Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

The process was vindicated, sort of and belatedly, with the Royals run to the post-season and almost, dammit ALMOST, to a World Series championship.  I think that might be giving the word ‘vindication’ a bit of short stick, but it does or at least did for a while make Dayton Moore look like he knew what he was doing.

We are going to find out just how much luck and how much ‘process’ was involved in the very fun 2014 season soon enough.  So, if Dayton Moore really is smarter than us:

  • Kendrys Morales will do post something akin to his .277/.336/.449 line of 2013 (that included 34 doubles and 23 home runs). I’ll be honest, this contract is the one I hate the most, but he was better in the near past – certainly that excludes 2014 – than my feeble memory originally believed.  Look, this is a ‘is Dayton Moore smarter than you’ column, not a ‘Dayton Moore is a wizard’ column.  Asking any more from Morales than he what he did for Seattle two seasons ago is simply not realistic.  I’m not sure it’s realistic to even expect that, but certainly Moore does.
  • Aaron Crow will never start a game for the Florida Marlins.  Listen, this is not about wishing ill on Crow.  Frankly, I liked his comments about being left off the post-season roster.  Tell me again why anyone would want players in their organization that didn’t care about that?  Anyway, god forbid Crow starts 18 games next year for the Marlins with middling results:  Dayton Moore would never trade a reliever again.
  • Alex Rios will do what Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur did in 2011 for the Royals:  i.e. salvage his career. I think there is at least a 50% chance that Rios pulls a ‘Juan Gonzalez’ on us, but I do believe Rios sees 2015 as his chance to get that one last big contract. Again, Rios may be done physically and that will be that.  However, his past shows a player who might not always give you his undivided attention….Okay, let’s just say it:  I think Rios is a slacker who lives off a reputation that exceeds what he has actually produced.  That said, the idea that he could turn one year and $11 million into three more years and another $30 million would certainly motivate a traditionally hard to motivate player.  Now, as long as Dayton Moore is not the one that gives out three years…..
  • Edinson Volquez…..Eh, what do you want here?  Volquez had not been as good (i.e. lucky) as he was in 2014 since his rookie 2008 season.  In between those years, you have numbers that make you say ‘damn, I DO like that Jeremy Guthrie’.  Dayton Moore is smarter than us if Volquez, benefiting from only have to throw five innings due to the Royals’ once again fantastic bullpen, spins a nice half year for the Royals and is traded in July to make room for Kyle Zimmer.
  • Kris Medlen comes back in late June, pitches with dominance out of the bullpen for two months and then wins six straight starts down the stretch (or something like that). Does that make Moore smarter than any of use?  Maybe not, because that’s what we are all hoping in some fashion and the contract is one that hopes the exact same thing.  Of all that has happened, this is the move everyone loves and everyone should.  Even North Korean hackers should like this move.

Odds?  I like the Crow trade and Medlen signing (big leap there) and let me go on record by saying one of Morales or Rios (not sure which) probably will surprise with us with positive production.  I have no reason to be, but yet I am optimistic on Medlen.  Listen, if you are going to take a chance on a two-time Tommy John guy, do it with a pitcher who was very, very good before it all happened.   None of that, in my opinion, gets the Royals back to the playoffs.

Of course, if Dayton Moore really is smarter than us (or just plain luckier), than Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer will spend the 2015 regular season playing as they did in the 2014 post-season.  That, my friends, is what will get the Royals back to the playoffs.

It’s safe to assume Dayton Moore wrapped up his off-season spending spree, splashing the cash on the starting pitcher to fill the void in the Royals rotation.

Here are five thoughts as we all welcome Edinson Volquez to the Royals rotation.

Volquez is not a replacement for James Shields.

He will take the spot Shields vacated, but Volquez is not a replacement. Shields had fWARs of 4.5 and 3.7 in his two seasons in Kansas City. We can quibble about whether or not Shields was a “number one” starter, but there’s no denying he was the best starting pitcher in the Royals rotation in each of the two seasons he called Kansas City home. Volquez has posted a fWAR above 1.1 exactly one time in his career. And that was all the way back in 2008. Before his Tommy John Surgery. In his last three seasons combined, Volquez has been worth 2.1 fWAR. That’s fifth starter material. At best.

