The Royals enjoyed their highest win total since 1989 last season, and GM Dayton Moore issued a pair of four-year contracts to free agents in an effort to push the team into the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
Major League Signings
- Jason Vargas, LHP: Four years, $32MM.
- Omar Infante, 2B: Four years, $30.25MM.
- Bruce Chen, LHP: One year, $4.25MM
- Francisco Pena, C: One year, $500K.
- Total spend: $67MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Jon Rauch, Brad Penny (released), Ramon Hernandez, Jason Donald, Melky Mesa, P.J. Walters, Clayton Mortensen, Brett Tomko
- Dayton Moore (General manager, two years)
- Ned Yost (Manager, two years)
Trades and Claims
- Acquired OF Norichika Aoki from the Brewers in exchange for LHP Will Smith.
- Acquired 3B Danny Valencia from the Orioles in exchange for OF David Lough.
- Acquired OF Carlos Peguero from the Mariners in exchange for a player to be named later.
- Claimed INF/OF Jimmy Paredes off waivers from the Orioles.
- Ervin Santana, Will Smith, David Lough, Emilio Bonifacio, George Kottaras, Jamey Carroll, Chris Getz
Only the Cubs received less offensive production from their collective second basemen than the Royals last year, and only three teams — the A's, Astros and Yankees — received less offense from their right fielders (per Fangraphs' wRC+). Naturally, those were two of Moore's biggest priorities, and he was able to fill both vacancies without breaking the bank.
The four-year deal issued to Infante raised some eyebrows, but his glove and ability to hit for average with modest home run totals have made him a steady source of two to three wins above replacement over the past four years. Dating back to 2009, Infante's .296/.332/.413 triple-slash line translates to an OPS+ of exactly 100 and a wRC+ of 101, indicating that he's been a league-average hitter in that time. League-average doesn't sound exciting, but it's a heck of an upgrade over for a team that saw its second basemen combine to hit .240/.296/.306 in 2013 (64 wRC+).
The combined efforts of Jeff Francoeur, Lorenzo Cain, Justin Maxwell and Lough produced a .256/.304/.379 batting line that should be bolstered by the addition of Aoki (pictured). Additionally, Aoki and his career .355 on-base percentage can slot into the leadoff spot for Yost and serve as an improvement over the .309 OBP produced by 2013's leadoff men.
Clearly, the loss of Santana's 211 innings and 3.24 ERA are a blow to the team, but Moore acted quickly to replace those innings by signing Vargas to a four-year deal. As I wrote at the time of the signing, most people focused on the sticker shock of four years for Vargas rather than looking at the relatively tame average annual value. Vargas' durability makes him a reliable source of league-average innings, and statistically, he's not that dissimilar from Mark Buehrle (more on that in the linked article). The contract doesn't come with great upside, but the reasonable AAV allowed Moore to add Infante with a similar line of thinking; tack on an extra year in order to lower the annual commitment.
Of course, Santana ultimately settled for a one-year deal with the Braves — a disappointing outcome that was preceded by the firing of his agent, Bean Stringfellow. Surely, Moore would've been happy to forego the Vargas signing had he known that he could've had Santana on a one-year deal down the line. However, as was the case with other early-season deals, there was no way to know that Santana would be in such a predicament. Rather than spend $12-16MM per year on a big name early in the offseason, Moore chose to divide that annual sum between Infante and Vargas, and there's a good chance the club will receive more total production because he did so.
The signing of Infante made Bonifacio a bit redundant, and that was illustrated by the team's decision to designate Bonifacio for assignment and ultimately release him despite having agreed to a one-year, $3.5MM deal to avoid arbitration. Such contracts aren't fully guaranteed until the season starts, and therefore the Royals only paid him roughly $575K. His salary (plus a bit more) was put toward the decision to bring Chen back into the mix for a rotation spot. Chen turned in a 3.27 ERA last season and has quite a bit of experience as a swingman, should one of the club's younger starters force his way into rotation consideration.
Though they addressed the two biggest holes in their lineup, the Royals aren't without questions. First and foremost is the rotation: Santana and Chen provided a relatively unexpected 333 innings of 3.25 ERA baseball for the Royals last season. It seems unlikely that Chen can repeat that feat, and Vargas, who has pitched to a 3.97 ERA over the past four seasons, isn't likely to match Santana's level of run prevention. Kansas City did receive 39 starts of an ERA well over 5.00 from Wade Davis and Luis Mendoza in 2013, so there's some room for improvement there if Yordano Ventura and/or Danny Duffy can take some of those starts and perform well.
