The Royals acquired Elliot Johnson as the player to be named later in the Wil Myers trade, which changes everything.
It doesn’t, but Johnson is a useful pickup, a better acquisition than I was expecting. Of course, I wasn’t expecting much – not when the PTBNL was amended to include the option “or cash”. And let’s be honest – Johnson isn’t much; if he was, the Rays wouldn’t have designated him for assignment before the trade was completed. While Bob Dutton has intimated that the Royals and Rays were already talking about Johnson being the final piece beforehand, I prefer to think that the transaction went down like this:
Moore: Andrew, it’s Dayton. How are you?
Friedman: Hey, Dayton, how’s my favorite trading partner?
Moore: That’s nice of you, Andrew. I’m sure you say that to every GM.
Friedman: No, Dayton, you really ARE my favorite trading partner…uh…so what can I do for you?
Moore: I noticed you DFA’ed Elliot Johnson.
Friedman: We did.
Moore: And you owe us a player.
Friedman: We do.
Moore: Send Johnson our way and we’ll call it even.
While Johnson wasn’t good enough to stick on the Rays’ 40-man roster, that doesn’t mean he’s without value. He has an interesting backstory, given that he signed with the Rays as an undrafted free agent out of high school back in 2002. I’d say that he’s unique in that regard, except that the Royals already have such a player on their roster in Tim Collins. I’d be surprised if there was another player in the major leagues who fits that description; I’m not aware of one, at least.
Johnson made it to Tampa Bay for a cup of coffee in 2008, but didn’t stick until 2011, when he was 27 years old, and hit just .194/.257/.338. Last season, though, he hit .242/.304/.350, and more importantly played all over the field. He has played every position except pitcher and catcher in his brief major-league career, though about 85% of his innings have come at shortstop. Which is exactly what you want to see in a utility player – the skills to play shortstop, the willingness and adaptability to move anywhere. His offense isn’t a complete cipher, not when you factor in his ballpark. In about a full season’s worth of at-bats, Johnson hit just .196/.258/.269 at Tropicana Field – but .251/.308/.411 on the road. In his last season in the minor leagues, 2010, Johnson was an all-around offensive threat, hitting .319/.375/.475 with 11 home runs and 30 steals.
You know who Johnson is? He’s basically Willie Bloomquist. Bloomquist’s overall numbers are better, but Bloomquist benefited from playing at the tail end of the Juiced Era; by OPS+, they’re very close (78 for Bloomquist, 75 for Johnson). They both can play all over the field. They both can run. Johnson is even more versatile in that he’s a switch-hitter, and he’s hit RHP better than LHP in his career, making him a viable option to give someone like Alcides Escobar a day off when a right-hander with big platoon splits, someone like Justin Masterson, starts for the opposition.
As you recall, I hated the acquisition of Bloomquist four years ago. I don’t hate the pickup of Johnson, for several reasons:
1) Bloomquist was signed to a two-year guaranteed contract. Johnson isn’t guaranteed anything; he could be cut in spring training if he doesn’t impress.
2) Bloomquist was paid $3.1 million over those two years. Johnson isn’t arbitration-eligible for another season, and will make around the major league minimum if he makes the team.
3) Bloomquist was a ridiculous luxury for a team that didn’t look to be in any position to contend in 2009. Johnson is joining a Royals squad that is all-in for 2013, and for whom even small improvements on the margins could be the difference between a playoff berth and another early end to the season. (Though it should be noted that the Royals’ record in 2008 – 75-87 – was better than the Royals’ record last year.)
4) It looked pretty clear at the time that the Royals intended to give Bloomquist a lot of playing time – and that’s exactly what happened, as he had a career-high 468 plate appearances in 2009. Call me naïve, but I don’t get the same vibe here. Johnson is looked at as a super-utility player capable of starting in a pinch everywhere, but isn’t expected to start anywhere.
5) Johnson has more defensive value than Bloomquist. The defensive metrics suggest Johnson is slightly below-average at shortstop and slightly above-average at second base; he hasn’t played the other positions enough to know for sure. Bloomquist didn’t play shortstop nearly as much as Johnson has – a red flag in itself – and has been pretty consistently below-average at every position he plays. (Also, Bloomquist was used considerably more in the outfield than in the infield as a Royal.)
Johnson makes the 2013 Royals a better team. Not much better, mind you, but better.
If Johnson’s arrival cost Miguel Tejada a spot on the roster, that would be even better, but he won’t. The Royals appear to be going with two backup infielders along with Jarrod Dyson and a backup catcher. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s far better than carrying a 13th pitcher – but that second backup spot on the infield is Tejada’s job to lose and Irving Falu’s job to fight like hell for.
I went off on the Royals on Twitter when they signed Tejada, as it was reported at the time that it was a guaranteed $1.1 million contract with incentives. As it turns out, something was lost in translation – this happens sometimes with Latin American players – because Tejada has not been added to the Royals’ 40-man roster. Nevertheless, the Royals have made it clear that Tejada will have to play his way out of a job.
