We’ll finish our series (it only took half of a calendar year) in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team could have gone about the offseason in order to chase a ring with the Kansas City Royals. After making it to the World Series in 2014 and failing to take home the championship, the Royals came back even stronger, with a more developed offense and a bullpen and defense that remained excellent. Let’s see how we can bring them back to baseball’s biggest stage this year. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees.
Since the offseason is already over, I will be looking at the deals that each team has made and giving my input. I will keep the mostly inconsequential ones, but for the most part I will be making my moves as though the offseason has not yet started, all of the free agents are still out there, and all traded players are back on their original teams.
1. Traded a minor league infielder to the St. Louis Cardinals for Tony Cruz
Under normal circumstances, I would keep this one, since adding Cruz as a backup catcher doesn’t really change much. However, Drew Butera made the Major League roster anyway, so I guess we can’t keep Cruz on the roster even if we do keep this trade. The difference between Butera and Cruz is negligible and basically comes down to how much you value familiarity with a pitching staff. Either way, the Royals have a fine backup catcher provided that neither player has to play more than thirty or forty games.
2. Re-Signed Chris Young to a two-year contract
3. Signed Joakim Soria to a three-year contract
Soria found his way back to Kansas City during the offseason, and the Royals should be excited about this one. They needed to replace Ryan Madson, and they found someone who can be a very reliable setup man. Soria still possesses the ability to strike batters out at a high rate while rarely giving up free passes. He has given up more home runs recently, which is why he will never be as good as he was in his first stint with the Royals, but he makes up for it by maintaining a very low WHIP. Throughout his career, Soria has struck out over one batter per inning while walking less than one every three innings. He should do quite well in the seventh inning spot.
4. Re-Signed Alex Gordon to a four-year contract
Although Gordon is thirty-two years old and is coming off of a down year, this deal is a good one for the Royals. Gordon missed about two months in the middle of the season due to a groin injury. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, he probably would have made the All-Star game, but he still wound up with a pretty good season. His fielding took the biggest hit from the injury (groin injuries tend to do that), but his bat was fine. In fact, he actually increased his walk rate last season, with most other important rate statistics staying the same. Gordon has already gotten off to a good defensive start in 2016, so I think this deal will work out just fine for at least the first three seasons.
5. Signed Chien-Ming Wang to a minor league contract
I would not have included this one if not for the fact that Wang made the major league roster out of spring training. Wang became (a slightly overrated) All-Star with the Yankees due to a simple formula: keep the ball down, do not walk batters, and do not give up home runs. Since his leg injury that he suffered while running the bases, Wang has not been able to keep the ball in the park. When you don’t strike batters out, it isn’t enough to just not give up free bases. You need to manage contact well, too. If he can figure out how to get his hard sinker working again, then Kanas City is a great defense to play behind, so he is worth a flyer for this team. However, the smart move would have been to hold him in Triple-A until his opt out date to see if he can fix that part of his game.
6. Signed Ian Kennedy to a five-year contract for $75 million
Fifteen million dollars per year is about the going rate for a number three or four starter in free agency. The only question is: why did the Royals think that Kennedy was good enough to be their number four starter? This is a team that had to let Johnny Cueto go for only about seven million more dollars per year over the same time frame. It is hard to argue that Kennedy plus someone else for that remaining money is better than just Cueto. For the other pitchers that the Royals have signed, I have argued that their great defense makes the signing more reasonable for them than other teams. However, that same logic does not apply to Kennedy because the Royals do not position their fielders on the other side of the fence. It will be hard for Lorenzo Cain to catch the ball if Kennedy gave up 31 home runs in just 168 innings at PETCO Park. San Diego is a notoriously pitcher friendly location, but Kennedy didn’t seem to notice in 2015. Kennedy actually has some other good peripheral numbers, such as his strike out and walk rates, but he gives up too many home runs to justify this signing.