The real question, when it comes to the team's rotation, is how many more innings James Shields has left as a Kansas City Royal. The two sides reportedly aren't planning on discussing an extension this spring, meaning Shields is all but certain to hit free agency next November. If the Royals were unable to meet Santana's early-winter asking price, it stands to reason that they'd also be unable to meet the dollars that will be doled out to their top pitcher in free agency, unless he takes a discount. MLBTR's Jeff Todd recently chatted with Tim and I about what Shields could earn in free agency and crafted an excellent analysis on the topic. If Shields is to earn more than $70MM — a very realistic possibility — could the Royals make a competitive offer? They'll have more than $20MM coming off the books from Shields himself, Luke Hochevar and Aoki hitting the open market, but they'll also face large arbitration raises to core players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Greg Holland. Beyond that, Alex Gordon, Infante, Vargas and Billy Butler will see their salaries rise by a combined $7.5MM.
Hosmer and Moustakas were among the game's top prospects for years, and each saw a drastic swing in his production midseason. Hosmer was batting just .261/.321/.335 on May 30 when George Brett took over as the team's interim hitting coach. For the rest of the season, Hosmer was a man on fire, slashing .317/.365/.492 with 16 of his 17 homers coming in that time. Will the improved version of Hosmer show up for the entire season? The same could be asked of Moustakas, whose OPS bottomed out at .528 on June 17 before he went on to bat a respectable .269/.314/.425 over his final 78 games.
Alcides Escobar took a big step back in 2013, though a large portion of his offensive decline was due to the fact that he batted just .555 on line-drives (league average was .690, per Fangraphs). Clearly, Escobar had some poor luck, though his 3% walk rate can't be blamed on that. Despite the lack of free passes, the 16 extra hits Escobar would have had with average luck would've boosted his average from .234 to .260 and his OBP from .259 to .284. Neither is a great mark, but paired with his defense and baserunning, Escobar could be quite valuable with better fortune.
With Gordon and Aoki locked into the outfield corners, it will be up to a combination of Dyson, Cain and Maxwell to man center field. Each is a very strong defender with some question marks at the plate, and a platoon seems like the most likely outcome. But, will Maxwell or Cain be the one to win the job as the platoon's right-handed side? Whichever ends up the odd man out would figure to be a decent trade chip for Moore.
Lastly, while it's a small question mark, the decision to guarantee Pena a spot on the 40-man roster seems peculiar. The 24-year-old is just a .236/.286/.348 hitter in his minor league career, and the club already had Kottaras and Brett Hayes in the mix. Pena may not even end up as the backup, either; MLBTR's Tim Dierkes noted in his post on out-of-options players in the AL Central that Hayes seems to be the favorite to back up outstanding young catcher Salvador Perez.
Deal of Note
When considering the tight budget with which Moore was faced, it's tough to imagine a better fit for the club than Aoki. Kansas City's new leadoff man is guaranteed less than $2MM in 2014 — an unusually low salary for a regular player. Moore filled his need for a leadoff hitter and right fielder in the same trade, and did so without sacrificing the excellent defense Kansas City received from its right fielders in 2013.
Aoki's modest salary also allowed the Royals to spend to stabilize the rotation and provide a significant upgrade at second base for a reasonable price. That's key for this club, because while the payroll is projected to be in the low $90MMs, that's still a record-breaking commitment for the Royals. Consider that the alternative for the Royals was Carlos Beltran, who signed a three-year, $45MM pact with the Yankees. Kansas City pursued Beltran heavily, and had the Royals met his asking price, they likely wouldn't have been able to add Infante. The combination of Aoki and Infante is likely to contribute somewhere around four wins above replacement — a mark that Beltran alone may not reach — and do so for several million dollars less than $15MM.
Lastly, the Royals landed Aoki without surrendering any of their top prospects. Moore parted with lefty Will Smith to facilitate the deal, and while Smith had a nice season out of the Kansas City bullpen in 2013, five years of a reliever isn't a steep price to pay, especially for a team with the bullpen depth Kansas City can boast.
