I keep waiting for the Royals to do something noteworthy enough to justify writing a column about it, and they keep not obliging. After six weeks, I finally blinked. So let’s find some things to talk about.
- The biggest transaction the Royals have made in the last six weeks was trading David Lough for Danny Valencia. On a pure talent-for-talent basis, the Royals lost the trade. But as the Royals have now moved out of the “acquire talent” stage of franchise construction, and into the “arrange that talent into the framework of a winning team” stage, it’s a defensible move.
By making the trade, the Royals have made it clear that they don’t entirely buy into Lough’s performance in 2013, either offensively or defensively. On the whole, I agree with them. Lough hit .286 as a rookie; this is good. He walked 10 times in 335 plate appearances; this is bad. He was 27 years old; this is terrible, at least from the standpoint of whether you expect Lough to improve or even maintain his performance going forward.
Defensively, Lough was worth 15 runs above average defensively in not even a half-season in the field; this is good. Defensive numbers are notoriously unreliable, and Lough wasn’t reputed to be the second coming of Garry Maddox in the outfield; this is bad.
The last two paragraphs explain how Lough can 1) lead all AL rookies – yes, even Saint Wil – in Wins Above Replacement according to baseball-reference.com, and 2) still be worth trading for a platoon third baseman.
In the expansion era (since 1961), only eight 27-year-old rookies had as many bWAR than Lough, and one of them was Ichiro Suzuki. Here are the other seven, and you’ll laugh when you see who’s number one:
Player Year bWAR
Mike Aviles 2008 4.7
Lew Ford 2004 4.4
Randy Milligan 1989 3.7
Scott Podsednik 2003 3.6
Freddy Sanchez 2005 3.3
Ron Theobald 1971 2.9
David Lough 2013 2.7
Andy Stankiewicz 1992 2.7
Aviles, like Lough, came out of nowhere to have a remarkable rookie season that was elevated by 1) a very good batting average despite poor plate discipline and 2) terrific defensive numbers that were completely unexpected. (Aviles was +14 runs at shortstop as a rookie per Baseball Info Solutions.) He’s been a useful utility guy, but hasn’t had a season with even half as many bWAR since.
Ford hit .299/.381/.446 as a rookie, after hitting .329/.402/.575 in a 34-game cup of coffee the year before. In his sophomore year he hit .264/.338/.377; the following year he hit .226/.287/.312 and was out of baseball before long. Podsednik hit .314/.379/.443 for the Brewers in 2003, slumped to .244/.313/.364 in 2004 (but led the NL in steals) and was traded to the White Sox, where he hit a respectable .290/.351/.349, and then, after not hitting a homer all season, hit two in the playoffs as the White Sox won the World Series. He would be a useful player for years to come, but never had an above-average OPS+ after his rookie year.
Randy Milligan hit .268/.394/.458 for the 1989 Orioles, a big part of their turnaround from a 54-107 record the year before to within two games of the AL East title. He hit .265/.408/.492 in 1990 and was a useful player through 1993, when he hit .299/.423/.434, but age hit him with a right hook; he batted 98 times in 1994, at age 32, and never played again. Milligan was a Ken Phelps All-Star through and through, a guy who never should have had to wait until he was 27 to stick in the majors, but came up in an era when no one cared what your OBP was. He had a career .408 OBP in the minors. In 1987, at age 25, he hit .326/.438/.595 with 29 homers and 103 RBIs in Triple-A. That got him two at-bats in September and a trade to Pittsburgh; a year later the Pirates traded him to the Orioles for Pete Blohm, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the pitching coach for the college team during the off-season when I tried out for the squad my sophomore year in 1992, which is why I went on this tangent and this paragraph is so damn long.
Freddy Sanchez is the one old rookie who really built on his success; after hitting .291/.336/.400 as a rookie, he led the NL in batting average (.344) and doubles (53) the following year, and played regularly for five more years before getting hurt in 2011 and he hasn’t played since. It’s worth noting that even as a rookie, Sanchez had tremendous contact skills – he struck out just 36 times in 492 plate appearances – which boded well for his ability to continue to hit for average.
