The Kansas City Royals’ Unsurprising, Underwhelming Winter

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When did the 2014 Royals start to surprise us? It wasn’t in October, when Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas stopped trying to string singles together and became acquainted with walks and homers. It wasn’t in the last minutes of September, when Salvador Perez pulled a low, outside breaking ball — almost the only sort of pitch he swung at in the second half — past Josh Donaldson’s glove to complete a life-fulfilling comeback in the AL wild-card game. It wasn’t on September 16, when Ned Yost began using his bullpen like he wanted to win more than he wanted to make his relievers’ lives orderly. It wasn’t even when a streaky team that started 49-50 — lurching from winning streak to losing streak like hot and cold water from old-fashioned faucets combining to form a lukewarm stream — turned scalding, winning 40 of its final 63 games. Few foresaw those reversals, but the Royals had started to surprise us months earlier.

In March, Rob Neyer, Dave Cameron, and I sat behind a long, black-draped table at the SABR Analytics Conference — hotbed of baseball nerds, advanced stats, and, traditionally, Dayton Moore mockery — and answered a question about our favorite offseason moves by praising the Royals. For us, and for much of our audience, wholehearted approval of Royals transactions was an unfamiliar feeling. We knew that the Royals could scout young talent well enough to assemble an enviable farm system (even if they had problems with player development). But GMs send bad baseball teams to October in stages, like NASA sends satellites into orbit, igniting a series of rockets that propel the payload while dumping the depleted pieces that drag it down. Moore had gotten the team off the ground, but homegrown players alone can’t power a playoff team. To escape the pull of their past, the Royals had to spend wisely to supplement their prospects, and neither Moore nor owner David Glass seemed well suited to overseeing that part of The Process.

Last offseason was a sign that the Royals’ ascent wouldn’t stall — that they could keep climbing even after the farm system’s boosters stopped firing. After finally curing themselves of Jeff Francoeur, the Royals needed a right fielder, so they plucked an expendable pitcher out of a packed bullpen and sent him to Milwaukee for Nori Aoki.1 Second base in Kansas City had been the least-productive position on any team from 2011 to 2013, but rather than continuing to rely on the culprit, Chris Getz, the Royals signed Omar Infante. They also swapped defensive outfielder David Lough, a light-hitting, good-fielding outfielder — exactly the type of player the Royals could afford to trade — for Danny Valencia, who profiled as a good platoon partner for Moustakas. And to replace the departed Ervin Santana, they signed league-average-ish innings eater Jason Vargas.

Infante and Vargas got four-year deals, which tripped a few snark sensors, but the annual rates were reasonable enough that the extra years seemed acceptable. Otherwise, there were no nitpicks to make. The Royals had found their holes and effectively filled them. And when the resulting roster made the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1985, the achievement felt earned, 89 wins or not.

During the playoffs, Jonah Keri and I independently proposed early offseason articles about what Kansas City could do to return to October next year. When the World Series went to seven, that topic dropped down our to-do lists: After a month of nonstop writing about the Royals, we (and, we figured, our readers) were ready to take a break from the Royals. If one of us had tried to draw a map for Moore, though, we probably wouldn’t have written down the directions that the Royals have followed so far.

It wasn’t unexpected when the Royals bought out Billy Butler’s $12 million option for 2015. Nor is it an upset that James Shields seems certain to leave. The only apparent surprise is how the Royals have spent the savings. At the winter meetings, the Royals signed DH Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal. The following week, they inked outfielder Alex Rios to a one-year, $11 million contract, then added Edinson Volquez for $20 million over two years. Finally, late last week, they signed starter Kris Medlen, who’s rehabbing from his second Tommy John surgery, for two years and $8.5 million. Just like last winter, the Royals patched every fraying position. This time, though, the replacements aren’t reassuring.

The Medlen signing makes the most sense. Had it not been for the Padres’ trade orgy on Friday, last week might have been distinguished by its news about injury-prone pitchers: Brett Anderson, Gavin Floyd, Josh Johnson, and Brandon Morrow all signed (or reportedly approached) the kind of short-term, incentive-filled contracts that writers invariably describe as “low risk, high reward.” The terms of Medlen’s deal move it further toward the “reward” side of the spectrum than the Dodgers’ one-year, $10 million Anderson signing. While two-time TJ victims tend to take longer to return, Medlen was productive and durable as recently as 2013, and the Royals will owe him only $2 million next year, with a reasonable raise to follow in 2016, when they hope he’ll be fully recovered.

