When the White Sox went 73-89 in 2014 then made a slew of offseason moves including signing David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche (spending $134M to do so) I still asked: is that enough talent to add 15 wins (to get to 88 wins - roughly wild card territory). It turns out...no They ended up only gaining 3 wins to their their record, finishing at 76-86. Far from contention but achieving disappointment.
The 2017 Royals aren't quite in the same predicament. They don't need to be 15 wins better next year to compete but instead a modest six or seven really. That's achievable but not easy. First you could make an argument that they don't need to add six or seven wins, just collectively play six or seven wins better. Though you can also argue that 2016 was the true talent level or so of many players. Jarrod Dyson had a career while Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain were slightly above average players. They also got probably career years out of Whit Merrifield and Paulo Orlando. Laggers though included Alex Gordon who had the worst year of his career. while Mike Moustakas (another likely average or so better player) missed most of the season depriving the team of maybe 2 or so wins.
On the pitching side Danny Duffy may have had a career year, Kelvin Herrera almost certainly did, and despite the Royals trying to give his contract away for free, Ian Kennedy turned it around in the second half. The team though does lose Edinson Volquez (worth 1.5 fWAR) which makes them lose a bit of ground with no clear replacement in sight. The enigmatic Yordano Ventura was worth about half of what he was last year and a case can be made for both a rebound or to remain at his 2016 level.
So maybe the Royals don't have to add external talent to reload necessarily but instead can hope for the 2015 team to appear again. That's probably an unlikely scenario given the players leaving and the new baseline we have from guys such as Gordon, Cain, Perez, etc...
It's also worth noting the marginal cost of a win. Picking up a few wins isn't so hard when you're a seventy win team, but gaining the same ground as an eighty eight win team is harder and more expensive.
So let's get a little clever (or try to) and see if we can find a way to pick up six or seven wins externally through trade or free agency. Of course we need ground rules in any thought experiment.
1. We are assuming all pending free agents leave.
No hometown discounts allowed here. Options can and can't be picked up, and we are assuming mutual options are the same as free agency.
2. Look out for 2017 and beyond
Any moves we make aren't going to be short-sighted for just one year only. If that was the case then we could literally trade the entire farm system. Instead any signings and trades need to be made with more than just next year in mind.
3. No signing players with qualifying offers
I was pretty vocal about how I disliked the signing of Ian Kennedy, in part because he cost the Royals a draft pick. For a small market team like the Royals (yes I know their payroll isn't that small) they can't afford really to make big bets on free agents, especially when the ancillary cost is losing a precious first round pick (though it's not like they've done much with them recently anyways). So this plan won't repeat that.
4. Payroll has to come down/realistic signings
This is pretty true to life I think. The Royals rode a high tide to record payrolls from playoff revenue but that's of course absent going into 2017. So we're going to have to clear payroll any way we can really. Meanwhile we aren't going to spend $80M to get Rich Hill or something. The free agent market is pretty weak to begin with, so getting into bidding wars over 2 win or so players isn't the way to go.
5. Worry about the starters, mostly
I'm not too focused on the 24th and 25th spot. Those are usually fillable by damn near whomever. I'm instead going to focus on 9 hitters, five starters, and five relievers.
5. Try to be creative
You could always go the boring route of signing John Danks, try Hunter Dozier at DH, and then leaving everything else the same, hoping for a rebound. Maybe that's not boring to you, but for the purposes of this exercise I want to try to shuffle the chairs a bit.
Let's start with the Royals obligations for 2017 and beyond:
That's $143M including buyouts, give or take a few million probably. That's ~$10M more than opening day last year. Like I said earlier, the idea is to bring that down some to being much closer to 2016 or lower if we can.
By my thoughts the 2017 Royals positional needs are going to at least need:
So let's get going.
