4.30 career ERA, and Phil Hughes has a 4.54 career ERA, but if you just look at their performance on the road – where Vargas doesn’t get the benefit of Safeco and Angel Stadium, and Hughes doesn’t have to deal with Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch – here are their numbers:

Jason Vargas: 5.17 ERA, 1.44 HR/9, 1.78 K/BB
Phil Hughes: 4.10 ERA, 0.86 HR/9, 2.52 K/BB

I’ve seen many people criticize Hughes’ fastball for having no movement and being a gopher pitch, but away from their vastly different home ballpark, Vargas gives up home runs 67% more often than Hughes.

Vargas throws 87-88; Hughes throws 92-93. Even factoring in the natural advantage that left-handed pitchers have, Hughes has the advantage. And while Hughes is just 27, Vargas is 30, and will turn 31 before spring training.

Nonetheless, the Royals had more interest in Vargas than Hughes, to the point where they gave a longer contract to an older pitcher with a lower strikeout rate.

I can’t say that Hughes is 100% guaranteed to be better than Vargas, because we can’t say 100% about anything in baseball. The Rays were, probabilistically speaking, probably about 90% likely to win the Scott Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano trade. The Royals had about a 10% chance…no, 1% chance…no, 0.1% chance to win the Neifi Perez for Jermaine Dye trade. We’re always dealing in probabilities here, and being wrong about a single transaction doesn’t mean you’re wrong any more than giving up a single to the next batter he faces means that Clayton Kershaw sucks.

But I think the odds are something like 70% that Hughes will be a better pitcher than Vargas over the next four years, which is massive in baseball terms. (Most of that 30% involves some underlying arm problem with Hughes that has the rest of baseball looking askance at him.) Vargas may superficially look better in 2014, because the Royals will probably have a well-above-average defense, but if you strip that away I suspect Hughes will be better next year – and that the gap will increase over time. Again, I could be mistaken. It wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong to criticize a decision the Royals made. But it also wouldn’t be the first time I was right.

- Finally, I can’t write this long and not mention the toughest news of the week, which is that Bob Dutton is leaving the Kansas City Star to cover the Seattle Mariners for the Tacoma News Tribune. The departure of a beat writer shouldn’t be this sad, but Bob’s not your ordinary beat writer.

For one thing, he’s the beat writer for the only daily newspaper in town. The Yankees have half-a-dozen beat writers covering them for different outlets; the loss of one is barely felt. But aside from the Royals’ internal reporters (mostly Dick Kaegel) with, Bob is the sole conduit for the day-to-day happenings for the team.

And he’s been that conduit for a long, long time. Bob’s been the full-time beat writer since 2002 or so, but he covered the Royals on at least a part-time basis since  before the Star launched their website and I could read it every day starting in 1996 or 1997. We started Baseball Prospectus in late 1995, so Bob’s Royals beat covers virtually my entire career as a writer and analyst. I don’t remember a time, since the internet unveiled the secrets of the world to me and I could read about the Royals from a local perspective, where I didn’t see Bob’s byline.

And he’s really, really good at his job. Think about this: he’s watched the Royals play over 2000 games over the last 15-20 years, and none of them had pennant implications for the team. The Saturday game against the Rangers with a week left in the season this September was, objectively, the most important game the Royals had played in 28 years. It’s not that Bob is a Royals fan – he’ll tell you that his job is simply to cover the team – but I can’t imagine how hard it must be to take your craft so seriously, to nail your deadlines and capture the feel of the game and get player quotes and weave them into your narrative, when the stakes are so minimal, game after game, year after year. And he does it so, so well. Has done it.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Bob over the last decade; we generally would get together for a meal when he was in Chicago covering the Royals once a year, and he’s always treated me as a peer even in the days before Moneyball came out, when people like me were looked at with disdain by most traditional journalists.

The world has changed, and I no longer need to explain to print writers who I am, what I do, or why they should give a damn about what I have to say. But it wasn’t always that way, and my connection with the point guy for Royals information could have been much more tenuous or combative in the early days. In another market, it probably would have been. But it wasn’t, because Bob’s a professional, and I am truly grateful for that. I’ll miss him dearly.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

For Want Of A Pitcher: Jason Vargas?


It’s been a long time since the Royals made a move of this significance that left me so…underwhelmed. Or left me struggling to come up with a passionate take.