David Glass isn’t cheap.

Frankly, I’m kind of tired of this Royals meme. Glass hasn’t had an issue spending money since Dayton Moore was hired. I won’t go so far as to call Glass a “model owner,” but he’s done a nice job of staying out of the way of the baseball operations. Royals payroll, with arbitration estimates and unsigned players combined figures to be around $115 million. That’s pretty huge for this franchise. Although spending the money poorly is kind of the same as not having that money at all.

Volquez could see an uptick in his walk rate.

I know we aren’t supposed to speak ill of St. Sal, but Volquez really benefitted from Russell Martin behind the plate in Pittsburgh. Martin is regarded as one of the better pitch framers and stats say he’s the third best pitch framer in the game. The same stat puts Perez in the bottom tier of regular backstops.

This is key because Volquez has earned the moniker of “Walkman.” He has a career walk rate of 4.5 BB/9. He walks over 11 percent of all batters. Working with Martin last summer in Pittsburgh, Volquez’s walk rate was a career best 3.3 BB/9 and his percentage dropped to 8.8 percent. He is two years removed from a BB/9 over five and a whopping 13 percent walk rate. Read this post from Mike Petriello at Fangraphs for an in-depth study on the affect Martin had on Volquez. Certainly, there could be something mechanical that has led to his reduction in walks. I haven’t watched him enough to know. But this is something to watch going forward. If Volquez struggles with command, the best defense in the world isn’t going to be much help.

Volquez’s 2014 ERA of 3.04 was done with smoke and mirrors.

While Volquez has improved his walk rate, his strikeout rate has declined in each of the last three seasons. In 2014, his BABIP was .263. His xFIP was 4.20. His strand rate was 78 percent. These are not positive peripherals. He will not come close to his 3.04 ERA he finished with in 2014.

Volquez is a fifth starter.

It’s entirely possible with the Royals bullpen and their defense, they can overcome Volquez’s shortcomings as a starter. I’ve been waiting for Jeremy Guthrie to regress for the last two seasons yet he’s somehow become a serviceable back of the rotation starter. That’s what I see as the best case for Volquez.

I’m not slamming this signing. Volquez is probably the best pitcher the Royals could have plucked off the open market at this point and within their budget. There’s a whiff of “it is what it is” about this. It’s uninspiring, but when the Royals won’t make a trade and can’t go for the big players on the market, this is the new reality for the Royals. It reminds me of the Jason Vargas signing last winter in a way. Vargas signed for four years and people were shocked the Royals would hand out such a lengthy contract to a mediocre starter. But I saw the Royals locking in a starting pitcher to an affordable deal. They knew inflation would rapidly push the price of mediocrity and with Vargas, they got in front of the inflation. So far, so good. Because look at how much mediocrity costs in 2015. With Volquez, they needed to go two years for a much more inconsistent starter. I don’t see an upside here, but on two years, at least the Royals exposure is somewhat limited.

No matter what happened this offseason, repeating as AL champions was going to be a difficult task. Forget about what the White Sox, Indians and Tigers have done. Even in a vacuum, it’s just damn difficult to repeat. Volquez doesn’t help their chances as much as Shields leaving hurts, but no matter who the Royals got to fill the rotation, they simply weren’t going to make up Shields’s production.

Finally, here’s how I rank the Royals free agent signings by order of usefulness to the team:

1. Alex Rios

2. Volquez

3. Kendrys Morales

Not an inspring list, to be sure, but it’s maybe functional? I don’t know. All three carry huge risks with some upside. Not much. Some. To me, betting on three players of this ilk to produce is risky business. But after last year, who knows.

A few days after committing $17 million dollars for two years of Kendrys Morales, the Royals have dipped back into the rebound market.

This time, Dayton Moore and the Royals brain trust emerge with Alex Rios for $11 million.

I don’t like this signing. (Go ahead, bookmark this post for ammo later in 2015.) Rios is 34 years old, plays subpar defense in right, lost all of his power (in Texas for christsakes), and his ability to reach base is fueled almost entirely on his BABIP. How’s that for a summary?

