Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Future.

It took over eight years, but Dayton Moore and the rest of his front office did what his two predecessors could not do: build a playoff team. That was all that I, with the limited ambition of someone who has never tasted the high life, had asked for. Everything that came after that was delicious, highly addictive gravy.

But as I ride off into this blog’s sunset, I’m craving another hit. Now that I know what the postseason is like, I don’t want to contemplate a world in which the Royals don’t make the playoffs, not just one year, but every year. In the tradition of the finest Kansas City barbeque, Moore chose the slow-and-low approach to marinating a contender: build from within, be patient, and – dare I say it? – trust the process. It finally, belatedly, barely worked – but it worked. And now, I hope, the Royals are poised to take advantage of their approach, an approach that is designed to build not just a playoff team, but a perennial playoff team.

The 2015 Royals roster is, for all intents and purposes, settled, so let's take a look at the changes they made, starting with the changes they didn't make, the free agents they brought back. Luke Hochevar got a little more money than I expected, but if he comes anywhere close to the effectiveness he showed in 2013, he’ll be worth every penny. On the one hand, I believe that relievers are inherently unstable and unpredictable, which means bullpens are inherently unstable and unpredictable, which means focusing too much of your resources on bullpens is needlessly risky.

On the other hand, I thought that after the Royals had the best bullpen ERA in the AL in decades in 2013, and their bullpen was even more of an asset in 2014. Also, the San Francisco Giants have somehow won three World Series in five years with four relievers – Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, and Santiago Casillas – on all three championship teams.

The problem with a good reliever is that he may lose his effectiveness at any time, but if you’ve figured out a way to keep your relievers from going bad, maybe it make sense to invest in them more. (Or maybe it makes sense to just load up on so many good relievers that even if one or two of them blows out you’re still covered.) And if any team has found a way to keep its relievers from going bad, it might just be the Royals, given how sterling their track record of keeping players healthy has been under trainers Nick Kenney and Kyle Turner.

Speaking of good relievers, Jason Frasor is coming back for another year at just $1.8 million guaranteed, which is the kind of contract that makes player agents so mad that their grumbling leaks out into the public domain. Frasor isn’t a star, but if he’s the fifth-best right-handed reliever in your bullpen, holy crap you’ve got a good bullpen. And barely hours after Frasor’s signing was announced, Aaron Crow – who will probably make more than Frasor in arbitration – was traded to the Marlins. In exchange, the Royals got a left-handed starter in Brian Flynn who probably won’t make it as a starter, but (like all starters) has the possibility of being a very effective reliever, and Reid Redman, a converted infielder who had crazy good numbers as a right-handed reliever in A-ball and Double-A last year. During the brief period between the Royals re-signing Frasor and the Crow trade, I was openly advocating on Twitter that the Royals just release Crow outright. So to get two arms for him is a steal.

Some teams will look at a strong bullpen and see it as a strength which they can trade to fill their weaknesses elsewhere. The Royals looked at their strong bullpen and decided that they wanted to make their biggest strength even stronger, even if it would cost them millions to do so (keep in mind that Greg Holland and Wade Davis are getting big raises this year.) It’s a risky strategy, and in all honesty, not one I would have endorsed. But given how important their bullpen was last season, and given how much their bullpen tipped the scales for them last October, I’m not 100% convinced it’s the wrong one.

Moving on to their four primary acquisitions, it’s probably best to work in reverse chronological order, because that means we’ll go from most sensible move to most inexplicable one.

Kris Medlen hasn’t always been a healthy pitcher, but when he’s been healthy, he’s always been an effective one. He’s been effective in relief, he’s been effective as a swingman, and he was effective in 2013, his one season as a full-time starting pitcher. In 2012, Medlen made 12 starts and relieved 38 times, and had a remarkable 1.57 ERA in 138 innings. How remarkable is that? In the live-ball era (since 1920), just three pitchers have ever had a lower ERA in as many innings: Bob Gibson’s famous 1.12 ERA in 1968, Dwight Gooden’s famous 1.53 ERA in 1985, and Greg Maddux’s famous 1.56 ERA in 1994. Medlen was basically the equivalent of Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera combined:

Kris Medlen, 2012: 138 innings, 26 runs allowed
Greg Holland & Kelvin Herrera, 2014: 132 innings, 25 runs allowed

He wasn’t as effective in 2013, but he made 31 starts, threw 197 innings, and had a 3.11 ERA.

