Royals Authority

Long Live The Process

As you would expect with the core Royals offense returning for an encore, there won’t be wholesale changes to the batting order.

Ned Yost has been making the media rounds of late (deer hunting season must be over in Georgia) and is discussing his optimal lineup. Of course his optimal lineup may differ from the optimal lineup of common sense. But, hey! World Series Champs! Here is how Jeffrey Flanagan sees the lineup at the dot com.

Alcides Escobar – R
Mike Moustakas – L
Lorenzo Cain – R
Eric Hosmer – L
Kendrys Morales – S
Alex Gordon – L
Salvador Perez – R
Omar Infante – R
Jarrod Dyson – L

Yost deployed 83 different lineups last season, by far the fewest in baseball. This is a manager who needs his roles and set positions. There’s not a lot of fooling around here. Just the facts with this lineup.

On the surface, this gives Yost the left/right rotation he craves. Only Perez and Infante at the bottom of the lineup go same side. Flanagan gives Christian Colon as an option at the eighth spot along with Infante. As much as I’d like to buy into some sort of second base competition, I’m not there yet. If Infante hasn’t lost the job after two dismal seasons at the plate, and with his hefty contract, I don’t see how he’s relegated to the bench.

But hey, let’s jump back to the top, because this is sure to rankle a feather or two: There is no way Escobar should continue to lead off. No way. Among 13 Royals who tallied more than 100 plate appearances in 2015, Escobar was the 12th best hitter, ahead of only Infante. His .297 on base percentage was ninth on the team, ahead of Alex Rios at .287. Do you see where I’m going with this? Escobar is keeping company with two very unpopular Royal hitters. This is who he is: A career .262/.298/.344 hitter with a 74 wRC+. Yet I will accept his offensive output because his glove is super-valuable. However, I don’t want to watch him hit at the top of the order for an entire summer.

You are welcome to disagree with the above opinion. ALCS MVP and all that. *Cough* Small sample size. *Cough*

Despite my kvetching about Escobar at leadoff, I’m fine with him if hacking at the first pitch and establishing Peak Escobar means the Royals voodoo is working and they will win the game. Whatever it takes, man. I’m not a total moron.

The final say belongs to the skipper:

“Hey, it just works for us. It’s proven now. We just respond with him up there.”

We could say the same thing about Yost. Keep on, keeping on.

According to Flanagan, the second spot is up for grabs between Moustakas and Gordon. Obviously, I was horrified when Yost placed Moustakas so high in the order to open the season, but you have to admit it was an inspired bit of thinking. Moustakas was unshackled from the run production expectations and was much more relaxed at the plate, as we all saw with his aggressiveness on going to the opposite field. Moustakas faded a bit midway through the season. He had a dreadful July and once Ben Zobrist joined the club, the Royals third baseman slid down to sixth in the order. Personally, I’d like to see Gordon hit second because he’s probably going to get on base more than any other Royal. Hell, he should hit leadoff, but that’s just not going to happen. Still, you have to consider Moustakas’ dome and all that. He was so much better hitting second last year, that I would be open to trying it again.

Just for fun, here are Moustakas’ career splits for each spot of the lineup:

I Split PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip tOPS+
Batting 1st 2 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .500 .500 .500 1.000 .500 190
Batting 2nd 409 365 47 103 18 1 10 40 26 45 .282 .342 .419 .762 .295 118
Batting 3rd 64 57 10 10 2 0 5 10 5 16 .175 .234 .474 .708 .132 96
Batting 4th 121 109 9 20 5 0 3 14 12 23 .183 .264 .312 .576 .205 65
Batting 5th 283 266 31 66 15 0 5 22 15 41 .248 .293 .361 .654 .277 87
Batting 6th 961 872 96 239 56 2 33 124 67 164 .274 .330 .456 .787 .302 123
Batting 7th 502 468 41 93 27 0 12 43 26 84 .199 .245 .333 .578 .215 64
Batting 8th 220 197 17 47 7 1 5 25 18 27 .239 .311 .360 .671 .253 93
Batting 9th 45 43 3 9 3 0 1 3 2 8 .209 .244 .349 .593 .235 68
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/20/2016.

Fun stuff. He’s best at the second and sixth spots. Makes you wonder if the Royals have his Baseball Reference page bookmarked or something.

There wasn’t a mention of the proposed Dyson/Paulo Orlando platoon, but Yost was on the radio in KC this week still selling that idea. Sans obtaining a corner outfielder, this remains the Royals best option. Yet there’s something that makes me wonder if there will be a true platoon, which goes against the managerial gumption of Yost. Besides, that would give the Royals four right-handed batters in a row against a left-handed starter. That’s the kind of stuff that will keep Yost up at night. Still, Dyson is bad enough against left-handed pitching (career .211/.288/.249) that a platoon pretty much has to happen.

At least we’ve moved from discussing free agent signings to talking about the lineup. Spring is around the corner.

While we wait for the Royals to make the Ian Kennedy signing official (Is it a front-loaded contract? Back-loaded? Or was Dayton Moore just plain loaded?) it seems things have settled back into the mid-winter slumber.

The Kennedy numbers are important, not only to see how the salary picture looks for Opening Day this year, but how the money is spread will affect the opt out clause, I would imagine. If the Royals are pushing a bunch of the salary to the back half of the five years, it makes it less likely Kennedy would return to the open market after the 2017 season. If there is more cash up front, then it feels more plausible he would grab the cash and look to improve his station for 2018 and beyond. Still, there are plenty of variables in place so speculation at this point is kind of silly. But, it’s January. What else is there to do?

— If you’re the Tigers, you look to keep pace with the Royals.

How fun is that? Detroit, watching their hegemony in the AL Central disintegrate, signed Justin Upton to a six year deal with an average annual value around $21 million. Big money that comes with the now obligatory opt out after the second season.

The Tigers have made some moves to compensate with the loss of David Price and Yoenes Cespedes, but the core bats are still aging and now this lineup skews heavy to the right. There’s still plenty of off season left, but it feels to me like the Tigers won’t fade like 2015. Plus, now that Cespedes is the lone impact outfielder available, it will be interesting to see if the Chicago White Sox join the party. He seems like a natural fit on the South Side. The AL Central is shaping up to be tough.