But here’s the money question: What should Moore have done to fill his Aoki-sized hole in right field? They scouted Yasmani Tomas, but didn’t win his services. They were in on Melky Cabrera, but he went to the South Side on a three-year deal. I never heard they were interested in Nick Markakis. There just weren’t many free agent options in this market.

The trade market is more difficult to gauge. In the last week, I’ve seen articles from “insiders” suggesting John Lamb and Christian Colon or Sean Manaea and Colon would net Justin Upton. Let’s just say if that was accurate, I’d be opening an email from the Royals PR staff trumpeting a “Major Announcement.” That hasn’t happened, so I’ll continue down the road of my own personal skepticism that a pitching prospect and Colon are enough to get one of the best outfielders in the game.

There just aren’t any options. Or should I say, any good options.

Instead of accepting Rios and Morales, we should be asking some questions. Why are the Royals in the position where this is the best they can do? The easy answer is, of course, payroll constraints. The market size works against the Royals. This isn’t anything new. They aren’t going to be in on the top free agents. And they risk losing their top players after six years of service. Such is life in baseball in the 21st century.

I continue to go back to Dayton Moore and his quotes about building a farm system. And at one point, he and his team did build a fantastic farm system. But that system didn’t produce major league talent. Sure it brought Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas if you’re feeling generous. Greg Holland was a tremendous find. Wil Myers netted James Shields and Wade Davis. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon as members of the previous regime’s drafts weren’t part of that, so they don’t count.

The Royals found some talent in Moore’s early years via the draft, but lately it’s been a different story. Where are more success stories like Holland – the mid-rounder who defies scouting wisdom and develops into an All-Star? Outside of the Royals closer, they haven’t hit on anyone in the mid rounds of the draft.

Simply put, the Royals are in this position because of several abysmal drafts and the fundamental breakdown of player development.

The Royals 2009 draft brought Aaron Crow and Louis Coleman. The 2010 draft class produced Christian Colon and Michael Mariot. Their 2011 draft yielded Terrance Gore (fun in September and October, but a non-factor until rosters expand) and Aaron Brooks. The Royals 2012 draft hasn’t produced a major league player. The last impact player drafted by the Royals was Eric Hosmer. In 2008.

There are myriad reasons for the failure of the Pipeline 2.0 to produce major league talent. Poor scouting. Failed player development. Even bad luck has played a part. (I’m thinking of Bubba Starling in particular. In a draft where the Royals were targeting one of four pitchers with the fifth overall pick, all were off the board by the time the Royals made their selection.)

The fact is the Royals haven’t had a quality minor leaguer rise through the ranks in quite some time. The pipeline, with scant talent in the high minors, is currently dry. This is a failure of Dayton Moore, his scouting and his player development staff. The Royals window could very well have been 2014. That would be to damn bad, because last October was a blast. As fans, we want more success. It’s possible with Rios and Morales as spare parts we can find that success again. It’s just that at this moment, it feels like a long shot.

You asked for action. The Royals listened.

Kansas City made their first free agent splash of the winter, signing Kendrys Morales to a two-year deal worth $17 million. The contract contains up to $750,000 in incentives for each season, so the total deal could reach $18.5 million.

I don’t get it.

The Royals let Billy Butler walk in part because they desired “flexibility” at the designated hitter position. Ned Yost mentioned Sal Perez as a guy whose bat “is difficult to get out of the lineup.” (Which is a questionable statement in itself, but that’s a topic for another day.) The idea is the Royals have been locked in with Butler at DH, so they’d like to use the position to give some guys – like Perez – a partial day off. In theory, it’s a half-decent idea. Certainly understandable. Butler signs in Oakland for three years at $10 million per and the Royals decide they need Morales at roughly $9 million per year over the next two seasons.

See what I mean?

Morales famously turned down a qualifying offer following the 2013 season and was left adrift when the ’14 season got underway before finally signing with the Twins. His time in Minnesota could only be described as horrific. After posting a .234/.259/.325 line in 162 plate appearances, they returned him to Seattle in a trade. He was a little better, but a .207/.285/.347 isn’t going to get the job done. It could be fair to speculate that his poor 2014 was due to not getting reps in spring training and sitting out until June. But look at those slash lines again. His power didn’t come around until he moved to the Mariners (and that’s relatively speaking.) Seven of his eight home runs hit in 2014 were with Seattle.

