Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts published by Craig Brown

How did we get here? How did we arrive at the moment where Kendrys Morales became the Royals designated hitter?

It seems the process was two-fold.

First, the Royals were desperate to part with Billy Butler. We’ve written about this at length. There was just no way the Royals were going to bring Butler back. The Royals declined his option, made a token play at re-signing him and then let him go when Oakland ponied up serious cash leading Moore to admit he misread the market. Second, the Royals figured they would go with the method du jour of rotating the DH spot among players who needed a rest and a couple of bench bats to keep them fresh. They didn’t need a full-time designated hitter.

And within a month and a half, their course of direction changed and Morales was at a introductory press conference at The K. Strange days, indeed.

I gave my reaction to the Morales signing when it happened. It hasn’t changed. Instead of rehashing how the Royals could have better spent their money, let’s instead dive into the player the Royals purchased for two years and all those millions.

Morales hit the free agent market following the 2013 season after turning down a qualifying offer from the Mariners. Teams, leery of surrendering a draft pick as part of the cost of signing Morales, kept their distance. Morales didn’t sign a deal until after the 2014 draft in June. Turning down the qualifying offer cost Morales two-plus months of last season. When he finally got in uniform he was… not good.

Let’s just start with the big picture of Morales’s career stats.

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2006 23 LAA 57 215 197 21 46 10 1 5 22 17 28 .234 .293 .371 .664 71
2007 24 LAA 43 126 119 12 35 10 0 4 15 6 21 .294 .333 .479 .812 111
2008 25 LAA 27 66 61 7 13 2 0 3 8 4 7 .213 .273 .393 .666 73
2009 26 LAA 152 622 566 86 173 43 2 34 108 46 117 .306 .355 .569 .924 139
2010 27 LAA 51 211 193 29 56 5 0 11 39 12 31 .290 .346 .487 .833 129
2012 29 LAA 134 522 484 61 132 26 1 22 73 31 116 .273 .320 .467 .787 119
2013 30 SEA 156 657 602 64 167 34 0 23 80 49 114 .277 .336 .449 .785 123
2014 31 TOT 98 401 367 28 80 20 0 8 42 27 68 .218 .274 .338 .612 75
2014 31 MIN 39 162 154 12 36 11 0 1 18 6 27 .234 .259 .325 .584 64
2014 31 SEA 59 239 213 16 44 9 0 7 24 21 41 .207 .285 .347 .632 83
8 Yrs 718 2820 2589 308 702 150 4 110 387 192 502 .271 .324 .460 .784 114
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2015.

The conventional wisdom is missing spring training in 2014 hurt Morales. I certainly understand that point. And I’m sure it played a role in his struggles. However, to broach this argument is to make it sound like he improved over time. Slow start and he picked up a little steam as he got more plate appearances during the season. Except that’s not how it went down.

June – .215/.250/.316 with a 52 wRC+
July – .216/.243/.289 with a 46 wRC+
Aug – .255/.321/.388 with a 103 wRC+
Sept – .183/.276/.355 with a 81 wRC+

That’s one month out of four where he was roughly a league average hitter. That’s three months out of four where he was breathtakingly subpar. The Mariners finished one game back of the A’s for the final Wild Card spot. It’s not a stretch to imagine Morales and his -0.9 fWAR cost Seattle a shot at the postseason. He was that much of a liability in the lineup.

Let’s take a step back and look again at Morales’s career numbers. There’s a breakout 2009. There’s the truncated 2010 season when he broke his leg jumping on home plate celebrating a walk-0ff, 10th inning grand slam. There’s the missing 2011 thanks to said injury. Then, there’s a nice little comeback. He never reached his pre-injury offensive heights, but when you miss a season and a half and return to average an OPS+ of 121 and post a wRC+ of 119 in back to back seasons, that’s a comeback.

In examining the market for Nelson Cruz, Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus came up with the term “bomb-ass designated hitter.” The thinking goes that teams don’t really need a designated hitter. They can survive the way the Royals thought they would navigate the American League in 2015 by rotating a cast of characters in the role. It’s less expensive and, with the correct roster, it can be effective. Now, if you’re going to spend money on a full-time DH, that DH had better be amazing. He’d better be bomb-ass. And according to Miller, bomb-ass for a DH is one who owns around a 128 OPS+.

It turns out there are very few bomb-ass designated hitters. Victor Martinez? If he’s healthy, he’s totally bomb-ass. David Ortiz? Don’t be silly. Bomb-ass. Old friend Billy Butler? Not bomb-ass, but closer than you may think.