— The Royals released their schedule with game times, so if you want to start planning a random August weekend, now is the time.

CZGZ25wUMAE6rqx.jpg-large

It looks like they’re following the Cleveland experiment and starting weekday games in April and September at 6:15. Insert your own attendance smack here. I suppose that makes some sense in Kansas City. Demand for tickets will be high and this gives those young minds an opportunity to go to The K, see the game, and not miss their bedtimes. Whatever helps the future generations. Then, you have weekday games starting at 7:15, which is later than usual. Otherwise, it’s your garden variety baseball schedule. Although there is a World Series champion trophy present.

— Missed the hullabaloo of the Kennedy deal was the Royals agreeing to a two year contract with Lorenzo Cain, buying out his final two seasons of arbitration eligibility. He will earn $6.5 million this season and $11 million in 2017.

I love LoCain, but this is a bit of a head scratcher to me. I’m not sure the benefit of locking him in for his final year of arbitration is at this point. If he had another stellar season where he finished in the top three of the MVP vote, how much more than the $11 million the Royals are now committed to paying would he have earned? It feels like picking at nits, but it just kind of seems like a gamble on the part of the Royals in an effort to gain some cost certainty.

Having said that, I went searching for comps for what Cain could earn in arbitration as a third-time eligible players. This year, MLB Trade Rumors estimated Mark Trumbo, who has just over five years service time (an amount similar to where Cain would be at this point next year) would make a shade over $9 million. Seattle traded Trumbo to Baltimore and settled on a deal that will pay him $9.15 million. Before you start hammering the comment button, I’m not comparing Cain to Trumbo. I’m comparing their situations. Clearly, Cain is a better player, so maybe that $11 million they are going to pay him in 2017 is a bargain. We’re only guessing at this point. You could justify either outcome.

— Word ahead of the Cain deal was his camp was looking for a six year deal from the Royals, effectively buying out his final two years of arbitration, along with four years of free agency. That would take Cain through his age 35 season. I can’t fault Cain for wanting to maximize his earnings at this point in his career. It sure feels like he will have the opportunity for one large payday, a la Alex Gordon. While Cain has defied the aging curve to this point, it doesn’t make a lot of fiscal sense for the Royals to tie up so much money on two-thirds of their outfield when those players will be approaching their mid-30s.

 

We saw it coming, but we didn’t see that coming. Not that contract. Not like that.

The Royals were linked to Ian Kennedy early in free agency, and often. The frequency increased at the end of last week, and as we’ve learned so often during the Hot Stove, when Rosenthal and Heyman are tweeting about it, things are percolating. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when the deal was broken on Twitter early Saturday. What was surprising was the length and dollars of the contract.

Five years? Huh? $70 million? What?

There’s a lot of collateral to unpack in this contract. For starters, there’s a reported opt out after two seasons.

The opt out is a new tool clubs have been utilizing on the larger free agent deals. I realize the teams carry most of the risk on the opt out. If a player is good, they will pull the cord and reenter the free agent market much earlier than the team would have liked. If the player underperforms in the first couple of seasons, they will be more likely to bypass the opt out and could potentially saddle a team with a horrendous contract.

While the risk is certainly present in these opt outs, it’s also easy to see how teams like the Royals are approaching them. As stated ad naseum this winter, the core of the Royals will hit the free agent market following the 2017 season. With the window of contention so obviously open the next two seasons, it’s easy to understand the reasoning of giving the opt out for Kennedy at that moment. The hope is, Kennedy will pitch well enough for the Royals during their window that he will exit to give the Royals more flexibility to rebuild. Two things to remember are: His agent is Scott Boras and somehow, someway Boras always manages to find a better deal for his clients. And two, it’s folly to try to predict how a player and the market will react. I mean, Kennedy was saddled with a qualifying offer this year. If there was ever a pitcher who would take the $15.8 million, it would have been Kennedy. There were questions that the Padres would even give it to him, because the threat of him accepting was real. Instead, he has a potential $70 million payday.

This opt out is going to loom large, because the projections are… Unkind. Not so much for the first two years of the contract. It’s the final three that will keep Royals executives up at night.

Kennedy has averaged 1.6 fWAR over the last three seasons. As as starting pitcher the last six years, he’s averaged 2.4 fWAR. He’s compiled two strong years as as starter, a couple that were kind of meh, and two that were not very good at all. When you view his Steamer projection at FanGraphs, a 2.0 fWAR makes a lot of sense.

Using FanGraphs projected value of fWAR at $8 million, it’s easy to see how this deal falls apart after the 2017 season.

KennedyValue

Based on the projections, the above table suggests a fair value for Kennedy would have been around three years and $40 million. But come on… Free agency and fair value are rarely synonymous.

As Matt Jackson wrote at Beyond the Boxscore, it’s easy to see how Kennedy fits into the second tier of free agent starting pitchers. His track record compares favorably with the subset of starters who received five year deals this winter. If I were to guess as to why the Royals went after Kennedy, his durability had to have been a major selling point. Kennedy has made 30 starts in each of the last six seasons and has topped 200 innings three times. Despite possessing one of the top bullpens in the game, the Royals value innings from their starters. Who doesn’t? There’s a comfort in knowing you have one (or preferably more) guy who will take the ball every fifth day. The Royals rotation was littered with question marks. It’s strange to say, but Yordano Ventura is still relatively unproven. He was great for the Royals in the last couple of months of the season, but can he be a steady performer for the entirety of the year? Chris Young has stamina issues. This will be Kris Medlen’s first full season since his second Tommy John. And who knows where Danny Duffy will see the majority of his innings. Before Kennedy’s arrival, Edinson Volquez was the only known quantity in the rotation.

The counter argument is that the Royals are paying a high price for mediocrity. Perhaps, but this is the cost of doing business in baseball in 2016. Compare to Jason Vargas a few seasons ago. Vargas was an underwhelming starter who surprisingly signed for four years. I’m certain the Royals extended in that manner to secure what they hoped would be an innings eater at a controlled cost of around $8 million a year. It didn’t work out that way, but it was a gamble worth taking because now that innings eater is averaging around $14 million a year. The Royals can’t go out and sign multiple starting pitchers in an off season, but they can stagger their contracts to alleviate the pain.