There is roughly $5M saved right there. Nava hasn't done anything in the Royals uniform and if they want to retain him then offer him a minor league deal. Gee was terrible in a Royals uniform and hasn't been even decent since 2013. There's no reason two guys making the league minimum can't fill whatever role those two had and use the $4M left elsewhere.
Alcides Escobar - Decline
Wade Davis - Exercise
Picking up Davis' option is a no-brainer and non-controversial. Even 80% Wade Davis is worth $10M probably. What may be controversial though is declining Escobar's option. $6.5M isn't that much in today's game (it's worth about 0.8 fWAR) but Alcides Escobar was worth about half that in 2016. He finished with the 3rd worst wRC+ in the league at a paltry 68 (32% below league average). Escobar is the owner of three of the twelve lowest wRC+ in Royals history (25% by my math). If you want a defensive first shortstop (and Escobar isn't even that spectacular of a defender) then you should be able to find that for much cheaper than $6.5M.
So we've saved roughly $11.5M, which gets us down to the 2016 payroll but we aren't done yet.
Trade 3B Cheslor Cuthbert to the Phillies for LHP Ben Lively and RHP Edubray Ramos
I have a feeling people are going to be underwhelmed by this trade. I'm sure some see Cheslor Cuthbert as having higher upside that what he's being traded for. He was fairly young during his rookie year this year and popped 12 home runs. However that's all he did was show some power. It's pretty clear he isn't even an average defender at third base given what he did in the majors this year and his track record in the minors. That means he's either an outfielder or a first baseman. He doesn't have the bat for first in my opinion (92 career wRC+) and I'm not so sure about him in the outfield. The Phillies are rebuilding and they'll surely take as many young hitters as they can get. While Maikel Franco is a budding franchise cornerstone for the team, he like Cuthbert isn't a third baseman long term so the Phillies can decide which of the two they want to try there long term.
Meanwhile they have a decent glut of young pitchers, some without a role in the rotation right now with names Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Adam Morgan, and potentially bringing back Jeremy Hellickson. Lively isn't a star quality name (as Cuthbert isn't a star quality player worth such a return) but he's someone I think is firmly under the radar. He's a solidly durable starter with no mechanical flaws, good command, and two average to slightly above pitches: a low-90's fastball with movement and deception and a mid-80's slider with some two-plane break to it. There is a changeup and curveball in his arsenal as well but they aren't anything to write home about and are more there for show. He's someone you should be able to plug into your 5th starter spot and let him pitch. He won't be anything more than that, so there is some risk there, but he's also getting paid the minor league minimum. He generates a ton of flyballs, induces weak contact, and gets a lot of infield flies.
Edubray Ramos is the real guy I'm going for here. At 23 years old he saw 40 major league innings from the Phillies pen this year and recorded a 3.83 ERA/3.60 FIP. His arsenal is a fastball that can touch 98 MPH and an above average 12-6 curveball.
Not only does he have plus velocity but there is above average to plus command. He's never going to have elite strikeout rates, but he should be a cromulent 7th inning guy at a minimum, with potential for high leverage spots.
Maybe this package is too much for Cuthbert now that I look at it again. It's not exciting at all, and I admit I'm not 100% in tune with the organizational path the Phillies are trying to go with so maybe they aren't trading Ramos to begin with. However if this trade were to happen they would be acquiring a strong armed young player with above average in game power...they would just have to find a position for him. Maybe that's in the outfield and lord knows the Phillies have a lot of room to try guys out with their current roster.
Trade RP Wade Davis to the Giants for SS Christian Arroyo, LHP Andrew Suarez, and OF Sandro Fabian
I think it's inevitable that the Royals need to trade Wade Davis. They've been somewhat burned in the past by not trading relievers and it's not limited to just the Royals. Davis is going to become one of the highest paid players on the team and the Royals have several (cheaper) options to fill his role. You move Kelvin Herrera to the 9th, Matt Strahm to the 8th, and put the newly acquired Edubray Ramos as the fireman. Yeah it sucks losing Davis but the team tried to move him at the trade deadline and the reliever attrition warning signs are popping up.
