Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Future.

As much as I would like to spend the entire off-season writing about nothing except the legacy of the 2015 Royals, I figure I owe you at least one column to discuss what the Royals of 2016 and beyond ought to look like. It would be lovely to live in a world in which, after winning a championship, your appetite for victory were completely and permanently satiated. Alas, we are creatures of greed. I suspect that, just as most narcissists secretly suffer from insecurity, at the core of most greed is actually a fear of poverty. That’s certainly the case for me: it’s been barely a month since the Royals won the championship that I’ve been pining for for over a quarter-century, and I’m already terrified that someone will snatch it away. I’m afraid that when they do, the 2015 Royals will eventually be forgotten. And that won’t do.

So let’s see if we can’t get another pennant or two, if not another ring or two, out of this group – enough success so that they’ll never be forgotten. If they’re going to do it, it’s going to have to be soon, because the reality that has to drive every decision that Dayton Moore and his front office this off-season isn’t the fact that Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto are free agents. It’s the fact that the following players all become free agents at the same time, after the 2017 season, a scant two years from now:

Eric Hosmer
Mike Moustakas
Lorenzo Cain
Alcides Escobar
Wade Davis
Danny Duffy
Jarrod Dyson

(Omar Infante and Jason Vargas would be free agents as well, although I think we can safely ignore them for purposes of this exercise. Also, Cot’s Baseball Contracts lists Edinson Volquez as having a club option for 2017, although everywhere it’s been reported as a mutual option, meaning he really is a free agent after 2016.)

That’s four everyday hitters, including the 2-3-4 hitters for much of this season, as well as the best closer in the game, and Duffy and Dyson are hardly chopped liver. Maybe the Royals think they can weather the storm and still be competitive in 2018. And if they do, maybe they’re right; while I’m not getting out of the predicting-the-Royals-are-wrong business permanently, I do think a sabbatical is probably in order. But from where I stand, I think it’s going to take an incredible amount of skill and a good deal of luck for the Royals to be a contender in 2018.

And you know what? That’s fine. We knew, pretty much from the moment Eric Hosmer was called up from Omaha to make his major league debut in May of 2011, that the window for The Best Farm System Ever was 2011-2017. The first year was a grace period, 2012 was a disappointment, and 2013 was good but not good enough – but two pennants and a world championship in the last two years matches any reasonable expectation for the entire seven-year run. Anything they do over these next two years is delicious, delicious gravy. If they can make the playoffs in each of the next two years, this particular crop of Royals players will have four postseason berths, two pennants and a title to their names at the very least. They will have fulfilled every expectation we could have had for them.

And if in 2018 they have to start over again, I’m good with that. The rebuilding process won’t take nearly as long as the last one, if for no other reason than that the Royals’ Latin American pipeline has been running at full capacity for years now. Guys like Raul Mondesi and Bubba Starling and Kyle Zimmer should have established themselves in the majors and still be on the upslope of their careers. The Royals will still have Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura under contract, giving them a couple of very valuable trade chits if they want to supercharge the rebuilding process. And of course they still have two drafts and two Latin American signing periods between now and then to add more talent.

But it’s hard for me to see how they can win in 2018 with the talent they have on hand, unless they nail every mid-level free agent signing – granted, Moore basically did that last winter. Maybe they sign one of their young players to an extension. Hosmer, I think, is as good as gone, and Cain will turn 32 just after Opening Day in 2018, but I do wonder if Moustakas would be amenable to an extension this winter. But even with Moustakas, and Mondesi at shortstop, and maybe Christian Colon at second base, and Perez behind the plate…they have no first baseman and no outfield. Ventura is their only starter under contract; Kelvin Herrera is their only reliever.

A lot can happen in the next two years, absolutely. If the Royals continue their mimicry of the St. Louis Cardinals by having a lot of Grade B and C prospects come up and perform better in the majors than they did in the minors, this discussion could be moot. But realistically, I think the Royals need to approach this off-season with a mindset that they should be willing to sacrifice wins in 2018 and beyond in order to maximize their ability to win the AL Central in each of the next two years.

To put that in more stark terms: the Royals should be willing to sacrifice the long term for the short term. This is a position that I’m not terribly familiar with, but then I’m not terribly familiar with the experience of being the fan of the defending world champions either. We all have to adjust. There is a time for being prudent with your resources, for spending wisely and hoarding prospects carefully. This just doesn’t happen to be one of those times.

That’s why I find the Royals’ seeming reluctance to commit to a long-term deal for Alex Gordon so annoying. I get their reluctance to pay the market rate for Ben Zobrist: Zobrist’s value is elevated greatly by his ability to play second base, and if the Royals re-sign him, it would not be to play second base. For one thing, he would be taking Alex Gordon’s money – and so, as when the Royals traded for him, they would have a huge hole for him to fill in left field. Also, the Royals have another option at second base to consider.

No, not Omar Infante – at least I hope Infante wouldn’t keep them from re-signing Zobrist. Contracts taste like crap, but sometimes eating them is the best thing for your long-term health. No, I’m referring to Christian Colon, who might actually be a league-average second baseman, and definitely will be a league-minimum-salary second baseman. Postseason heroics aside, Colon’s career line in the majors is .303/.361/.382 with a 12.5% K/PA rate, and in 137 Triple-A games over the last two years he hit .300/.362/.401 with a 7.8% K/PA rate and 23 steals in 28 attempts. He’s probably not a .300 hitter in the majors, but a .270 hitter with good bat control and at least average defense? That’s a damn sight better than what the Royals got from Infante last year. Letting Colon play second base would free up dollars elsewhere.

