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How to improve the Royals outfield: Double-down on defense

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How the Royals could upgrade in a way that you wouldn't expect

Leaping grabs are the best
Leaping grabs are the best
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Kansas City Royals, 2014 American League Champions, were adept at two things: pitching, particularly in the back end of the bullpen, and defense. They were a good baserunning team as well, but their poor offensive production, exhibited by extremely poor seasons from Billy Butler, Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez compared to their career averages, prevented the team from truly excelling. Indeed, when the Royals' offense came alive and scored 4.6 runs per game in the playoffs, the team became an almost unstoppable juggernaut, one hit away from a World Series victory.

It would naturally follow that the Royals would seek to bolster their sagging offense. Sam Mellinger says as much in a recent article for the Kansas City Star:

The other major hole to fill is in right field. The Royals seem to view Nori Aoki - who began the season terribly but finished strong - as a fallback option. They'd like to add power, most significantly, and do it with a right-handed bat if possible.

That's pretty logical; areas of weakness are conspicuous areas in which to improve, and generally are a good point of emphasis. However, the Royals are in somewhat of a unique position, at least in right field, with their current situation. Perhaps it would be better for the Royals to eschew adding a power bat and instead double down on their outfield defense.

This is due to the fallacy that sports writers and analysts everywhere fall into, which is thus: you must improve your team in a certain way based on its weaknesses.  If your team lacks pitching, get better starters.  If it lacks a bullpen, get a closer.  If you lack offense, get a power bat.  It's an extremely easy trap that ensnares everyone at some point or another, but the reality is that it just isn't true.

Really, there are only two ways to improve your baseball team.  You can either improve run prevention--this can and does include starting pitching, bullpen, and defense--or you can improve run scoring, your offense.  A team wins by scoring more points than their opponent, and any combination of run scoring and run prevention will work.  A 10-7 win counts just as much as a 4-1 win does.  Though improving a team's weakness is the obvious way to improve your team, it is equally as effective by improving a team's strength in equal measure.

In the current hitting environment, what little power there is exists at a premium.  Billy Butler, who suffered his worst season in his career this year and who has significantly declined in value each year since his breakout 2012, signed a 3 year/$30 million contract with Oakland.  Hanley Ramirez, injured for much of the last two years and 31 next year, signed a 5 year/$88 million with Boston.  Nelson Cruz, a good hitter but very poor fielder, netted 4 years/$57 million with Seattle.  Perhaps the exclamation mark is Torii Hunter, who will be 40 next year and plays horrific defense--but he got a one-year deal for $10.5 million.  Every one of those contracts will almost certainly accrue negative value.

However, as stated earlier, the Royals don't need to improve their team through hitting; they just need to improve their team by whatever means necessary.  Though it's only a guess, I would think that the market for poor-hitting but excellent fielding players is artificially repressed.  The Royals should look into it, especially with a shifted perspective.

The Royals currently have Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson, and Lorenzo Cain under team control for next year, and it's likely none of them are traded.  The common consensus is that the Royals need to find a right-fielder to platoon with Jarrod Dyson, as Dyson is poor against lefties.  However, I think the Royals already have that fielder*, who is Cain.

*This comes up every once in a while, but in the search for an outfielder it should be emphasized that Gordon probably should be in right field. A fielder is able to use his arm more often in right as opposed to left, and Gordon has one of the best outfield arms in baseball. With his four Gold Gloves in left, though, that ship has sailed.

Kansas City, for whatever reason, refuses to put Dyson in any other position other than center field, which means that Cain gets shifted to right when both play.  If put in right field full time, Cain would automatically become the frontrunner for the Gold Glove.  Cain's UZR/150 in just shy of 700 innings is 29.2, and he is 21 runs above average according to DRS.  To put this into perspective, Gordon's UZR/150 in left field is 12.9, and he has been 90 runs above average--but in 5300 more innings, a rate almost half that of Cain's.  700 innings isn't even one full season, but the evidence is that Cain would be an exemplary defender in right on a full-time basis.  His postseason play there supports this.

To stay away from possible overvalue, the Royals should instead look to center field to find a right-handed bat to platoon with Dyson.  There are a quartet of players who would make sense in this situation.

Juan Lagares

  • 2015 Steamer: 2.8 WAR
  • Career wRC+ vs LHH: 151
  • Career UZR/150: 29.3
  • Career DRS: 54 in 1764.2 innings

Lagares is basically Cain.  Steamer projects them to have the same WAR next year, and they're similar players; both have are average offensively with fantastic defense.  Lagares won the 2014 NL Gold Glove in center field.  He will be 26 and hasn't hit arbitration yet.  Really, he's good enough to be a full-time starter, but he would be a good get and the Mets are not exactly a well-managed team.  The price would be high, however.

Billy Hamilton

  • 2015 Steamer: 2.8 WAR
  • Career wRC+ vs LHH: 83
  • Career UZR/150: 21.8
  • Career DRS: 15 in 1244.1 innings

Billy Hamilton is not a good hitter.  He will never be a good hitter.  He'll be not quite as awful against lefties, but that's about it.  But what he does have he has it in spades: speed and defense.  He stole 56 bases last year, and he'll fit in perfectly with the team that swiped 3,405 bases against Oakland in the Wild Card game (exact total may be off by a few dozen/thousand).  The Reds are in an awkward spot, and, should they choose to rebuild, Hamilton's 2.8 projected WAR will probably net less than you might think due to his lack of hitting.

AJ Pollock

  • 2015 Steamer: 2.3 WAR
  • Career wRC+ vs LHH: 124
  • Career UZR/150: 22.3
  • Career DRS: 25 in 1615.2 innings

Pollock is a sneaky good player.  Over the past two years, he's been worth 6.9 WAR despite playing in only a touch over 200 games.  He's a career 109 wRC+ hitter overall, mashing lefties and being competent against righties with stellar defense.  Last year was an extreme offensive spike thanks to a BABIP and ISO surge, and he's due for regression next year.  Still, that regression is predicted by Steamer to still yield above average player.  Pollock will be 27 and will be making the league minimum next year for the final time.  However, Arizona won only 64 games last year, willingly plays Mark Trumbo in right field, and just acquired another outfielder in Yasmany Tomas. Pollock has yet to play a full season as well, likely lowering his trade value.

Peter Bourjos

  • 2015 Steamer: 1 WAR (in 264 PA)
  • Career wRC+ vs LHH: 88
  • Career UZR/150: 19.9
  • Career DRS: 40 in 3285 innings

Of all of these names, Bourjos is both the cheapest and easiest to acquire.  The Cardinals' acquisition of Jason Heyward means they have a bit of an outfield crunch, and Bourjos would theoretically be quite available.  He is right handed but he has a reverse platoon split, although his 88 wRC+ against lefties is significantly better than Dyson's, measly 47.  Oft-injured, he has only played one full season (2011) where he put up 4.2 WAR.  He would be a prime candidate for a platoon situation and, though he's in arbitration, he only made $1.2 million last year and is under team control through 2016.

***

All four of these players would be good trade candidates for the Royals.  All of them could be acquired for prospects and not necessarily MLB players, all of them have undervalued skills, and three of them play for teams in either a transitional or rebuilding phase.

The Royals probably won't look at any of them, because they are looking for a right fielder and one with power.  Unfortunately for them, everyone else is as well.  Nobody's really looking for defense in this market, and recognizing inefficiencies in the market is what Moneyball is all about.  In order to repeat as AL Champions, Kansas City should utilize this outside-the-box thinking.


Read more here: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/2014/12/04/3449222/sam-mellinger-royals-will-need.html#storylink=cpy