To call this a make-or-break season for the Royals could be an understatement. This is likely the team's last season with its best pitcher, and arbitration raises plus guaranteed raises to players on multi-year deals could prevent them from spending too freely on next year's open market. The hope is that someone such as Ventura can develop into a front-of-the-rotation arm, but there's no guarantee in that happening.
The Royals' best chance to win comes with Shields at the front of their rotation, and the front office has supplemented the current team with strong, relatively cost-effective options at second base and in right field. With a big season from Hosmer, Moustakas and/or Escobar, the Royals have the talent to give the Tigers and Indians a run for their money in the AL Central. Failing that, a coveted Wild Card spot certainly isn't out of the question. Royals fans could, at long last, see an unthinkable 28-year postseason drought come to an end in 2014.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
Great write-up, Steve! Best I’ve read to date! You are spot on, on every tidbit of information about this Royals squad. Expect a good year from Moose, and another subpar year offensively from Escobar, although hitting at the bottom of the order might alleviate some pressure. This team’s hopes and dreams rest squarely on the shoulders of Salvy, and I’m a bit surprised you didn’t touch on this a tad more.
Note: Elliot Johnson finished 2013 with the Braves
Thanks for that. I actually meant to type “Chris Getz” when I was doing that one and somehow got Johnson’s name in there instead.
I don’t see the Royals making the playoffs this year. While the Tigers and the Indians aren’t improved over last year, the Tigers are still the team to beat and Wild Card spots should be real tough with the way the East and the West are looking.
The back end of their rotation and the bottom of their lineup are completely mediocre. Sure there’s hope, but this isn’t a playoff team unless they go on an Indian like tear late in the season.
Not too worried about losing Shields, might hurt for a year, might not, will allow money for extension of young players critical for long term success. Royals aren’t the Yankees, they’ll have to build from within to sustain, so best is just to accept that up front.
I’m with ya, but they will have to acquire outside talent…most teams do. At this point it’s putting a rotation out there while Hosmer is still under control
A valid point, but I think the better business model would be to take the $70m it takes to sign Shields and instead extend Hosmer, Ventura, maybe Duffy, and so on.
I think Hosmer will be a tough extension. That might be why there’s so little chatter about it. I see him hitting FA. The Royals QO’d Santana… but they really do need a #2 starter.
Kind of the problem KC faces…there’s a bit of a gap between the Hosmer/ Moose wave and the Ventura wave
With the bullpen, defense, ace, reliable starters and ace-upside mlb-ready prospects, the rotation will be better than you expect. There’s reliability and depth to it. At the end of the day though, it will come down to Hosmer, Moose, Butler, and Gordon being able to put together a healthy, successful season. That’s what pushed the Royals to 86 wins by the end of the season, and that’s what will be needed. A well improved 86-win team is always a contender for a playoff spot. Whether they’ll get it or not remains to be seen.
Just watch Aoki…that offense will key on him
He’ll be fine, usually a consistent OBP and good defense, but he’s not the anchor. Need 2nd half Hoz and Moose.
KC needs everything to break right. That’s conceivable… every season it seems to happen for at least one team. I’d be a little more confident if they had a clear #2 behind Shields. They might get a breakout from Duffy and Ventura… but both will likely be on an innings cap… and relying on Chen and Vargas is sketchy.
I agree with this. If Moose can OPS .750+ and Hosmer .850+, I think this team will be good. If Moose drops back under .700 and Hosmer struggles with his power again, they’re not going anywhere.
Aoki is the key? Good luck then he isn’t even that good. He provides no power and his defense is not good. Whoever said he provides good defense has never watched him cause he is average at best.
If an average corner outfielder is your key looks like a lost season.
I’m talking team lineup building. If he can maintain a high obp…the Royals will score more runs with Infante/ Hosmer/Butler hitting behind him. What I actually said was the offense will key OFF him
He isn’t much of a difference maker. He also has taken huge declines in doubles, stolen bases, and defense. Last year he only had 20 doubles, 17 less than the year before. Even worse is he had 21 more hits last year! Adding on to the problem is he only had 20 steals last year while getting caught 12 times…pretty poor if you ask me. His OBP. last year was .354. which isn’t too bad, but when you consider most of that is only getting to 1B it isn’t all that impressive.