Here is a list of players who, from 2010 to 2014, have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances and had at least half of those plate appearances coming as a designated hitter. In the interest of discovering who is bomb-ass, the list is sorted by OPS+.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 151 2796 34-38 660 2403 378 701 167 4 149 465 367 462 .292 .384 .551 .935
2 Victor Martinez 133 2442 31-35 582 2199 295 697 141 1 78 368 210 207 .317 .374 .488 .863
3 Billy Butler 122 3301 24-28 791 2937 342 872 180 1 87 428 309 482 .297 .365 .448 .812
4 Travis Hafner 118 1392 33-36 360 1202 141 304 59 3 50 178 151 298 .253 .350 .432 .782
5 Luke Scott 116 1388 32-35 382 1223 156 306 75 4 59 189 134 295 .250 .327 .463 .790
6 Kendrys Morales 112 1791 27-31 439 1646 182 435 85 1 64 234 119 329 .264 .319 .434 .753
7 Vladimir Guerrero 109 1233 35-36 297 1155 143 341 57 2 42 178 52 116 .295 .332 .457 .789
8 Johnny Damon 102 1484 36-38 359 1328 185 344 71 14 28 143 137 209 .259 .331 .397 .728
9 Hideki Matsui 102 1246 36-38 320 1094 120 276 53 1 35 163 131 204 .252 .330 .399 .728
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Wow. Some old-timers on that list. Let’s run it again, but this time narrow the span to three seasons and 500 plate appearances.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 156 1585 36-38 369 1360 208 399 91 2 88 267 207 234 .293 .385 .557 .942
2 Victor Martinez 139 1309 34-35 310 1166 155 370 69 0 46 186 124 104 .317 .381 .495 .876
3 Billy Butler 117 1950 26-28 474 1745 191 509 91 1 53 255 174 309 .292 .358 .436 .794
4 Adam Dunn 110 1767 32-34 431 1493 196 319 52 0 97 246 252 570 .214 .329 .443 .773
5 Kendrys Morales 110 1580 29-31 388 1453 153 379 80 1 53 195 107 298 .261 .315 .427 .742
6 Luke Scott 103 635 34-35 187 567 62 133 35 3 23 95 51 143 .235 .304 .429 .733
7 Travis Hafner 102 562 35-36 148 481 54 103 14 3 24 71 64 126 .214 .322 .405 .727
8 Delmon Young 97 1224 26-28 337 1150 111 313 54 2 36 142 50 241 .272 .308 .417 .725
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Morales hasn’t been a bomb-ass DH since he broke his leg. He’s been adequate, but he hasn’t been worth the big bucks. Not even close.

Fine. The 2014 season hurt his numbers, you say. Badly. Such an outlier, you may suggest, it would be unfair to include it in your assessment of Morales as a bomb-ass DH. Sadly, as much as you may want to explain it away, you can’t. It happened. It was real. And it was ugly. So, so ugly. This is not some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It cannot be erased.

Then what exactly happened to Morales in 2014 that made it so awful? In a nutshell, he stopped driving the ball.

Compare his spray chart from 2013 to his chart from last season. Notice how much deeper his fly balls travelled in ’13 compared to ’14.

MoralesSpray

Morales is a switch-hitter and his power comes primarily from the right side. There are clusters of blue representing fly balls in left and center that are present in 2014, but they aren’t as deep on the plot as 2013. That has to account for something. As RJ Anderson discovered at Baseball Prospectus, Morales posted career low BABIP on both line drives and fly balls last year.

Morales floundered from both sides last year.

As LHB – .206/.271/.313 with a .239 BABIP and 64 wRC+

As RHB – .239/.281/.381 with a .252 BABIP and 86 wRC+

The power spike as a right-handed batter comes clubbing four home runs in 134 at bats compared to four home runs in 233 at bats as a lefty. Again, that’s where his power lives – from the right side.

Can Morales bounce back? Certainly. No matter how you slice it, 2014 vibes rock bottom. I would bet Morales sees improvement. The projection systems tend to agree.

Steamer – .262/.319/.419 with a 107 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR

ZiPS – .261/.315/.417 with a 105 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR

PECOTA – .266/.320/.426 with a .276 TAv and 1.2 WARP

Those are some numbers that represent a nice bounce back. If only he were a middle infielder. Alas, he doesn’t own a glove and those numbers are still far from bomb-ass. If the Royals were so hell-bent on throwing money away, they should have just exercised Butler’s option and been saddled with an overpriced DH for one year instead of two. Oh, well. The horse has left the barn and all that.

Industry estimates of Morales’s contract varied from one year at $5 million to 2 years and $20 million. The Royals brought him on board for two years at $17 million. He will earn $6.5 million this season and $9 million in 2016. There is a mutual option for $11 million in ’17 that the Royals can buyout for $1.5 million. No matter how you slice this contract, it’s on the high side of the spectrum and represents a severe overpay for a one-dimensional player whose one dimension is fading. And now, just months after floating the idea they would use the designated hitter position to rotate among their offense, the Royals have a full-time DH on their roster. A DH who is in the decline phase of his career and hasn’t been bomb-ass since 2010 just before he suffered a horrific injury.

The signing didn’t make sense when it happened and it doesn’t make sense today. In fact, there isn’t a way to spin this in a positive for a team in the position of the Royals. The Royals (and their small market brethren) need to make smart fiscal decisions. That means shopping on the free agent market for a DH is folly. Especially one who clearly isn’t bomb-ass like Morales.

Sometimes, elections to a Hall of Fame requires no debate. Such was the case on Wednesday when the Royals announced Mike Sweeney was the latest inductee into the Royals Hall of Fame. A no-doubt, slam dunk if ever there was one.

Let’s just lay some bullet points out there to summarize his career with the Royals:

— A .299 batting average, third-highest in franchise history.

— His .369 OBP is tied with George Brett for seventh place.

— Sweeney’s .492 slugging percentage is second-highest in team history, trailing only Danny Tartabull’s .512.

— His 197 home runs are second most as a Royal.

— He tallied 2,296 total bases with the Royals. That’s the sixth most in team history behind guys like Brett, Otis, White, McRae and Wilson.

— Finally, his adjusted OPS+ is 120, which is seventh-highest all-time for the Royals.

Quite a resume.

Sweeney had the misfortune of playing for some of the most dreadful teams in Royals history. He took a ton of grief for his contract, which kicked in to maximum value around the time his body started to break down. But he cared, he worked hard, and he gave everything he had to the team, his teammates, and this city. I wish it could have turned out differently for him. I wish he could have played on some decent Royals teams. But the guy still had a stellar career.

I spotted Sweeney on the field at The K before one of the World Series games and was thrilled he made it back. Although he never played in the postseason as a Royal, for me he’s an inner-circle Royal. One of the greats who stands along side Brett, White, Otis, Saberhagen and Appier. For him to remain connected to this organization is important.