The Royals have also had a fairly positive track record on their pitching acquisitions the last couple of years. Maybe that’s due to their ballpark and defense and pitching coach, but you can’t argue against the successes of Volquez, Young, Vargas, James Shields, Ervin Santana, and even Jeremy Guthrie for a time. There are no All-Stars or Cy Young award winners in this bunch, but as we’ve learned, when you built your team on defense and a rock-solid bullpen, you don’t necessarily need those types of pitchers to be successful. Shorten the game, catch the ball, and profit.

There’s also the issue of the Royals losing their first round draft pick by signing a player who declined a qualifying offer. I’ve seen estimates of that pick at around $10 million, so if you like to count every nickel and dime in a deal, that increases the overall expenditure by the Royals, which makes this a less attractive signing. Kennedy doesn’t pocket that money, of course, but the Royals jettison the opportunity by removing the pick from their draft equation. The Royals haven’t done as well in the draft over the last couple of years, but we have seen there are ways to spin those draft picks into players who can help you win a World Series. The Royals are in a position where they probably thought they had a couple of high draft picks (their normal slot, plus their extra pick for when Gordon left via free agency) and now those picks are gone. I’m sure there were several interesting discussions centered around the draft and Kennedy.

Kennedy is good enough he can be a solid mid rotation starter for the Royals in the next couple of seasons. The hope here will be that he pitches well enough to propel the Royals back into the playoffs while the window remains open before choosing to opt out after the 2017 season. Let the Royals take advantage of what should be a couple of remaining solid years in his arm, then let another team worry about his mid-30’s. That sounds like a good deal to me.

We’ve come to learn that oftentimes when the hot stove starts simmering, dinner is almost ready.

Take for instance yesterday when Ken Rosenthal sent out a series of tweets about the Royals and their quest for starting pitching:

Which built on this tweet from Jon Heyman:

Kennedy seems like exactly the kind of starting pitching the Royals would shop for in the free agent market. Meaning, he’s fairly mediocre. In his first three seasons as a starter, his ERA- was under 100. In the last three seasons, it was above 100. (100 being league average and under 100 being above average.) He’s had some success in the past, is relatively durable, and his recent struggles mean he should come for a discount at least by market standards. Then there’s the belief on the part of the Royals they can use their ballpark, their defense, and the wizard himself, Dave Eland to “fix” him.

Kennedy throws in the low 90s and, despite playing half his games at Petco in San Diego, finished last year with a homerific 1.66 HR/9 rate. That’s enough to throw the fear into any pitching coach in the game. Not so fast, though. Last year, Petco – a notorious pitchers park in the past – played much more home run friendly. According to ESPN’s Park Factors, it was the 10th easiest yard in the majors to exit last summer. There were a number of theories as to why baseballs suddenly became so eager to leave the Padres home park ranging from new construction around the stadium to the wind patterns to the fact the Padres pitching just wasn’t that great.

Kennedy has been homer-happy before. He owns a career 1.12 HR/9 rate, but just the previous season in San Diego, he finished with a 0.77 HR/9. So what can the wind or the weather be blamed for almost a doubling of Kennedy’s HR/9 rate?

Perhaps, but I prefer to look at his home run per fly ball rate. In Kennedy’s career, almost 11 percent of his fly balls go over the fence. That’s right around major league average. Last year, it was a whopping 17.2%, second highest in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. Just behind… His teammate James Shields. Seriously, something was going on in San Diego last summer.

So for a new team, the can expect some positive regression from Kennedy on his home run rate. Studies have shown that it will fluctuate from season to season, but should stabilize between 10 and 12 percent. When I was writing about fantasy baseball, we usually looked for guys with Kennedy’s home run profile as bounce back or sleeper candidates. It’s pretty rare when a guy follows up a homer happy season like that with another one. The truth in his HR/FB rate probably lies somewhere between his 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Kennedy is a fly ball pitcher and we all know how that plays at The K. With a ton of acreage and one of the best defenses in baseball behind him, should he join the Royals you know more of those fly balls will stay in the yard and more of those fly balls will be converted into outs. It’s the Royals Formula. And over the last couple of seasons, it’s worked quite well.

Kennedy would cost the Royals their first round pick in the 2016 draft. They are slotted at 24 at the moment although that could change with several free agents with qualifying offers attached still floating around the market. But bringing Kennedy on board for at least the next two years (and probably a third) would continue to signal the front office recognizes their best chance at winning comes in the next two seasons. With Alex Gordon back and the rest of the core returning, the conventional thinking is the Royals need one more arm for the rotation to stay in the thick of the AL Central. Yes, the bullpen is great and will continue to be a strength, but how nice is it to have a starting pitcher would could potentially give you 200 innings, as Kennedy has done in three times in six seasons as a starter.

Another point in Kennedy’s favor would be his relationship with Eiland. Kennedy has made several mechanical adjustments in the last couple of years, searching for the answers to get back to his early successes. Last summer, it was about where he was standing on the mound. Two years ago it was about increasing torque and downward plane. Can Eiland help him find consistency? It could be worth a shot to find out.

At this point, I’d lean toward Kennedy over another oft-mentioned free agent candidate in Yovanni Gallardo. Like Kennedy, Gallardo is tied to a qualifying offer. Unlike Kennedy, Gallardo has seen his velocity and strikeout rate tumble the last several seasons. Kennedy’s strikeout rate has gone up every single season since he became a starter. Seriously, it’s climbed each of the last five years, going from 7.79 SO/9 to last year’s 9.30 SO/9. That’s not a trend that can continue obviously, but give me the guy who has had his rate move in a positive direction the last several seasons over the guy who has seen his drop.

Kennedy isn’t a sexy choice, but he’s a solid one. And that’s what the Royals are looking for at this stage in their title defense. The Royals certainly still have some room on the payroll and this remains their greatest need. I would expect some movement on this in the next week or so as the Royals ready their roster for 2016.

Fine. I’ll bite. FanGraphs updated their team projections page. You’ve most likely heard by now. And if you’re reading this, consider yourself lucky. You resisted the urge to smash your fist through your monitor. (Keyboards. Less expensive. And never with your throwing hand.)

