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.

27 comments:

Mark LaFlamme said...

Whenever I read one of these Rany pieces, I feel 15 percent smarter by the time I'm done. That is a seriously good analysis of the off season so far, and I understand each move better than I did coming through the door. I get so much of my Royals news fast food style, reading Rany always makes me feel like I'm having an extravagant meal for a change, and one that's even a little bit healthy.
Or something. Go Royals. Aoki and Infant seem like such decent moves, I'm terrified of what Dayton might do next.

Jeff Grimes said...

Thoughts on Bautista for Butler? Maybe include Cain and gio/Colon package?

Steve Gemma said...

I have to agree with what Mark said. I always enjoy reading these blog posts, Rany, infrequent as they may be. And I'm going to miss you on the Baseball Show podcast...

Colin said...

I don't think he went on the DL, but it's worth mentioning that Moose missed chunks of time last season due to injury and ineffectiveness.

Also, I'd be interested in what kind of return KC could get by packaging Giavotella with a bullpen arm. With the kinds of contracts I'm seeing relievers get, it seems like there's serious value to get from trading someone like Crow or Hochevar.

JohnnyV13 said...

I heard the Royals might be nosing around Johann Santana.

But, I doubt that would be the "big move" Rany's talking about.

Butler plus prospects for Bautista would be interesting. Somehow, I don't see it. I think the Blue Jays would be more likely to deal Dickey after a disappointing year.

JohnnyV13 said...

I heard the Royals might be nosing around Johann Santana.

But, I doubt that would be the "big move" Rany's talking about.

Butler plus prospects for Bautista would be interesting. Somehow, I don't see it. I think the Blue Jays would be more likely to deal Dickey after a disappointing year.

JohnnyV13 said...

I heard the Royals might be nosing around Johann Santana.

But, I doubt that would be the "big move" Rany's talking about.

Butler plus prospects for Bautista would be interesting. Somehow, I don't see it. I think the Blue Jays would be more likely to deal Dickey after a disappointing year.

John said...

Problem with someone acquiring Dickey is that he's a knuckleballer, and once that pitch starts going wrong, there's no telling when the pitcher will figure out the problem. If you remember Tim Wakefield, he lost it for a year and a half and the Pirates gave up on him. Boston picked him up, brought in Phil Niekro for a week to work with him and got about 185 wins out of the deal.

I'm not sure I'd count on Dayton Moore being as smart as anyone involved with the Red Sox--even the 1995 version of the Red Sox.

Fixing Your Image said...

Rany, is Yordano Ventura not ready to go this year as a SP? Didn't we see enough to know he belongs in the rotation? If so, we'd have Shields, Guthrie, Vargas, Duffy, Ventura...of course, if we can somehow hang on to Santana, it might be a moot point.

Michael S. said...

Ventura and Duffy are both definitely not sure things. Counting on both of them to hold down rotation spots is a recipe for disaster. Bringing back Santana, signing a Garza or Jiminez, etc or someone of that caliber would give us a for sure number 2 pitcher and allow us to only have to depend on one of them. The other can either be a power arm out of the bullpen or get more work in AAA. The only question is if the Royals will spend the money to bring that type of arm into the fold.

James Zemaitis said...

Rany--first time commenter on your blog (although I read you here and at Grantland all the time), and keep up the great writing. I am sort of surprised that your fellow Royals essayists (Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer) have been so silent about Infante and Aoki.
My big wish for a final roster upgrade? It's simple. If ownership could be a bit more flexible, re-sign Ervin Santana for one year, 16 million + incentives. This way, Vargas represents an upgrade to the rotation instead of a replacement for the (admittedly erratic) Santana. Thus, the Royals can have a serious competition for the #5 pitcher, and build their depth in AAA . I don't think Santana is getting the contract that he was hoping for because of the 1st round draft choice attached to him. Conclusion: This brings the Royals up to a 87 win team on paper.

twm said...

Well that solves the outfield logjam: Lough for Danny Valencia. I know no one thinks Lough is the player he resembled last year, but this feels like a sell low trade, not a quasi-sell high one. I have not watched much of Valencia since he left MN, but he was brutal as a Twin. I have not looked, but maybe the guy has an option left or something, maybe this is just about organizational depth rather than filling out the 25-man, because, well, pushing a guy like Bonifacio off the roster to make room for Valencia is a sure fire way to weaken what was looking like a well above-average bench. But, as a AAA depth guy who provides some insurance against Moose's potential decent into the abyss, I kind of like Valencia, I guess, just seems like less of a return than might have been possible for Lough, who, granted, was never going to return much.

rockundrolla said...

I think maybe he's been signed as a lefty masher
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=valenda01&year=Career&t=b

twm said...

