With their 2015 World Series title in the past, the Royals need to turn their attention to building the next generation of Royals baseball.
It was only three seasons ago when the Kansas City Royals won 95 games and their second World Series title. Their core of Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez was able to bring the World Series trophy back to Kansas City for the first time since 1985. Their five-game series win against the Mets is now entrenched in Kansas City baseball history, and the aforementioned core players became folk heroes.
Clutch hitting defined this Royals team. They were a team that could be counted on to hit fastballs over 95 miles an hour late in ballgames and raise their performance in high-leverage situations.
Fast-forward three years to 2018, and the Royals have entered their rebuilding phase. Two key members of their core, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, are gone. Cain signed a deal to return to the Milwaukee Brewers and has had a great offensive start to 2018, hitting .310/.375/.517 with an OPS+ of 142. Hosmer, meanwhile, signed a huge deal with the San Diego Padres. Despite a 2-7 start for the team, Hosmer has provided a consistent bat, hitting .259/.355/.407 with a couple RBIs.
Meanwhile, the Royals surprisingly brought back Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas on cheap, one-year deals. Escobar was expected to depart to make room for Raul Mondesi, while Moustakas was expected to field a much better offer on the open market. To replace Cain and Hosmer, the Royals opted to bring aboard two cheap veterans on one-year deals in Lucas Duda and Jon Jay.
With approximately $125 million committed to players in 2018, the Royals have a payroll that does not quite befit a rebuilding club such as theirs. In particular, the untradeable contracts of Alex Gordon ($20 million in 2018 and 2019) and Ian Kennedy ($16 million in 2018 and $16.5 million in 2019) hamper the Royals’ ability to trim payroll as they rebuild.
The Royals finished 80-82 last year, and with the subtraction of Cain and Hosmer, who were easily their best offensive players in 2018, it can be expected that the team will lose more games. PECOTA projects them to be tied with the Miami Marlins, another team that shed payroll to jumpstart its rebuild, for the worst record in baseball.
The Royals and the Marlins (77-85 in 2017) were in the same place months ago, neither team good enough to make the postseason nor bad enough to drive fans away from their ballparks. The Royals averaged 27,412 fans per game in 2017, which was their third highest average since the 1980s. The Marlins, meanwhile, had 1,583,014 fans come to Marlins Park in 2017, which is low by MLB standards but still an average attendance clip for them. Both teams were stuck in mediocrity. Both had a cesspool of talented players. The Marlins not only had speedster Dee Gordon, but they also had one of the best outfields in all of baseball with Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Marcell Ozuna. The Royals, meanwhile, had Cain, Hosmer, Perez, and Moustakas.
Both teams also had massive payroll obligations. The Marlins, in particular, were hampered due to Jeffrey Loria’s mismanagement and Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million deal. In 2017, the Marlins had a payroll commitment of around $112 million, while the Royals were at approximately $140 million. This past offseason, the Marlins jettisoned most of their highest-paid and productive players, resulting in intense fan backlash and poor attendance to start the 2018 season. However, the Marlins were able to trim payroll down to $90 million, and their trades netted them numerous prospects, some of whom who are already contributing (ex: Lewis Brinson).
The Royals, however, did not operate their rebuild the same way the Marlins did. Royals general manager Dayton Moore decided to not trade any of his veterans at last year’s trade deadline, which meant that four members of his veteran core (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, and Escobar) all entered free agency with the chance to take a better deal and leave the Royals with nothing in return. The Marlins, meanwhile, had the luxury of having talented players with multiple years still on their contracts, making the Marlins’ players more attractive to teams. The Royals’ players deemed trade candidates were either entering free agency, which meant a team that traded for them last July could lose them a few months later, or stuck with an albatross contract (Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy).
Therefore, the Royals’ rebuilding process was delayed. They were not able to convert their departing free agents into at least a couple prospects, and their bad contracts ate away at the team’s payroll, preventing them in the short-term from reducing payroll in the likelihood that fan attendance declines.
However, the low-cost signings the Royals engaged in do offer some hope that in July, barring good performances from their veterans, the Royals will be able to turn cheap, still-productive veterans into at least a couple prospects that the Royals desperately need (their farm system is ranked 30th in MLB). The Royals do not have a single prospect on Baseball America’s or MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list. For a rebuilding club, this is an absolute nightmare that needs to be resolved.