This is one of those decisions that will likely have little impact on the Royals’ fortunes on the field, but says so much about how the Royals operate. Miguel Tejada did not play in the majors last season. He did not play in the majors not because he was hurt, but because all 30 teams collectively decided that he had nothing left. This was a reasonable decision, given that Tejada was 38 years old, and that he had hit .239/.270/.326 with lousy defense for the Giants in 2011. He signed a minor-league contract with the Orioles, and played 36 games before asking for his release. In those 36 games, he hit .259/.325/.296.
Last year, Miguel Tejada failed to slug .300 in Triple-A. He failed to get called up by a team that might well have set some sort of record for most transactions in a season; the Orioles resurrected people like Lew Ford on their way to the most unlikely playoff berth in recent memory. But now, at age 39, on the basis of his performance in winter ball, the Royals are prepared to ignore a major league track record that says he’s been in a constant state of decline for eight years now. Look at his bWAR ratings going back to 2004, his first year with the Orioles, when he was 30:
7.1, 5.5, 4.2, 2.0, 1.7, 1.6, 0.3, -0.2, DNP
That’s actually kind of eerie. You’d expect sheer random variation to step in at some point, but no, Tejada’s bWAR declined seven years in a row until he was under replacement level, and once he dipped below replacement level, he was out of a job. That line above combines the sabermetric principles of the aging curve and the concept of replacement level into one tidy package.
The Royals stopped reading that sentence at “sabermetric”, so naturally, they think that because Tejada looked better for a few months in his home country against sub-standard competition, he has something left. And they’re prepared to pay him significantly more than minimum wage to do so, even though Irving Falu is cheaper, younger, has hit over .300 each of the last two years in Omaha (and hit .341 in brief playing time for the Royals last season), and after a decade of toiling in the minors, would probably be thrilled to be in the major leagues in any capacity.
On that note, at least, Tejada seems to be an asset. The Royals rave about his influence on the younger Hispanic players, and I won’t deny that a former MVP with 2000 hits and 300 homers will command respect in the clubhouse. If he doesn’t make the team, and the Royals get the benefit of his spring training presence without the financial and on-the-field cost of him during the season, he’ll prove to be an asset. Otherwise, this has the makings of yet another minor but revealing unforced error by the Royals.
Tejada will take the Yuniesky Betancourt Memorial Roster Spot, which is better than giving that spot to Yuniesky Betancourt. Not only did Yuni refuse to accept the fact that he wasn’t an everyday player, the Royals tried their best to assuage his hurt feelings; Yuni started 43 games at second base last year, even though he was released in mid-August. He played more innings at second base than Johnny Giavotella did.
I’m taking the Royals at their word that the job of everyday second baseman is a two-man battle between Giavotella and Getz, and that Johnson’s and Tejada’s playing time there will be sporadic and need-based. You know who I’d like to see win that battle, but it’s not the absolute slam-dunk that it was a year ago. Getz is coming off his best season; he hit .275 last year, and even showed the ability to drive the ball a bit with his new upright stance. I’m not suggesting that he hit a home run – perish the thought! – but he hit enough doubles and triples to slug a respectable .360.
Getz is an average defender, and if the Royals could bank a .275/.312/.360 line with average defense from second base this year, they’d take it and I wouldn’t blame them one bit. But on the other hand, they could have upside. Giavotella has been a remarkably effective – and remarkably consistent – hitter in the high minors for the last three years. From 2010 to 2012, his batting average has ranged from .322 to .338, his OBPs from .390 to .404, and his slugging averages from .460 to .481.
In the major leagues, he has failed two separate opportunities, with the caveat that the Royals didn’t give him consistent playing time last season, leading to a second extended stint in Triple-A. Gio hit .247/.273/.376 in 187 plate appearances in 2011, then .238/.270/.304 in 189 PA last year. Neither line is acceptable, particularly given that his bat needs to carry him. Both his defensive reputation and defensive metrics peg him as a below-average, but playable, second baseman.
Giavotella has 376 plate appearances, which isn’t nearly enough to state definitively that he can’t hit major league pitching, but is enough to create a justified concern on the part of the Royals. This is the shame of not giving him more playing time last season – by not letting him play every day during a season in which you weren’t competing for anything, the Royals face a situation in which they may not have the luxury of developing him as a player because they’re trying to win in the here and now.
I think Giavotella deserves the job; his minor league performances strongly suggest he can be an above-average second baseman offensely, and he did hit .264/.303/.375 in September last season. He’s still just 25 years old, while Getz is 30. But it’s a closer call than it was last year. The shame of it is that, as Joe Sheehan rails about in his most recent Newsletter, the Royals are going to make this decision based on a razor-thin sample size against uneven competition in exhibition games, instead of looking at Giavotella’s and Getz’s body of work over the last several years. Here’s hoping the best man wins, even while acknowledging that it’s not quite as clear as it used to be who the best man is.
The only other roster battle among position players is between Brett Hayes and George Kottaras for the backup catcher’s job. This is a classic glove vs. bat battle, and the Royals almost always go with the glove, but you have to think that the offensive difference between the two is too great to be ignored. Hayes has hit .217/.266/.361 in 357 major league plate appearances, and there’s no evidence in his minor league record that suggests he’s anything better than that. He’s John Buck without the hot streaks, basically.