Ron Theobold hit .276/.342/.325 as a rookie, hit .220/.342/.256 as a sophomore and never played in the majors again. Andy Stankiewicz hit .268/.338/.348 as a rookie, which so impressed the Yankees that he got 9 at-bats the following year; he never got more than 150 at-bats in a season again, hitting .216/.291/.286 after his rookie year.
Milligan and Sanchez went on to productive careers, but both players had given reason to believe in them after their rookie years – Sanchez because of his very low strikeout rate, Milligan because he had mashed in the minors. None of the other guys on this list ever had a single 2.5 bWAR season again.
So while I think Lough might be a useful fourth outfielder and may end up with 2000 at-bats in the major leagues, I think it’s unlikely the Royals will truly miss him. With Gordon, Cain, and Aoki the starters, the Royals had to move one of Lough, Jarrod Dyson, and Justin Maxwell. They had to keep Dyson for Cain insurance, and because his speed was such a weapon off the bench, and they had to keep Maxwell because he crushes lefties. Lough doesn’t really do any one thing that well, so it was hard to see a reason for him to get much playing time barring injury.
Valencia, on the other hand, does one thing well and only one thing well: hit lefties. Last year he hit .304/.335/.553 in 170 plate appearances overall, which sounds great, but breaks down to .371/.392/.639 vs. LHP, .203/.250/.422 vs. RHP. That’s par for the course for Valencia; his career numbers are .329/.367/.513 vs. LHP, .229/.269/.360 vs. RHP. He’s a third baseman but not a particularly good one, and mostly DH’ed last year, although in fairness it’s not like he was going to play over Manny Machado.
So it would appear that the Royals traded an outfielder they had no room on the roster for, in exchange for a third baseman who will platoon with Mike Moustakas and make the 2014 team a few runs better. This makes perfect sense, but it’s not that simple, because I don’t think the Royals are prepared to make Moustakas a platoon player at this point in his career.
And I’m not sure they should. As bad as Moose was in 2013, a year ago he was coming off a season where he hit .242/.296/.412 and played out of his mind at third base, and was worth 3.2 bWAR. That’s not great, but that’s something you can build on for a 24-year-old third baseman. Yes, he declined both offensively and defensively last year, but I think writing him off as an everyday player, or even a future star, is premature. According to Baseball-Reference, his list of 10 most similar players through age 24 includes Ken McMullen (1583 career games, 34 bWAR), Don Money (four-time All-Star), Howard Johnson (three times finished in top 10 of MVP vote), Gary Gaetti (2507 career games, 42 bWAR), and yes, Alex Gordon. More than half of his comps went on to have really good careers.
A guy who doesn’t show up on his comps list, but who I’ve used as a comparison, is Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez, like Moustakas, was the #2 overall pick in the draft (although Pedro was drafted out of college), reputed to have tremendous power but not a great hitter for average. Like Moose, Alvarez hit well at age 23 (.256/.326/.461), but at age 24 was even worse than Moustakas (.191/.272/.289), to the point where the Pirates had to send him back to the minors. But they didn’t give up on him, and the last two years Alvarez has hit .244/.317/.467 with 30 homers, and .233/.296/.473 with a league-leading 36 homers. He’s still a flawed player, but on the balance a pretty good one.
So I don’t think the Royals can give up on Moustakas yet. The problem is, it would be a crime to keep Valencia on the bench against lefties, but there’s nowhere else he’s going to play. You’re not benching Butler against lefties; you’re not playing Valencia over Hosmer at first base. In left field, Gordon just had a historically good season for a left-handed hitter against left-handed pitching, and in right field, if Aoki is going to platoon with anyone, it’s Maxwell.
So I don’t know where Valencia fits right now, other than to give the Royals enough of a threat hanging over Moustakas that it lights a fire in his ass and gets him to report to camp in tremendous physical and mental shape. I’m not discounting that; Sam Mellinger just tweeted that Moustakas is in Arizona and he hears that Moose is in great physical shape. Remember, two years ago he showed up in great shape after working out at Boras’ institute all winter, and had his best year; last year he didn’t and he didn’t. If Valencia’s presence spurs Moustakas to get back on the Gary Gaetti track, the trade is worth it. But better still if he can step in against left-handers every once in a while.
