It is difficult these days to associate the Royals with the quiet side of the game. The club just went to the World Series in the most dramatic of fashions, changing the narrative along the way.
And yet, with all the attention-grabbing moves made around the league this winter, Kansas City seems to have been left off the radar once again. Of emblematic significance, perhaps, the two key players exchanged in the franchise’s most notable recent trade — Wil Myers and James Shields — both now play for the Padres.
But Kansas City has been quite active, as it turns out. Only the remade Braves have signed more MLB deals with free agents. After allowing Shields and one-time cornerstone Billy Butler walk as free agents, GM Dayton Moore dropped over $68MM in new guaranteed money on the table through the open market.
Even more interesting is how the team allocated those funds — all to players on one or two year deals:
- Edinson Volquez, SP: two years, $20MM
- Kendrys Morales, DH: two years, $17MM plus mutual option
- Alex Rios, OF: one year, $11MM plus mutual option
- Luke Hochevar, RP: two years, $10MM
- Kris Medlen, SP: two years, $8.5MM
- Jason Frasor, RP: one year, $1.8MM
- Yohan Pino, SP/RP: one year, unknown amount
The overarching theme, obviously, is that Kansas City did not extend its commitments over any significant length of time. In so doing, the team managed not only to keep its (playoff-profit-fattened) 2015 payroll from straying too far out ahead of $100MM, but kept its powder stashed in the future. With $56MM promised for 2016 but only $22MM and then $2MM in the seasons that follow, the Royals have ample flexibility to re-shape their roster and act flexibly as situations warrant. That is especially important, of course, with their significant group of arbitration-eligible players climbing the ladder toward free agency.
So, we know that Moore decided against making a lengthier investment, despite being rumored at times to be pursuing some bigger names. While it may never be known whether he made realistic pursuit of any longer-term free agents, or would have signed them to deals approaching what they did earn, the fact remains that Kansas City will have limited opportunity to regret the guys it did sign.
But what did the club get for its still-significant cash outlay? The signings represent a mix of hole-plugging and upside-chasing boldness that, I suspect, few saw coming.
Let’s start with the less interesting side of the scale. Volquez, Frasor, and Pino are each different versions of the same basic function: filling innings solidly at a fair price. In their own ways, these additions are also just versions of prior years’ signings (Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Bruce Chen) that the team has found useful in recent years. It represents, perhaps, another version of a phenomenon identified by Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan with regard to the Orioles: avoiding the awful.
Next on the scale come Morales and Rios, two veterans coming off of poor years who received fairly substantial, but still-limited, guarantees. Is this Moore acting opportunistically and hoping that these talented players can reach their previously-established ceilings? Or are they simply veterans filling obvious holes created by departing free agents (Butler, Nori Aoki)? Perhaps it is a bit of both.
While the numbers looked to be on the high side for those two bats, their respective deal lengths are obviously critical. Keeping the commitment short, in this case, may have been worth a premium. (Each also contains a mutual option — which are scarcely exercised, generally. They were likely designed mostly to push back money and tweak the risk/reward rather than to present realistic scenarios of being exercised.)
That brings us to the most variable side of the slide: Hochevar and Medlen. The former, a failed starter-turned-ace reliever, cast the mold so ably filled last year by Wade Davis but missed all of 2014 after tearing his UCL. Kansas City did have a chance to watch his recovery before agreeing to a deal, but the $10MM commitment is nevertheless significant for an injured reliever. But if he can return to form, he will supplement and eventually provide a cheaper, cost-certain alternative to one of the team’s much-ballyhooed triumvirate of relievers.
Likewise, Medlen has been an outstanding starter and remains young, but is now on his second replacement UCL and is a total wild card moving forward. That $8.5MM may go completely down the drain, but could also drop a top-end arm in the skipper’s lap for 2016, to go with whichever of the team’s starter prospects have managed to develop and stick by that time.
The biggest question facing the Royals, coming off of a World Series appearance, was and is whether several of the players who took steps forward (especially late) last year can sustain the momentum. For every prognosticator who sees this compilation as a division favorite, there are probably two who view the Royals as a roughly middle-of-the-road team.
You can count me among the those who are not necessarily expecting big things from Kansas City in 2015. But all generally average teams are not created equal. Some teams have a much wider band of reasonably expected performance than others. Some carry much greater long-term risk, and/or concentrate their hopes and fears in just a few, key acquisitions.
Moore has both spread his bet over multiple, varying types of players and, in so doing, tightly controlled the temporal reach of the downside. His strategy has also left the team with a roster that is flexible in its ability to add surprising younger players and/or remove disappointing veterans. (The Astros, Braves, D’backs, Tigers, and Twins all spent similar amounts of money on quite different mixes of contracts.)
Indeed, it is a grouping of players that allows for continued options over the course of the spring: dealing a reliever if a spike in demand creates an opportunity, extending Alex Gordon or Lorenzo Cain if the price is right, finding a patch or depth piece if there is an injury or an expected regular struggles in camp, etc. And the resulting aggregation ought to allow plenty of creative room in deciding whether to buy, sell, or selectively fiddle at the trade deadline. Regardless, the roster mix should be rather interesting to track over the year to come.