7. Signed Mike Minor to a two-year contract
Minor missed all of 2015 due to a serious shoulder injury, so this contract is more about that second year. The Royals did this with Kris Medlen after he had Tommy John surgery, too. They sign players a year before other teams might want them and still control them for the year that everyone will want those players. Minor will struggle when he comes back, but I do like what Kansas City is trying to do. Everyone wants to find bargains, and the Royals are really the only ones trying to find value in players who are currently injured. Regardless of what you think about whether or not Minor can become anything close to the pitcher that some thought he might be in Atlanta, you have to admit that the Royals’ strategy is intriguing.
8. Signed Dillon Gee to a minor league contract
This is another one that I would not discuss if not for the fact that the player in question is actually on the roster. That is the price I pay for not finishing this series on time. The Royals have put Gee in the bullpen (just like Wang), and are trying to see if he can increase his strikeout rate as a reliever. Gee had some decent years with the New York Mets and looked fine as a fifth starter. He ended up only making seven starts in 2015 due to injuries, but it isn’t surprising that he got a chance to stick somewhere. The Royals shouldn’t expect anything great, but if he was a solid fifth starter, then he can probably be a solid long relief pitcher, too.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs we are looking at:
Last Year’s Recap:
Won World Series in 5 games against the New York Mets
Total WAR: 42.0
Top 12 WAR: 36.8
Top 16 WAR: 41.9
As you can see from the numbers above, WAR does not think that the Royals were a World Series caliber team. However, many preseason predictors had them finishing last in the American League Central in 2015, so maybe we just aren’t looking at the right numbers when judging the Royals. Although this team’s offense improved a lot last season, the Royals are still built on defense and a bullpen. Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas may be having a good impact on the game from the plate, but it’s much more difficult to beat what that trio brings in the field. I tried to keep that in mind with the moves that I made; I only went for position players that provided good defense, and I made sure that each bullpen arm was someone that could be trusted or at least excel at one thing. I tried to make other moves that I thought made sense, of course, but I did not want to change the way that this team operates.
1. Re-Sign Johnny Cueto to a five-year contract
Did I give this one away when talking about Ian Kennedy? Oh, well. I can’t stress enough how much we are overvaluing his second half statistics. Does his incredible first half not count? Cueto oddly stopped getting strikeouts after being traded to the Royals, but let me ask another question: if he had not been traded, and his pre and post trade splits were a little bit more hidden, what would you currently think of Cueto? I doubt the difference between his contract and Zack Greinke’s contract is eighty million dollars. I doubt people stop viewing him as the ace that he still is. In total, Cueto struck out nearly 7.5 batters per nine innings and walked less than two batters per nine innings. His home run rate is pretty reasonable, and he would be pitching behind a defense that would help him tremendously. Save for 2014, Cueto has never been a huge strikeout pitcher, but he always forces the batter to put the ball in play. A lot of the hits that Cueto gives up would have become outs had he stayed in Kansas City. As for the Royals, they did not exercise restraint when spending money in the offseason, and spending their money on Cueto would have been a much smarter investment. First of all, you would get the money from his entire contract back due to all of the merchandise you can sell when you have a player that is fun to watch. Cueto’s twisting, turning, and shimmying delivery is one of the most entertaining windups to watch in baseball. And secondly, batters have always had difficulties with their timing against Cueto because every time they think they know when the ball is coming, he adds one more pause, or rotates a little faster to the plate. This is reflected in the number of hits that he gives up. Pitchers that are as average in the strikeout department as he is tend to give up a little under one hit per inning. Cueto routinely beats that by about ten to twenty hits because of how well he keeps hitters off balance. The Royals currently don’t have an ace on their staff, and they could have gotten one for a discount price had they been willing to overlook Cueto's thirteen starts with the club in favor of his numbers from the entire season.