With Maxwell, Dyson, the backup catcher, and Emilio Bonifacio, I don’t even see where Valencia fits on the roster unless the Royals go to an 11-man pitching staff. I would support such a move – the Royals don’t need seven relievers – but of course, they have so many good relievers that it will be hard for them to get down to seven, let alone six. So I expect another move at some point, possibly late in spring training after Moustakas has already earned himself back in the Royals good graces. I expect Valencia or Maxwell to be on the move. But I’ll confess that the Royals rarely do what I expect.
- It’s the end of January and Brett Hayes is still the Royals’ backup catcher, and I guess it’s time to acknowledge that yes, he really is going to be the Royals’ backup catcher.
I’ve given the Royals a lot of grief over letting George Kottaras go, and I stand by the fact that he was a cheap and ideal complement to Salvador Perez’s skill set. But I have to be fair here: when the Royals got Kottaras in the first place, they did so because he was waived by the Oakland A’s. I didn’t excoriate the A’s for waiving him even as I was praising the Royals for claiming him, even after the A’s had replaced Kottaras with a slightly better version of himself – John Jaso – surrendering a very nice prospect named A.J. Cole for the privilege.
And the A’s had just acquired him at the trading deadline in 2012 from the Brewers for a marginal prospect. I guess what I’m saying is that when three different teams have given up a player with very useful skills for next-to-nothing in the span of 16 months, it’s possible that the problem isn’t with the teams, but with the player. Now, I don’t know what that problem might be. Maybe Kottaras is such a bad game-caller that pitchers simply don’t want to throw to him. Maybe he’s a clubhouse lawyer. Maybe he’s Patient Zero in some heretofore undisclosed Ebola virus epidemic in major league clubhouses. Maybe he’s Wiccan. But there’s something about him which makes him look like a much better player from a distance than up close.
I think he’s a great acquisition for the Cubs, who have the luxury of taking a gamble on a guy who could run into 20 bombs and walk 80 times if he had to play everyday. But I do wonder if the Royals might know something we don’t here.
None of this excuses the decision to go to war with Brett Hayes, a career .220/.266/.374 hitter in the majors. The Royals will tell you it doesn’t matter because Perez is going to catch 140 times anyway, and they might be right. But I’ll tell you that if anything happens to Perez, you can kiss the Royals’ playoff hopes goodbye. Perez may or may not be as valuable to the Royals as he was last year. But he’s definitely more irreplaceable this year.
- Payroll update: thanks to Jeremy Guthrie kindly agreeing to move some of his 2014 salary into a buyout of his new 2016 option, the Royals’ payroll is at a tick above $89 million pending the resolution of arbitration cases for Greg Holland and Aaron Crow.
That’s not a terrible payroll – it would be the highest in team history – but it’s only slightly higher than last year’s. And this year, the Royals get an additional $25 million* in TV revenue. Given where the Royals are on the win curve, in a place where a few additional wins could be the difference between making the playoffs and not – there’s really no defense for not upping the payroll another $10 million or so. I’d say the Royals should re-sign Ervin Santana, but 1) I’m skeptical that Santana will be able to replicate his 2013 season, and 2) if the Royals wanted to add another starter, they could have afforded Matt Garza’s new contract, with the upshot that they’d still get the extra draft pick when Santana signed elsewhere.
*: I’ve seen it reported that the $25 million is only about $15 million after taxes. This is ridiculous, ownership propaganda. Yes, owners pay taxes on their profit – but expenses are taken out before taxes. Put another way, payroll spent on players is tax-deductible. It’s important to be economically literate, because if you’re not, you’ll be taken advantage of by rich people with an agenda.
I know there are still a bunch of fans hoping and expecting that the apparent collapse of the starting pitching market – as illustrated by Garza only getting 4 years and $50 million – gives the Royals a real shot at Santana. I don’t see it. Garza may well be an aberration; his contract is so small that it makes me wonder if his medical reports are terrible, as it’s the only thing that explains the deal. (Keith Law certainly subscribes to that theory, and he would know better than I.) Also, there’s this notion that unlike every other team, the Royals wouldn’t have to give up a draft pick to sign him.