I know it's not a breathtaking package and Christian Arroyo isn't Yoan Moncada, but you aren't getting Moncada for Davis. Instead you are getting a nice MLB ready prospect, an okay MLB ready back end pitcher, and a hot (using this more proverbially) Latin American prospect.
Arroyo is almost certainly going to be an everyday player in some capacity. It's divided if he'll actually stick at SS or move to 2B/3B but for now he's a SS. His biggest tool though is his ability to make contact and hit. Though his batting line doesn't look excellent in 2016, it's also a product of the ballpark/league he played in (Richmond/Eastern League). Superlative wise FanGraphs just graded his tools as:
He was graded at a 55 FV and he just missed Baseball Prospectus' mid-season top 50 this July. If it seems like I'm trying to sell you on Arroyo, I am a bit. His profile doesn't jump out the page at you but he's the kind of guy the Royals can ride to decent surplus value for the next six years. It might be pushing him to rely on him being the everyday option at SS next year but the Giants were impressed by him last spring during spring training. A spring training that he did this:
If you thought Christian Arroyo is underwhelming, wait until I tell you about Andrew Suarez! In that same Arroyo tools grade link, Suarez was attributed with this description:
Suarez has retained the same low-90s fastball he's had since high school, an average offering that occasionally creeps past 93 and features some late movement. His repertoire includes a host of average secondaries with the slider flashing above and projecting there at maturity. Suarez locates the slider well and it's often his put-away pitch versus both left- and right-handed hitters. Though his changeup is just average (Suarez maintains his fastball's arm speed when he throws it and it has some fade to it), it gives him an viable second weapon against righties who have to worry about well located fastballs and sliders as well. He'll show an occasional curveball, but it's clearly Suarez's least favorite option. Suarez projects as a pitchability back-end starter and is pretty close to the majors.
Suarez would pair with Lively in the fight for the fifth spot with the loser
dying getting a first class Amtrak ticket to Omaha.
The final piece of the trade is Sandro Fabian, a 18-year old Dominican who the Giants paid $500K for in July of 2014. Fabian is less toolsy than his J2 peers but he does well to put the bat to the ball, not strikeout, and has about average raw power. There's potential for a .280 hitter with 10 HR, some walks, and fair defense in right field.
Trade SS Raul Mondesi and RHP Scott Alexander to Pirates for 1B/DH Josh Bell and RHP Mitch Keller
Now we are heating up! I've never been a big believer in Mondesi's ability to hit at all and what he did in 150 MLB plate appearances this year did him no favors in calming that opinion. Theoretically declining Alcides Escobar's option opened up SS for Mondesi who has to absolutely play there to get the most out of his value. I just see him most likely as a defensive first SS with occasional power and very good legs. Sure, there is value there but there are just so many red flags about him offensively. The Pirates however need a SS probably with "meh" Jordy Mercer and I'm hoping they like Mondesi more than I do.
Let's get this out of the way: Bell is a mess at first base defensively. Not only did the metrics not like him there but the scouting reports agree too. Maybe he eventually becomes passable or something there but he's probably best off focusing on his bat and becoming a designated hitter. On the offensive side, Bell is a pretty good hitter. He absolutely destroyed AA/AAA as a 21-22 year old with his above average bat and power. In 152 PA this year he had a non-BABIP induced 113 wRC+. He walked as much as he struck out this year and has four straight seasons with 10%+ BB% rates.
There is a floor-ish with Mondesi as he provides defensive value where Bell does not. Mondesi is a slightly better prospect than Bell so the Pirates would likely need to include somebody else to even the deal up. That's where Mitch Keller comes in and the inclusion of Alexander to give something back to the Pirates (who are looking for cheap relievers). Keller is a bit divided. He broke out in 2016 and could perhaps find himself in the back-end of top 100 lists this winter but he's also just 20 years old and in A+. Maybe the Pirates won't give up Keller and instead they offer Nick Kingham, Yuedy Garcia, Clay Holmes, etc... Bell is the main piece of the trade.