2. Re-Sign Alex Gordon to a four-year contract
The Royals and I agree on this one, as I don’t think the team could have found a better replacement for their starting left fielder. I suppose some would argue that Justin Upton is the better player, but he would cost more and it isn’t clear that Upton provides more value than Gordon regardless of the contract size. Gordon’s offensive game has always been more solid than outstanding, but his offensive production has been good enough for two or three wins in each of the past three years (even though he missed sixty games last season). The Royals will take that production again, and he may even improve from last year because he will be further removed from the injury. Where Gordon provides the most value, though, is the field. He has been an absolute stud in left field, as he routinely saves his team fifteen to twenty runs defensively. Given that Gordon managed to provide nearly three wins in just over 100 games while dealing with an injury, it is not unreasonable to expect him to give at least four wins for the first two, and maybe three, years of this deal. By year four, he probably will not provide the production consistent with what he will be owed, but he will give something on the defensive end, and he walks enough on the offensive end that he should still be close to a two-win player. All of this is to say that signing Gordon for four years will help the Royals tremendously now and won’t be as disastrous as many long term deals are by the end of the contract.
3. Trade Alcides Escobar to the Baltimore Orioles for Brian Matusz and David Lough
Let’s move away from the boring re-signings for a little bit. It’s time to start having some fun with this team. There are two things that I don’t buy with Escobar: I don’t buy that the Royals are a better team when he bats leadoff, and I don’t buy that he is an everyday shortstop. It just so happens that Ned Yost thinks that the Royals are better when Escobar bats atop the lineup, and other teams view Escobar as an everyday shortstop. In other words, it’s time to trade him. Escobar has a career on-base percentage below .300 and he provides nothing in the power department. He is good defensively, but they can find a good defensive shortstop who won’t fetch as much in a trade pretty easily. In fact, they already have a shortstop who provides more defensively than Escobar in Raul Mondesi. Brian Matusz and David Lough are better fits for this team, as players who are good at playing a specific role. For Matusz, that role is destroying lefties, and for Lough it’s playing defense as a backup outfielder. The Orioles have to be looking for a replacement for J.J. Hardy after how bad he was last season, and they might just value Escobar high enough to pull the trigger on this one. They have a need for speed in their lineup, and Escobar does provide both speed and defense. Neither one of the pieces that they give up in this deal are viewed as key pieces (Lough didn’t even make the roster), and they probably would think that they are getting a good deal here.
As for the Royals, Matusz has become a very effective reliever since failing as a starter. The Royals always seem to like and do well with failed starters turned relievers, so why not add another one? Matusz has struck out over a batter per inning as a reliever and has held left-handed batters to a .193/.245/.320 slash line over the past three seasons. Righties tend to have their way with him, but adding that kind of a weapon to your bullpen can be extremely effective if used properly. The other piece of the deal, David Lough provides next to nothing offensively, but he is very valuable in the field. Teams always say they value versatility, but then they leave players who can actually field all three outfield positions off their rosters. Lough saves runs at all three spots, and is a much better option than someone who can hit a little bit but hurt you in the field. Lough would fit right in with a Royals outfield that saves more runs than just about any other outfield that doesn’t include Kevin Kiermaier. The Royals should have been looking for a defensive outfielder that they could have attached in a trade like this one in order to avoid searching for another Alex Rios.
4. Start Raul Mondesi at shortstop
Although he has yet to get an at-bat in Triple-A, Mondesi was on the World Series roster for the Royals. I think that means that they are comfortable carrying him on their regular season roster. He wasn’t just a pinch runner, like Terrance Gore famously was in 2014, as Mondesi played the field and had some at-bats, too. I am not sure that Mondesi will ever hit more than .220 with single digit home runs, but if he can play shortstop the way scouts say he can, then his offense won’t matter. I see most people rating him as a 70 in the field on the 20/80 scouting scale (that effectively means Gold Glove caliber) and a few scouts bullishly rating him an 80 in that area (reserved for the best in the game). That could mean that he gives close to two wins per year just by playing the field. Two wins is more than what Escobar gives in total, and Mondesi will add a little more because of his speed. His hitting may not even give the Royals half of a win, but his glove has been major league ready since he was seventeen years old. Give him the spot now and take the growing pains; it is worth it just to watch him play the shortstop position.
