Royals are spending money, keeping long-term options open
The Royals haven’t been shy in spending on free agents, but are they picking the right players?
The Royals deep run into the postseason has provided numerous ancillary benefits, including public goodwill and extra money. The question on many Kansas City minds right now though, is whether they’re burning through both benefits at the same time.
Since the end of the World Series, Kansas City has lost James Shields, Billy Butler, and Norichika Aoki to free agency. They’ve back filled those vacancies with the additions of Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, and most recently, Edinson Volquez, all via free agency. Morales was signed for two years, and $17 million dollars, while Rios agreed to a one-year pact worth $11 million, and Volquez’s terms are set at two years and $20 million.
We know where that money is going, but what of the goodwill? Royals fans certainly are happy to see their team spending money, something they didn’t do much of prior to 2014, but there’s some concern as to whether the team is paying the right people. All three signings have their debits and their credits, and the argument could be made that the Royals are finally doing what so many fans wish of their own teams: buying low. There’s no sell-high component to this, as they don’t receive anything from their departing free agents (apart from the draft pick compensation for Shields), but in Rios and Morales, they are picking up players coming off down seasons. They’ve also limited their spending to one- and two-year deals, which is generally another tenet of smart front offices that fans generally applaud.
The issue seems to be two-fold, focusing not only on who they’ve chosen to spend their money on, but who they haven’t spent their money on. Holding onto Shields was always something of a pipedream, and the general notion is that he’ll receive something close to $20 million per year on a four- or five-year deal. Still, Aoki was a valuable piece for Kansas City, and performed well even if he generally outran his defensive misreads, and was a non-factor on the basepaths despite good speed. Butler was a mainstay during the bad years in KC, but submitted his worst season since 2008 during the Royals’ best, and while he’s in the middle of his prime, fears about his body type and how he’ll age likely contributed to the front office letting him test free agency. Morales is older, and coming of a worse season, but lacked the benefit of a normal spring training in 2014, and again, has a shorter, cheaper contract and power potential the lineup otherwise lacks.
Rios is the bigger potential overpay, but there are some who don’t believe you can pay too much (within reason) on a one-year deal. There’s also the fact that, by OPS+, Rios would have been the third-best hitter on the Royals last season, and that’s coming off his worst season (by that measure) since 2011. While it’s possible that Rios is cooked entering his age 34 season, the Royals are paying $11 million to find out, because the possibility remains that he’s the guy who hit 18 home runs in 2013 rather than the guy who hit four homers in 2014. According to FanGraphs, Rios was worth three wins in 2013, despite sub-par play in the outfield. To get that type of production for $11 million could only be categorized as a positive. Add in that the Royals can mitigate his defensive miscues by subbing Jarrod Dyson in for late-game situations, and Rios becomes a more attractive option. There’s definitely risk to this deal, and it’s fair to be unhappy with the amount of risk involved, but let’s not lose track of the potential upside, either.
Volquez is perhaps the biggest concern, not only because he cost the most to acquire, but unlike Morales or Rios, he’s coming off the best season (since 2008). Never short on stuff, Volquez gulped down a steady diet of innings for the Pirates last year, falling a touch short of 200 on the season. While he displayed better control than usual, he missed fewer bats than he normally does as well, and benefited from an abnormally low batting average on balls in play. The concern here is that his innings total was inflated because the Pirates strong infield defense — and heavy use of the shift — enabled Volquez to stay on the mound more than he would if another defense was behind him, the exact situation he finds himself with the Royals.
The Royals definitely needed to find a way to soak up the innings that James Shields was leaving behind. A more complete season in the rotation from Danny Duffy is a start, and Volquez should be able to do the rest, but the quality of those innings is going to take a step back. While his 3.04 ERA looks good on the surface, what lurks beneath isn’t nearly so pretty. He has a career 4.33 FIP, and produced a 4.15 FIP in 2014. In other words, he’s the same guy he’s always been, but he ran hot for a bit, and the Pirates were able to hide his flaws. Whether the Royals can do so will determine whether Volquez is worth the investment.
It serves no purpose to compare the three players the Royals signed to the three players the Royals lost, because there’s no way they could have afforded the guys who walked for the same amount they’re paying the trio they added. It’s possible that they could have kept Shields, at the cost of going bargain basement in right field and designated hitter, but that would have required a four- or five-year commitment. As is, they’ve filled their roster holes at some cost, but ultimately retained a bunch of flexibility by not inking long-term contracts. Perhaps they’re squirreling away some portion of the payroll for the potential starting pitcher bonanza that appears to be headed our way in 2015, with pitchers like David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Mat Latos, Jordan Zimmermann, and even one-time Royals pitcher Zack Greinke potentially on the market.
Whether Kansas City is willing to pay for one of those pitchers, or even someone from the second tier in free agency remains to be seen, but by not committing significant years to anyone in 2014, they leave open the possibility of being players next year.