The Royals finished last night’s game in spectacular fashion. A two out go ahead home run from Eric Hosmer in the top of the ninth and a spectacular Omar Infante flip to Alcides Escobar’s barehand and then a laser to Hosmer for an out. If you haven’t seen it, FIND IT! It is worth any trouble you have doing so. I have seen that play before, most notably from Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek way, way back when I was young. Spectacular is about all you can or need to say about it.
Anyway, that was just the frosting on the cake of day that Tuesday turned out to be as the Royals traded for Ben Zobrist earlier in the day. Don’t like the starting rotation? Boom! Dayton Moore gets you Johnny Cueto. Worried about depth, second base, rightfield and maybe an extra bat? Whammo! Dayton Moore presents us with Ben Zobrist.
Now, there has been a little bit of angst about these deals in the land of Royal. Some of it, I think, stemming from the fact that this fanbase had been beaten down for so many years that we may simply not believe we get to have nice things. There is also some of the ‘well, I’m no follower’ in finding a reason not to be excited about a trade that is seen as a tremendous positive by the vast majority of the fanbase and, quite honestly, the baseball world.
There is another couple of sentiments that go along the lines of the Royals have a good thing going, why do we want to disrupt it? In a similar vein, there is the Royals are almost certain to make the playoffs as it is and once there it is all really just a crapshoot, so why not save the prospects and roll with this unit?
Okay, now, I put probably more stock in clubhouse chemistry than a lot of folks who frequent this edge of the blog world, but I also believe that players know who can play and who can’t. There is no doubt in my mind that every person in the clubhouse, including the starting pitchers, thought the Royals could really use another starting pitcher. I also believe that the team is not unaware that Omar Infante’s on-base percentage would be a bad batting average and his slugging percentage would be a poor on-base percentage. They know that, until recently, Alex Rios was swinging a wet noodle, that Jarrod Dyson never has and never will hit lefties and that Paulo Orlando, for all his heroics, has some holes in his swing. You know what else they know? They know Ben Zobrist can play the game a little bit.
Moving along, as a craps player, I understand a little bit about luck. As a Royals’ fan, I remember Buddy Biancalana being a World Series hero in 1985 even though he was not really a very good player. We have seen the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series with a team that was no very good in the regular season. We saw Detroit get David Price last year and not make it through one playoff series. Weird things happen in baseball, especially in a short series. Luck happens. Bad players get hot. Good players get cold. Any team on any given day stuff, you know the drill.
While I don’t buy that the woeful 2005 Royals would have a 40% change of beating this year’s Royals in a seven game series, I know they would have some chance (see the paragraph immediately above). Let’s say the Royals, who I don’t think anyone can argue have improved their regular season team in the last week to the extent that they are virtual locks for the playoffs, end up facing the Astros in the first round. I don’t know (or care) what the actual percentages were, but for discussion purposes we will say Kansas City had a 54% chance of winning the series. If adding Cueto and Zobrist moved that needle to even just 57% I will take that action over the ‘playoffs are all luck’ approach.
Of course, both Cueto and Zobrist came at a cost. While I will not be surprised if all five pitchers involved in these two deals have major league careers, the Royals might well be haunted by Sean Manaea in future years. That’s actually fine, in my opinion, especially if the Royals have a really big, tall new flag in leftfield next spring. Manaea was not going to play for Kansas City this season and, frankly, probably was not going to be up at the start of 2016, either. He might well be great…but that greatness will certainly not be in full effect until 2017 at the earliest. Same timeline for Cody Reed. John Lamb might have been a contributor on the 2016 team and we all know the Finnegan drill. Good pitchers….maybe, but not good MAJOR league pitchers (other than Finnegan being decent out of the bullpen – not exactly a weakness for the Royals) this season or likely next.
You know who is good THIS season? Johnny Cueto is and so is Ben Zobrist.
Dogged by injuries earlier this year, Zobrist has rebounded to hit .268/.354/.447, which is freakishly right on his career numbers. He has been worth 1.1 fWAR so far, after being worth 5.6 in 2014, 5.2 in 2013, 5.8 in 2012 and 6.3 in 2011. With Alex Gordon on the shelf, Zobrist is probably the Royals’ most consistent hitter right now. I was not the first to come up with this and you do actually worry about changing too much (domes, you know), but I would be tempted to bat Zobrist leadoff. His strikeout rate has declined in each of the last four seasons (that’s good), while his walk rate remains right at his career rate of 12%. Dude can hit, boys and girls.
Defensively, Zobrist has played everywhere but catcher in his career. He was a decent shortstop and even logged 236 innings there last year: good enough to be there if something happens to Escobar during a game. The metrics don’t like him at second this year, but it is very small sample size and effected by Zobrist playing hurt early on. For his career, his defensive numbers (and reputation in the game) at second base are excellent. If you are worried about a defensive dropoff there between Infante and Zobrist, you are worrying too much. Zobrist has logged the majority of his time in right, where he was very good as well (metrically speaking) in seven of the last eight years. He has played more innings in left this year (197) than any previous season and the metrics don’t like him there, but they loved him in left in a similar sample size in 2014. When healthy, and Zobrist seems to be healthy now, Ben is a good defender just about anywhere and especially in the spots the Royals are going to play him.
And that is kind of the beauty of this trade. You can play him everywhere and offend no one. For now, we are likely to see Zobrist spend most of his time in left. Personally, I would put him at second and roll with Dyson/Orlando, but that’s me. While left might be Zobrist’s primary spot, the Royals would be silly not to give him a couple of days a week at second and another in right and maybe another day at designated hitter. Until Alex Gordon returns and returns in full Alex Gordon mode, the Royals can pretty much play Ben Zobrist every day and not have truly benched anyone.
Let’s face it, every team could use Ben Zobrist and your Kansas City Royals got him. In the span of less than a week, Dayton Moore added two very good veteran baseball players to his team without subtracting a single relevant piece of the club that was already the class of the American League. There is nothing to fear here other than expending some angst over what MIGHT have been pieces of the 2017 starting rotation.
This is going to fun, kids.