A couple of other quick points about Morales. First, his line drive rate – which is an indication of how well he barrels the ball – has dropped each year since returning from his leg injury. Last year, it bottomed out at 17.8 percent, which can be used as a clue to explain why his batting average on balls in play was .244 last summer. The line drive rate isn’t the only cause – they don’t go hand in hand – but I thought it was worth pointing out. I would expect his BABIP to rebound as he’s usually around .300. Also, his HR/FB rate last year was a career worst 7.9 percent. That’s well off his career rate of 15.2 percent. Like his BABIP, I would bet on his home run totals to improve in 2015. And I’m thinking that’s what the Royals are betting on, too.

So the question is, was 2014 the harbinger of decline for Morales, or was it an aberration?

Personally, I’ll split the difference. Morales won’t be as bad as he was in 2014. Nor will he recapture his best years. Steamer has him at .259/.316/.421 with 14 home runs and a 0.3 fWAR. Better than 2014, but not enough to justify the contract. And certainly not enough to justify him as a full-time DH. This is my fear.

Throw out last season and if you go off his 2013 numbers (1.4 fWAR), you could perhaps talk yourself into giving Morales a $15 million contract over two seasons. But the 2014 season did happen. Even if you want to put an asterisk next to it. So even if Morales betters his Steamer projection, it won’t be enough, so this contract represents a serious overpay.

The Royals and Dayton Moore will get (and should get) a good will bounce following the AL pennant. The post-championship glow hangs around for a little bit. However, that can be squandered with a handful of bad moves. Tread lightly.

The playoffs are a tiny sample size roller coaster, perhaps better enjoyed in one’s viscera than in the analytic mind. And I hope to get around to writing a more personal post about what the 2014 World Series was like for me, but I can’t entirely turn off the rational part of my Royals fandom that often informs my writing and understanding of team history. As we finally added some new post-season games to team lore this past season, I’ve thought about how to best objectively quantify playoff performance, particularly how it should factor into my top 100 Royals rankings. In the first version of my rankings, I looked at each player’s playoff performance and gave it a sort of gut reaction rating between one and 10. (Then I added that number to half their wins above replacement, plus wins above average. After sticking with that for a bit, I decided the playoff factor was making an over-sized impact on the ratings and multiplied the 1-10 ratings by 70%, thus giving playoff participants somewhere between a .7—7 point boost.) But the inconsistencies of my gut ratings started to bug me, and I’ve come up with convoluted playoff rating formulas so that all players are being judged roughly the same way.

The things I wanted to measure were playing time, win probability added (WPA), runs created (RC) for position players, and ERA for pitchers. I also decided to include a small subjective adjustment (ADJ) for positional players that tries to take into account other important factors including positional difficulty, defense, and baserunning. The raw adjustment number going into the formula can be -1, -.5, 0, +.5, or +1. And for pitchers, the ERA rating is 100-((ERA/3.83)*100). (The average ERA has been close enough to 3.83 every year the Royals have been in the postseason that I’m not adjusting for era.)

After fooling around with formulas to get ratings that were generally on a 1-10 scale, I’ve come up with these disgusting beauties:

For position players: (plate appearances-60)/50)+(WPA*1.5)+ADJ+(RC/10)
For pitchers: ((IP-11/11)+WPA+(ERA rating/10))*.6

(Some players end up with a negative number, but those are all converted to a +1 in my player rankings. And George Brett’s number is over 10, but I cap the rating at 10, so that’s what he gets for my rankings. Pitchers must pitch at least 10 innings to earn a rating over 1. Blergh.)