That’s not to say that underwhelming and dispassionate don’t have their virtues. I had plenty of passion about the Myers trade and the Jose Guillen signing, and I’ll take this move over both of those and many others. It’s just that, for what was billed as a “major baseball announcement”, the signing of Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract is kind of a letdown. It’s vanilla ice cream. It’s a Jay Leno stand-up concert. It’s Brooklyn Decker in a parka and baggy pants.

Let’s start with who Vargas is. He’s a soon-to-be 31-year-old crafty lefty, who averaged 89 mph with his fastball as a rookie in 2005, and 88 mph with his fastball this year. After a promising rookie season, he was ineffective and then hurt for the next three years, before re-emerging in Seattle in 2009, and has been a slightly-below-average starter ever since.

A cursory look at his numbers might convince you that he’s better than average; his ERAs the last four years read 3.78, 4.25, 3.85, and 4.02. But through an amazing stroke of good fortune, Vargas has pitched in the AL’s two best pitchers’ parks in that time, with the Mariners from 2009 to 2012, and then with the Angels last year after he was traded straight-up for Kendrys Morales. (He had previously pitched for the Marlins and Mets; Kauffman Stadium, which is essentially neutral, will be the most hitter-friendly park he’s ever called home.)

So while Vargas has a very respectable 3.96 ERA over the last four years, his ERA+ in that time is just 96, making him 4% worse than average. As you’d expect from someone with his fastball, he doesn’t miss many bats; as a rookie, he struck out 18.2% of the batters he faced, which is the only time in his career that he’s had an above-average strikeout rate. But he’s been reasonably effective anyway, because he has excellent command; since re-emerging in 2009 he has walked fewer than 3 batters per nine innings every season.

Vargas is a flyball pitcher, though not as extreme as he once was. His groundball rate was 40% each of the last two years, but was never higher than 37% before that. The combination of lots of balls in play, and a high percentage of balls in the air, is a recipe for lots of home runs, and Vargas doesn’t disappoint: he’s given up nearly a homer every eight innings for his career, and in 2012 he allowed 35 homers in 217 innings despite pitching in Seattle.

His HR/FB ratio for his career is 9.1%, which is actually a little below average, and is entirely due to his ballparks. This is the scariest stat – I hope – that you’ll see in this article:

Jason Vargas’ career at home: 3.46 ERA, 48 HR in 497 IP, 2.51 K/BB
Jason Vargas’ career on road: 5.17 ERA, 77 HR in 483 IP, 1.78 K/BB

Now, I don’t want to read too much into that; James Shields, you’ll recall, had a home/road split that was nearly as severe when the Royals traded for him last year, and he did alright. (Although again, not as good as people think, because the Royals’ defense made all their pitchers look better. His walk rate jumped 21%; his strikeout rate dropped 12%.) But whereas Shields’ splits didn’t have a good explanation – Tampa Bay plays in a pitcher’s park, but not to that degree – in this case, Vargas’ splits plays perfectly into the narrative, which is that he is a marginal starting pitcher who’s been buoyed by pitching in very favorable environments.

Kauffman Stadium is as difficult to hit home runs in as any ballpark in the league, and Vargas may not notice any change in his home run rate. But as the numbers show, pitching at Safeco and Angel Stadium also benefitted his walks and strikeouts, and I’m not sure how well that well transport to Kansas City.

What will transport well is Vargas’ pitch-to-contact style, given that the Royals had the best defense in the major leagues this year. He’s a below-average pitcher who may get prettied up to average by his fielders.

In that way, he may wind up like Jeremy Guthrie, who signed a 3-year, $25.5 million contract last winter. Guthrie’s career was more notable for quantity than quality, but the Royals thought there was value in security, and in 200 innings. I agreed with them, albeit not with any great enthusiasm.

But whereas I endorsed the Guthrie signing, I can’t do the same with Vargas. Let’s compare the two. From 2009 to 2013, Vargas had a 4.07 ERA. From 2007 to 2011 – I’m eliminating his bipolar, Mile High-tainted 2012 for simplicity’s sake – Guthrie had a 4.12 ERA.