When Perez returns from his injury, the Royals lineup will be much deeper than currently constructed:
Considering that the Royals were originally planning to have Paulo Orlando man center field, Cheslor Cuthbert (a horrible defender — more on that below) at third base, Hunter Dozier (a guy who has hit .211 at the MLB level) at first base, and Mondesi (a .181 hitter) at shortstop, the Royals upgraded significantly. While still not a team that will contend for the postseason, the Royals do have some pieces that will serve a purpose for this Royals’ team.
Here is a look why the Royals’ moves this offseason should pay dividends for them later on.
Jon Jay Replacing Lorenzo Cain
Player A: .300/.363/.440 in 645 PA’s
Player B: .296/.374/.375 in 433 PA’s
Can you really tell a major difference between these two players? Both have a high OBP along with a solid batting average. Cain does bring more power to the table (Cain had 14 homeruns last year compared to Jay’s two), but Jay has showed that he will be able to get on base just as frequently as Cain and even possibly more. Jay will not completely replace Cain’s production, but since he is only making $2.5 million compared to the $16 million Cain is getting from the Brewers, he is as good as a low-cost replacement can be.
Defensively, Jay would be better served if he was the starter in left field (had a 11.5 UZR in left in 2017). With Alex Gordon entrenched there, Jay will be in center on most days. Jay isn’t quite as good defensively in center as he is in left, but he still remains a solid defensive outfielder. A contending team may be interested in him if he performs similarly to his 2017 season in Chicago. The Royals should hope that a good year from Jay can net them a prospect in July.
Lucas Duda Replacing Eric Hosmer
Hosmer has compiled 7.5 WAR since 2014. Lucas Duda, surprisingly, has compiled a 7.4 WAR in that same time span, yet Hosmer is earning $20 million while Duda is taking home $3.5 million this season.
Hosmer’s agent Scott Boras can talk about the intangibles all he wants, but the fact remains that Duda is a productive first baseman who should fill Hosmer’s void at first base just fine. In fact, Hosmer may even be worse than Duda.
Consider their wRC+ — Hosmer has averaged a 111 wRC+ over his career, which is still above-average, but Duda tops it at 120 wRC+. Both hitters struggle mightily against lefties (Hosmer has a 87 wRC+, Duda a 84wRC+) and perform exceptionally well against righties (Hosmer a 123 wRC+, Duda a 132 wRC+). Despite both their struggles against left-handed pitching, their past managers seem to have had no problem playing them against southpaws. Hosmer has had 32.4% of his career at-bats come against lefties, while Duda has had 24% of his plate appearances against lefties.
Even in regards to defense, Duda is serviceable despite Hosmer’s four Gold Gloves at first base. Both defensive runs saved (-21 runs) and ultimate zone rating (-29) show Hosmer as a below-average defender. Duda, meanwhile, is a competent first baseman (+9 DRS, +1 UZR). While he doesn’t possess eye-popping statistics, Duda at least provides a consistent glove at first.
Duda is one player the Royals should (and will) consider shopping at the deadline. A solid year that maintains the career-best slugging percentage of 2017 with an improvement in batting average will make him an attractive left-handed bat for a contending team. Although a club will not unload a top 100 prospect for Duda, especially since he is on an expiring deal, the Royals can still possibly acquire a little depth for their farm system.
Mike Moustakas Reclaiming Spot From Cheslor Cuthbert
Originally, the plan was to have Dozier play first base while Cuthbert gets the majority of the third base reps. However, Duda’s signing took care of first base and Moustakas returning took away a starting job from Cuthbert.
It was the best baseball move the Royals could make. And it has nothing to do with Moustakas’s offense; it has everything to do with Cuthbert’s poor offense and defense.
Cuthbert has played around 1,500 big league innings at third base, which is enough to see how effective of a fielder he is. The results are not good. He grades out as a below-average defender in terms of UZR/150 with a -3.7. When he filled in for Moustakas in 2016, he posted a -12 DRS (defensive runs saved) while in 2017, he was worth a -1 DRS.
While an improvement, Cuthbert has also been at the bottom of the league in turning routine plays:
What keeps Cuthbert from being completely unplayable at third base is that Moustakas is not going to win defensive hardware anytime soon either. Although Moustakas can be counted on to convert more routine plays, he also ranks near the bottom in converting more challenging plays, which suggests that Moustakas is an average defender at best.
Therefore, Cuthbert’s defense, as terrible as it is, remains passable for the Royals at third considering Moustakas cannot play good defense either. What hurts Cuthbert the most is his .275 OBP. Although Moustakas isn’t great at getting on base either (.314 OBP in 2017), his power (38 homeruns in 2017) separates him from Cuthbert. With Cuthbert only hitting two homeruns in 153 plate appearances (Cuthbert had 510 plate appearances and 12 homeruns in 2016), he does not offer the tantalizing power Moustakas has.