Trade Eric Hosmer to the Red Sox for 1B Sam Travis, 3B Michael Chavis, and RHP Roniel Raudes
We've officially reached fire status. It's hard to argue necessarily that Eric Hosmer is going to be worth the projected $13.3M in arbitration he's due. It's not insane to consider non-tendering him but the Royals would be best off tendering and trading him of course. That's hard to say given his appeal in Kansas City but he's just simply an overrated player. That's of course weird to say about the All-Star game MVP but there are so many warts on Hosmer's resume that spending ~10% of your payroll on him just doesn't make sense. The Royals gave him $8.2M last year and got negative return. He simply isn't a good defender, he hits too many groundballs, he's a bad baserunner, and his power is inconsistent. You don't want to sell low on assets but selling low implies that there is a higher inherent value, and with Hosmer there probably is but how high? He's had as more at or below replacement level seasons than he has above average seasons. Would you be surprised to know that Lonnie Chisenhall, who was taken 26 picks after Hosmer, has been worth as much as Hosmer has been? The Indians paid Chisenhall $2.7M in 2016.
Boston is said to be seeking a 1B/DH with the departure of David Ortiz. They've got half the role filled with Hanley Ramirez and are looking at perhaps Travis Shaw for the other side but I think Shaw makes the most sense at 3B. Narrowing down Hosmer's value was tough. He isn't really cheap nor is he very good but you could probably sell him on name value and the hope that another org can change his swing.
Travis is somewhat like Hosmer-lite. Blessed with above average power via a strong swing, Travis struggles to present that power in game, though he has produced regardless. Travis has posted only two seasons with a wRC+ below 140 and those were 124 and 120 respectively. He brings a strong walk rate, ability to make contact, and good vision at the plate. His defense at first is questionable, never having much speed or arm strength. He suffered a torn ACL this past year which puts his ability to move to the outfield even more in question, so he's likely best off trying to be developed as a DH.
Chavis has been up and down for his brief career so far. There is very good raw power there but just not a solid hit tool right now. That's not to say he can't hit at all, instead it's more of a 40 grade hit tool than 50, and that's serviceable with 60 grade power. Formerly a SS in high school, Chavis is a third baseman now and can likely stay there as it fits best with his plus arm.
The final piece is Roniel Raudes and if you are saying "who?" then I understand. Raudes really boosted his stock this year as his velocity increased by 4-5 MPH. He sorta reminds me of early Miguel Almonte in size/body. For an 18 year old Raudes isn't all about projection. Instead he has three presently good offerings with room for more upside as he fills out and gains experience. If his velocity boosts even more than the low-90's it's at now, then he gets a lot more interesting.
I might even be overvaluing Hosmer and maybe Boston wouldn't take this deal but it's not like they are giving up a ton of future value for Hosmer and we all know how Dave Dombrowski likes to use his prospects...
So let's see where we stand now:
We've shaved off almost $30M and we've probably lost three or so wins in doing so (~1 for Hosmer, 1-1.5 for Davis, and ~0.5-1 for Cuthbert/Escobar). However we have also injected some seriously needed talent into the farm system. Arroyo probably becomes the Royals #1 or #2 best prospect, while Keller/Travis/Suarez are in the top ten as well (Travis may be right behind Arroyo). Now comes the spending...
Sign LHP Rich Hill for 4/$50M
If Rich Hill weren't traded to the Dodgers this past July then he'd be ruled out as he'd likely have a qualifying offer attached to him. Yes, he's the "crown jewel" of this poor free agency pitching market but he's also a pretty dang good pitcher.