And then he blew out his elbow. For the second time in three years.

Medlen came back from his first Tommy John surgery just fine – he blew out early in the 2011 season, and came back with the 2012 season detailed above. And a second Tommy John surgery is becoming increasingly common for pitchers, if only because so many pitchers have had a first Tommy John surgery that there’s a larger pool of potential second-timers to choose from. It is a little worrisome that his new elbow blew out so quickly – Joakim Soria, for instance, lasted nearly eight years with his new ligament.

But that risk is baked into Medlen’s contract. If he follows Soria’s timetable for recovery from a second Tommy John, he should be ready to pitch for the Royals around the All-Star Break. He has the versatility to relieve or start, so if the rotation is humming along smoothly he can just give the Royals a vastly overqualified long reliever to go along with their vastly overqualified sixth inning guy (Luke Hochevar), vastly overqualified seventh inning guy (Kelvin Herrera), and vastly overqualified eighth inning guy (Wade Davis). If there’s a need in the rotation by then, Medlen can fill in there.

And Medlen should be penciled into the Royals’ 2016 rotation right now, which gives them the flexibility to decline Jeremy Guthrie’s option if they are so inclined, as everyone else in this year’s projected rotation is under contract next year as well.

Medlen doesn’t throw hard – his fastball has averaged about 90 for his career, both before and after his first Tommy John – but he has an excellent changeup, which is something the Royals have pinpointed in recent years. He misses an average number of bats – he’s not an extreme finesse guy like Guthrie – but his control is his best asset, making him a good fit for the defense. He’s guaranteed only $8.5 million over the next two years, and while he could more than double his salary if he meets every incentive, if he meets every incentive he’s almost certain to be worth all that money and then some. When Medlen is healthy, he’s effective. He can’t meet his incentives without being healthy.

Edinson Volquez will make more money over the next two years than Medlen even if he doesn’t stay healthy, after signing a two-year, $20 million contract. Staying healthy isn’t really Volquez’s problem – he’s made 95 starts over the last three years – but throwing strikes is. Two years ago he led the NL with 105 walks in just 183 innings, but somehow managed a 4.14 ERA thanks to Petco Park. But in 2013 not even Petco could save him – he somehow managed a 6.01 ERA in San Diego before he got released. (He managed -2.5 bWAR, which is tough to do. He was like the Jeff Francoeur of pitchers.)

But after getting released, Volquez got picked up by the pennant-winning Dodgers, and was effective in five starts. He then signed a make-good one-year contract with the Pirates last year. The Pirates are one of the best teams in baseball at the moment when it comes to reclaiming veteran hurlers, thanks to a good pitching coach, a very good defense, and aggressive, analytics-infused defensive shifting. Volquez had a 3.04 ERA in 2014, which is to say he had a lower ERA than anyone in the Royals’ rotation other than Danny Duffy.

The odds that he matches that ERA in 2015 are pretty slim. He had a .269 BABIP, well below his career norm; his strikeout rate and his walk rate were both below average. His FIP was 4.15, and the Steamer projection system projects him for a 4.60 ERA this season.

The good news is that the Royals also have a good pitching coach and a very good defense, and while they do not appear from the outside to have melded analytics with scouting as seamlessly as the Pirates have, the Royals aren’t complete Luddites in that regard. Volquez is a groundball pitcher, which doesn’t play into the Royals’ defensive strengths – their infield is pretty average, while their outfield is one of the best in modern baseball history – but will serve to keep his homers down.

While Volquez was successful in 2014 in part because of good luck, most of his success can be explained by the simple fact that he threw strikes. His walk rate, when you take out the intentional passes he gave out, was just 8.1%; it was 9.7% in 2013, and 12.4% in 2012. His stuff isn’t the problem – his fastball averaged 93.1 mph last season – so if he can keep his walk rate under 9%, he’s likely to be effective.