5. Sign Howie Kendrick to a two-year contract and cut Omar Infante
The Royals made a mistake with the Infante signing, giving him too many years on that contract. The signing seemed reasonable at the time, but Infante’s batting average plummeted the minute he made Kauffman Stadium his home ballpark, and he hasn’t rebounded since. Although the Royals are probably not willing to eat the remaining money on Infante’s deal, it really isn’t all that much. He is owed about fifteen million dollars over the two remaining years on the contract, but that is pretty inexpensive for today’s free agency market. The other factor is that Infante’s contract has to be looked at as a sunk cost, and he has provided -.1 wins in his two years with the team (-.8 in 2015). His production will only fall, so the Royals can either pay for some production or dig themselves a hole at second base. Howie Kendrick seems like a better option since he usually provides above average defense and a high on-base percentage for a second baseman. The Dodgers were not properly using him in the field, as he somehow went from one of the better defensive second baseman to one of the worst in just one season. I expect that to change with him now being managed by someone other than Don Mattingly, who is effectively Joe Torre’s ghost. Torre did not like shifting save for obvious cases, and being out of position can hurt your defensive metrics if everyone else is playing in the right spot. As for his offense, Kendrick's batting average has been between .285 and .297 in each of the past five seasons, so he is a pretty consistent performer. He doesn’t provide much power, but he is a solid source of doubles and home runs for a middle infielder. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he does add significantly more than the average second baseman does at the plate. In fact, his OWAR has not been below 2.0 since 2008. Kendrick is a much better option than Infante who will not cost a fortune, and can provide the Royals with a significant upgrade in the infield.
6. Sign Doug Fister to a one-year contract
Fister had one of the most quietly dominant seasons of any pitcher in 2014. He does most of his work without the benefit of many strikeouts, so people don’t pay much attention to him, but he was consistently a number two starter for a good four-year stretch. Last year, however, everything fell apart. His ground ball rate fell, so his home run rate increased, and Fister was suddenly sitting with a 1.40 WHIP and a 4.19 ERA by the end of the season. He was looking for a short term deal to prove that he could return to being a very good pitcher again, and Kansas City would have represented an ideal location. The Royals would not have had to pay much, which is always important for them, and Fister would have been pitching behind a great defense with a young catcher who handles pitchers well. Salvador Perez might have been able to help Fister get some more groundballs, and the Royals would have been able to turn more balls in play into outs than the Nationals. The Royals needed some more arms to fill out the back end of their rotation, and Fister represented a good buy-low option. They certainly were going to have a hard time finding a cheaper option with more upside than a guy who posted a WAR above 3.0 in every season from 2011-14 and a WAR above 4.0 in three of those four seasons.
7. Re-Sign Chris Young to a one-year contract
In case you’re wondering, I had the offseason moves worked out before the offseason really got going, so no, I did not cheat and just write down the Gordon and Young signings because they happened. I would have signed Young for one year instead of two because I think the Royals had the leverage to do so. There aren’t too many teams that can effectively use a pitcher like this. You first need a great bullpen that can also pitch often, and then you need a great defense. If you don’t have a great and lengthy bullpen, then your relievers will have to work too hard every fifth game. If you don’t have a great defense, then Young will allow too many balls to be put in play that will just find holes in your defense. That will happen with any pitcher who doesn’t strike out many batters. The Royals are among maybe five teams that can check off both of those boxes, but I am willing to bet that they are the only team that can do that and feel comfortable with Chris Young in their rotation. I think he makes sense for the Royals for a lot of the reasons that he doesn’t make sense for other teams, but they could have just kept signing him to one-year deals until they could no longer find a use for him. As for what Young brings, he just forces the batter to put balls in play and won’t give up any free passes. He is capable of being a fifth starter behind a good defense and you just hope that it isn’t the year that he completely falls apart, which will come soon.