But whereas Vargas has only pitched in great pitchers’ parks, Guthrie pitched in Baltimore, and Camden Yards favors hitters. Furthermore, he pitched in the AL East, for the one losing team in the division. A big part of my case for supporting his signing was that the quality of competition he faced was much better than the average pitcher; I estimated that his ERA might drop 20 points just from the change in divisions. Between that and the ballpark change, I thought Guthrie would give the Royals league-average performance. And he did, thanks to some help from his defense and some help from Lady Luck. (Guthrie's ERA was 4.04, but his Component ERA - what you'd expect his ERA to be based on his hits, homers, walks, etc. allowed - was 4.76.)

I think Vargas might do the same, but here’s the thing: a year ago, the Royals needed 200 league-average innings. They went into that off-season with two starting pitchers under contract: Bruce Chen (5.07 ERA) and Luke Hochevar (5.73 ERA). They HAD to get innings. That’s why I endorsed re-signing Guthrie, and why I liked the trade for Ervin Santana, and I supported the James…no, wait, scratch that last one. They also had a ton of money to spend. They did so, they brought in four starters, and three of them pitched well.

But this year, they have Guthrie, and they have James Shields, and Danny Duffy is back from Tommy John surgery, and Yordano Ventura pitched well in September, and Kyle Zimmer might be ready very soon. They don’t need security – they need upside. Sam Mellinger wrote that “the Royals needed an Escalade, and they bought themselves a Sorento.” I’d phrase it a little differently: the Royals could have spent their money on a used Porsche, and instead they bought a Honda Accord. The Porsche might be unreliable, it might break down, but when it runs it’s a joy to behold. The Accord will get you from Point A to Point B, and that’s about it.

I know we say every year is a critical year, but next year is a Critical Year. Shields can walk after the season. Gordon and Butler would be entering the final years of their contract in 2015. The Royals need to take a step forward next year, and that means paying a higher annual price for a shorter-term commitment. Tim Hudson’s two-year, $23 million contract makes a lot more sense, and granted that according to Dayton Moore the Royals were in on Hudson until the end, they should have gone 2 and $24. Or 2 and $26.

Instead, they gave Jason Vargas a four-year deal, and it’s that fourth year that really sticks in my craw. Four years for any pitcher is a risk; it’s just the nature of the business. Four years for a non-elite pitcher, for a guy whose strikeout rate is below-average when the contract starts, is taking on a lot of risk. And we’re not talking about Mark Buehrle here; Vargas missed six weeks last year with a circulatory problem in his arm, and missed all of 2008 with arm trouble. It might work out; Vargas did make 96 starts from 2010 to 2012, and shows no sign of decline. He doesn’t throw hard and he’s in his 30s, but he’s left-handed; he could well be entering the Bruce Chen phase of his career.

But speaking of Bruce Chen…if the Royals wanted a strike-throwing finesse lefty in their rotation, why didn’t they just re-sign Chen? Look at this:

Since 2009, when Vargas resuscitated his career in Seattle, he has a 4.07 ERA, pitching in great pitchers’ parks. His ERA+ is 95.

Since 2009, when Chen resuscitated his career in Kansas City, he has a 4.32 ERA, pitching in a neutral park. His ERA+ is 97.

Over the last 5 years, Vargas has allowed 1.1 homers per 9 innings, 2.5 BB/9, and 5.8 K/9.

Over the last 5 years, Chen has allowed 1.2 homers per 9 innings, 2.9 BB/9, and 6.1 K/9.

They’re the exact same pitcher. Vargas’ fastball velocity has ranged between 86.6 and 87.9 mph the last five years; Chen’s has ranged between 86.6 and 89.0. Vargas is a modest flyball pitcher; Chen is an extreme flyball pitcher. Like Chen, Vargas’ flyball tendencies allows him to post a lower-than-normal BABIP; Vargas’ BABIP the last five years is .281, compared to Chen’s .287.

The big difference, obviously, is that Chen is nearly six years older than Vargas. But at least in 2013, he was the better pitcher, and this type of player – crafty lefty starters who get by with guile and changing speeds – ages about as well as any class of baseball player. (Jamie Moyer, the dean of Crafty Lefty University, was the oldest winning pitcher in major league history.) And more to the point: Bruce Chen isn’t going to get 4 years and $32 million. My best guess is that he’ll get 2 years and $12 million.

Instead the Royals committed twice as many years, and more than twice as much money, to his younger doppelganger. It might work. If Vargas stays healthy, he will probably earn his money.