He is barely average now, if his decline due to age continues he isn’t going to be worth much to the team at all.
They didn’t give up much for Aoki, and he’s worth a gamble for this season. Certainly not like he’s blocking Wil Myers in RF. He’ll be an improvement over Lough likely…. and it allows Gordon to drop out of leadoff
I actually had a high ranking member of an NL organization ask me “What the h*** is going on in Kansas City?” And he wondered aloud if the Glass family was meddling again. Moore has been, if anything, TOO in love with his prospects. Then he seems to have counteracted that perception by dealing Myers
KC tried the good offense OF/bad pitching in ’11 and didn’t win a lot of games, so Moore, wisely I thought, traded a defensive liability with holes in his swing along with three other minor leaguers for a couple of rotation pieces. The result was 86 wins. Myers might be good, maybe an Alex Gordon type, or he may be Jeff Francoeur. Dayton made the move that would take the team the next step and it worked, a bridge to Ventura and the next wave, forced because the Duffy/Montgomery/Dwyer wave busted.
I don’t have as near of a problem with the Myers/Shields as some do. But I think your underselling Myers. He doesn’t comp to Gordon well and will likely outperform Hosmer. The big issue with the deal has been the stalling of Butler/ Hosmer/ moose. Moore has yet to show that he’s anything more than a talented scout. 4 Years on Vargas was crazy
Gordon used to hit moon shots in Omaha, then had some adjustment problems. Like Gordon, Myers Ks and BBs quite a bit, unlike Gordon Myers will never be confused for a competent defender. He could be good, I just don’t see him as a Mike Trout guy. I think Gordon’s a good value comp at top and don’t see Myers being a Hosmer. I wonder if Tampa thinks they could have made the Series if they still had Shields? David Lough matched Myers fW, so Royals didn’t lose on that last season.
As for Vargas, Moore got what he needed, a Quality Start pitcher good for a couple of hundred innings. More than six innings, three or less runs, then give the game to a great bullpen.
I don’t think TB thinks they were cheated on any way by that deal. Myers has more mlb power than Gordon or Hosmer NOW. Hosmer would have been a better deal. .290 15 hr 1bs are easier to find. I just see no reason to give a #5 sp like Vargas 4years. They could go year to year and replace his value
Power has a lot to do with the park. There’s a reason the Royals’ HR record is 36. The K is a big step up from Omaha, both for a right handed hitter and an OF. Myers may well be good, but last year the team was better without him and will be this year also. And he may become Clint Hurdle.
You make logical arguments… but it ultimately likely ends bad for KC. 86 wins won’t get it done this season
With Infante, Aoki, and apparently Ventura, I’m guessing 90 wins, give or take some health and luck. Better team this year than last even without Butler and others rebounding.
Could happen…there’s just not much room for error. Butler wasn’t as bad as people think in 2013
Billy turned into a singles hitter as pitchers worked him down and away and didn’t care if he walked. This year Gordon will be behind him, benefit of having a true lead off in Aoki. I expect a good year from Billy. He may be the easiest projection on the team.
Just don’t expect 30 HR.
20-25 with 45 doubles would work. Three decent OBP guys ahead of him, should be productive. George Brett only hit 30 HRs once. Not sure an extra homer every week or two is something to worry about.
Yep. Really the only surface flaw I see is the rotation after Shields. And I suppose a strong pen could mitigate that some.
The rotation lost Santana, Mendoza, and Davis and gained Vargas, Chen, and apparently Ventura. I can live with that.
I’ll take Vargas and Chen over those #6 starters. Ventura might step up and be a #3 starter.. factoring in an inning cap. I like Ventura-Chen-Vargas 3-5 even if I don’t like 4 years on Vargas. I still think they try and add an arm.
I would note that the Royals had a losing record in games Santana started. Likely looks to be Shields, Vargas, Ventura, Guthrie, and Chen. Duffy got bombed today, so he’s out of the race, will get to spend a couple of months at Omaha to tighten things up. Has stuff, lacks command.
That just does not look like a 90 win rotation. But in this day and age with two wild cards..anything is possible..but I see the WCs coming out of the East or West…I think the Twins and Sox have improved in the Central
Did last year’s look an 86 win season? I think the rotation is stronger now than last year, won’t get 15 starts from Mendoza and 25 from Davis. That’s about a quarter of last year’s starts.