Which is silly, because of course they’d have to give up a draft pick – they’d give up the draft pick they’re expecting to get when he signs elsewhere. That will be a supplemental first rounder, maybe around pick #35 or so. That’s a less valuable pick to lose than a true first rounder, which some teams would have to give up – but it’s more valuable a pick than the second-round pick the Blue Jays – whose first-round picks are protected – or the Yankees – who have already surrendered their first-round pick – would give up.
So let it go. Santana will sign elsewhere, the Royals will get a nice draft pick for their troubles, and they’ll have money to spend elsewhere.
That is, if David Glass will spend it. What bothers me the most about ownership spending this winter is that if they don’t spend the savings they got from Guthrie’s reworking of his deal (or if they’ve, in essence, already spent it), then his restructured deal benefits neither the team nor the fans, but only Glass’s pocketbook. Because in two years, the Royals will count the $3.2 million that they now owe Guthrie in 2016 as part of the team’s payroll, and factor it in when they say they can’t spend any more money. But today, when they’re reaping the savings from the restructured deal, they’re keeping quiet.
I think David Glass wants to win. But I think he wants to make money more. Which is kind of sad, because he has plenty of the latter and precious little of the former.
- Luke Hochevar settled before his arbitration hearing. That’s not newsworthy. What’s newsworthy is that his $5.21 million contract contains an additional $400,000 in possible incentives based on games finished…and games started. If Hochevar is starting games for the Royals this season, the extra money they’ll be paying him will be the least of their costs.
- It’s late January, which means it’s Top 100 Prospect time. MLB.com’s list went up last Thursday, and Baseball Prospectus’ list went up today; Baseball America’s and Keith Law’s list go up later this week.
MLB.com has only four Royals in their Top 100, but three of them (Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura, and Raul Adalberto Mondesi*) are in their top 40; by “prospect points” they have the Royals with the 6th-best farm system in the game. BP’s list is even more favorable to the Royals; they have seven Royals in their top 100, with Ventura all the way up at #12 (and Jason Parks’ pick for 2014 AL Rookie of the Year), and Miguel Almonte in the top 50.
*: We need a definitive name for Raul, son of Raul, younger brother of Raul, now that he wants to be known as Raul. RAM? RMIII?
I’ll have more to say about each prospect later, but the Royals pretty clearly still have a very deep farm system. For all my criticisms of the front office, as long as they keep churning out talent, the era of 90-loss seasons should be over for the foreseeable future. But it takes more than just good player development to begin an era of 90-win seasons.
- Speaking of wins and losses, it’s also projection season. Clay Davenport, my long-time colleague and co-founder of Baseball Prospectus, raised some hackles over the weekend with his projections, that have the Royals at 77-85 and in fourth place – behind the White Sox, which would be astonishing if true. Needless to say, that would be disappointing. Frankly, for some people it would be employment-terminating.
On the other hand, if you look at the Royals’ Fangraphs page, you will see projected WAR totals for all 30 teams on the right-hand side, and by this measurement the Royals rank as the 7th-best team in baseball, and would win the second Wild Card spot in the AL. They have the Royals so high in part because, while the Royals don’t have any superstars in their lineup (no position is expected to exceed 4.0 WAR), by signing Infante and Aoki they’ve also eliminated any holes. Shortstop is projected at 1.5 WAR; every other position is between 2 and 4. That’s not sexy, but it’s enough to get a team to 85 wins.
The problem is that 85 wins sounds great in pre-season projections, because projections by their nature compress teams around the mean. Clay’s projections, for instance, have no team winning more than 91 games. But of course some team will, and most likely at least 5 teams in the AL will win more than the 85 games that Fangraphs’ numbers would suggest for the Royals.
If the Royals want to be one of those five teams, some players are going to have exceed their projections, perhaps wildly. Someone from the Duffy/Ventura/Zimmer triumvirate will have to step up, and someone among Gordon, Butler, Hosmer, and Moustakas is going to have to post a 900 OPS and garner some MVP votes.
Which could happen. If it doesn’t, 77-85 is closer than you’d think. There’s a whole range of outcomes that are possible for the Royals. That’s not new. What’s new is that there’s a whole passel of consequences that come with them.