Here are the top 10 playoff ratings:

1. George Brett 13.2
2. Willie Wilson 6.0
3. Danny Jackson 5.8
3. Wade Davis 5.8
5. Hal McRae 5.7
6. Eric Hosmer 5.6
7. Amos Otis 5.4
8. Greg Holland 5.3
9. Frank White 4.5
10. Alex Gordon 4.0

Top 10 win probability added:

1. Willie Aikens 1.5
2. Eric Hosmer 1.4
3. George Brett 1.4
4. Wade Davis 1.1
5. Danny Jackson .9
6. Greg Holland .9
7. Alex Gordon .9
8. Kelvin Herrera .9
9. Paul Splittorff .7
10. Amos Otis .7

Top 10 runs created*:

1. George Brett 81
2. Hal McRae 46
3. Willie Wilson 41
4. Frank White 38
5. Amos Otis 34
6. Eric Hosmer 29
7. Willie Aikens 26
8. Lorenzo Cain 25
9. Alcides Escobar 21
10. Alex Gordon 21

And here is a link to a spreadsheet with all ratings and the numbers that went into them. (You should be able to sort any column you like.)

*runs created formula I used: (BB*.707)+(HBP*.74)+(1B*.909)+(2B*1.301)+(3B*1.653)+(HR*2.145)+(SB*.2)+(CS*-.391)

To quote President Ford: “Our long, national nightmare is over.”

Jon Lester, the free agent roadblock finally – mercifully – made his decision. He’s going to not win World Series for the Cubs.

Personally, I haven’t given a damn about Lester and his indecision. The Royals weren’t players (duh) so whatever. What has annoyed me is the fact he’s presumably setting the market for just about everyone else without a contract at this point of the offseason. The second tier of starters is waiting for someone in the top tier to get a benchmark contract. The third tier is just hoping someone notices them. The position players have been in a holding pattern because they need to make sure someone has cash left over. And Max Scherzer is on some other planet.

It’s made for a dull winter meetings.

The big news from San Diego yesterday was that the Royals are allegedly attempting to move second baseman Omar Infante. Infante is owed just over $25 million over the next three years. (That includes a $2 million buyout on a club option in 2018.) That’s a horrible contract. No other way to parse that one. Horrible. So of course the Royals are looking to move on from something so unpleasant. Sadly, I can’t imagine any takers.

Except is seems they already have their sights set on a replacement in free agent Asdrubal Cabrera. That’s a nice idea and all, but Cabrera will get at least the cash that is owed to Infante. Industry estimates peg Cabrera in line for a three-year deal anywhere between $25 and $33 million. Sure, he could be an upgrade, but the Royals know there’s zero chance of bringing him on board if Infante is still around. And how do you trade Infante if you don’t know exactly who will replace him. I suppose the fallback option would be Christian Colon. For the amount of money he would make – close to the major league minimum – I suppose that’s a decent guy to have as Plan C. I’m not sold on Colon as an everyday guy, but if the Royals were able to move Infante and use his salary for a starting pitcher or right fielder, I’d be willing to give it a shot.

Meanwhile, word came out the Royals were not looking to break up their three-headed bullpen monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Smart posturing by the club, if you ask me. With David Robertson and Andrew Miller off the board, the top two bullpen options are now with new teams for 2015. Like the starting pitching market, teams can either look to the second tier of relievers such as Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, or they can look to work a trade.

Personally, I think the Royals are smart in saying their trio isn’t available. At this time. It only builds a demand and a market. That demand and market will only grow when the second tier of relievers is signed. While Herrera-Davis-Holland aren’t on the move today, that doesn’t mean one of them can’t be dealt tomorrow.

Who knew he had it in him?

Royals GM Dayton Moore has a reputation for getting the off-season started in a hurry.  It had become common for Moore’s ‘big move’ of the winter to happen about thirty seconds after the final out of the World Series, but not this year.  Not unless the ‘big move’ was trading Aaron Crow.

Thus far, the Royals off-season has consisted of resigning reliever Jason Frasor, trading reliever Aaron Crow and resigning RELIEVER Luke Hochevar. I don’t buy the conversation that Hochevar will be in the starting rotation, if only because that sounds too much like the ‘old’ Royals and not the ‘we played in game seven of the World Series’ Royals.

If Moore was actually truthful when he speculated yesterday that the Royals might carry 13 pitchers in 2015, you might as well carry good ones. With an array of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar, an imaginative manager could really shorten a game and do so night after night.  I’m just going to the leave that there and let you ponder.