Yeah, maybe. But who does he displace from the 25-man? He has been a poor defender at 3B, like painful to watch bad, and he certainly cannot handle 2B or SS, plus we have infield depth with Bonifacio in the fold. Unless another outfielder is on the way out (which makes some sense because five outfielders is a bit much), or unless the Royals decide to roll with an 11-man pitching staff, Valencia has nowhere to sit on the bench. RH caddy for Moose makes sense, I guess another move is on the way. Man I hope Dyson isn't shipped out, I love that guy.

Unknown said...

Wow.. Now, they should mortgage the farm system for David Price....

John said...

Not unless they have a ton of prospects they believe in in the lower minors. Otherwise, you're liable to sell off the entire farm system for Price, go 91-71 in 2014 and miss the playoffs by one or two games, and then suck for the next five years.

The cost of trading for Price, with the Rays' current demands, is only worth it if you win the World Series. The Rays sustain their success as a small-market team by always re-loading their gun with new talent from the farm system. The Royals need to be able to do the same thing, and making win-now trades with the Rays for their soon-to-be free agents is no way to do it. They've already been burned once...

Michael S. said...

They were "burned?" Really? I think it was a good deal for both sides. The Royals got the pitcher they desperately needed, and the Rays got Myers.

At least in the first two years this trade will be a wash. A lot of how it turns out in the long run will be determined by either signing, trading, or getting draft pick compensation for Shields when his contract runs out after this year.

Antonio. said...

It's nigh impossible to make a good deal out of desperation. If it is dependent on those things then it's not a good deal

BobDD said...

"...at least in the first two years it's a wash"

That's not a defense of the stinkin' trade but the first half of the sentence of deservedly scathing rebuke.

Steve N said...

Rany,

Thanks for another year of informative and interesting articles. They are most of the reason that I follow the Royals.

Steve

John said...

It was a terrible deal for the Royals in 2013 and going forward. Yes, they got James Shields and he was good. But they would have been even better if they had kept Myers and played him in right field from Opening Day forward, used Bruce Chen in the rotation all year instead of trading for the batting practice machine named Wade Davis and starting him for four months, and using the money they didn't give to Shields on a quality free agent.

Two years of James Shields for six cost-controlled years of Wil Myers was an idiotic trade. There's no justifying it unless the Royals win a World Series with Shields leading the way. They've got one more chance.

Michael S. said...

So basically you wanted them to continue doing what they'd been doing the last 25 years, and go young and cheap? How well has that worked?

To get the kind of free agents in the realm of James Shields you have to be an attractive destination. The Royals were not an attractive destination last offseason. They were a losing organization for over 2 decades. They wouldn't have gotten a good free agent with the money. At least not one of Shields' ability.

At some point you have to buck the trend when the trend obviously doesn't work.

Mark said...

So when Tanaka finally gets posted, most reporters and all New Yorkers assume that it is right and fitting that the team with the most money gets the best player available, but when Seattle "steals" Cano from the Yanks, with an admittedly stupid contract, those same reporters and NYers get all apoplectic.

Even when the Royals sit on their hands, I can still find ways to enjoy the hot stove season.

John said...

Regardless of what you might think of the general philosophy, trading Wil Myers for James Shields and Wade Davis made the team worse, not better. They would have won more games with Bruce Chen and an average pitcher in the rotation (didn't even need to be someone good, just someone who wasn't a pile of suckitude) and Myers in the lineup than they did by pitching Shields, who was good; Davis, who was so awful that he negated Shields; and playing Jeff Francoeur, who was so awful he put the team in the red.

And even if that wasn't true, they still traded away Wil Myers. The only way Dayton Moore should get a pass for doing that is if it works, and the only way it works is if the 2014 Royals win the World Series.

Michael S. said...

Why do they have to win the World Series for it to have "worked"? Would they have won it with Myers? How can you be sure?

Bruce Chen is not some pitching God who would have put up the same numbers had he pitched in the rotation all year. The Royals used him masterfully last year, preserving his arm in the bullpen the first half of the year so he was still strong the second half. But make no mistake, last year was the best Bruce Chen you'll ever see.

And you're ridiculous if you think Wade Davis was just as negative as Shields was positive. Francouer was bad the first couple months, but Lough was good the second half, and because of his defense was actually more valuable than Myers. Baseball reference has Lough at 2.7 WAR to Myers 2.0. Davis was bad at -2.1, and Shields was a 4.1.

So, just using the WAR stat, Shields and Davis and Lough come out to 4.7 WAR. Myers and Odorizzi (who was 0.3) comes out to a 2.3. I don't include Francouer because he would have started the year in right field anyway. Whether it was with us or the Rays, Myers wasn't coming up till after the Super Two deadline.

Allen's Blog said...

Bret Saberhagen will be doing his first Facebook chat on tonight at at 5pm PT/7pm CT/8pm ET. He'll be available for 30 minutes- so stop by!

Gaines Arnold said...

Wow Rany.

A looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong hiatus this time.

There has to be something interesting and comment worthy that the Royals are doing.