It turns out, Sweeney is going through a difficult time. His father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on New Year’s Eve and is currently undergoing treatment. Cancer sucks. We rooted for Sweeney for several years. Now it’s time to root for his dad. As happy as I am for Sweeney to get into the Royals Hall, I’m hopeful that his father will be healthy enough to accompany Mike and his family to The K on the date he is officially honored. That would make the ceremony complete.

Watch this video from The Kansas City Star to see how much this honor means to Sweeney.

A great player. An even better man. I hope there’s a full house at The K when Sweeney is inducted. He and his family deserve this tribute.

Moose bunts

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Did you hear the news? Mike Moustakas is going to bunt more to beat the shift in 2015.

David Schoenfeld had some great numbers at ESPN’s Sweetspot blog. For instance, Moustakas hit just .154 in 2014 when he hit a grounder. That was the third worst ground ball batting average among players who hit at least 100 ground balls last summer. For perspective, major league hitters posted a cumulative .248 batting average when hitting a grounder. So Moustakas was almost 100 points worse than league average in this split. That’s… not healthy.

Sadly, that batting average on ground balls wasn’t out of the ordinary for Moustakas. Although it didn’t used to be that way. Here are his batting averages over his career when hitting a ground ball.

2011 – .254
2012 – .245
2013 – .172
2014 – .154
Career – .202

Interesting that the numbers peaked in his first season and have been sliding ever since. That runs parallel with his offensive performance taken as a whole. It also coincides when opposing teams started deploying the shift. Although it should be noted he was only shifted 23 times in 2013. Maybe the shift just got in his dome. Or something.

Also of note was the fact Moustakas was shifted 290 times last year, which, according to Schoenfeld, was the ninth most in baseball. That was in 500 plate appearances. A whopping 58 percent of the time, Moustakas was shifted. From Brooks Baseball, here is the ugly spray chart for his entire 2014 season.

Moustakas2014Spray

We know Moustakas has always been a pull hitter. Guys with his power potential usually fall into that category. However, he was really pulling the ball on the ground last summer. The next chart is a spray angle. The lower the plot, the more he pulled the ball put in play. Basically, his response to the shift? Moustakas hit more ground balls to the right side, and into the shift. That seems counterproductive.

MooseAngle

(I was struck by the outlier of August of 2013, his month of most extreme ground balls. It also coincides with one of his finest months of his major league career, where he hit .301. It also coincides with one of his lowest ground ball rates in a month of his career.)

I’m not sure what bunting will solve. Sure, it may add a few points to his batting average, but let’s not pretend he’s going to reach a respectable number. Last year, Moustakas collected 97 hits in 457 at bats. If he successfully laid down a bunt 10 times, that gets his batting average to .234, a modest boost of 22 points. In theory that sounds like it will work. I just question his ability to actually convert those bunt attempts into actually reaching base. Look at the spray chart again. Moustakas hits the ball so rarely to the left on the ground, if he starts showing bunt, the third baseman can play in and the shortstop can move to the hole between first and second. He pulls the ball so much, and makes such weak contact, the second baseman can just cheat closer to the first base side which could even cause opposing defenses to eschew the shift altogether. Therein lies the real problem with Moustakas: He rarely makes quality contact. His grounders are easy to defend because they lack punch.

Here’s a novel idea: Maybe Moustakas can make hard contact, hit fewer grounders, and really drive the ball. That would be fun. And incredibly unlikely.

Alex Gordon tested his surgically repaired wrist on Monday and reported no issues. He was cleared to take some “dry” swings as the next step, meaning he will swing the bat but won’t make contact with a baseball. (Or as I termed it, he will be using The Francoeur Method.)

That’s some good news. Gordon was also in the news over the weekend as he told McCullough that he may not be so quick to exercise his player option for the 2016 season.

Perhaps a quick recap is in order.

Gordon’s current contract contains a player option for 2016, valued at $14 million. Late last summer, as the Royals geared up for their charge to the Wild Card, Gordon indicated he was going to exercise that option.

Cooler heads have since prevailed.

As fun as it was to hear Gordon pledge his allegiance to the Royals for another season, I didn’t buy it for one moment. Not that he’s ingenuine. Nothing of the sort. I think he was caught up in the moment of the pennant race and said what he felt – and believed – at the time. The Royals are the only organization he’s ever known; a franchise he grew up rooting for as a kid. Of course he would want to stay.

But to exercise that option would be lunacy.

Gordon isn’t a flashy player, but he’s incredibly solid in all facets of the game. You know this. You also know that what Gordon brings is incredibly valuable. Even if he doesn’t play a “premium” position. In the landscape of today’s game, he’s definitely one of the most valuable players in the league. And he’s been in the conversation for the last four seasons.

Gordon was so close to being a “bust” is now on the precipice of a major payday. He should collect. He owes it to himself to explore avenues to get his maximum value. Is that an extension with the Royals? Or is it through free agency? We will know more in the next several months, but at this moment the only thing we do know is that Gordon is going to get paid a whole lot of money to play baseball for the next several years. Good for him.

The Royals are in an interesting place. It’s something I’ve thought about often as I’ve watched other, larger market teams, overextend in an effort to keep together a successful core. It’s unique for the Royals because in the current economic climate of the game, they have never had what you would consider to be a successful core. Or anything approximating that. Sure, there have been extensions here and there in the Dayton Moore era (Gordon included) that were designed to keep players around during their peak years. Now the Royals are facing the future with the heart of their club and deciding if they should stand by him (and pay him) for what are certain to be his declining years.

The fan in me is optimistic. Hopeful that the Royals will do something to keep Gordon in Kansas City for the remainder of his career. And with that optimism comes the hope that he can keep playing at an elite level and experience a minor decline phase for the next several season. Naturally. The realist in me is fretful that it’s going to cost so much money the prudent thing would be to move on. Let those decline years become someone else’s headache.

Should Gordon get a five year contract in the range of $90 million, he would need to average around 2.6 WAR per season. Perhaps my bias is showing, but that seems doable. Gordon has averaged 5.6 fWAR over the last four years. Last season, Gordon finished with a 6.6 fWAR. That’s an AAV of $18 million per season and well past any deal the Royals and Moore have handed out in the past.

For 2015, Steamer is projecting a 4.4 fWAR and ZiPS is looking at a 4.3 zWAR. That’s quite a tumble for a guy who has topped that mark in three of the last four seasons. Instead, I’ll save that 4.4 fWAR mark and project that forward for the 2016 season which Gordon will play as a 32 year old. With the WAR aging factor provided by The Book Blog, and by figuring a base amount of $6.5 million per win with some inflation factored into the equation, a fair market contract for Gordon would work out to around those five years and in the neighborhood of the estimated $90 million.

It’s a major commitment, with the danger of there being little upside.

As I’ve noted, if the Royals pickup the options on Wade Davis and Alcides Escobar, their 2016 payroll is already around $75 million for a total of 11 players (and buyouts.) Add an extension for Gordon and you are approaching $95 million for 12 players. Consider the Royals are looking at a payroll of $112 million for the entire 25 man roster for 2015 and you see the dilemma of the front office. Which is why if the two parties are to come to an agreement, it probably won’t be something straightforward like $18 million a year. I’m guessing the contract would be heavily backloaded to ease some of the burden of 2016.

Not that it gets any easier. Again, assuming the club picks up options on Davis and Escobar and also Sal Perez, the team has already committed $42 million to just five players (including buyouts) in 2017. The other two? Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. Oops. See how all these moves matter?

Gordon wants to stay in Kansas City. The Royals would love to have him remain a Royal. The question is, can they find a way that is fiscally acceptable to both parties?

One thing we do know is this isn’t a Billy Butler scenario. While Butler wanted to remain in Kansas City, the feeling wasn’t mutual. The only reason he played out his contract was because the Royals couldn’t trade him for a return they felt was acceptable. The Royals are aware of the value Gordon brings, so they will make an attempt to keep him around. It will be up to David Glass and the Royals brain trust to fashion a creative contract to keep Gordon forever Royal.

The streak remains intact. All hail the streak.

The Royals and Eric Hosmer reached an agreement to avoid arbitration less than 24 hours prior to his scheduled hearing in Florida. The contract not only settles the issue of 2015, it also clears the matter for 2016. In sum, Hosmer will be paid $13.9 million for the next two years of work. He earns $5.65 million for next season and $8.25 for 2016.

The Royals entered this winter with nine players eligible for arbitration. All nine reached agreements before going through with a hearing. Dayton Moore has yet to go fully arbitration monty. The last Royal to have a hearing was Jeremy Affeldt back in 2005. For you stat geeks, the Royals have had 19 hearings total dating to 1974, winning nine.

This contract represents a small gamble for the Royals. Small. If Hosmer stumbles again – think 2012 stumble – the Royals will ultimately lose money on the deal. Obviously, the hope is Hosmer can put together a full season where he is locked in at the plate. Think the last four months of 2014 (excepting August when he was injured, but you get the point) extending for the full year and erasing the stench of April and May. If that happens, then the Royals will come out slightly ahead.

The projections are somewhat bullish.

PECOTA – .278/.332/.419 with a .274 TAv and 1.9 WARP

ZiPS – .293/.346/.443 with a .344 wOBA and 2.0 zWAR

Steamer – .278/.337/.437 with a .339 wOBA and 2.3 fWAR

The consensus is Hosmer will have his second best offensive season of his career. Such are the nature of projections for an inconsistent hitter like Hosmer. No computer is willing to go out on a limb and predict a breakout simply because he’s never put together six consecutive months of at least average offense. The streaks run deep.

Will he fully realize his power potential? Last year he hit just nine home runs and finished with a .398 slugging percentage and a career-low .127 ISO. Among qualified first basemen on the Fangraphs leaderboards, Hosmer’s ISO ranked 19th out of 23. (The 20th was Billy Butler who had a .107 ISO.) If he is going to be worth his contract, he’s going to have to find that power stroke. Let’s be real, though. He’s not going to challenge the Royals franchise record for home runs. It sure would be nice if he could hit more than 20 in a year, though.

Hosmer was eligible for arbitration for the first time last winter as a Super Two. The Royals purchased his second and third year of arbitration with this deal, leaving the fourth year unsettled. Should Hosmer progress (remember, everyone is supposed to get better!) he will truly earn the megabucks in 2017. Then, free agency ahead of the 2018 season and he will make Powerball money.

The Royals remain on track to open with a payroll around $112 million, give or take a few dollars. That will be a record. I’m not sure I understand the two-year deals handed out to Hosmer and Kelvin Herrera beyond giving the Royals cost certainty heading into 2016. It’s nice they’re under contract and all, but how does that benefit either side? Both deals are well within range of what they would make in 2016. Neither player figures to regress, but the system pretty much guarantees a solid raise for each regardless. I’m guess this is all about cost certainty and the players willingness to lock in for another season. Or maybe the Royals simply believe Hosmer is about to breakout in a big way and this is how they save a few coins ahead of 2016.

I was looking for financial comps to get some perspective on this contract. This winter, David Freese was eligible for arbitration for a third time. Freese has better offensive numbers (not by much) for his career, but is five years older. He will earn $6.425 million next year. Chase Headley is another who comes to mind. (I know I’m looking at third basemen here, but I really can’t find a comparable first baseman. So corner infielder and all that. If you think of a first baseman I’ve overlooked, leave it in the comments.) His numbers were slightly better than Hosmer, is closer in age and he made $10.25 million for his third year of arbitration eligibility. Headley also had a Gold Glove to his credit. The Braves bought out the second year of Freddie Freeman’s arbitration at $8.5 million. His third year cost $12 million. Todd Frazier will earn $7.5 million for his second year of arbitration eligibility. I guess the lesson here is the $8.25 due Hosmer in 2016 isn’t crazy money, or out of scope for a corner infielder of his status. Just we can’t pass judgement on the deal until we see how the 2015 season plays out for him.

Looking large picture, what’s going to happen for the Royals in 2016? Assuming the Royals will pick up the options on Wade Davis and Alcides Escobar, the Royals are already committed to over $77 million in player contracts and buyouts for the 2016 season. If Alex Gordon makes good and exercises his player option, that total nudges to $90 million for 12 players who will actually play for the Royals and three players they would buy out of their options. With Greg Holland, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Mike Moustakas all on the arbitration merry-go-round again, the club would be in record territory with 16 players under contract. They are set to blow past the $115 million mark for 2016. Are they prepared to handle that fiscal burden?

Either way, the manner in which this team is built, the expanding payroll is inevitable. The cost of doing business. The team is going to need some creativity going forward and if there’s one thing Moore, Jin Wong and the rest of the front office have shown is the ability to construct contracts that actually do give the team some financial flexibility. (That’s not to say they spend wisely. Those are two separate issues. Longtime readers know where I stand on how they spend.) There’s a method to their two-year deal madness. It will just take a little bit of time before the larger picture becomes clear.

The next several months will be very interesting and will tell us much about the future of this team.

Wade Davis is the key to The Trade.

I’m convinced I wrote something like that. Probably about two years ago. And I probably thought I was damn clever. After all, the Royals had James Shields for only two years before he was moving on to greener free agent pastures. The Royals hold three affordable team options on Davis, who would be with the club for five years total if they are exercised. Yes, that made him the key to the trade.

Let’s get right to the numbers. Because they are damn impressive.

Year Tm W L W-L% ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB SO BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2014 KCR 9 2 .818 1.00 71 3 72.0 38 8 8 0 23 109 279 399 1.19 0.847 4.8 0.0 2.9 13.6 4.74
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/17/2015.

I mean… Just look at those. Then look at them again. They are almost impossible to comprehend. They’re video game numbers. That’s it. Wade Davis set the difficulty level to “rookie” and played an entire season.

It’s the Wade Davis Experience.

Davis scrapped his sinker, relying on his fastball, curve and cutter.

DavisUsage

The fastball has gained a couple ticks of velocity since moving full-time to the bullpen. His heater averaged 91-92 mph as a starter. Last year as a reliever, he brought the fastball at 96.7 mph. It’s a true weapon, generating a swing and miss over 16 percent of the time. As you can see from the graph above, it gained velocity as the season progressed. Opposing hitters managed just a .161 batting average against his fastball and in 135 at bats that resolved with that pitch, Davis yielded just three extra base hits – a pair of doubles and a triple.

The cutter is a ground ball machine. Over 73 percent of the balls put in play on his cutter are ground balls. Is it any surprise that opposing hitters managed a minute .115 batting average against. Oh, and not a single batter managed an extra base hit against the cutter. Davis features the pitch to both lefties and right-handed batters, but it’s his go-to secondary pitch to same side batters when he’s ahead in the count. Doesn’t matter that hitters may know what’s coming. They’re not going to touch that pitch.

And the curve? It features the 12-to-6 break and like the cutter, is an infielder’s friend. Davis gets a ground ball on about 63 percent of his curves put in play. That’s the pitch he throws to left-handed batters when he’s ahead in the count.

I try to avoid hyperbole, but I’m not sure we have seen anything quite like Davis’s 2014 performance in a Royals uniform.

As you would imagine for an eighth-inning guy, Davis had the second-highest leverage index on the team at 1.59. (Any thing above 1.0 is considered “high” pressure.) At this time last year, we were debating the merits of sticking Davis back in the rotation for another shot, or moving him to the bullpen. There will be no such debate this spring. The question this time around is: Can he repeat his performance?

I don’t see why not. His pitches are nasty, his ground ball rate is lofty and the Royals will place a fine infield defense behind him once again. His 87 percent strand rate looks like it’s due to regress, but given the small sample size of the relief pitching game, it wouldn’t be crazy if the correction was minor. He struck out 39 percent of all batters faced. His command was impeccable. There was no smoke and mirror component to Davis’s 2014 season. No fluke or outlier that will be difficult to duplicate.

Wade Davis’s 2014 was real, and it was spectacular.

Davis is signed for $7 million for 2015 and the team holds another option for $8 million in 2016 and $10 million for 2017. That’s a fair amount of coin for a reliever, but considering Greg Holland is going to earn $8.25 million in his second year of being eligible for arbitration, Davis’s contract isn’t extreme in the least. What could be extreme is the Royals committing over $15 million to two relievers. Granted, the pair are among the best (if not THE BEST) in the game at what they do. The Royals actually have both on what the industry would view as team-friendly deals.

As much as you’ll hate to hear this, I think the Royals need to explore a trade. Either Davis or Holland. The return the Royals get for either of the relievers would justify making this move. Especially as we move through spring training and teams are assessing their needs as Opening Day approaches. There will be trade partners and some will reek of desperation. The Royals bullpen is an embarrassment of riches that should be leveraged for the greater good. Trade Holland and Davis can slide into the closer role. Trade Davis and Kelvin Herrera can move up an inning. There are so many options concerning this bullpen. I get the appeal of standing pat. It’s easy and we saw how excellent it was last season. Another October run would totally justify keeping the pen together. But can the Royals recapture the magic from last fall? That’s a post for another day. For now, the bullpen is a nice problem for Dayton Moore to have. He just needs to make the right decision on how to deal with it in the way that gives the team the maximum benefit.

You figured the Royals would find a way to extend at least one of their arbitration eligible players. On Thursday, the team announced they signed Kelvin Herrera to a two-year, $4.15 million deal.

I profiled Herrera a few weeks ago. You can read it here.

Herrera qualified for arbitration as a super-two, so with the two year deal he just inked, he still has two trips through the process before he becomes a free agent.

The numbers haven’t exactly been broken down as of this writing, so let’s make some assumptions. Herrera asked for $1.9 million and the Royals came back with $1.15. The midpoint is $1.525 million. A good starting point. Let’s round down just for fun (and since most of these deals sacrifice some cash in the short-term for longer-term stability) and say he will make a cool $1.5 million for this upcoming season. That leaves him in the neighborhood of $2.65 million for 2016.

The arbitration process loves what we would call the “traditional” stats. For relievers that means appearances, ERA and saves. Things like strikeout rate and leverage are probably included, but certainly don’t carry the same weight. Should Herrera remain in the seventh (or even if he moved to the eighth inning role) he would lack the saves needed to impress the process. I would bet a second year reliever with his track record would be looking at an arbitration number around $3 million, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars. So for the Royals, this move strikes me as simply getting some payroll certainty on the books going forward. It’s an increasingly tricky landscape with a large number of players still eligible for arbitration, plus six options that must be settled.

On the surface, this strikes me as a good deal for both sides. Herrera finished with 1.4 fWAR last year, which Fangraphs calculated was worth $7.5 million in real dollars. For the amount the Royals are paying him over the next two years, he needs to earn less than 1 fWAR to provide a return on that investment. On the other side, Herrera has a couple of years where he doesn’t need to worry about his contract. Yet if something happened (say where Greg Holland was traded and he shifted to the closer role) it gives Herrera the opportunity to get paid a little more for the 2017 season.

With Herrera in the fold, just Holland and Eric Hosmer remain for the Royals arbitration eligible players. Expect some news on those two soon.

There was never a chance. No way was James Shields going to return to the Kansas City Royals. It was fun to dream about it, and the longer he remained on the market, the more plausible you could make that dream.

But in the end, the Royals were never going to bring him back.

That’s OK. As Sam Mellinger pointed out, the Royals played within the system that is stacked against them and they won. This is baseball in the 21st century. The Royals know the only way they can acquire a starting pitcher cut from the cloth of Shields is either through the draft or via trade. Sure, they can sign a free agent here or there, but that’s the point where you’re dumpster diving for an Edinson Volquez, or locking up cost-controlled veterans for the back of the rotation a la Jason Vargas or Jeremy Guthrie.

Mellinger points out, his contract is for $20 million more than the Royals have ever awarded a player. I would counter that it’s also $23 million more than the Padres have ever handed out. But the Padres could afford to dip their toe in the free agent pool. According to Baseball Reference, San Diego figures to have an Opening Day payroll around $88 million. AJ Preller is some kind of mad general managing scientist. (Quick, someone make a “Padres won the trade!” joke. What? It’s been done? Awwwww.)

The Royals aren’t adverse to the years. I think Dayton Moore and his staff see this as a benefit, actually, when they can control the costs of a player for multiple seasons. They signed Vargas for four years last winter. Omar Infante, too. But those guys are on a different tier from Shields. Although, I think they are rightfully wary of giving the years to an older starting pitcher. Vargas and Gil Meche (five years, remember?) were a couple of years younger than Shields when they signed with the Royals.

It’s the money that will forever be a sticking point. Could they have fit Shields onto a roster that already had an estimated payroll at around $112 million? I think they could have, but we know that was never going to happen. It would have taken some sort of a minor miracle. The Royals knew when they traded for Shields that they would get two years. They knew their young nucleus they were counting on would be entering their arbitration years and getting exponentially more expensive. Even if they had the foresight that their payroll would top $110 million for 2015, I don’t think they saw a way Shields fit into that budget.

We discuss this all the time, but it remains a salient point: Do the Royals spend their money in the best manner? Max Rieper at Royals Review has an interesting look at the new Royals and their salaries versus the departed (Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki) and the dollars for 2015 are a push. Jeez. I didn’t want – or need – to see that. But there’s the mutual option game being played, and that’s relevant in that it gives the Royals flexibility going forward. It’s not just the dollars, it’s the years.

Which leads to the next question. Did the Royals misread the Shields market? Did they jump the gun, by handing out $20 million to Edinson Volquez? I don’t think they did. And I write that mainly because I don’t think anyone saw Shields lasting this long on the free agent market. The Royals had moved on from Shields early in the winter, and rightly so. Although Jeff Passan thinks that the Royals could have been in the mix, had Shields come to them with lower (i.e. more realistic) demands.

They found a player they believe in in Volquez, so they made an aggressive offer and signed him. Will it work? Who knows at this point. I do know that once they decided Shields’s demands – realistic or not – were too much for their budgets, they did the right thing and found an arm to add to the rotation.

Did Shields’s agents bungle his free agency? That’s what Jeff Passan thinks. Me? I’m not so sure.

Shields was the consensus number three starting pitcher on the market behind Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. The conventional wisdom held that Scherzer was going to be the last of the big three to sign because of his demands and his representation. It followed that Lester would set the Shields market. When Lester signed his six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs, it seems that the Shields team would shoot for just under that mark.

Of course, even without the benefit of hindsight, that’s folly. Working against Shields is the perception he’s not a true “ace.” And perhaps more importantly isn’t a perception, it’s a fact – he’s older than Lester by two years. Just as important in my mind was his October performance, which was less than encouraging. And then there’s the fact the next year’s class of free agent starting pitchers is absolutely loaded. Loaded. Teams are probably more than willing to skip spending this year if it means bagging one of the top starters next winter.

On the issue of an “ace,” who cares? By any estimation, Shields was the third most desirable starting pitcher on the market and he’s going to make the third most money of those who signed new contracts this winter. Shields isn’t an elite pitcher, but he’s a damn good one, who stacks up against just about any starter in the game. If I ran a team, I’d certainly try to get him on the roster. At least for the next two seasons.

It turns out no team was willing to pay Shields past his age 36 season. Not for the big bucks he was seeking. Front offices are getting smarter with how they spend their money. Passan argues that had Shields lowered his demands early in the winter and asked for four years, that would have accelerated his process. That makes all kinds of sense. Hell, the bidding could have become so ferocious, maybe Shields could have squeezed a fifth year out of some team who decided they just had to have him. As it was, teams didn’t even consider him because they didn’t like the opening price.

In the end, Shields gets to pitch for a team in the National League, in the most pitcher-friendly park in the league, and close to his home. And he gets to cash checks totaling $75 million. If that’s bungling, sign me up.

I like the Shields contract with the Padres. It’s a good deal for both sides and gives them a shot to get into October. I’m not thrilled with four years, but I’d bet the team will get solid value out of the first three. And I like Shields on that team. Their defense… Yeah. Someone will need to catch the ball.

With Shields as the last of the remaining free agents tied to the qualifying offer, the 2015 draft order is officially set. The Royals have the 21st overall pick and the 33rd selection as compensation for losing Shields. They also have the 64th and 98th picks through the first three rounds.

Baseball America estimates the Royals draft pool will be around $7.5 million. That’s down from their allotment of $8.6 million in 2014 and $8.3 million in ’13, but it’s right in line with other teams from the AL Central.

Twins – $7,691,684

Indians – $7,528,625

Royals – $7,499,358

Tigers – $7,403,534

White Sox – $5,540,051

The Royals moved on a long time ago. The trade worked out marvelously for both the Royals and Shields and it may have set the blueprint for future moves. I know we’re supposed to declare a “winner” in a trade, but really I don’t give a damn. All I know is my team shipped a bundle of prospects for two pitchers and two years later my team was playing in the World Series. Sounds pretty good to me.

So far, we’ve profiled 10 players on the Royals 40-man roster. Today, it’s Aaron Brooks. Hey, they all can’t be sexy.

You may remember Brooks from his cameo performance against the Tigers on May 3 where he turned a three run deficit into a nine run hole. That featured a three-run home run from Torii Hunter. Wham, bam, thank you, Brooks. Back to Omaha you go.

He actually turned in a decent month after taking the I-29 north. In 25 innings for the Storm Chasers in May, Brooks had a 2.14 ERA with a gaudy 54 percent ground ball rate. With Yordano Ventura shelved with elbow inflammation late in the month, the Royals decided it would be a good idea to give Brooks a second look on the back of his encouraging month in Triple-A.

It was a bad idea.

Brooks was brutalized by the Blue Jays, failing to make it out of the first inning. His final line: 0.2 IP, 5 H, 7 ER, 3 BB. A Game Score of 11 for his troubles. Thank you very much.

(I seem to remember this game being the FOX Game of the Week. Or am I crazy? I do remember watching this game. Because you don’t forget carnage like that. Oh, and that game was also the debut of Marcus Stroman who held the Royals to five hits and one run through six innings. Nothing like a seven run cushion to ease the pressure, right?)

Brooks was drafted in the ninth round of the 2011 draft out of California State University – San Bernadino. He’s not on the prospect radar because his college pedigree and minor league performance fail to justify such status.

Year Age Tm Lg Lev ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2011 21 Idaho Falls PION Rk 3.84 15 13 79.2 89 42 34 7 8 73 1.218 10.1 0.8 0.9 8.2 9.13
2012 22 Kane County MIDW A 4.98 27 27 153.2 191 99 85 18 26 120 1.412 11.2 1.1 1.5 7.0 4.62
2013 23 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-A+ 4.28 26 26 160.0 173 79 76 17 22 110 1.219 9.7 1.0 1.2 6.2 5.00
2013 23 Wilmington CARL A+ 4.47 10 10 56.1 60 28 28 4 11 43 1.260 9.6 0.6 1.8 6.9 3.91
2013 23 Northwest Arkansas TL AA 4.17 16 16 103.2 113 51 48 13 11 67 1.196 9.8 1.1 1.0 5.8 6.09
2014 24 Omaha PCL AAA 3.88 25 23 139.0 151 67 60 14 25 97 1.266 9.8 0.9 1.6 6.3 3.88
4 Seasons 4.31 93 89 532.1 604 287 255 56 81 400 1.287 10.2 0.9 1.4 6.8 4.94
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/9/2015.

Brooks features fastball, slider, change and will show a curve from time to time. None of his pitches would be classified as a “plus” pitch by the prospect hounds. He works his fastball in the low 90s, but can tickle 95 mph on occasion. As you can see from the table above, his calling card is his command – he has a walk rate of 1.4 BB/9 in his minor league career, which I don’t have to tell you is exceptional. Without a “plus” pitch, he’s missed fewer bats as he’s progressed through the system and his strikeout rate has dropped at almost every stop. Last year in Omaha, Brooks posted a 1.6 BB/9 and his whiff rate rebounded to a modest 6.3 SO/9.

Going back to his major league start last May, was it nerves? For a guy who is known as a “strike thrower” his implosion against the Blue Jays was totally against the grain. Three walks? Then he started grooving pitches. And ballgame.

He picked up a non-roster invite to camp last spring and showed enough that he planted himself on the Royals radar. This year, Brooks makes his return only this time as a member of the 40-man roster. With the Royals rotation and bullpen set, he figures to return to Omaha for an encore performance. Although could you blame him if he was chomping at the bit for a third chance? You work your entire life to get to the majors and drop a pair of performances like that?

Brooks will have to be patient for a return trip to the bigs. Depth is necessary, yet the universal hope is it won’t be called upon. Guys like Brooks are necessary, though, for the occasional spot start to protect the true prospects. Just hope that if you want to see him, you’ll be buying a ticket to a game in Omaha and not in Kansas City.

Omar Infante had a bad year. A very bad year.

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. The Royals have suffered a black hole at the keystone for years. Really ever since Frank White vacated the position way back in 1990. Carlos Febles, Tony Graffanino, Mark Grudzielanek, Chris Getz… There have been some decent individual performances here and there, but nothing really of note. Not that Infante was to be the second coming of White. No one would ever suggest such a thing.

But by signing Infante to a four-year, $30 million contract before the 2014 season, the Royals finally felt as though they would have some stability at a position where it had been lacking.

Infante reported to camp in what was probably less than the best shape of his life. He battled shoulder soreness in spring training that dogged him throughout the season. The shoulder issues compounded into a back problem in the middle of the year. Oh yeah, he was also hit in the face by a pitch the first week of the season. Through all the issues, Infante only hit the disabled list once (in May) and played in 135 games.

It was not a good thing that he played in so many games.

Normally, Infante can be counted on for a little bit of power (relative to the average second baseman), some decent contact and some solid defense. None of that happened in 2014.

Infante slugged .337 for the Royals last summer, hitting six home runs and 21 doubles. It was his lowest slugging percentage since he posted a miserable .238 SLG way back in 2003 in 69 games for the Tigers. Anything the Royals received in the power department from a second baseman would be a bonus given the Royals most recently suffered through the Getz Era at the position, but surely they expected more. After all, Infante had hit 12 and 10 home runs in his previous two seasons while posting slugging percentages of .419 and .450.

Infante’s batted ball profile didn’t change much from year to year. He hits a line drive around 22 percent of the time and a fly ball at a rate of around 39 percent. From Texas Leaguers, here is a spray chart from his 2012 and 2013 seasons combined. Note the hits clustering in the outfield from left and center. There’s a smaller and shallower cluster of hits to right. This makes sense for a batter like Infante. If he’s going to drive the ball, he’s going to have to generate the bat speed, get the barrel out in front and pull the ball.

InfanteSpray1213

Compare that to last season.

InfanteSpray14

Not much difference, is there? As I said above, Infante’s batted ball profile didn’t shift much at all from 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, not only his slugging percentage found new depths, his batting average suffered. His .252 BA was his lowest since 2005 and was certainly fueled by an abnormally low (for Infante) .275 BABIP. And since Infante doesn’t walk (career 5.5 percent walk rate) his on base percentage is heavily dependent upon the base hit. So… yeah. His offensive numbers were down across the board.

We can surmise his shoulder and back issues had a lot to do with his struggles. He was still making the usual types and amount of contact, but he was making less good contact than his norm. His contact rate of 85.8 percent was right in line with his career rates, so it’s an easy conclusion to reach. Since we’re using the 2012 and 2013 seasons as the kind of benchmarks of the player the Royals hoped they were signing, let’s take a look at how Infante has hit different categories of pitches over the last three seasons to see if we can peel a few more layers.

InfanteBA

One thing that jumps out is how his performance against breaking stuff and offspeed pitches has been in lockstep over the last three years. Another thing that jumps out is how his performance against fastballs and sinker in 2013 was an outlier. (His BABIP in 2013 was .333.) And a final note is how he struggled against every category of pitch last summer. And it wasn’t like pitchers decided he could handle the heat so they offered more offspeed and breaking pitches. Infante actually saw more fastballs in ’14 than he did in each of the previous two seasons. Again, the theory is he was hurt and struggled to get around on the ball, so he saw more fastballs because while he could make contact as usual, he couldn’t generate the bat speed to truly drive the ball.

What I’m suggesting is that it wouldn’t be crazy to see a bounce-back season from Infante at the plate. As long as he’s healthy. PECOTA agrees and has Infante as their top gainer in WARP with a projection of .278/.308/.380. That’s still well short of 2012 and 2013, but let’s not be picky. It’s an improvement over last year.

Defensively, Infante was pretty average. The Fielding Bible had him at +4 defensive runs saved, which is kind of where we would expect him to be given his past performances. Inside Edge says he was below average, fielding 97.3 percent of the “routine” plays, which puts him 17th out of 20 qualified second basemen. On “likely” plays, Infante made 72.2 percent. He ranked 14th. From Fangraphs, you can see for yourself how Infante did in the field.

InfanteDefense

I’ve heard some whispers among those in the Royals brain trust that Infante’s injuries also limited him in the field. That’s probably fair, but I don’t think it really held him back all that much. A fair assessment of Infante’s defense would be “competent” and that’s what I think the Royals got from him last summer.

Infante still has three years (plus an option) on his Royals contract. History will probably judge this deal harshly as it seems a stretch the Royals – or anyone, for that matter – can get value from a 35 year old second baseman, which will be Infante’s age in 2017. In the short-term, there’s a strong possibility we will see a different player at the plate in 2015. A healthy Infante can be a solid player for the Royals in the coming season.

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