Honestly, the thing that worries me the most about Volquez is the one thing he won’t be bringing from Pittsburgh: his catcher, Russell Martin. As recently as 5-6 years ago I had no idea this even mattered, but we’ve seen remarkable advances in measuring the ability that catchers have to frame pitches, getting umpires to call borderline pitches strikes by having a “quiet” glove and not stabbing at pitches that are slightly off-target. Now that we can measure this ability, we know that 1) it’s far, far more important a skill than most of us thought – as much as 50 runs a season between the best and worst catchers – and 2) Russell Martin is one of the better catchers in the game when it comes to that task. There’s a reason why a soon-to-be 32-year-old catcher got a five-year, $82 million contract with the Blue Jays.

Martin is very, very good at pitch framing. Salvador Perez, for all his other defensive skills that earned him a Gold Glove, is not. He’s average at best. Given Volquez’s command issues throughout his career, and given that last season he had by far the lowest walk rate of his career, you have to wonder how much benefit he got from throwing to Martin, and if so, will his walk rate jump as his effectiveness declines this year.

It’s hardly a foregone conclusion; small sample size warnings apply, but Volquez’s walk rate in 22 games with Martin last year (8.3%) was actually higher than his walk rate in 10 games with Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart (7.6%). Maybe he just finally found the strike zone at age 30, which certainly happens. But there is definitely risk in his signing.

I do approve of the signing overall, considering the options on the free agent market, the apparent spike in free agent prices (I love Brandon McCarthy, but four years? I loved Brett Anderson as a buy-low candidate, but at $10 million for one year, what happened to buying low?), the short commitment, and yes, the Royals’ track record the last two off-seasons in acquiring starting pitchers with question marks in Ervin Santana (which I liked) and Jason Vargas (which I did not).

The Royals needed to acquire an effective starting pitcher to replace James Shields, but they didn’t want to make a long-term commitment to the spot when it’s reasonable to think that at least one of Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea might be ready for a spot in the next year, with Miguel Almonte and the mythical Kyle Zimmer possibly ready after that. Volquez fits the bill.

The best thing you can say about the signing of Alex Rios is that the Royals didn’t even make a two-year commitment to him; he’s the only free agent they signed who agreed to a one-year deal. Even so, I don’t like the signing. Rios turns 34 next month, and last year he hit .280/.311/.398 with just four homers despite playing in Arlington all season.

But I don’t hate the signing either. Again: it’s only one year, and while it may be hyperbole to say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, it’s not far off. Rios only hit four homers last year, but he hit 18 in 2013, and 25 in 2012, and was in double digits every year going back to 2005. While 2014 might have been the beginning of the end for him, it’s also possible that his power outage was just a stone-cold fluke.

Because while his homers dropped off a cliff, the rest of his game was pretty much the same. He hit .278 in 2013, and .280 in 2014. He combined for 37 doubles and triples in 2013, and combined for 38 doubles and triples last year. His walk rate dropped, but it’s not like that was ever a big part of his game anyway. He’s not a very good defensive right fielder at this point in his career, but he’s not terrible either – he’s average or slightly below.

The Royals blame his poor power output on a series of injuries he suffered during the season. I’m skeptical of the “blame-the-injury” defense in general, because there’s no guarantee he’s going to avoid injuries in 2015. But given that Rios played for the Rangers last year, the fact that he stayed upright for 131 games is a little bit miraculous – the 2014 Texas Rangers might have been the most injured team of all time. While some of that was bad luck, I’m comfortable in saying I trust his new training staff more than his old one. I’d rather have Rios for one year than Torii Hunter, who got about the same amount of money and outhit Rios in 2014, but who turns 40 in July and whose defense was atrocious last year.

Rios also bats right-handed, which is key because the Royals still have Jarrod Dyson, and they would be well-advised to use him as they have in the past. If Rios struggles early in the season, they can still get value from him by platooning him with Dyson – Rios hit .325/.353/.545 against LHP last season. $11 million is a ton of money for a small-market team to spend on a platoon outfielder, but I can live with that as the worst-case scenario, especially if it’s for only one year.

The Royals were a little boxed-in with Rios because they needed a right-handed hitting outfielder, because they had just replaced their right-handed hitting DH with a DH who switch-hit but has hit right-handed pitchers better than left-handers throughout his career. And it’s that DH, Kendrys Morales, whose signing I simply can not find a way to explain, or justify, or approve of in any way.

Morales hit .218/.274/.338 last year. He’s a DH. YOU HAD ONE JOB, Kendrys – it says so right in your position: Designated Hitter. You can’t be a DH and not H.