Sorry, but I just don’t understand the bile these projections generate. Because they’re projections.

The funny thing to me is how fans frame the projections to prop up their own bias. A 95 win projection? “Hell, yeah! We’re going to the World Series!” A 79 win projection? “What the hell? Computers don’t know a damn thingIn the unfortunate case of the !”

What I glean from these projections is, for starters, they’re incomplete. There are still a handful of the top free agents on the market. Wherever they land, the balance will certainly be affected. To grab at a projection in January while the market is still extremely fluid is only going to frustrate. Second, while they do get specific, I like to look at them in more general terms. For example, the spread of projected wins in the AL Central is just seven games. The highest win total is assigned to the Indians at 85 wins while the lowest win total is the Twins at 78. Ignoring the raw numbers for a moment, the projections suggest a tight race in the Central where no team – as currently constructed – stands head and shoulders above the rest. What tends to happen in this scenario is one club leaps to the front of the line through circumstances that weren’t accounted for at the time the projections were posted.

Think about the Royals last year. The projection systems have traditionally had a difficult time handling defense and relief pitching, two areas of acknowledged strength of the World Champs. Plus, at least the FanGraphs projections, had the Central a tight race. What happened last year was the Royals ran away with the division for a couple of reasons. One, their additions (including, but not limited to Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez) outperformed expectations. Two, their bullpen was even better than anyone imagined. And three, there wasn’t a strong team that could give them a challenge.

Could it happen again? Absolutely. Should you use part of your January to get angry? That’s up to you. Myself, I’m fine whatever road you decide to travel.

The projections are fodder for a January usually devoid of baseball news. It’s an opportunity for that bias I mentioned above to manifest itself in articles and blog posts. Hey! This team is supposed to face off against that team in the Wild Card Game! Oh! This club is going to pick first in the 2017 draft! Look! Mediocrity! In the unfortunate case of the Kansas City Star, they mistakenly published a post thinking both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus had released projections. BP has not made PECOTA for 2016 available. Oops.

I look at projections like I would look at a win or a loss from a random game in April. Yeah, it happened, but there’s still a long way to go.

Which leads to my final point: All team projections are generally laughable. Seriously, look at the entire list. Three teams are projected at this point to win more than 90 games. That’s a low number of teams to reach that plateau. By comparison, seven clubs won at least 90 with one winning 100. Two teams are projected to win fewer than 70 games. Again, that’s not close to how reality will shake out. Last year, six teams fell short of 70 victories. There’s simply no way the MLB regular season will finish with that many teams bunched together in such a fashion.

Then what’s the takeaway? How about the FanGraphs model says Cubs, Red Sox and Dodgers will be good. The Braves and Phillies will be bad. The other 25 teams have a chance to make some noise. The Royals are in that group. In January, that’s a good place to be.

If I had to guess, the projections are discounting the Royals starting pitching. There are still plenty of questions surrounding the rotation and those questions are fair. It’s Yordano Ventura and the realm of the unknown. Questions also exist in right and at second base. That’s why the two-time defending AL champs are in with the masses. Not because some computer hates Kansas City.

Bookmark this post so we can meet back here when Baseball Prospectus actually releases their 2016 PECOTA standings.

I wonder if Steven Hawking ever pondered what would happen if you placed a black hole inside of a black hole. Because that pretty much sums up the Royals second base situation ever since Omar Infante arrived in Kansas City.

The Royals have desperately needed an able-bodied second baseman for years. Ruben Gotay, Mark Grudzielanek, Mark Teahen, Chris Getz and even Yuniesky Betancourt have all started at second base on Opening Day for the Royals in the last 10 years. Though he was in the twilight of his career, Grudzielanek was serviceable at the position. The rest… Not so much. Maybe that was why Dayton Moore threw a four-year contract valued at $30.25 million (including a team option for a fifth year) at Infante in December of 2013.

In exchange for the cash, Infante has posted an injury-plagued two seasons, posting a -0.4 fWAR which is valued by FanGraphs at a negative $3.9 million. He’s practically stealing from the Glass family at this point.

Infante was entering his age 32 season when he signed that four year deal. In offering, Moore and the Royals brain trust ignored all evidence offered that second basemen tended to age faster than anyone else on the diamond. Indeed, Nate Silver, back in his days at Baseball Prospectus discovered production from second basemen declines somewhat faster than the average player once they reach their thirties. It would appear the Royals made this discovery at the Everyday Low Price of roughly $30 million.

The Royals, naturally, will offer the injury defense. They will tell us that Infante hasn’t been right. He had surgery in November to remove bone chips in his elbow and the Royals believe that will alleviate the pain he was feeling in his shoulder. The connection being, Infante adjusted his throwing mechanics due to the discomfort caused by the bone chips which led to the shoulder issues. He also missed time with a herniated disk in his back in 2014 and was left off the 2015 post season rosters due to an oblique strain. While you can’t connect all the dots and blame the bone chips for all the injuries, it’s pretty clear we are watching a player who has difficulty staying healthy and on the field. The flip side is, do the Royals really want him on the field?

That’s a rhetorical question. Of course the Royals want him on the field. They’re paying him a serious amount of cash to play baseball. Yet the past two seasons, his presence in the lineup has hurt more than helped his team.

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2014 32 KCR 135 575 528 50 133 21 3 6 66 33 68 .252 .295 .337 .632 76
2015 33 KCR 124 455 440 39 97 23 7 2 44 9 69 .220 .234 .318 .552 49
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
KCR (2 yrs) 259 1030 968 89 230 44 10 8 110 42 137 .238 .268 .329 .596 64
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/11/2016.

The numbers were down across the board in 2015, but there are some interesting nuggets that can be found. If you’re looking for a positive, Infante did have two more extra base hits in 2015 compared to the previous season. Yet his slugging percentage dropped by about 20 points. The number that jumps out to me are his strikeouts, which were steady from 2014 to 2015, despite Infante finishing last season with roughly 90 fewer at bats. The trend becomes even more troubling when you learn his strikeout looking rate dropped from 16 percent in 2014 to 10 percent last summer. For a guy who has been a contact player his entire career, this is a troubling trend.