But that’s the thing: almost every starting pitcher is guaranteed to break down at some point over the next four years. The risk of injury for Vargas is substantial. That would be okay if it were counterbalanced by the chance for improvement. If there were upside here that Vargas might be a better pitcher than he’s shown so far, that would make the risk worth it. That’s why I like Phil Hughes. That’s why the Royals like Gil Meche, and why their gamble on him almost worked. If you’re signing a free-agent pitcher, you have to be able to foresee a scenario in which, if everything works out, he’s a bargain. Because you can foresee a scenario for any pitcher in which he sits on the DL collecting paychecks all season.

A four-year deal requires upside to counterbalance the inherent downside. The Royals didn’t get any here. Vargas is what he is: a quiet, comfortable, league-average innings eater. He might look a little better than that in 2014, if the Royals’ defense comes through for him – but keep in mind that the quality of a team’s defense can change quickly, and there’s no guarantee the Royals will even have an above-average defense by the last half of this contract. But there’s essentially no chance that Vargas is going to get any Cy Young votes during his four years with the team. There’s a good chance that he’ll be worth what he’s paid, and a decent chance he’ll get hurt and be overpaid, but very little chance that he’ll be underpaid.

For a different team, a team that – like the Royals a year ago – had a huge rotation hole to fill and no good internal options – the security of a #4 starter might make this contract worthwhile. It’s not a bad contract in a vacuum; as David Cameron writes, Vargas might well earn his money back. But given the Royals’ needs, and given their urgency to win in 2014, it’s not a good contract for them. It’s not just that they’re giving Vargas all that money; it’s that they’re giving him a spot in the rotation, preventing themselves from giving that spot to a better pitcher.

There’s one way this signing could work, and that’s if the money the Royals saved by going with Vargas instead of Hughes or Hudson or Garza or whoever, is used to upgrade the offense. But here’s the dirty little secret about the Royals right now: they don’t have as much payroll room as you might think. Even though they won’t be paying Santana $12 million, and won’t be paying Jeff Francoeur $7.5 million, and won’t be paying Bruce Chen $4.5 million, their payroll for 2014 is already higher than it was this year.

Some of that is because of salary increases to guys already under contract. Shields made $10 million this year; with all his contract incentives reached, he’s supposed to make $13.5 million next year. Guthrie’s backloaded contract jumps from $5 million to $11 million. Wade Davis goes from $2.8 million to $4.8 million. Alex Gordon gets a modest raise.

And some of it is because that wave of prospects who arrived in Kansas City in 2011 are becoming arbitration-eligible, and they’re going to get expensive – at least the best of them – very quickly. MLB Trade Rumors has put out their estimates of what players will make in arbitration for next year, and two Royals look to get paid: Greg Holland comes in at $4.9 million, and Eric Hosmer at $4.1 million. (Also, Emilio Bonifacio, who only joined the team in August, is arb-eligible and is estimated to earn $3.3 million.)

Add it all together, and according to my best estimates, the Royals’ payroll was pushing $80 million before they signed Vargas. They’re at over $87 million now, and while they might be able to shed a million here or there by cutting the likes of Chris Getz, they’re not going to be able to make a serious dent in that number unless they make the sensible (and therefore unthinkable) decision to trade Holland or Luke Hochevar.

The Royals were at $83 million last year, and with the new TV money kicking in this year there’s no reason they can’t approach $100 million. But after the Glass family takes their cut, $90-95 million might be all Moore has to work with. In which case the Royals might add a role player, but it’s hard to see how they can break the bank for Carlos Beltran, or even trade for someone like Howie Kendrick.

If the Royals take the $5 million or so annually they saved by signing Vargas instead of a top-tier free agent starter, and use it as a down payment towards an impact hitter, then this deal will look a lot better than it does. But I’m skeptical that they will do that – and even if they do, they could have re-signed Chen for less money and less time than they signed Vargas for.

The Royals could have spent all their money on the luxury option in the rotation, or they could have gone the bargain-basement route with Chen and spent all their money for a bat. Instead it looks like they’re trying to split the baby. That worked for King Solomon. I don’t think it will work for Dayton Moore.


The Royals’ payroll was over $88 million this afternoon, until they announced that in order to make room for Vargas on the 40-man roster, they had designated George Kottaras for assignment.

You don’t need me to tell you how silly this move is, or at least you shouldn’t. Kottaras hit .180 this season, and if this were 1977 and batting average were the only thing that people looked at, you could understand the move.