At any rate, it has been a busy off-season…for other teams, but I am not sure there are a lot of deals that have gone down that make you say ‘I wish the Royals would have done that.’

Quite obviously, the Royals are not in need of a big name reliever, but even if they were would you give Andrew Miller four years and $36 million or David Robertson four years and $46 million?

Bats?  They aren’t cheap, either, and a lot of them are old.

I don’t think anyone but Detroit was really in on Victor Martinez, but four years and $68 million?  Yikes.  Russell Martin signed a five year deal for $82 million, Nick Markakis went for four and $44 million, Nelson Cruz for four and $58 million, Billy Butler for godssake got three years and $30 million and the carcass of Torii Hunter got a $10 million to play another year.  A lot of people like Markakis, by the way, but put his numbers up next to those of Nori Aoki and tell me you want to write the check the Braves just did.

Those deals, by the way, at least made me give a couple of minutes of thought.  Hanley Ramirez?  Pablo Sandoval? Adam LaRoche?  Didn’t even take the time to look of the stats on those.

Listen, when the two ‘best’ deals of the off-season are Michael Cuddyer at 2/$21 million and a draft pick and Yasmany Tomas at 6 years/$68 million and hope he can hit major league pitching, being not in the news is not a bad thing.  Frankly, I think Tomas would have been worth the gamble and the money, but I can see the logic in not making that leap, too.

Trades?

Would you trade for one year of Jeff Samardzija?  Well, given the price, maybe, but I don’t know who is the Royals’ equivalent of Marcus Semien.  Let’s face it, I don’t know what Billy Beane is doing, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Oakland won 90 games again with Billy Butler and bunch of guys none of us thought were any good.

Josh Donaldson? Yes, but then I don’t know that anyone besides Oakland and Toronto knew that he was available.  Besides, Brett Lawrie is better than Mike Moustakas, which means the Royals’ package going to Oakland would not make the prospect hounds comfortable.

The other deals that have been completed are hard to see where Kansas City would fit or why they would want to.

Starting Pitching?

….crickets….

It would not be uncommon for Dayton Moore to be the first in the pool when it comes to signing a free agent starter, but the current demands (I think/hope) may be convincing him to slow play the market.  I like Ervin Santana, but I don’t like five year of him and he, along with most of the ‘second tier’ guys, probably aren’t coming down from their demands until they see what the losers of the Lester deal decide to do.

Anxious for a big winter move?  Sure, we are all.  Hell, Dayton, get an extra check blank from Mr. Glass and sign Melky Cabrera AND Santana!  In lieu of that, however, patience might serve the Royals well this winter.

Of course, there is a fine line between being patient and being paralyzed.

As the baseball world convenes in San Diego, Royals fans are wondering just where in San Diego Dayton Moore is hanging out at this moment.

The big news of the first day was the continuing Oakland fire sale with Billy Beane attempting to get back at Kansas City by selling off Brandon Moss to the Indians and Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox. The Central is getting better. The Royals saw their opening a year earlier and made their mark, now the Indians and Sox are positioning themselves to break through into October. If we learned anything from 2014, it’s that while the Tigers may be vunerable, you don’t have to knock them from their perch to make an impact in the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Royals have been barely in the news. Reports are they met with Melky Cabrera’s representatives on Monday evening, but the current smart money has Cabrera cashing checks in the Pacific Northwest over the next four to five summers. If they lose out to Cabrera, they may turn to Colby Rasmus. Rasmus hit .225/.287/.448 in 376 plate appearances for the Blue Jays last year and produced a 0.6 fWAR. He’s produced over 4 fWAR a couple of times in his career and at 28 years old, represents an intriguing option. Estimates I’ve seen have him getting anywhere between one to three years at an average annual value of around $10 million. But Rasmus is a left-handed bat. The Royals really need some pop (relatively speaking, this is the Royals) from the right side of the plate.