It turns out Infante was more aggressive at the plate last year. His swing rate was a notch below 48 percent, which was his highest going all the way back to 2007 in his first stint with the Tigers. His O-Swing rate – or the rate at which he swung at pitches outside of the strike zone – was above 35 percent and the highest of his career. As a result of the “grip it and rip it” approach at the plate (although it was frequently sans “rip it”) Infante walked just nine times in 455 plate appearances. Nine times. Among players with more than 450 plate appearances, no one walked less. It’s a Royal epidemic.

Just for fun, (and it’s a bizarre definition of “fun”) here are the 10 hitters with the lowest walk rates in baseball last summer.

2015 Walk Rate

That’s gross. Funny that three Royals are in the bottom ten along with two Mets. Hey, five of the players most adverse to drawing a walk in 2015 played in the World Series! The Baseball Gods can have a twisted sense of humor.

While his swing rate was up across the board, there was a noticeable jump in offerings at breaking pitches. Infante swung at a higher percentage of curves and sliders than he had at any point since PitchF/X began tracking.

Infante_SwingPct

The jump in swing rate at offspeed had an unfortunate consequence. Going back to 2007, Infante has a whiff rate on breaking pitches usually anywhere between 10 and 13 percent. He’s been fairly consistent. Last year… Not so much. His whiff rate on sliders and curves jumped to an unseemly 20 percent.

Infante_WhiffPct

Thanks to the PitchF/X data collected by Brooks Baseball, we can see exactly where Infante’s breaking pitch Achilles was located. The next table has 2014 swing and miss data on curves and sliders on the left. 2015 is on the right.

Infante_SwingMiss

Infante was chasing the breaking stuff low and away a little more frequently, but was missing at a much higher rate than he had in the past.

So we’ve identified the root of the problem. What was the cause? That’s a little less easy to identify. My first inclination was to look at how Infante attacked the fastball, thinking he was avoiding the hard stuff because he was having difficulty catching up to it. However, the numbers from the tables and charts above don’t bare out that hypothesis. Then was it pitch recognition? Hard to say since he’s never really had this issue at any time in his career. Or was it something psychological, where Infante was pressing at the plate, trying to force the issue and it just so happened the breaking pitch low and away was always his weakness. It was just exposed with an aggressive approach.

Whatever the reason, Infante needs to adjust his methods at the plate and reign in his swings on the breaking stuff. In optimal conditions, he’s a below average offensive performer. There’s no reason he should throw more of the balance to the pitcher.

Defensively, Infante has been a solid performer at second. I thought he flashed better range and a stronger arm last summer compared to 2014. Maybe he learned to adjust to the injuries to his arm, or maybe he just learned to play through the pain. Whatever the reason, he was better defensively last year.

He’s also developed a comfort level with his double play partner, Alcides Escobar. There wasn’t a prettier play up the middle than this July night in Cleveland.

According to Baseball Info Solutions, Infante finished 2015 with three defensive runs saved. That’s not an amazing number by any stretch, but it was the 12th best mark among second basemen.

While the defense was strong, there was no amount of glove work that could overcome the dismal offensive production. Time will tell if the surgery to remove the bone spurs propels Infante to his best season yet as a Royal. His age and decline prior to the injuries advise against making a bet for him to rebound. With Christian Colon waiting in the wings, the Royals may not be as patient as they have been in the past. The window is open and the pressure is on Infante to prove he can perform. No one is asking for an All-Star performance. At this point, just some positive value would be a step in the right direction.

You think Omar Infante is going into spring training as the Royals starting second baseman? Not so fast.

From our main man, Dayton Moore:

“We’re going to play the best players. Omar is a terrific second baseman. I know offensively he has not performed the way he has liked or the way we expect him to. I just know we’re going to put the best team out there each and every night, and I know Omar is capable of being that guy. But we like Christian Colon, too. But you need them all to win, as you know. It’s a team, and you count on everyone to perform.”

This is the kind of red meat that gets you to sit up and take notice. The Royals owe Infante, who has more than 12 years of MLB service time, around $17 million for the next two seasons. Contrast that to Colon, a relative major league neophyte, who will earn around the major league minimum. Baseball is a funny sport in that with the guaranteed contracts, teams will stand beside their sunk costs even while they’re busy sinking the team. Infante was not part of the Royals run through October, marginalized by Ben Zobrist and injuries. It’s always been a safe assumption that with Zobrist moving on and Infante still cashing the big checks, that second base would return to the latter. Well, assuming they can’t unload him on a another team.

Of course, plenty of things are said in the winter, then forgotten once the club assembles for spring. Will Colon truly get a chance to supplant Infante? Or is this just a way the Royals are using to light a fire under Infante? A way to send a message they expect him in Surprise in a few weeks ready to play. Tough call at this point.

This post is about Christian Colon. Yet his potential contribution to the Royals over the next couple of seasons is tied to Colon.

We are all familiar with Colon’s pedigree. Of more importance is what he has done for the Royals.

If nothing else happens in his brief career, Colon will have cemented himself firmly in Royals lore. The high chopper in the Wild Card game plated Eric Hosmer with the tying run in the 12th. And his liner brought home the go ahead run in Game Five last November. Think about this. The Royals have played 31 post season games in the last two years. Colon has come to the plate three times. He has two of the biggest hits in Royals history. (His other plate appearance was a walk. Colon has a tidy 1.000/1.000/1.000 career postseason line.)

As Colon rose through the minors, his contact rate was his bread and butter. Contact rate is often something that translates as you progress from level to level and Colon is no exception. He’s maintained a healthy to put bat on ball in his limited major league action. The annual average contact rate is close to 79 percent. Colon, in a small sample of 168 career plate appearances, owns a contact rate approaching 85 percent. As we know from watching the Royals in the last couple of seasons, that contact skill set is something the club values a great deal. Put the ball in play. Move the line.

Since we’ve watched Salvador Perez the last couple of seasons, you may catch yourself thinking high contact is synonymous with free swinging. That’s sometimes the case, not always. By contrast, Colon’s high contact rate comes from working the count, getting into favorable hitting situations, and then joining bat and ball. The Royals as a team eschew the free pass, but given a proper chance, Colon may not fall into that trap. In his limited action, he’s managed to draw a base on balls in 8.3 percent of all plate appearances, which is better than the major league average. That’s right in line with a minor league walk rate average of slightly above eight percent.