But it’s not, and you should not. Kottaras had more walks (24) than hits (18) in 2013 – he had more walks than Salvador Perez, who batted more than four times as often – and half of his 18 hits were for extra bases. His .349 OBP was fifth on the team; his .370 slugging average was higher than that of Mike Moustakas. Defensively, he held his own; he threw out 26% of attempted basestealers, which is better than league average.

He’s not a great player, but he’s an excellent backup catcher, and as a left-handed bat-first catcher with a low average but lots of power and patience, he’s the ideal backup to a right-handed Gold Glove winner who hits for a high average but swings at everything – like, say, Perez. They made the perfect combination.

And now, for some reason, the Royals just dropped him. I can’t imagine it’s for financial reasons; he was estimated to earn only about $1.2 million in arbitration. His likely replacement, Brett Hayes, has a career batting line of .220/.266/.374, and is expected to earn $900,000. Hayes is a little better defensively, but he has absolutely no value off the bench. He’s not going to pinch-hit, he’s not going to pinch-run, and with Perez the starting catcher, he’s sure as hell not going to come in for defense. He’s just going to sit on the bench and waste a roster spot 140 times a year. And the other 22 times he’ll hit a lot worse than Kottaras would have.

The Royals can’t find room for Kottaras on the 40-man roster, but last week they found room for Francisco Pena, a 24-year-old catcher who has a career line of .236/.286/.348 – in the minor leagues. Pena just reached Triple-A for the first time this year, and hit .257/.294/.459 while playing in Las Vegas, one of the best hitters’ parks around. There is nothing in his record to suggest he’ll even be an adequate backup in the majors.

But he’s a Pena, son of Tony Sr. and brother of Tony Jr., so of course the Royals wanted him. In their defense, this is only their third-most inexplicable transaction involving a member of the Pena family.

The Royals spent $32 million today, but as it stands right now, they’ve replaced Ervin Santana with Jason Vargas, and they’ve replaced George Kottaras with Brett Hayes. At some point, I hope they make some moves that make the team better for 2014. Because right now, they look worse.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hot Stove Thoughts.

October is the month for writing about the playoffs, which I did extensively for Grantland. I also wrote a very off-topic article for Grantland on Ender’s Game and author Orson Scott Card, which I hope you’ll read if you haven’t already.

Unfortunately, once again October is not the month for writing about the Royals. But it is November now, so I guess I better get cracking. I appreciate your patience. Let’s catch up in bullet form.

1) The Royals finished the season 86-76, their winningest season since 1989, and Dayton Moore deserves credit for doing something that neither Allard Baird nor Herk Robinson was ever able to do. It wasn’t a fluke; the Royals outscored their opponents (something they hadn’t done since 1994) by 47 runs. They led the AL in ERA for the first time since 1978. (Even in 1985, they were only second-best.) They had the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990. It was a good year.

Lest anyone think that this changes my perception of the Myers/Shields trade, I point you to this. I’m not trying to do a victory dance here – I believe this is the first time I’ve ever nailed the Royals’ record precisely, and while they won exactly as many games as I thought they would, the way they did it was quite different than I expected. If I had known they would have the best pitching staff in the AL, I might have softened my criticism of the trade. On the other hand, if I had known that they would finish 11th in the AL in runs scored, I might have been even more critical. (And if I had known, rather than just suspected, that Wil Myers would win Rookie of the Year honors…)

While it’s nice that I got the Royals’ record right, this is the paragraph from my Opening Day article that has more relevance today:

“That leaves one last question: if the Royals win 86 games – but miss the playoffs, as I expect they will – does that justify the Shields trade? To me, the answer is obvious, but a lot of people share the opposite opinion. To a fan base starved of winning, for a team that has one winning season in the last 18 years, a team that hasn’t won 85 games since the 1980s, apparently it’s worth cashing in the farm system for respectability alone. And maybe the Royals share that sentiment. If the Royals win 86 games, a lot of people will declare the trade a success, I will claim that it’s a failure (at least pending 2014), and there may simply be no middle ground to compromise on. We may have to simply agree to disagree.”

I wouldn’t change a single word.

2) The first move of the off-season was hardly unexpected; Ned Yost received a two-year contract extension.