For a Royals team that lost its two major offensive contributors, they will need all the power they can get. If Moustakas can provide them with the same bat he did last year, the Royals should be able to flip him to a contender and get a couple prospects for him in July.
Alcides Escobar Reclaiming Spot From Raul Mondesi
Perhaps the biggest surprise this offseason, Escobar’s return surprised some people. However, despite Escobar being worth 0.0 WAR to the Royals last year, he is the best option they currently have. As a result, the Royals bringing him back for one year is not the worst idea in the world.
What Escobar brings is replacement-level durability. In many ways, Escobar suffered a severe decline last year. His batting average decreased from .261 to .250, his OBP dipped from .292 to .272, and he only walked 15 times in 629 plate appearances over 162 games. Escobar was never a high OBP guy (a career .294 OBP), but he was known for two things: stealing bases and solid defense. Now he does neither well.
Consider Escobar’s stolen base statistics over the past few seasons:
That is a huge drop off in production. It was not like Escobar played in less games. In 2017, Escobar played in all 162 games, and he only managed to steal four times the entire season. In the best interest of the Royals, the hope is that Escobar can at least return to his 2016 levels when it comes to stealing bases.
Escobar, despite his decline (which is unusual considering he is only 31 this season), represents consistency at the big league level. Mondesi, who is in line to inherit Escobar’s spot whenever he leaves, is a worse alternative to Escobar. Mondesi is worse offensively, sporting a career line of .181/.226/.271 over two big league seasons. Despite Mondesi’s success at Triple-A (he batted a .305/.340/.539 line in 2017), Mondesi struggled to do anything at the big league level, leaving the team between a rock and a hard place. He performed well enough to earn a promotion to the Royals 25-man Opening Day Roster but is really not a MLB-caliber player as of now.
Therefore, despite Escobar’s declining performance, he is durable enough to hold down the position until Mondesi improves. The hope for the Royals is that Escobar performs well enough that he holds trade value once July arrives so that he can be flipped for prospects who could become part of the next Royals’ core.
The Big Three: Royals Veteran Pitchers Hold Value
The Royals are keeping their fingers crossed that four veterans can net them prospects down the road, but their safest bets for the best returns appear to be with their pitching. In particular, their starters Danny Duffy and Jason Hammel along with reliever Kelvin Herrera.
Duffy started Opening Day for the Royals this year, and while he got rocked for five runs in four innings, he has shown that he is a more than capable pitcher who can slot into the middle of a contending team’s rotation. The past two years, he has carried ERAs of 3.51 and 3.81 while averaging approximately 160 strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Hammel should net the Royals a decent return should he stay healthy. With the huge increase in pitcher injuries over the past few years, rental arms are always in demand. Hammel was not himself last year. After sporting ERAs of 3.74 in 2015 and 3.83 in 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, Hammel ended up with a 5.29 ERA in 2017 with Kansas City. Even if Hammel can lower his ERA to 4.50, he will have contenders lining up to trade for him for depth purposes.
This offseason showed that relief pitchers (apart from Greg Holland) are in more demand than ever before. Therefore, Herrera is more valuable to the Royals playing well than any of the aforementioned players.
The good news for Royals fans is that Herrera is having a good start to the year so far:
62.5% K% (8th in the league)
62.5% K/BB% (7th in the league)
-1.32 FIP (4th)
-0.67 xFIP (5th)
24.1% SwStr% (13th)
For a pitcher who struggled in 2017, Herrera was one who needed to get off to a good start. The Royals will benefit more later on in the season if he returns to being the pitcher he was in 2014-2016, pitching to a 2.75 ERA with a 10.8 K/9. He may not bring back superstardom with those figures, but the return he would be able to fetch would be substantial, and that only helps the Royals.
Will the Kansas City Royals be bad in 2018? Probably. Will they be unwatchable? Absolutely not. Although Perez’s injury and Bonifacio’s suspension hurts the team currently, the Royals still have enough productive veterans who should yield them more wins than their division rival Detroit Tigers or their rebuilding counterparts (Miami Marlins) on the east coast.
The goal for the Royals this year should be to perform as best as they can. Although many rebuilding clubs commit themselves to tanking (“Trust the Process” in Philadelphia, Miami Marlins), it would be counterproductive for the Royals to do so.
For the Royals to fully commit to the rebuild and construct the next future generation of Kansas City baseball, the team needs to perform well, and Dayton Moore’s phone needs to be ringing in July.
All statistics and information provided came from FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or MLB.com, unless otherwise noted.
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