With the ability to maintain a high contact rate, combined with a strong knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to stay patient to accept a free pass, Colon could give the Royals a solid on base candidate in a lineup where they can always use that skill set. On the flip side, Colon has limited power potential. He’s more of a gap to gap hitter whose power profile will be molded in the form of doubles and the occasional triple.

The projections don’t have enough of a major league track record on Colon to formulate numbers that make a great deal of sense. Steamer projects him at .264/.316/.352 with a 6.6 walk rate. Marcel projects a .277/.337/.391. Both systems have Colon as a part timer. ZiPS, which doesn’t attempt to project playing time, has the Royals utility man at .268/.317/.351. Maybe the truth can be found somewhere between the high and the low projections.

And that’s really the question surrounding Colon. Can he deliver with enough consistency to justify a full-time major league job? Last year, the Royals envisioned Colon as someone who could fill in at third, short and second. He filled in at all three positions at various times in the first half of 2015. In fact, as he’s progressed through the minors, his likely role seems to have adjusted to major league utility man. His upside is a steady, yet unspectacular second baseman.

Is Colon a viable defensive candidate at second base? All the evidence (the metrics and the eye test) suggest yes. Let’s start with the metrics. It’s limited at the major league level, but over the last two seasons according to Inside Edge, Colon has had 63 chances to record an out in 160 innings. Of those 63 chances, 56 have been classified as “routine,” meaning the average second baseman will make 90 to 100 percent of the plays. In Colon’s case, he’s converted every single chance in that category. He’s had seven non-routine opportunities and come away from those with just one out. That confirms the eye test that Colon is steady, but unspectacular with the glove at the keystone position. He possesses average range, a strong arm, and is good enough on the double play pivot you feel confident in his ability to turn two. What he lacks in ability, he counters with superior instincts. He has a feel for the game around second base. That helps him keep and edge and allows him to translate what are averageish defensive tools into an above-average package at second.

Same thing goes for baserunning. He not a burner by any stretch, but his speed is helped by good instincts on the bases. He knows when to take the extra base and doesn’t seem to take foolish chances on the bases. It’s an aspect of his game that can be an asset.

The only question Colon has to answer is: Would he be better than Infante? This is the question the Royals have to answer not just in this case, but in every situation throughout their organization. With payroll increasing to all-time highs every winter, they can ill afford to set money on fire by giving it to an underperforming veteran when they have someone with limited experience who can provide the same – or better – major league production.

That’s the Christian Colon question.

With the ink drying on the Alex Gordon contract, it’s time for a little more reflection on the biggest free agent deal in Royals franchise history.

— With Gordon set to earn $12 million, he’s actually taking a pay cut from last season. He earned $14 million last year. And remember, he turned down his player option that was worth $13.25 million and a qualifying offer of $15.8 million. I don’t know why I find that interesting, but I do.

— The Royals 2016 payroll comes into focus ahead of the arbitration guys getting their contracts settled. The club currently has 16 players under contract at a total of $97.725 million. Add the $20.6 million MLB Trade Rumors estimates for the seven arbitration-eligible Royals, and you have a payroll of just above $118 million for 23 players. Throw two more on the roster at major league minimum and they are closing in on $120 million.

That’s a lot of cash, but it’s only around $7 million more than the Opening Day payroll in 2015. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great they’re spending more money. But I think they can spend more. I think there’s still room to add a starting pitcher on a short-term or backloaded deal where he would make $10 million this season. There are still several free agent rotation candidates available. The Royals have been linked to Ian Kennedy of late. Besides Kennedy, you have Yovanni Gallardo and Wei-Yin Chen as your best options available. All three are turned down the qualifying offer, meaning the Royals would forfeit their draft pick in the first round next June. There was probably a point in the last month where they were banking on collecting an extra pick from Gordon departing. Facing a payroll with room to grow, but not a ton of flexibility, and considering the loss of a draft pick, would the Royals go after one of the remaining best three? Or would they turn to the Upside Bargain Bin and look to a Doug Fister or Mat Latos as potential rebound candidates?

— Who’s up for some projections?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… Royals fans don’t have any time for projections. I know. But it’s an interesting exercise to look at an individual and his contract. At least it is to me. As always, your mileage may vary.

Let’s start with a little perspective on our favorite left fielder. From 2011 to 2014, Gordon averaged 156 games a season and 5.6 fWAR. Spanning his age 27 to age 30 seasons, it wouldn’t be out of line to consider those his peak years.

The projection systems all take this into account. Steamer (found on the player pages at FanGraphs) pegs Gordon for a 3.7 WAR in 2016. If you feel the Steamer projection is harsh, remember he suffered the groin injury last summer and finished with 2.8 fWAR in 104 games, his lowest totals since his left field renaissance. If you prefer, Dan Symborski’s ZiPS has Gordon at 3.1 WAR next year and around 10.3 WAR for the life of the contract. Baseball Prospectus hasn’t released individual PECOTA projections yet, but they have Gordon at around 11 wins over the next four seasons. If you apply an aging curve to the Steamer projection, you can come up with 11.2 WAR in that span.

That’s all a complicated way of saying it feels like a safe bet to project a healthy Gordon for close to 11 wins over the life of the contract.

That “digital dandy” Symborski estimates a value of a win at around $6.5 million, meaning he expects Gordon to be worth around the $72 million the Royals owe him. Handshakes and backslaps all around. But if you chose to believe the value of a win is higher and that Gordon will finish his new contract with the 11 wins mentioned a couple of graphs above, then the contract looks like a little more of a bargain for the Royals. The Baseball Prospectus post tags the value of a win at around $7 million. That means according to their PECOTA projections, Gordon would produce around $85 million in value.

I’ve heard rumblings the value of a win this winter could be set even higher – closer to $8 million. If that’s the case, and if Gordon produces the aforementioned 11 wins, then he would be worth closer to $95 million. Taking that figure and applying an inflation amount at four years and $72 million, the break even point for Gordon and the Royals is around 8.4 WAR total.