Like, say, signing Gordon. Look, it’s possible that some team is going to blow the Royals out of the water with a 6-year, $120 million contract, in which case I wish him well. But if it turns out he signs for more reasonable terms – say, 5 years and $80 million, maybe even 5/$85 – and the Royals pass on him anyway, I think it will be a mistake.

For one thing, it’s quite possible that he will earn back the terms of that contract anyway. Yes, Gordon will turn 32 before spring training starts. But he takes excellent care of himself, and just as Billy Butler was a bad bet to age well because of his lack of physical fitness, Gordon’s dedication to keeping himself in prime physical condition makes him a good candidate to be productive into his mid-30s. So does his broad range of skills – Gordon isn’t simply a one-trick pony, whether that trick is power or speed. He has good power, and runs well, and draws walks, and hits doubles, and plays excellent defense. Studies have shown that players with a broad range of skills age better than players who don’t, because they have multiple ways of adjusting to the slow erosion of their natural skills as they age.

While Gordon isn’t quite as good a hitter, he’s very comparable to Dwight Evans, who (like Gordon) was a very underrated player throughout his career – he should have Jim Rice’s spot in the Hall of Fame, to be perfectly honest. Evans wasn’t elite in any one category, but hit for power, drew walks, and played great defense. After an off-year when he was 31 (he hit .238/.338/.436), Evans was terrific for the next six years; he was worth at least 3.0 bWAR every year from age 32 to 37.

That’s a best-case scenario for Gordon, admittedly, but I see no reason from where I stand why he can’t be at least a league-average player by the end of his contract. But more to the point, the Royals don’t really need him to be a good player at the end of his contract. They need him to be a good player for the next two years.

In any long-term free agent contract, the goal of the team is to get enough value from the player in the first half of his contract to make up for the fact that he’ll be overpaid in the back half. If the Royals are paying Gordon $17 million to do not much in 2020, that’s an acceptable concession for the right to pay Gordon $17 million to be an above-average everyday player in 2016. Frankly, the Royals might not have a lot of players worth paying eight figures to in 2020, so if they’re overpaying Gordon to be a clubhouse leader and face of the franchise, it’s not like he’ll be hoarding payroll space that they would otherwise spend on a free agent who might put them in the playoffs.

And that assumes he isn’t worth much in 2020. I think there’s a chance he will. More to the point, I think Gordon is a better option for left field in 2016 and 2017 than anyone else the Royals are likely to get to replace him. If they have to overpay him in 2018 and beyond in order to secure his services the next two years, I think that’s a tradeoff worth making.

The Royals may not agree, and they have the benefit of knowing him better than anyone else – maybe they think his groin injury is a sign of things to come. And certainly they have earned the benefit of the doubt. But I’d hate to see them hand his job to someone who gives the team payroll space, flexibility – and a worse performance the next two years.

Whether or not the Royals re-sign Gordon, though, I would like to propose another idea – not a fully-formed idea, but more of a thought bubble – that will be far more controversial. Consider that the two long-term assets every franchise can leverage into short-term success are payroll dollars and prospects. Signing Gordon would leverage the first asset. In order to leverage the second asset, the Royals could…trade Raul Mondesi.

This might seem ludicrous to many of you, particularly coming from me, the guy who thought trading Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis was the worst calamity to hit Kansas City since Bonnie and Clyde. But one of my greatest objections to the Shields/Davis trade was that the Royals weren’t quite ready to win just yet. The Royals aren’t just ready to win right now, it’s possible they won’t be in two years. Trading their top prospect for two years of a really valuable asset seems like a sensible idea.

They could try to trade Bubba Starling, but given Starling’s local roots and his choppy development as a hitter, the mere act of putting him on the trade market would send his value plummeting as teams would wonder why the Royals were willing to pull the plug. The same thing applies to Kyle Zimmer – putting a pitcher on the market with #1 upside and a medical record that can’t fit on a flash drive would give other teams reason to worry. Mondesi, alone among the Royals’ top prospects, has a prospect status that won’t be degraded by making him available for trade.

What could the Royals get for him? Well, he’s not Myers, who was a top-five prospect in all of baseball when he was dealt. But Mondesi is a top-50 prospect, maybe top-25; the big risk with him is that he’s still a year or two away from being major league-ready, but he’s also just 20 years old. (This, by the way, is another reason why I’d trade him now when I wouldn’t have traded Myers three years ago. Myers was ready to contribute in the majors right away – he won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013, let’s not forget – while Mondesi probably won’t be ready for the majors until mid-2017, and probably won’t be an impact player for another year or two after that.) Package him with, say, Miguel Almonte and a third prospect from the lower rungs of the minors, and you could probably get two years of an impact player from a team that’s rebuilding.

The Braves are selling everything that isn’t nailed down – Shelby Miller is being hawked everywhere. He’s not as good as Strasburg, but he’s also under team control for three years, not two. If not Miller, how about Julio Teheran, who’s admittedly more expensive (he’s under club control for five years)? Jose Fernandez would take a lot more than Mondesi – you might have to completely clean out the farm system – but he’s a true #1 starter who you’d get to keep for three years. Maybe Mondesi straight-up for Tyson Ross? I’m just spitballing here, but these are the ideas I’d like to see the Royals entertain, and that’s just among the class of starting pitchers.

Truthfully, I doubt that they will, and I’m in no position to complain if they don’t. The front office built a two-time AL champion right at the moment that many of us gave up on them; if they want to go the Cardinals route and try to build an organization that can weather the loss of free agents year after year after year, more power to them. But I just want them to know that if they decide to mortgage the future in an attempt to turn a world championship team into a veritable dynasty, I’m behind them 100%. I suspect most of you would be as well.