But you can, apparently, get a two-year, $17 million contract from the Royals. Now granted: a year ago, when Morales was coming off a .277/.336/.449 season playing in a tough hitters’ park in Seattle, a year after he hit .273/.320/.467 in a tough hitters’ park in Anaheim, this contract would look very reasonable, particularly with no draft pick compensation attached. It was precisely because Morales did have draft pick compensation attached last year that no team was willing to sign him, which is why he held out until right after the draft before signing with the Twins. And if it turns out that his epic struggles last season were simply because he missed the first two months of the season, this could work out.

But 2014 did happen. To reverse my argument with Rios, maybe it was just a stone-cold fluke, but maybe it was the beginning of the end. Morales turns 32 in June, which isn’t old, but for an overweight, unathletic, bat-only guy, it’s not exactly young either. At least if Rios struggles, you can shunt him into a less demanding role for a few months and then part ways. If Morales struggles…what do you do? You can’t shunt him into a less demanding role unless you bench him. And if you’re on the hook for $9 million in 2016, you’re not going to bench him. There is a very real possibility that Morales’ bat doesn’t come back to life, and by July the Royals will have a completely useless player on their roster with 75% of his contract still left to go.

And if the Royals wanted to bet on an overweight, unathletic, bat-only guy bouncing back, why didn’t they just pick up Billy Butler’s option? Butler hit better in 2014 than Morales did, and he’s three years younger than Morales. Maybe they misjudged the market on Butler – in their defense, I think it might have been the A’s who misjudged the market on Butler. But if that’s the case, then they overreacted the other way by giving two years and $17 million to a Butler replacement who might have gotten one year and $5 million otherwise.

The only thing I can say in defense of the contract – and I say this without a hint of irony – is that the Royals clearly wanted him. They have been rumored to be interested in Morales in the past – same with Rios – and the Royals are obviously making a $17 million bet that 2014 doesn’t matter at all. I don’t think they’re right, but I’d like to think that if there’s one thing I learned from 2014, it’s that I shouldn’t discount the possibility that the Royals are right just because they did something I vehemently disagree with. From 2009 through 2013 – albeit with nearly two missed seasons in that span thanks to a broken leg – Morales hit .286/.339/.494 in a difficult hitting environment, good for a 128 OPS+. If he gets back to that level or anywhere close, he’ll be worth his contract and then some.

But Morales immediately becomes the most important player in the Royals’ entire lineup. If he hits, they have a switch-hitting power bat that they didn’t have anywhere in the lineup last year. If he doesn’t, they’ll be getting even less offense from the DH position than they had last year, and an albatross of a contact for a team that can’t afford one.

The Royals can afford an albatross more than they could in the past, though. While the four free agent signings are a mixed bag at best in terms of talent, they represent undeniable good news in another sense, which is that David Glass is living up to his commitment to plow the profits he makes from the team back into the payroll. The Royals’ postseason run generated millions of dollars in an unexpected windfall, and it was reasonable to expect the team’s payroll to rise from $92 million last year to over $100 million this year. But currently the payroll stands at around $115 million, and could rise to $120 million if certain players meet bonus incentives. It’s true: David Glass has spent even more money on payroll than I hoped he would. Seven years after I wrote this, people are finally getting the message: David Glass is no longer the liability for the Royals that many people – but fewer people all the time – think he is.

A cynic (hi, Joe) will still say that, in not committing to any free agents long term, Glass has given himself an out to reduce the payroll if the Royals stumble this season. To which I would reply that history proves owners don’t need an out to reduce payroll; if they want to be cheapskates, they’ll find a way. I’d much rather take my chances that this all a cynical ploy by Glass to cut payroll to $60 million next year than be committed for too many years and too much money to old, declining players.

Payroll flexibility is always going to be key for a small-market team, and the Royals have that. While they’re committed to about $72 million already in 2016 – counting Alex Gordon’s option, as Gordon holds the option instead of the Royals – they actually have only two players under guaranteed contracts in 2017: Jason Vargas and Omar Infante. Even if the Royals completely screwed the pooch with this collection of free agents, they can go back out on the market and try again in two years. And while only Vargas and Infante have guaranteed contracts, the core of their roster is still under club control in 2017. Aside from the aforementioned free agents, the only players that could leave as free agents are Guthrie, Gordon, and Greg Holland. Cain, Dyson, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Duffy would all be free agents after 2017, but that gives the Royals a three-year window, and also gives them three years to sign some of them to extensions should they so choose.