I thought before last year that KC looked like a team that might go Oakland on the AL…still feel that way…but they have a ton of “ifs”…Could be a 90 win team or a flop and go under .500
Don’t see under .500, even with a bunch of injuries like 2012, but I doubt any of us predicted the Jays last year or the Indians.
Shields goes down, or they have significant injuries to the heart of the order. Be nice to see them take a run at Detroit… just to avoid the WC log jam. I could see the Tigers slipping back a few games. Cleveland gets a season of Danny Sanchez
Maybe Verlander goes down. Always a possibility and usually unpredictable. Cain is our most likely to go down, Infante probably next, maybe Esky with the shoulder. Main thing Royals need to do is avoid another bad May, dug a deep hole.
As always, it will come down to how they play within the division. I look for both MN and CHI to put better teams on the field…especially MN after the break. I really believe that the Twins are a dark horse .500 team
Should be a tighter race this year because of that.
Just imagine if some combo of Montgomery/ Duffy/Lamb had panned out
Yep. That’s why the team changed pitching philosophy a couple of years ago. I expect Duffy up by June, latest. Lamb has started to regain velocity, so is looking more up, still has secondaries and control, may turn back into a prospect this year if he can throw an average of 92, about what Shields does. He was hitting low 90s last week after some serious off season training.
Chen was resigned to be a waiting block for Zimmer. Once Zimmer arrives chen will go back to the bullpen like last year. Everyone is forgetting about Kyle Zimmer. Guy is going to be a stud with mid 90’s heater and monster curveball. He has #1 potential and if he can pitch like his comparisons (Wacha and Gray) then I really don’t see a huge need to resign Shields. Of course I would love to see the royals resign Shields but they can’t afford 20 million a year. Ventura is ready and Zimmer will be ready after the all-star break if he’s healthy. If they really wanted to they could go out and sign or trade for a middle of the rotation arm if Ventura and Zimmer pitch to their potential. Vargas will give the royals an innings eater that will save the bullpen.
Be nice to have that #1-2 sp to let Zimmer and Ventura settle in with their inning max…one more year on Shields would have been nice.
I don’t understand the Shields trade if he is let go. I mean did the team honestly think they would make the playoffs last year or this year just by adding Shields? If not it would have been better to keep Myers and win 80 or less games (better draft pick) both years with sights on 2015 and beyond as the contending window.
I think there’s an issue this season in not backing Shields in the rotation. It’s Shields and some #4 starters. To be fair…I think KC tried to better the rotation and were rebuffed.. publicly when Santana declined the QO
Yeah, they did think they were a couple of pitchers short. And the pitching staff did the job, but were let down by off years from Butler, Gordon, Cain, and Escobar along with the failure to develop by Moose. Moore’s view was that it was time to win and establish that mentality and so far he’s succeeded. Tampa did a similar thing several years ago, went out of character and signed a pricy FA to break them out of years of losing. It’s a risk, Royals fell short, but made it interesting. This year they have an even better team, so have a chance to take the next step.
Off years? I agree that if KC hits on ALL offensive cylinders they might win…but that accounts for no regression of the pitching staff…and health. They made a run at Beltran and Santana and lost… that would of helped
Beltran would have been overwhelmed in RF at the K, worst full time defender in the game last year. He’s a DH in a grown up park, but should be alright at Yankee Stadium and in the East, less real estate to cover. If KC just gets a couple out of the five or six underachievers to step up it may be enough. That’s why they play the game.
The same thing could be said for half the teams in baseball..lol. I’ll give you a 100% guarantee.. 2014 will be more fun to watch than a bucket of Mark Quinn pop outs
My first thought when I heard the Myers/Shields deal was.. really? Because I felt they were trying to work out a David Price deal
Vandals Took The Handles
Last year Francona got the Indians to the playoffs by propping up Ubaldo and Kazmir. Very seldom did either get to the 7th inning, often leaving around the 5th. Tito did it by having a deep pen. On the other hand, the Indians defense was inconsistent, oftentimes keystone-koppish.
The Royals have the best defense and bullpen in the AL. They can carry a few so-so starters even if all that they can get out of them is 5 innings. It’s how MLB is being played today. We should be seeing 26 and 27 man rosters shortly, as calling up fresh pitchers from AAA 2 or 3 times a week is getting old.