We don't have really any 2017 projections just yet. Instead we have to use the rest of season projections, which should encompass all of the 2016 performance but just missing an age discount with some other subtle nuances. FanGraphs Depth Charts has Rich Hill at 5.1 fWAR, up there with names like Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Yu Darvish. However unlike them, Hill will be 37 years old when the season starts so we need to discount that.
The estimation for Hill this offseason is something like 3/$40M or so, an AAV of ~$13M. However this is going to be Hill's final contract so he's likely looking for the highest total pay rather than AAV. Also it's probably going to come down to whatever team offers him a fourth year.
So what if the Royals did something like this:
That's still a pretty decent return if you are valuing him as a four-win player next year despite taking a total bath on the final year. However I can see an argument at starting his baseline at say three wins instead of four:
That would still put $50M for Hill at near break even value though would you be willing to bet he declines exactly like that? That's sort of where the risk is but then again Bartolo Colon has been worth 17-wins since his age 38 season and Hill is probably a better pitcher at age 37 than Colon was.
Sign 2B/OF Steve Pearce for 2/$10M
Pearce is recovering from elbow surgery so there is some risk there in him returning 100% but it won't take a large commitment to lock in a guy who was worth five-wins in 2014. Pearce brings versatility as he can play 1B, 2B, 3B, and RF. It's hard to estimate what Pearce will get. He's not a top free agent and he's been continually undervalued the past few years but let's just assume he has some suitors and the Royals have to make a top offer to get him.
Still a reasonable deal and I think Pearce could be better than a two-win player in 2017 if used properly and often.
Sign Chase Utley for 1/$3M
This is the final piece of the strategy and it's pretty low impact. Utley won't have that many suitors I don't think as he's absolutely only a platoon bat. Couple that with the fact that he'll be 38 years old and he's absolutely on only a one year deal. The Royals though will only be using him at DH against right handers.
Maybe a team gives him $4M or $5M. The point is that he should be reasonably priced for a ~1-1.5 win player.
Platoon Matrix (™)
So this sets up my now trademarked platoon matrix:
I don't like playing Merrifield and Orlando really but they are strictly on the short side of the platoon against lefties only. I wish Dyson were an everyday player but he should be on the bench when a lefty is on the mound, as should Chase Utley.
Cain is kind of irrelevant here because he's playing everyday (hopefully) regardless of who is in, but shifts to CF when Dyson sits. This is where Pearce's versatility comes in as he could also fill in at 2B/RF on games against lefties if someone else is the DH.
This plan requires a lot of moving parts and someone is likely to get injured but it should be a strong enough foundation to get started with, assuming everyone performs.
In this scenario we've spent $16M for 2017 and picked up 7.5 fWAR (~$1M/WAR). Basically we turned almost what Eric Hosmer was making into 2-3 times the value.
Not only is the team in better shape than when we began, but we've cut the payroll by ~$13M too. Now you can nitpick on salaries maybe being a bit higher or lower but even with all the moves I'd be surprised if it didn't come in below the projected payroll before the moves.
I thought about seeing if there would be any takers for Joakim Soria and Chris Young if the acquiring team agreed to cover all the salary. I would have literally given them away for a bag of balls if possible but that felt like cheating the system too much. Maybe you include Soria in the Pirates or Giants trade and eat some salary there.
Like I said there are a lot of moving parts and the plan of course is based on acquiring particular players, especially Pearce, so if one player doesn't happen then the whole thing may be off. Truthfully I don't love the idea of Christian Arroyo being dropped into the everyday SS spot so maybe the Royals can find a stop gap there for 2017 with Arroyo hopefully manning the position in 2018.
Of course this doesn't really extend the Royals window. I purposefully didn't want to re-sign anyone because that's another piece for another time. Instead it hopefully pushes the Royals ability to compete for one final year before the mass exodus of 2018. However it does make the impending reload more tolerable. I think the Royals instantly add at least three or four system top 10 prospects.
It's not a perfect plan and it's probably impossible to pull off but that won't stop me. In part II we'll cover what a rebuild would look like.