I could go off about what a terrible mistake this was and how Yost is never going to manage a team to the playoffs, but I won’t. Maybe I’m growing soft in my old age. Maybe I’m able to look at this decision with the perspective that comes in the off-season, when his tactical mistakes aren’t so in-the-moment. Or maybe I’ve come to accept that the tactical replacement level for managers is just incredibly low. I mean, Mike Matheny used a 23-man roster in the World Series, for some reason rostering Shelby Miller and Edward Mujica without any intention to use them. This is the same World Series in which John Farrell let middle reliever Brandon Workman take the first at-bat of his professional career in the ninth inning of a tie game. And those were your World Series managers. So maybe Ned Yost isn’t such a tactical nightmare, relatively speaking.

No, I won’t go that far. I think Yost cost the Royals specific games during the season with specific decisions. I think he will cost the Royals games in the future. But I also think that he deserves at least some credit for presiding over the best bullpen ERA in the AL in 23 years. Bullpen deployment is where a manager can make the biggest impact during the game in 21st-century baseball, now that teams have essentially abdicated the ability to pinch-hit by reducing their bench to three or four players. A 2.55 ERA from his relievers meant Yost had to be doing something right. He didn’t deploy his bullpen at all that fateful day against Detroit in September, but when he did deploy them, they pitched their ass off.

There’s also this to consider: if Yost had been fired, Dayton Moore would have faced the task of hiring a new manager even though he only has one year left on his own contract. (So far as we know – Dayton has been very coy about his own contract status.) It would be very difficult to get a quality managerial candidate to take the job knowing that his own boss was in his final year. If the Royals get off to a poor start in 2014, it’s possible that Moore could lose his job, and a new GM would understandably want to hire his own people, meaning that the new manager could get fired through no fault of his own.

In order to attract the best managerial candidates, in other words, the Glass family would probably have to extend Moore’s contract. I’m not arguing that Moore should be fired; the Royals did win 86 games, after all. But I do think that the option should be on the table in 2014 if the Royals regress. Bringing Yost back for two years seems like a reasonable premium to pay in order to keep that option open.

(Again, if Moore has already received an extension, then the last two paragraphs are invalid. I can only go with the information that I know.)

The alternative is what’s happened in Seattle, where Eric Wedge got fired, yes, but Jack Zduriencik got extended – and Lloyd McClendon, who had a .430 winning percentage in five seasons with the Pirates, got hired to replace Wedge. If that’s the alternative, giving Yost another two years doesn’t sound so bad.

3) The Royals made some changes to the coaching staff. Dale Sveum, recently manager of the Chicago Cubs, was brought on as an infield coach; Don Wakamatsu, recently manager of the Seattle Mariners, was hired as the new bench coach. Minor-league lifer Mike Jirschele finally got called up to the show after 37 years in the minors, the last 11 as manager of the Omaha Storm Chasers. It’s an experienced and fairly impressive group.

Dave Eiland and Pedro Grifol were both retained as the pitching and hitting coaches, respectively. Eiland’s done good work, certainly; while the team’s ERA was largely a reflection of the defense, there really isn’t anyone on the pitching staff who you would call a disappointment. Well, aside from Wade Davis.

It’s hard to judge Grifol based on barely a half-season of work, taking over from the mess that Jack Maloof and Andre David left him. Hosmer turned things around; Moustakas didn’t. Butler had a disappointing season; Gordon was quietly pretty bad at the plate after a scorching start. I don’t think it’s fair to make any judgments on Grifol until he’s had at least a full off-season and spring training to work with these guys.

But I’ll stand by what I’ve said before, that letting Kevin Seitzer go had at least something to do with the offensive disappointment this season, and given where the Royals finished in the standings, may have been the difference between making the playoffs and finishing on the outside. I think Seitzer is an excellent hitting coach, and his approach was tailored to the Royals’ home park, and I would have loved to see the Royals own up to their mistake and bring him back into the fold.

That didn’t happen, and honestly I would have been shocked if it had. Seitzer interviewed with the White Sox and Blue Jays, and ultimately accepted the Jays’ offer to be their new hitting coach. I’m fascinated to see how that goes, because the Jays’ hitting philosophy – swing early and swing hard – is pretty much the polar opposite of what Seitzer has preached over the years. It’s had some stellar success stories (Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion), and some massive flops (J.P. Arencibia). If Seitzer does his job well, the Blue Jays might be playing in October. If he doesn’t, he might lose his job before October.