Obviously, things can (and will) happen. Injuries, a steeper than expected decline, bad karma… things conspire to work against ballplayers in their 30s. Yet this contract feels like a fair deal for both sides. The risk is there, but it’s not extraordinary. I would bet that if we jumped in the Delorean and traveled ahead to 2020, this will look like an extremely sensible move.

— One thing I haven’t heard discussed is the fact the Royals, in bringing back Gordon, get a known commodity. There’s no mystery about his health and there is absolutely no question about his work ethic. It may sound silly, but I think the Royals can find value and comfort in that. If for some reason, Gordon is sidelined by injury or some other circumstance, the team knows he will do everything he can to get back on the field. I’m thinking about another free agent outfielder Dayton Moore signed to a multi-year deal earlier in his tenure when I’m writing this paragraph.

— When a guy returns to his original team after exploring the free agent market, there’s always rumblings about the “hometown discount.” Color me skeptical that Gordon gave the Royals said bargain. The fact of the 2016 free agent market is the pitchers went off the board early and the position players found themselves frozen out of the money. Except for the Cubs, there hasn’t been anyone spending on bats and gloves. You knew something was up when the rumor mill churned the White Sox wouldn’t go more than three years for either Gordon or Yoenes Cespedes. The Sox need a corner outfielder, so it’s odd they would take that sort of stand. Except it turns out they probably aren’t alone.

 

Okay, even if the Royals and Alex Gordon do agree to the mutual option for a fifth year, there is still at least one more contract in Gordon’s future.  It very well might not be with Kansas City at that point, but for right now it feels like he will always be a Royal.  That’s good enough…for a while.

Certainly the vast majority of Royals’ fandom was elated with the $72 million deal that was announced yesterday.  It locks in (or at least allows the Royals the ability to lock in) the core of this team – hell, pretty much all of this team – for both 2016 and 2017.  If you are willing to just accept the whole ‘Omar Infante’ thing, the World Champions will have eight returning starters from last year’s Opening Day lineup with seven of those having started for the 2014 American League Champions as well.   Some people don’t care for and discount the talk of ‘windows’ in baseball, but I think it is a real concept and one that very much applies to a smallish market team.  In that sense, the Royals are really in year three of a four year window that has thus far yielded two World Series appearances and one championship. So far, so good.

Now, for the angst and there will be angst.  There are those who just won’t be happy or can’t stay happy or like to be contrarians or have real fears of what the future holds that do have actual factual foundation.  To be clear, I am not a member of any of those groups. I’m ecstatic Alex Gordon is back and that the Royals spent the money to do so.  I am willing to wager that age 34/35 Alex Gordon is going to resemble more Ben Zobrist and than Jose Guillen.  Let’s have a little fun and look into the future, through Alex Gordon tinted sunglasses.

2016

With the possible exception of someone to share time with Jarrod Dyson in the outfield, you know what the lineup will be:  Gordon, Cain, Moustakas, Escobar, Infante, Hosmer, Morales, Perez.  While Dayton Moore is still pursuing a starting pitcher and, with Gordon making ‘just’ $12 million this season, he has some ability to do so, the rotation currently is Volquez, Ventura, Duffy, Medlen and Young with the hope that Kyle Zimmer comes along at some point.  The bullpen?  Yes, you could do a whole lot worse than Davis, Herrera, Soria and Hochevar and, in fact, 27 or 28 teams will likely readily admit that they will do worse than that.

Hey, it is tough to repeat.  The division is better, other teams are not standing still and the 2016 Royals would not be the first World Champion defenders to slump.  The fear is that this squad suffers from a not very uncommon post-season hangover and David Glass stews his way through the summer wondering why his $135 million dollar payroll is playing .500 baseball. It could happen, if for no other reason than the current starting rotation could turn into a hot mess.

Now, the current starting rotation, could also turn into a pretty salty unit. Volquez is, let’s face it, pretty much Volquez.  I would not call him a ‘rock’, but you have a decent idea of what you are generally going to get.  Chris Young is going to give you 120 or so innings of decent work.  However, we are just one season removed from thinking Yordano Ventura was going to turn into an ace. We have seen Danny Duffy be brilliant and we have seen him be awful, could he maybe just settle down and be solid?  Kris Medlen? While you can see lots of red flags, you can also see lots of ability as well. Listen, with the bullpen the Royals have, it is not really dreaming to think that Ventura-Duffy-Medlen could provide six innings of really good pitching most every night.

Bottom line, even without adding another starter, the 2016 Royals have to be a favorite to make it back to the playoffs.  I will entertain opinions that Kansas City might be more wild-card than division winner, but if last year’s roster won 95 games it is hard for me to see how this year’s is not capable of winning 90.

 

2017

Fifty-eight million dollars (give or take a couple of million between friends) allows the Royals to pick up the 2017 options for Davis, Escobar, Volquez, Morales, Medlen, Perez and Hochevar.  They will have to swallow some big arbitration numbers for Hosmer, Cain, Moustakas and Herrera (among others).  The Royals have a fair amount of control to bring back the entire 2016 roster should they so choose.  Morales, Medlen and Hochevar are mutual options, so take those for what they are worth.  At $11 million for an aging DH, there is a chance the Royals might be able to get Kendrys Morales back for this season.  It might be a rare case where the mutual option is both worth the money and about all the player could expect on the open market.  All options picked up or agreed to and they would end up with a payroll likely nearing $150 million in doing that and, let’s face it, I don’t see that happening.

That said, another playoff appearance in 2016 would likely keep David Glass in a $130 million dollar state of mind for this season. The hope would be that Kyle Zimmer becomes KYLE ZIMMER and Yordano Ventura is coming off a season that warrants his contract.  If so, the Royals might well buy out the option on Volquez or let Medlen walk. Depending on what Raul Mondesi does in 2016, the Alcides Escobar option is not a sure thing, although I think it probably is picked up.

Being realistically optimistic, the lineup probably shakes out as Gordon, Cain, Dyson, Moustakas, Escobar, Infante/Colon, Hosmer, Perez and somebody to DH.  I love Kendrys Morales’ approach at the plate, but something tells me one side or the other declines the mutual option.  One hopes this core group is by now being challenged by Bubba Starling and Raul Mondesi.  With or without Morales, this is an expensive lineup in 2017, but one that you can (and have already) win a championship with.