The Royals were also mentioned in the hunt for Justin Masterson. He’s an intriguing buy low candidate who could be had on a one-year deal as he attempts to rebuild some value. He was abysmal last year for the Indians and then the Cardinals. So bad that St. Louis bundled him off to the bullpen for their stretch run. Although to be fair, he pitched with knee issues for most of the year. He’s supposed to be healthy, so he’s a guy who could fill out the rotation. Notice I said “fill out the rotation” which is different from saying he could be a replacement for James Shields. There is most definitely a difference.

Your humorous rumor of the day was the Braves response to when the Royals inquired on Evan Gattis. Allegedly the Braves responded by asking for Yordano Ventura. I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing.

*Looks at watch.*

Yeah, I almost tore an oblique muscle when I heard that one. But this is the Hot Stove and there’s no shame in setting a high price out of the chute. It’s negotiation after all. Or maybe it’s the Braves way of letting the Royals know they’re not really interested in dealing Gattis. Whatever the thought process, it looks like Gattis isn’t going to be moved in the near future.

Tuesday, the Jon Lester sweepstakes is supposed to draw to a merciful close. When that happens, expect the floodgates to open and the pitching dominoes start to fall. Did I mix a metaphor there? Welcome to the Hot Stove.

 

The Royals arrive in San Diego for the Winter Meetings with a couple of king-size holes to fill.

First, they need someone to replace James Shields at the top of the rotation. We can debate whether Shields is an “ace” or even a true “number one starter” (he’s neither) but the fact is, on the Royals staff, he was the top dog. His 8.2 fWAR is clearly the best mark among pitchers during his two year tenure in Kansas City. That’s not simple to replace.

The Royals have been linked to former Royal Ervin Santana. Santana is an intriguing option, a year removed from his turn in Kansas City. He’s rumored to be looking for a five-year deal, which is insanity. Not insane on Santana’s part, he’s entitled to ask for whatever he can get. But for a “second-tier” free agent starting pitcher to get five years… I’m not certain that’s something the market will bear. The Royals rumored comfort level is a three-year deal, which is their prerogative, but let’s not forget they showered Gil Meche with a five-year deal once upon a time. Of course, that was on a different team with a different payroll, so I’m not sure that’s a relevant comparison. However, let’s not pretend the Royals have never awarded a large contract before.

Anyway, Santana was almost as good for the Braves in 2014 as he was for the Royals in 2013. That should lay to rest fears about his health. He’s still throwing a bunch of sliders, but last year, he cut down on the slider in favor of more change-ups. With the success he had, there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to move forward as a fairly valuable starter.

While hitters have gone off the free agent board, the starting pitching market has been slower to take shape. I suppose that has something to do with Jon Lester. Weird how he’s the guy everyone is focused upon and we don’t hear anything at all about the market for his alleged fellow first-tier starters, Shields and Max Scherzer. I would expect some movement on this front in San Diego with at least two of the so-called Big Three finding new homes this week.

Second, the Royals need to acquire a right-fielder, preferably one who swings a right-handed bat. This is where things get a little dicey. They are rumored to have interest in Melky Cabrera. (He’s a switch-hitter, so that will fill the bill as well.) Cabrera is now the best bat remaining on the market and is likely seeking a five-year deal of his own. Cabrera just turned 30, has been popped for a failed drug test in 2012 and had surgery to remove a tumor on his spine in 2013.

After Cabrera you have Alex Rios or Michael Morse. There’s also the possibility of Kendrys Morales. See what I mean? It’s thin on the hitter market. That means the Royals could look to make a move via trade. Dealing from a position of strength to patch a weakness. That means the Royals could look to break up the bullpen.

Having said that, I’m not sold the Royals will move a bullpen part. I’ll add the caveat of at this time. The blueprint the Royals established is three lockdown, late game relievers. Coverage for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. That’s Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Yes, that trio is going to cost in the neighborhood of $18 million next summer, but the Royals rightfully believe those guys were key to their successes in 2014. I’m not saying they wouldn’t move a reliever if the price was right, but I wonder what the trade market will bring.

Davis is less expensive than Holland and has cost certainty for the next three seasons. Holland will cash in more than Davis thanks to arbitration this winter, and has one more additional turn before he hits the free agent market following the 2016 season. It stands to reason the Royals would rather hold onto Davis for fiscal reasons, but those reasons that make him attractive to the Royals likewise make him appealing to other teams looking to deal.