Anyway, that door is closed. The Royals don’t think they need to make any significant changes in their offensive approach, despite finishing 11th in runs scored. Not only that, but…

4) Billy Butler is apparently being shopped, per Buster Olney, whose word on these things is impeccable. We don’t know how hard he’s being shopped, whether this is one of those situations where the Royals will entertain offers to see whether anything appeals to them, or a Zack Greinke situation where they have no intention of opening camp with him, and it’s just a matter of how much they can get. I assume it’s the former.

I hope it’s the former. Butler didn’t have a good year by his standards; his 1.5 bWAR was his lowest since 2008, when he was a 22-year-old in his first full season. And at that, he still had a .374 OBP, set a career high with 79 walks, and played in every game.

Yes, his OBP is less valuable than almost any other player in baseball, because he’s one of the two or three slowest runners in the game. And yet even so, according to Baseball Reference, his lack of speed costs the Royals only about four runs a season; when you factor in the double plays (he led the league for the second time in four years), it’s more like seven runs a season. That’s not good, but it’s not a reason, in and of itself, to dump the most consistent hitter on the team the last five years.

A year ago, Butler hit 29 homers; prior to 2013 he had at least 60 extra-base hits in four straight years. Speed is less of an issue when you’re already on second or third base (or you drive yourself in). Last year, for some reason, Butler had trouble getting to second base on his own, although he continued to reach first base as often as ever. Figuring out the reason and fixing it seems like a better use of the Royals’ resources than trading Butler. Particularly with the league-wide trend of getting away from full-time DHs to give teams roster flexibility, Butler’s trade value just isn’t high enough to warrant moving him.

Again: the Royals finished 11th in the AL in runs scored. They were 1st in runs allowed. Even with Santana being a free agent, trading a guy who helps you in the former for guys who might help you in the latter seems like a weird allocation of resources. This isn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is robbing the mailroom clerk to pay the CEO. The Royals need offense. Trading Billy Butler seems like a strange way to fill that need.

5) Luis Mendoza was released to pave the way for him to sign with the Nippon Ham Fighters. Good for all parties. Mendoza was a valuable innings-eater when the Royals need one; from September of 2011 through 2012 he made 27 starts (and five relief appearances), threw 181 innings and had a 3.99 ERA. But in 2013 he didn’t pitch as well, and the Royals didn’t need him nearly as much. He was probably going to get non-tendered anyway; the Royals had better uses of both his roster spot and the salary he would have earned, as he would have been arbitration-eligible for the first time.

This way Mendoza gets a seven-figure payday, he’s likely to be an above-average starter in Japan, and if he turns out to be even better than that he can always come back, Colby Lewis-style, to the majors in a few years. Good for him, good for the Fighters, and good for the Royals for letting him earn some bank. We’ll miss him. Or at least his luscious, flowing locks. (Said the bald guy.)

6) Speaking of Ervin Santana…as expected, the Royals made him the 1 year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, and as expected, he declined it. Ken Rosenthal has reported that Santana is looking for a 5-year, $100 million contract. I’m looking for world peace and a unicorn for each of my daughters. Santana probably isn’t getting $100 million – although with the new TV money hitting 30 different teams, I’m not ruling it out entirely. But my expectation of 5 years and $75 million doesn’t seem out of reach at all. And if the bidding gets to that point, or anywhere close, the Royals should gracefully take their draft pick and bow out.

Santana had an excellent season, but like every other Royals pitcher, he benefitted tremendously from the defense behind him. The contract he gets is likely to reflect the benefit of that defense. Rather than paying Santana a premium because of Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain and David Lough, the Royals are better off signing another pitcher who resembles where Santana was a year ago, and see if that defense can turn that pitcher into a guy who resembles what Santana was this year.

6) A guy like…Phil Hughes, who Jon Heyman reports the Royals are very interested in. Hughes makes an enormous amount of sense. (Actually, the four guys that Bob Dutton mentions as piquing the Royals’ interest – Hughes, Tim Hudson, Josh Johnson, and Carlos Beltran – are all very high on my wish list. I find this very unnerving.)

Could Hughes be next year’s Ervin Santana? Let us count the ways:

Phil Hughes had a 5.19 ERA this year. Ervin Santana had a 5.16 ERA last year.

Hughes’ ERA has bounced around a lot: over the last four years (since he became a regular starter), his ERAs are 4.19, 5.79, 4.23, and 5.19. But his xFIPs, a better measure of his true ability, are much more consistent: 4.13, 4.90, 4.35, and 4.39. They’re also generally better than his ERAs.