I am not, in all honesty, particularly optimistic about the Royals’ chances this season. As recently as a few weeks ago I said on radio that I was holding to my initial off-season projection of 88 wins this year, but analytically speaking, now that the winter transaction dance is over I can’t really defend that number anymore. The two defining traits of the 2014 Royals – team defense and bullpen strength – are two of the most difficult traits to maintain from one year to the next.

Defensive skill declines much faster than offensive skill – the peak age on defense is something like 24 – so while I still expect the Royals to have a good defense this season, I don’t expect it to be as otherworldly as it’s been the last two years. And as for the bullpen…the Royals had three pitchers who appeared in 60 games and had an ERA of under 1.50. No other team in major league history has had even two pitchers accomplish that feat. I expect the bullpen to be very good. I don’t expect the Royals to again go an entire season – including the playoffs – losing just one game that they led after seven innings. Yes, you could (and I did) say these same things last winter, and the Royals fought off the regression monster in 2014. They might do so again. But it’s safe to say that the team with the best bullpen trio in major league history has nowhere to go but down.

They’re going to have to make up for the inevitable decline in their two signature qualities in other ways, and I think they can. I think Eric Hosmer will have a much better regular season (as do most people), and I think Mike Moustakas will too (as do…a few people). I think Salvador Perez, whose batting average, OBP, and slugging average have all dropped three straight years, will reverse that decline in 2015 if Ned Yost doesn’t make him set the all-time record for most games caught again.

But there are going to be declines elsewhere. I don’t see Lorenzo Cain managing a .380 BABIP again, so unless he hits for more power (possible) or strikes out less (unlikely) he’s not hitting .301 again. Alcides Escobar’s batting average the last five years has gone: .235, .254, .293, .234, .285, and I think the next number in that sequence is likely to be less than .285. Omar Infante might bounce back, but at age 33, he might not. And while DH seemed to be an easy place to anticipate improvement on Billy Butler’s .271/.323/.379 last year, the Royals are pinning their hopes on a DH who hit a damn sight worse than that last season.

And even if Morales and Rios give the Royals the same level of production that they got from Butler and Nori Aoki last year, I don’t think Edinson Volquez is coming anywhere close to what they got from James Shields. Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy might be better…but Jeremy Guthrie is perpetually three steps away from the cliff, and I want to see Jason Vargas do it again.

I don’t think the Royals are going to go 71-91, as PECOTA projects. I’m more optimistic than most other analysts, who seem to be pegging the Royals for around .500 or slightly below. But at the moment, I can’t make a case for more than 84 wins. Anything better than that is going to require some unexpected good fortune.

But after what happened last year, who’s writing off the chance for some unexpected good fortune? Even at 84 wins, the Royals will probably be not far off the AL Central lead all season. At 84 wins, the Royals will probably be buyers at the trading deadline, and if they fill some holes by trading prospects, or perhaps by promoting Finnegan or Manaea into the rotation, they might be poised for a second-half surge for the third straight year.

Projecting a team for 84 wins was damning with faint praise a decade ago; today, in a two wild-card system, it’s a compliment. On paper, the Royals were an 84-win team last year – they outscored their opponents by just 27 runs. (And if you drill down to how many singles, doubles, walks, homers, etc that they hit, and that hey allowed, Baseball Prospectus calculated the “true” strength of the 2014 Royals as that of a 79-83 team.) The difference between .500 and 89 wins – enough to take the Royals to within one swing of a world championship – is one standard deviation. The Royals will contend in 2015 if they get lucky – not incredibly lucky, just a little lucky.

That’s a disappointment from the perspective I had in 2011, when the Royals had The Best Farm System Ever, and I thought they’d be starting a mini-dynasty by now. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of mini-dynasties that didn’t make it anywhere close to Game 7 of the World Series. From where I sit today, the Royals go into the season with a legitimate shot at winning the division, and yet despite being the defending American League champions, they’re underdogs once again. You know what? That’s just fine with me. Let’s go shock the world again.