I have a column in today’s Kansas City Star, on what the Royals need to do in 2014 to take the next step and reach the playoffs. If you haven’t already, feel free to read it here.
Not much more to say, except that the Royals really need to figure out what to do with Alcides Escobar. Last year, he hit .293; this year, he’s hitting .233. Last year, he had 42 extra-base hits; this year, with three weeks left in the season he has 24 extra-base hits. Last year, he walked 27 times; this year, he’s walked 18 times.
Last year, he was an above-average hitter for a shortstop; his overall line of .293/.331/.390 compared to the AL average of .255/.306/.368. This year, his .233/.259/.296 is the worst of any regular in baseball – he has the lowest OPS of any qualifying player.
Last year, he was worth 3.5 WAR. This year, he’s at 0.0 – he’s the definition of a replacement player. As I write this, the Royals are 3.5 games behind the Rays for the second wild card. So…you do the math.
And here’s the thing: Alcides Escobar is 26 years old. He should be improving as a hitter. At the very least, he should be peaking. He shouldn’t be collapsing, shouldn’t be having his worst offensive season ever, even worse than his rookie year in Milwaukee, which dropped his stock so far after being a top-15 prospect in all of baseball the year before that the Royals were able to get him as just a part of the Zack Greinke trade.
This conundrum – a player at a key defensive position who was one of the team’s most valuable players just a year ago, in his mid-20s, who has nonetheless been useless this year – makes what to do at the shortstop position probably the most difficult decision of the winter. I mean, second base is a disaster, but it’s an easy decision to make – you need to acquire someone who can play the position. (And, I guess, you need to not fall into the trap of letting Emilio Bonifacio’s solid six weeks trick you into giving him the everyday job. Bonifacio would make for an excellent utility player. Letting him have the second base job without competition is risking disaster if you get the 2012 player – or even the 2013 player before he arrived in Kansas City.)
The Royals have to replace one, and maybe two, guys in the rotation – and I’m sure they will aggressively do so. I am hopeful they will find an upgrade in right field, but a David Lough/Justin Maxwell platoon wouldn’t be a disaster if they ended up focusing their efforts elsewhere.
But at shortstop…hope is not a strategy. Well, it is a strategy, one employed by many, many Royals teams over the years, but it’s not a good strategy. And if the Royals’ solution at shortstop is to just bring Escobar back and hope that he’s better, that’s a hope-based strategy.
The obvious, cheap, and straightforward solution would be to re-hire Kevin Seitzer as the team’s hitting coach. I have already written about the impact he’s made on the team, and I’ve already made the case that his part in forcing Seitzer out of the job is enough to justify letting Yost go. If Yost were to consent to letting Seitzer reclaim his job and let him do his job without interference, my main objection to Yost’s continued employment would be eliminated. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, and if I had to choose between Yost as manager and Seitzer as hitting coach, I know who I’d choose.
But the odds of Seitzer getting his old job back, with or without Yost, are none and slim. In which case, what do you do?
Complicating things slightly – but only slightly – is that Escobar has a long-term contract that guarantees him $3 million in 2014 and 2015. While that looks like dead money at this point, I would argue that Escobar is an example of precisely why long-term deals for pre-arbitration-eligible players is so good. Even with Escobar’s complete collapse this year, the Royals are on the hook for what, $6 million over the next two years? They gave Noel Arguelles more guaranteed money as an amateur signing. And it’s not like Escobar has no value – he’s going to get another chance to start every day next season, whether it’s for the Royals or someone else. If the Royals have the opportunity to acquire an upgrade at the position, the money they owe Escobar should in no way discourage them from doing so.
But if you want to replace him, it’s not like there’s a huge inventory of quality shortstops available on the trade market. In my column I suggested J.J. Hardy, who’s not without his flaws (he hit .238/.282/.389 last year, although he’s bounced back to .261/.306/.447 this year), and who may be hard to pry from the Orioles given that they fancy themselves contenders, but is probably the best fit for a short-term fix at the position. Hardy will only make $7 million next year, and the Orioles can simply accelerate the timetable to moving Manny Machado back to his natural position. Hardy is also an excellent defender – probably better than Escobar right now – which is an important consideration given how important defense has been to this team.
If you can’t get Hardy, then who? Troy Tulowitzki’s too good, Elvis Andrus is too expensive (and Jurickson Profar is too top-prospecty). You want to gamble on Starlin Castro? The Cubs might be willing to talk, but with his long-term deal, he’s going to cost you a ton of prospects, and I was worried about Castro before he suffered a collapse of his own this year. Plus, he’s not a good defender – he’ll probably have to move off shortstop eventually – and I don’t think I’d mess with that if I’m the Royals.
Jimmy Rollins might be done, and knowing Ruben Amaro, he’ll probably want Hosmer and Moustakas in a trade anyway. The Nationals ain’t moving Ian Desmond. The Indians are getting tired of Asdrubal Cabrera, but aren’t trading him in the division.
Jhonny Peralta will be available, but again, the defensive downgrade would be pretty huge.
So the best remaining options would probably be:
- throw a ton of money at Stephen Drew, and hope he doesn’t break down;
- sign Yunel Escobar to a one-year deal and hope he doesn’t piss off everyone in the clubhouse before his time is up;
- buy low on Ruben Tejada and hope he rebounds;
- trade for Erick Aybar in a package deal with Howie Kendrick.
They all make varying degrees of sense, but they all carry substantial amounts of risk.
I wish I had an obvious answer for you, but I don’t. The only thing that’s obvious is that they have to get more production at shortstop next year. Hope isn’t a strategy. I’m just not certain where a better one is hiding.