Should the Royals not sign a free agent starter prior to the 2016 season, it would seem an Edinson Volquez option pick up is almost a certainty, keeping the veteran in a rotation that plus or minus Medlen, strongly resembles the 2016 group.  The bullpen will likely swap out Hochevar for an Almonte or someone, but likely be similarly dominant.

To be honest, I don’t know that an 83-79 2016 campaign means that the 2017 Royals could not win a World Series.  I don’t think the Royals will fall back that far in 2016 and, assuming they do not, Glass and Moore are not dismantling the 2017 squad before it has a chance to establish itself as a fourth consecutive post-season squad.  Enjoy the ride, kids, it gets bumpy from here on out.

 

2018-2019

Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez (team option), Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera (arbitration).   That is your current 2018 roster.  Yes, they hold team options on Chris Young and Omar Infante if that makes you feel better.  Those of you who think the Royals MIGHT have won the World Series without Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist can chime in here to note that the 2018 rotation could have included all those young pitchers traded away.  I will counter that the Royals DID win the World Series with a pretty fair amount of assistance from Zobrist and Cueto in the post-season.  I’m okay with picking up the pieces in 2018.

Extensions prior to free agency?  I think a lot of that is a pipe dream. Of Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, et.al.  I think maybe….maybe, you can get one to a deal that takes them beyond the 2017 campaign. I think Cain is the most likely to get a deal done, but probably the one with the most risk as well.  If you were/are worried about an age 34 Alex Gordon, you should be scared to death of the thought of a 33-34 year old Lorenzo Cain who is a step and one-half slower than the one you know now and can’t stay on the field for more than 120 games.

Offensively, the organization has to hope that Mondesi and Starling are bonafide major league regulars.  Playing the extension game and knocking wood for good health, a Gordon-Starling-Cain outfield is not bad to build around. On the mound, we still are pinning are hopes on a quality one-two Ventura-Zimmer punch with the back end of the bullpen likely being Soria and Herrera.  Wade Davis?  THAT will be an interesting discussion in the winter of 2017 won’t it?   Scared of Gordon, frightened of an aging Cain?  What are your thoughts on a 32 year old closer?

The upside of all this is that the Royals, even if Glass dictates a payroll of say $90 million, would have something along the lines of $40 million to play with in the open market.  God knows what $40 million buys by 2018, but it buys something.  I am playing this scenario out as if the 2016 and 2017 Royals are contenders and maintained essentially intact, which means no trading of Hosmer for prospects in July of 2017 (or similar scenarios) and as such the 2018 and 2019 Royals are mostly Gordon, Perez and a whole bunch of imagination.  That is okay, I think, as long as the prior two years are what we all hope they will be.

I can imagine all sorts of things going right and Dayton Moore making big splashes with a couple of free agent signings and still do not see the 2018 Royals being any better than a .500 team.  Quite frankly, they could be considerably worse than that, but they will be an organization with money to spend.  Depending on the appetite of ownership, they could have a lot of money to spend, with a new television contract finally coming up on the horizon. That might go a long way towards making the inevitable 2018 rebuild a lot shorter than one might think.

Playoffs in 2018?  Nope.

Playoffs in 2019?  It is not impossible to see it, not anymore.

 

 

You’ve surely heard by now, the Royals and Alex Gordon have agreed to a four-year contract, valued at around $72 million.

Yes.

It was a drama played out longer than any sane Royals fan would have hoped for, but in the end, the only thing that really matters is that Gordon will remain in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.

The key takeaway from this is the Royals will have their core together for another two years. This is great news. Nothing is certain, but they are in a great place to stay in the mix for the upcoming season and 2017 as well. Remember, after 2017 Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar will be eligible for free agency. There’s a tendency among the sabermetrically inclined to dismiss the idea of competitive windows, but with limited reinforcements coming from the minor league pipeline, this feels very much like the Royals have one wide open. That’s one reason why this Gordon deal is so important to the Royals. It maintains there competitiveness at an optimal time.

It’s worth noting that Gordon now becomes the highest paid player in franchise history in terms of total dollars on a contract and average annual value. Despite all the protestations we heard at the opening of the Hot Stove season the Royals would maintain a payroll close to their 2015 level, if they wish to remain competitive, they have to keep spending. It’s just simple economics. The cost of wins increases each season. Teams serious about competing make the appropriate adjustments. The Royals have done this going back to 2012 and The Wade Davis Trade.

As of this writing, the dollar breakdown isn’t known for certain. There are rumblings the contract is backloaded, which gives the team freedom to pursue another arm for the rotation. Again, with uncertainty surrounding the starting pitching, the flexibility to add another candidate for the rotation is massive for this team. It allows them to continue to build around the core.

Without knowing the actual dollar amount for the 2016 season, I still feel comfortable currently projecting a payroll between $120 and $125 million. That’s pretty close to the number I felt it should be when we started the offseason. Remember, that’s a rough estimate as we don’t know the details on the Gordon contract, nor do we know how the arbitration cases of Cain, Moustakas, Danny Duffy and others will conclude. We do know the Royals have seven players eligible and estimates project them to collect around $21 million. Cot’s Contracts has the Royals on the books for $85 million right now, so if you project $15 million for Gordon in 2016, the math is pretty straightforward. Either way, the Royals have outspent their previous Opening Day payroll record and still seem to have some room to maneuver.

Following back to back AL pennants and a World Championship, Dayton Moore has given this generation of Royals fans the final piece – an icon. As fans, we love this team and we desperately want the players to love us back. I cannot tell you how cool it was at the parade to see the Royals wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Thank You, Kansas City.” Are you kidding? No. Thank you!

In the glory years of the early days of the franchise, the Royals had a pair of icons. George Brett and Frank White won titles and played their whole careers in Kansas City. They created a legacy that remains to this day. It I s something I’m certain the younger generation tired of hearing about, but there presence has been vitally important to the team and the city.

Now, we have a new generation that has been privileged to celebrate winning a title. We just needed to find an icon to make it complete. To give this team it’s forever identity. To build a legacy. Today, Alex Gordon is truly Forever Royal.

What a great day to be a Royals fan. Again.

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