Santana’s ERAs the last six years before the trade were 5.76, 3.49, 5.03, 3.92, 3.38, and 5.16. But his xFIPs were also more consistent, and also generally better: 4.70, 3.48, 4.55, 4.31, 3.93, and 4.48.

Santana was a flyball pitcher for most of his career, although that was trending downward – his FB% ranged from 41 to 46% from 2005 to 2010, but dropped to 37-38% in 2011-2012, which is about league average, and with the Royals it dropped to 33%, while his groundball percentage rose to 46%. (By the way, this is actually very unusual – a pitcher’s groundball/flyball tendencies almost never change this much during their career unless they learn a completely new pitch.) But at least at the time he was acquired, it was thought that Santana’s flyball tendencies would play well at Kauffman Stadium.

Hughes is more of a flyball pitcher than Santana ever was, and shows no signs of change – his career FB% is 46.0%, and this year it was 46.5%.

Now, Santana was probably a better pitcher overall a year ago than Hughes is now. Santana’s career ERA was 4.33; Hughes’ is 4.54. (Although by xFIP they’re just a couple of points apart.) But Hughes has several advantages:

- He’s younger. Santana turned 30 the month after the Royals traded for him. Hughes doesn’t turn 28 until next June.

- Whereas Santana had spent his entire career pitching for the Angels, in one of the game’s best pitchers’ parks, Hughes has spent his career pitching for the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Mostly in New Yankee Stadium, which is very kind to left-handed power hitters, and very mean to right-handed pitchers who, like Hughes, face a lot of left-handed power hitters. And who give up a lot of flyballs.

For his career, Hughes has a 4.96 ERA at home – and a 4.10 ERA on the road. He’s thrown about 8% more innings at home than on the road – but he’s surrendered more than twice as many homers (76 at home, 36 on the road). This is a guy who needs a change of scenery badly.

If that scene happens to include Kauffman Stadium’s spacious dimensions, a Gold Glove left fielder, and two other Gold Glove-caliber defenders in the outfield…well, so much the better.

There’s no visible change in Hughes’ velocity – his fastball averaged 92.3 mph this year, compared to a career mark of 92.2 mph. He averaged exactly 5 innings a start in 2013, but it appears his lack of stamina wasn’t because of health issues, but simply effectiveness issues.

And even this year, his problems seemed to be confined to Yankee Stadium. At home, he had a 6.32 ERA and allowed 17 homers in 78 innings. On the road, he had a 3.88 ERA and allowed 7 homers in 67 innings.

I’m not really sure you could design a better buy-low rotation candidate for the Royals than Phil Hughes. There’s risk here, certainly. He was awful in the second half, throwing just 43 innings in 11 starts, and giving up four runs while recording just one out in his only relief appearance. He made four starts in September and somehow threw just 10 innings, even though he only got hit hard in one of those starts; there has to be a story there. And he’s a pitcher; he could be great for a year and then get hurt.

But all the indicators point to improvement next season, and his age makes you think he could sustain that improvement for a couple of years. I’m just throwing out some numbers out there, but if Marlon Byrd can get $16 million for 2 years in this new market, I think the Royals can take the money they’re paying Santana and give it to Hughes for the next 2-3 years. Two years and $24 million? Three years and $30 million? I’d do that easily. If the Royals are convinced that Hughes’ arm is in good health, and his mechanics are likely to keep him in good health, I’d even consider a longer deal. Four years and $48 million? The Gil Meche special (5 years, $55 million)? It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly in this market.

Hughes, like Meche, is unusually young for a free agent (Hughes is actually nine months younger than Meche was). Like Meche, he’s a former first-round pick who hasn’t put it together yet. He doesn’t have nearly the checkered injury that Meche had before he signed. And before you ask why on earth I would compare Hughes to Meche like it’s a good thing: signing Gil Meche was one of the best, and certainly one of the boldest, decisions that Dayton Moore has made as GM. It’s just that the decision to send Meche out to the mound with a tired arm in the summer of 2009 is the worst – hands down, no questions asked – decision of his administration.

I don’t think it would take Meche money to lure Hughes to town. But you could make a case that it would be money well spent. Moore likes to make a quick splash in the off-season, and signing Hughes would be a cannonball off the high board.

And then the Royals can spend the rest of the winter figuring out ways to improve their offense.