Adding to their reluctance is the face we can’t count on Luke Hochevar to be a member of that late inning triumvirate. He hasn’t begun a throwing program as of yet. The hope is Hochevar can start in January. Besides, there’s no way to tell how Hochevar will come back from his surgery until they get some game action. It’s useful to remember with Tommy John surgery, while the velocity returns quickly, the command lags behind. It would be wise for the Royals to ease him back into the bullpen. Maybe some low leverage situations or a handful of sixth inning appearances to get his arm reacclimatized to game action.

At any rate, I expect something to happen this week in San Diego. Either a starting pitcher or an outfielder. It would be a disappointing meeting if the Royals return to Kansas City with the same holes in the lineup as when they left.

The Royals were 90 feet from playing extra innings to become champions.  There is no diminishing that accomplishment.

The 89 win 2014 Kansas City Royals would have also missed the playoffs by three games in 2013, four in 2012 and by a game in 2011 (if the current two wild-card system was in place back then).

As well suited as the Royals were for post-season play, they were just an okay regular season team.  By some statistical measures, your 89 win Royals were really more of an 84-78 team (Pythagorean) or even an 81-81 squad (Base Runs). Read what you want into those numbers.   If you want to make the case that the 2014 Kansas City Royals’ true talent level was 89 wins, I would not argue too hard against you.

All of that said, whatever your perception of the American League Champions, you cannot dispute that at this very moment they are not as good as they were when Salvador Perez insisted on swinging at high fastballs from the surreal arm of Madison Bumgarner to end the season.  James Shields and his 227 innings and 3.7 fWAR is gone.  So is Billy Butler, who according to either bWAR or fWAR provided virtually no wins above replacement level, and Nori Aoki.  Everyone will remember the comic and eclectic stylings of Mr. Aoki, but might forget he was worth 2.3 wins (per fWAR) and posted a .349 on-base percentage.

Dayton Moore has work to do, even if ‘everyone does improve’.

Thus far, he has slow-played the off-season.  As Craig detailed earlier, Moore resigned Jason Frasor, who we would all think is pretty good if not for the immense shadow of Holland, Davis and Herrera.  He shipped off Aaron Crow, who had no value, for two minor league arms:  debunking the theory that one could not get a bucket of balls for him.  Moore signed another utility infielder in Ryan Jackson.   All solid, if minor, baseball moves.

And today (or last night), Moore resigned Luke Hochevar for real cash money (2 years/$10 million).  I am assuming the Royals have a better idea as to Hochevar’s health than any of the other 29 teams and outlaying this kind of contract indicates to me that the organization thinks Luke will be ready to pitch sooner rather than later.  As already speculated by many already, it might also indicate a future trade of one of the ‘big’ bullpen arms.

Either that, or the Royals have suddenly gone cutting edge and are planning on getting five innings out of their starters and going to the bullpen day after day for four innings of dominance.  That’s a tongue in cheek sentence there, but would it work over the course of a 162 game schedule?

All said, the Royals need to do more than just ‘replace’ Shields, Butler and Aoki and cannot rely upon the current group to improve enough to make up the difference.  Let’s have some fun and say that Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain are going to be the guys they were in the post-season for all of 2015 AND let’s say Danny Duffy will parlay 150 innings of very good pitching into 210 innings of the same AND let’s say the bullpen is just as good as last year:  that still feels like about 89 wins.  All that might not be enough to get back to the playoffs, much less the World Series.

For all the ‘stuff’ Dayton Moore has done, we have to give him credit for parlaying Zack Greinke into Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain and, let’s face it, he traded Wil Myers with the sole intention of getting the Royals into the playoffs and it worked.  It took him longer than we wanted (or probably that it should have, too), but that was pretty much Dayton Moore’s team that was one game from a really cool trophy.

The hardest part of Dayton Moore’s job started THIS off-season and all of us would be wise to remember that while Kansas City ended the year as the second best team in baseball, they spent the bulk of it somewhere in the middle of the pack of the American League.  There’s no World Series without first making the playoffs, and 89 wins usually doesn’t get you to the post-season.

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