The other imports aren’t as easy to rationalize. Rios is an about-to-be-34-year-old with an empty batting average. Morales — who cost enough that the Royals might have been better off bringing back Butler — was one of last season’s least productive hitters and, unlike the few regulars who hit worse, offers no defensive value. Volquez is coming off a season in which his encouraging ERA and win-loss record obscured underlying stats almost indistinguishable from those he’d posted during two preceding (and less superficially impressive) seasons.

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Pending details about the distribution of Volquez’s salary, the Royals have committed close to $30 million in 2015 to four players who collectively produced -0.8 WAR (by FanGraphs’ reckoning) last season. Steamer projects the same four players to generate 3.0 WAR next year — much better, but not a great return on investment, particularly for a team that’s used to swimming in the shallow end of the payroll pool.

Moore made room for Medlen on the 40-man by jettisoning Johnny Giavotella, a homegrown Royal who projection systems and statheads had long insisted could be a better second baseman than the hopeless cases to whom the Royals kept committing. Entrails-reading Royals fans might see some significance in the timing of the two transactions, given Moore’s much-derided habit of acquiring former Braves during the Royals’ down years.2 As if that weren’t ominous enough, the Royals reacquired Getz last month, this time for a front-office role. Perhaps these portents, coupled with the confusing Morales, Rios, and Volquez signings, prophesy the return of the old Royals — the ones that made moves that baffled everyone and, not coincidentally, went decades without a playoff appearance.

That’s the pessimistic interpretation, but there are ways to put more positive spins on each acquisition. The Royals reportedly believe that Rios played much of last season hurt; presumably, they also believe he’ll be healthier next year, and he was useful in 2013 when healthy. Morales missed spring training and more than two months of the regular season because of the CBA, Scott Boras, and his own inflated salary expectations; next year, he’ll have plenty of time to ease into the season with some light stretching and signing in the Arizona sun. And while Volquez will have trouble replicating the low BABIP that buoyed him last year, he did make some mechanical refinements that contributed to a career-low walk rate,3 and he’s headed for another team that treats contact pitchers well.

Even if everything comes up Kansas City, though, the new arrivals remain probable downgrades: Butler, Aoki, and Shields, who combined for 5.7 WAR last season, are projected to double the 2015 production of Morales, Rios, and Volquez, the players who replaced them. Of course, that extra production — or that of the other, more expensive players Moore flirted with before being outbid — would have come at a cost that the Royals couldn’t, or wouldn’t, absorb, even with playoff revenue in their pockets and attendance almost certain to increase. As it is, they’re headed for the highest payroll in team history.

While it would have been nice to see the Royals get creative — break up the Herrera-Davis-Holland trio, maybe, before reliever volatility breaks it up for them — their recent transactions shouldn’t surprise us as much as their October success. We weren’t going to love every move the Royals made in two consecutive offseasons, because there are no “new” and “old” Royals. Ending their playoff drought didn’t compromise their approach; their bedrock never really changed. They won not because they embraced a new philosophy, but because they tweaked and optimized an existing one, perfectly implementing their flawed formula.

The Royals still stubbornly refuse to take walks. Moore makes mystifying statements about on-base percentage. Yost constructs strange lineups in which his best hitter bats sixth. The club can’t stick with one hitting coach for a full season. Even when they were winning, they were recognizably Royals, right down to the small-town ads on the scoreboard. But they were the best team one could build with walks, dingers, and starters who strike people out tied behind one’s back. That was what made their season so much fun: They won unlike anyone else, after losing unlike anyone else for so long.

In that light, this winter’s disapproval was predictable (if, as always, subject to change). Fortunately, even if the Royals’ offseason additions disappoint, they shouldn’t do any permanent damage. Volquez, Morales, and Rios won’t be bargains, but breaking even isn’t out of the question. The new guys aren’t Jose Guillen or Gil Meche, and even if Volquez regresses and Morales and Rios don’t bounce back, the Royals won’t have spent themselves out of contention in 2015 or beyond. Moore hasn’t made any new commitments longer than two years, which will serve the Royals well as their homegrown talents age into arbitration and free agency. Ultimately, the progress of those players — Perez, Hosmer, Moustakas, and more — will do more to determine whether the Royals were a one-year wonder than a few free-agent additions, ill-advised or otherwise.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Hot Stove, MLB Free Agency, MLB Free Agents, MLB Contracts, MLB Trades, Money Matters, MLB Stats, Kansas City Royals, Dayton Moore, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlen, Billy Butler, James Shields, Nori Aoki, AL Central, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

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