8. Sign Mark Lowe and Joe Thatcher
The last thing for the Royals do to in this imaginary offseason that has already passed is add some more relief pitchers. Lowe’s career revival really started in Cleveland in 2014, where he pitched a total of seven innings. What he did with Cleveland, and then with Seattle and Toronto in 2015, was develop a two-seam fastball, start throwing his slider more than half of the time, and stop throwing his four-seam fastball so often. The results were very positive, as Lowe has seen batters chase pitches outside the zone much more often, no doubt due to the extra movement he has on his fastball and the fact that he throws his slider as his primary pitch. Even though the sample size is pretty small, I expect these recent trends to continue with Lowe and he should be a good reliever for the next couple of years if he keeps his current repertoire.
Thatcher is a very different story, as he has always just flown under the radar as a guy who provides solid innings but will never “wow” you. That is partially because his fastball averages in the mid-80s, and also because teams have always viewed him as a pure lefty-specialist. I can’t explain why teams view him this way, since his numbers don’t really back up the idea that he is a lefty specialist (righties have a lower on-base percentage against him than left-handed batters), but Thatcher seems to always be taken out after getting one or two batters. He has racked up 405 relief appearances and just 260.2 innings in his career. All I know is that he would have a spot on my team, as he keeps his walk rate down, rarely gives up home runs, and strikes out more than a batter per inning. I really don’t know what this guy has to do to get a job (he is still a free agent), since he has pitched much better than many of the relief pitchers that get contracts in free agency. The Royals could have paid this guy the minimum and wound up with a pitcher who can perform quite well in the middle innings.
Final Team and Projections
Salvador Perez (2.5 WAR) – He is very productive for a backstop, and I still can't believe that he is only 25 years old.
Drew Butera (-0.1) – He has never had a positive WAR, but he is fine for a backup if the starter is durable.
Eric Hosmer (3.5) – Among the best things for the Royals last year was the significant increase in Hosmer’s walk rate.
Howie Kendrick (2.9) – He will rebound from his poor defensive season with better fielder alignment.
Mike Moustakas (4.8) – He finally hit his stride offensively last season, and that was mostly due to the drop in his strikeout rate.
Raul Mondesi (2.6) – If what scouts say is true, then his fielding alone might produce this number.
Christian Colon (0.6) – He can play three infield spots with a high average and few strikeouts.
Alex Gordon (4.3) – He’ll provide at least 4.3 wins if he stays healthy.
David Lough (0.5) – Minimal offensive contributions, large defensive contributions.
Lorenzo Cain (6.5) – He gets half of this value from his baserunning and defense.
Jarrod Dyson (3.2) – He is essentially Lorenzo Cain minus all of the production at the plate.
Paulo Orlando (0.6) – He is a decent backup at all outfield spots with some pop.
Johnny Cueto (4.7) – Way too much was made of his post-trade struggles.
Yordano Ventura (2.4) – He keeps the ball in the park and increased his strikeout rate last season.
Edinson Volquez (1.8) – He has always struggled with control, but he doesn’t give up many homers.
Doug Fister (1.8) – He never walks batters.
Chris Young (1.2) – He is well-managed.
Wade Davis (3.1) – I am really disappointed that he failed as a starter. If he hadn’t, baseball fans would be able to watch 130 more of his spectacular innings each year.
Kelvin Herrera (1.9) – The eighth inning isn’t much easier for opponents.
Mark Lowe (1.3) – His strikeout and walk rates have been excellent since he changed his repertoire.
Brian Matusz (0.9) – Absolutely dominates lefties.
Joe Thatcher (0.8) – His peripherals are better than any team seems to realize.
Luke Hochevar (1.2) – Another failed starter turned Royals’ bullpen weapon; they’re too good with that.
Kris Medlen (0.7) – I don’t think that I am rooting for any other non-Yankee who is not on my fantasy team more than Medlen this year. I would love it if he successfully completed the difficult journey back to pitching well in the majors.
Here are the numbers for the Royals: