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Deconstructing The Process

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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.

If you are a real prospect hound, then you already know what you want or need to know about Cheslor Cuthbert, Orlando Calixte and Lane Adams.  In fact, just the other day, Hunter Samuels at Kings of Kaufman gave you some insight on Cuthbert.

A few posts back, I touched on how I used to pour over prospects and dream of what they would become.  Not so much anymore, for a myriad of reasons.  Among those is very simply that a more successful major league team holds my interest a great deal more than one that loses 106 games and makes me begin to believe that Justin Huber is going to win a major league batting title (or that a fat guy named Hernadez will be as good as the fat guy named Colon).

Anyway, here we are with three guys on the 40 man roster that have zero chance of making the major league club out of spring training and three that you should hope don’t see quality action for your Kansas City Royals during the 2015 season.  That’s not a criticism of these three, just a fact of where they are and where we, as fans, want the Royals to be this year.

In Cuthbert, you have a still young (22) player who still hints at some power potential, but slugged just .413 splitting time between two hitters’ parks in 2014. He is no longer the third baseman of the future, spending time at first and even a little at second last year.  There is talk of extended work at second this spring, but moving to second when one was not a very good defensive third baseman is certainly bucking tradition.

Trust me, I am not against the attempt.  When the organizational depth chart is Omar Infante to Christian Colon to whatever utility infielder gets cut on March 26th, I am all for trying Cuthbert. If the bat doesn’t play at one of the corners, then it would look a lot better at second…..assuming the glove is at least better than Albert Callaspo or Esteban German.  Of course, you could always try Calixte.

There is little doubt that Calixte can field:  be it second, short or third.  After seasons full of slick fielding alternating with a stack of erros, Calixte has limited the error total to a reasonable amount (for the minors), but it is the bat:  oh the freaking bat!

Calixte’s career minor league on-base percentage is an even .300.  That is ON-BASE PERCENTAGE, not batting average, not anything that equates .300 to being good.  The now 23 year old flashes intriguing pop for a middle infielder who can flash the leather, but intrigue does not a major league regular make.  It might make for a utility infielder.  Hey, Andres Blanco has managed to make a major league living, Calixte might too.

Lane Adams, a 25 year old right handed hitting outfielder, has never been to Omaha, but he did get to have some fun last fall in Kansas City. His career minor league triple slash of .267/.344/.406 is pretty representative of his journey through the system.  Adams is athletic, has very good speed and translates that into stolen bases.  He can field and sort of maybe can hit. Adams ceiling might be a poor-man’s Alex Gordon or he maybe it’s just being the next Paulo Orlando.

If Alex Rios falls on his face and the baseball gods give Ned Yost a lightning bolt infusion of how to actually use a platoon, you could see Adams (or Paulo Orlando!) platooning with Jarrod Dyson, but again, if you want the Royals to make 2015 exciting that is not the scenario that makes it happen.

In the end, these are three guys that I would almost guarantee will someday log some time in the Majors (more than Lane Adams’ three at-bats).  It likely won’t be this year.  If you are a Royals’ fan, you better hope it is not this year.

 

Once upon a time, John Lamb was a top twenty prospect….in all of baseball. A six foot four lefty with a monster curve. A steal in the fifth round.  A future top (or near to the top) of the rotation starter.  Somewhere back in those heady times, some writer (me) projected Lamb to be the Opening Day starter in 2015 (or maybe even 2014, I can’t remember).  In case you’re having a hard time keeping up, I was wrong – even if it was 2015.

If you want to gauge John Lamb’s career, Google him.  Weed out the ESPN, Yahoo ‘player pages’ and then start checking the dates of actual articles.  Lots of information, scouting reports and what not.  Now, find one from sometime after April of 2014.

That’s what happens when you have Tommy John surgery 13 starts into your AA career, struggle to get back and spend an agonizingly long period of time after you do throwing your fastball 84 mph. It’s not fair, but baseball has a tendency to be like that.

Now, let’s focus on one thing:  John Lamb is still only 24 years old.

Last season, Lamb threw 138 innings at AAA and, after striking out just over five batters per nine innings in 2013, John’s strikeout rate rose to 8.5 K/9 (albeit at the expense of the highest walk rate of his career).  A 3.97 earned run average in AAA doesn’t scream major starter, but it doesn’t scream give up, either.  Lamb’s velocity had crept back up to the high eighties and even into the low nineties.

In July, Lamb struck 11 and allowed just one run over seven innings and followed that up with a two hit-six inning start. After a rocky four innings after those two stellar outings, Lamb then spun seven innings of one hit ball on July 30th. That was enough to generate a little buzz, a little hope.

Unfortunately, Lamb made it through six innings only once after that: allowing 24 earned runs in 33 innings (and six more unearned runs if you are skeptical of minor league scoring).  End of buzz.  End of hope?

John Lamb is still just 24 years old.

There is still time for Lamb to get back, or at least get to the majors.  Maybe he won’t be at the front of a major league rotation anymore, but maybe he could fit in a rotation somewhere.  Maybe.

While it is all part of the game and hardly rare, I hate it when young guys with promise get hurt.  Lamb not only struggled to return from Tommy John, but fought other injuries as well on the way back. He lost most of 2011 and 2012. The 2013 campaign was pretty much just a debacle of ‘well, he’s got to pitch somewhere’.  Maybe 2014, average as it was, is just enough success to get Lamb back on track.

Maybe.

Maybe next spring, John Lamb’s profile will be more about the promise of the future and less about the past.

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.

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.

Over the past four seasons, Alcides Escobar has played more games at shortstop than anyone else in the majors. To my eyes, Escobar has played the position well.  Yes, there are some mental gaffes on routine plays here and there, but there is also a long list of outstanding, eye-popping, just damn good highlight plays.

While you should probably just trust my judgment, a more reality based approach would lead you to the defensive metrics. Those like, but don’t love, Alcides Escobar.  Over the past four years – a decent sample size from which to view these – Escobar is 8th in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved and 9th in Ultimate Zone Rating.  Good, not great.

Don’t like the above metrics? Think maybe all the shifting that goes on these days has bled into inconsistent data?  Possible, likely, a little, shut up? You want to go old school?  Alcides Escobar, over the last four seasons, ranks 8th in Fielding Percentage (a stat that tells you pretty much how often a guy makes a play that the official scorer can in no way manufacture something that made said play even slightly challenging).

Inside Edge Fielding is a little more interesting, but subjective in that a human decides if the chances of making a play is remote, unlikely, about even, likely or almost certain. In these categories – based on data from the last three seasons – Alcides Escobar has made a higher percentage of the ‘remote’ category plays than any other shortstop. He ranks third in those deemed unlikely and fifth in those where the chances were considered about even.  There are your highlights and, not surprisingly, the reason the metrics don’t love Alcides is that he is just 18th in percentage of plays that are considered ‘almost certain’ to be made.

That said, we all know defense is not the issue with Alcides Escobar.  He is without question better than average in the field.  Almost certainly at least good with the glove and, quite possibly, great at it.  Pretty clearly, Alcides Escobar can more than do the job at shortstop.

Another thing that is not a problem with Escobar is baserunning. His skills there get overshadowed by the pure speed of Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson and the incredible athleticism of Lorenzo Cain, but Escobar is outstanding.  Using Fangraphs BsR metric for baserunning, Escobar was 12th in the majors last season and ranks 6th over the past four seasons combined. That ain’t bad, kids.

Of course, it is the bat that makes us all wonder.  You can sum up Escobar just by looking at this graph comparing his on-base percentage to the league average:

chartObviously, throw out 2008 as there is simply not enough data to be worth talking about it, but since then you see Escobar flirt between league average and below average.  This is on-base percentage, but pick a stat, any stat and you get a graph that looks similar.  I’m not joking, average, slugging, ISO, wOBA…whatever.

The driver is BABIP, which is no surprise.  When Escobar’s BABIP is over .300 as it was in 2012 (.344) and 2014 (.326), his offense flirts with league average.  That, combined with his defense and baserunning, then makes him a valuable commodity (2.2 and 3.4 fWAR).  When the BABIP sags, so does the offense and Alcides becomes considerably less valuable.

The thing about Escobar’s batting average of balls in play is that there seems to be little reason for the fluctuations.  His line drive percentage over the last three years (2 average and 1 below average offensive campaigns) are remarkably close. If you feel like 2014 was a ‘turn the corner’ offensive season for Alcides, you might want to be mindful that his groundball rate was at a career low, as was his walk rate.

One can hang their hat on a marginally lower swing percentages on pitches outside the strike zone in his two good years (2012 and 14).  However, while 2014 sported his highest contact percentage on pitches in the zone, Escobar recorded his lowest contact percentage in the zone in his other good offensive season. If BABIP is a reflection of luck, then Alcides Escobar may be its poster child. With 3,200 plate appearances on his resume, the Royals’ shortstop is unlikely to suddenly blossom into a consistent on-base guy year in year out and probably that is okay.

Slated to earn $3 million in 2015, Escobar will be worth the money strictly on his ability to run the bases, play the field and, yes, bunt.  That is only half sarcastic, by the way, as Alcides is an excellent bunter.  He was 11th in the majors in bunt hits in 2014 and 12th in that category over the last four seasons.  Over the past four seasons, Escobar is 2nd in sacrifices and was 7th in the majors last year.  Ned Yost smirks in your general direction.

In the new landscape of baseball, where defense and pitching have overtaken hitting the ball over the wall in importance, the 2014 version of Alcides Escobar works just fine. Take heed, my friends, because just the season before, your World Series lead-off hitter posted an on-base percentage of just .259.  He was still worth 1.1 fWAR that season, but I’ll take the 3.4 fWAR of 2014 if you ask. Given their off-season, the Royals need the 2014 Escobar to make a repeat performance in 2015.

 

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.

Greg Holland is ridiculous.

Those four words could be his complete player profile. Greg Holland is ridiculous.

This may be the most difficult player profile I will post. How many different ways can you say someone is dominant? Because Greg Holland is ridiculous.

Let’s just start with some raw, basic numbers.

Year Age Tm Lg ERA G GF SV IP BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
2011 25 KCR AL 1.80 46 15 4 60.0 233 228 2.21 0.933 5.6 0.5 2.9 11.1 3.89
2012 26 KCR AL 2.96 67 36 16 67.0 289 142 2.29 1.373 7.8 0.3 4.6 12.2 2.68
2013 ★ 27 KCR AL 1.21 68 61 47 67.0 255 342 1.36 0.866 5.4 0.4 2.4 13.8 5.72
2014 ★ 28 KCR AL 1.44 65 60 46 62.1 240 277 1.83 0.914 5.3 0.4 2.9 13.0 4.50
5 Yrs 2.19 261 182 113 275.0 1104 188 2.06 1.069 6.4 0.5 3.2 12.5 3.85
162 Game Avg. 2.19 68 47 29 72 288 188 2.06 1.069 6.4 0.5 3.2 12.5 3.85
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/5/2015.

 

How can you comment on that? This is just four years of brilliance.

And to me, that’s the key when discussing Holland: His consistency. It seems that baseball is finally wising up about closers and their unpredictability. Something like 20 closers who finished the season in that role weren’t considered closers at the beginning of the season. Mortal closers aren’t so reliable. Greg Holland is not a mortal closer. When Holland began his career with the Royals, Joakim Soria was their ninth inning guy. In ’12 it was Jonathan Broxton. It didn’t happen and as much as I don’t like to deal in hypotheticals or what-ifs, take just a moment and imagine what we would be looking at had he been the full-time closer since ’11.

That consistency is something else.

Batters have yet to solve the mystery.

Year Age Tm G PA AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
2010 24 KCR 15 87 78 23 5 0 3 8 23 .295 .360 .474 .835 .385
2011 25 KCR 46 233 211 37 8 2 3 19 74 .175 .246 .275 .521 .252
2012 26 KCR 67 289 248 58 12 3 2 34 91 .234 .323 .331 .653 .354
2013 27 KCR 68 255 235 40 6 2 3 18 103 .170 .228 .251 .479 .285
2014 28 KCR 65 240 218 37 5 0 3 20 90 .170 .238 .234 .472 .270
5 Yrs 261 1104 990 195 36 7 14 99 381 .197 .269 .290 .559 .301
162 Game Avg. 68 288 258 51 9 2 4 26 99 .197 .269 .290 .559 .301
MLB Averages .254 .319 .398 .717 .297
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/5/2015.

 

That slider… It’s pitching porn. There’s just no other way to describe it. It’s so dirty. So nasty. And definitely NSFW.

When Holland jumps ahead in the count, batters are going to get that slider. He throws it over 60 percent of the time when he’s ahead. And when Holland throws that slider, opposing batters have no chance. They hit .122 with a .194 slugging percentage against him last year when they managed to put his slider into play. Making contact was a feat in and of itself. Batters missed over 26 percent of the time they swung the bat.

Greg Holland is ridiculous.

MLB Trade Rumors estimated Holland could cash in for $9.3 million. It was a bit of a surprise when he filed for less than that at $9 million, which seems to be a relatively kind ask. The Royals have offered $6.65 million, which feels far too low given his track record. You would hope that the two could find some sort of compromise in the neighborhood of $8 million. That’s above the midpoint, but Greg Holland is ridiculous. Pay the man.

Holland presents a quandary for me. The sabermetric side believes closers can be found and the Royals have a deep bullpen, loaded with talent. If anyone could net a decent return in a trade, it would be Saveman. If anyone could be replaced, it would be Saveman. But after writing this and looking at those crazy numbers he’s posted over the last four seasons, I’m not so sure. The fan in me wants the Royals to not only hold on to him, but I want him to get an extension. Buy out his remaining arbitration years and then grab a pair of his free agency seasons as well. The funny thing is, the financial pendulum seems to be swinging the other way on closers. Three years ago, the Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract. This winter, David Robertson signed a four-year, $46 million deal with the White Sox. The inflation that runs throughout baseball has bypassed the closer market.

Of course the danger is you live to regret the long-term deal. Like the Phillies do with Papelbon. If Holland gets hurt, loses velocity off his fastball, or loses the bite on his slider, his value plummets. Plus, the Royals control Holland for two more seasons – through his age 30 year. He’s not racking up starter mileage on that arm, but you wonder about durability. The Royals, being a small-market team, can barely afford to pay a dominant closer more than $10 million. If they end up on the hook for big money and Holland loses effectiveness… I can’t even bear to think about what that would do to this franchise.

Remember though, teams are getting smarter about closers. Sure, there’s still some big cash being thrown around in free agency, but that probably won’t translate to the trade market. The return on a potential Holland trade won’t be as much as the Royals would hope. Besides, I tend to think the bullpen and closer market gets hottest closer to the trade deadline. Teams think they have internal options in the winter, or look to free agency. When injuries or ineffectiveness happens and a team is on the cusp of contention, that’s when desperation sets in and that’s when a team may pull the trigger for a trade on a closer.

Probably all wishful thinking. The right move is to probably hold on to Holland for the next two seasons, give him a qualifying offer, let him walk and collect a draft pick.

The Player Profile series began a couple of weeks ago with the idea that we should look at the Royals players eligible for arbitration. Holland is the ninth profile. Hopefully you’ve found this site or rediscovered it through some of these posts the last couple of weeks. If you’ve just now stumbled here, welcome. Here are the posts so far.

Tim Collins
Louis Coleman
Danny Duffy
Jarrod Dyson
Mike Moustakas
Lorenzo Cain
Kelvin Herrera
Eric Hosmer

Remember, Greg Holland is ridiculous.

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