Kottaras is a career .220 hitter, but in 694 plate appearances – essentially a full season – he has 91 walks, 36 doubles, and 24 home runs, leading to a .320 OBP and a .412 slugging average. He bats left-handed, making him a perfect complement to Salvador Perez. He’s overqualified to be a backup on the Royals, frankly; he’s the kind of catcher who should be starting 60-70 games a year, while barring an injury, whoever backs up Perez is lucky to get 20 starts.
But if the Royals are creative and realize that having Perez behind the plate frees them to use their backup catcher as a pinch-hitter, Kottaras would be an excellent ninth-inning option to pinch-hit for the Royals’ many right-handed bats. I doubt that will happen, but when Bruce Rondon or Chris Perez is on the mound and the tying run is at the plate, I’d rather take my chances that Kottaras can pop one than stick with Escobar or Giavotella or – ahem – Jeff Francoeur.
As stark as the offensive difference is, I can’t just wave away the defensive issues. In 781 innings behind the plate – just over half a season – Hayes has allowed 55 steals while nailing 19 runs, a caught stealing rate of 26%. In 1457 career innings – the equivalent of one full season catching every single game – Kottaras has thrown out 24 runners, but allowed 126 steals. I’m not sure what’s worse – that he’s only thrown out 16% of attempted thieves, or that he’s allowed nearly a stolen base per game.
The defensive difference between Hayes and Kottaras comes out to about 10 runs if they both played a full season. I’d submit that the offensive difference between them is greater than that, and when you throw in the tactical value of Kottaras, the decision should be clear. The Royals kept a bat-first backup catcher in Brayan Pena the last few years, and I’m hoping they make the same decision this time. While Kottaras has a weaker arm than Pena – who was surprisingly good at that aspect of the game – I don’t sense that he has the plate-blocking issues that plagued Pena and drove the Royals justifiably crazy.
The right decision there would leave the Royals with a four-man bench of Kottaras, Johnson, Tejada, and Jarrod Dyson. Even granted that Tejada probably has nothing left, that’s not the worst bench in the world, not in today’s American League. Kottaras can pinch-hit; Dyson can pinch-run; Johnson can do a bit of everything.
And it means the Royals field this lineup:
L LF Gordon
R SS Escobar
L 1B Hosmer
R DH Butler
R C Perez
L 3B Moustakas
R RF Francoeur
R CF Cain
2B To Be Determined
(Another slight reason to favor Getz – he’d add some left-handed balance to the lineup, which is in danger of being very right-handed. On the other hand, 13 players batted 100 or more times for the NL Central Champion Cincinnati Reds last year, and 11 of them – everyone except Jay Bruce and Joey Votto – batted right-handed. Lineup balance is good; hitters who can hit are better.)
The most important part of that lineup is the top line. Alex Gordon may not fit the Platonic ideal of a leadoff hitter, but he’s so far and away more suited for the leadoff spot than anyone else on the roster that it would be criminal to put anyone else there. Thankfully, Ned Yost has made noises to suggest that, as much as it pains him, he might be forced to let Gordon lead off again this year.
I’m not an enormous fan of Escobar batting second, because his place there seems to be a nod to tradition more than to run maximization. If he hits .293 again, he’ll be fine there; if he hits closer to his 2011 performance, he’s going to kill the team. But putting Butler or Perez in that spot is too outside the box for most teams, not just the Royals. Let’s be blunt: the best fit for the #2 slot is in Tampa Bay now.
Otherwise, the lineup order is pretty close to optimal, and this could be an above-average lineup this year. Two things need to go right, though. First, they need to get something out of the 7-8-9 slots, which means that Jeff Francoeur needs to bounce back at least a little, and they need one of their second baseman to win that job and run with it.
The other thing is that the lineup needs to stay healthy. That’s a cliché, maybe, but I would argue that the only way losing Wil Myers won’t hurt the Royals in 2013 is if every one of their corner players avoids significant injury.
They all stayed healthy last year – Moustakas, Francoeur, Hosmer, Butler, and Gordon played in at least 148 games each – which is why Myers never got called up. Remember, the Royals were experimenting with Myers at third base, and if something had happened to Moustakas, Myers probably would have gotten the call. But now that he’s gone, the Royals are painfully exposed at the corners.
Up the middle, the Royals could fade a short-term injury. Dyson can fill in for Cain (and probably will have to) ably enough. The Royals have options at second base, and Christian Colon could hit an empty .270 at shortstop, although the defensive drop would be significant. While the Royals say Perez is their most indispensable player, the addition of Kottaras at least means the Royals wouldn’t be forced into a desperation trade if Perez were to get hurt.
But if Gordon gets hurt, or Hosmer, you’re probably looking at Elliot Johnson getting extended playing time. Aside from Colon, the Royals don’t have any hitters in the upper minors who can be counted on to contribute this year. (David Lough, I guess. Consider me unimpressed.) If everyone stays healthy, it probably won’t matter. But if any of Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, or Butler hit the DL, it’s going to hurt.