Kansas City has not traditionally been a hotbed for free agents. David Glass has been notoriously frugal, but even under free-spending Ewing Kauffman, premiere free agents such as Pete Rose, Carlton Fisk, and Joe Carter all spurned advances from the Royals. From the advent of free agency in 1976 until 1988, the Royals signed just one Major League free agent - utility infielder Jerry Terrell.
The Royals signed more free agents in the Allard Baird era, but they were of the discount store variety. Washed-up names likes Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, Albie Lopez, Juan Gonzalez, and Benito Santiago spent the twilight of their careers passing through Kansas City, typically with very little baseball-playing ability left.
Dayton Moore did not expect free agency to be the key to turning things around in Kansas City, instead stressing a homegrown team developed through the draft and international signings. But he did require greater resources in player payroll, and the Glass family eventually began to spend on a winner. From 2000-2006, the Royals averaged a payroll that was 42% below league-average. From 2007-2016, they were just 24% below league-average, actually rising above league-average in 2016, despite playing in the second-smallest market with one of the worst television contracts in baseball.
Source: Associated Press
In his first off-season, Dayton Moore wanted to make a splash by adding starting pitching. The team had gone through a decade of terrible pitching, and with 2006 first-round pick Luke Hochevar not ready yet, and talented, but troubled pitcher Zack Greinke trying to return after leaving the game with social anxiety, Dayton Moore wanted someone to stabilize the rotation. After a bidding war with the Cubs and Blue Jays, Dayton Moore landed his prized free agent, signing former Mariners pitcher Gil Meche to a franchise-record five year, $55 million deal.
"A lot of people criticized us for the deal, but it accomplished two things: it showed the industry that we could compete to win the negotiations for free agents and it took the pressure and limelight off Zack."
-Dayton Moore, More than a Season
The following winter, Dayton Moore wanted to add another impact free agent, this time for the lineup. After failing in trying to lure former Braves outfielder Andruw Jones to Kansas City, and missing on free agent outfielder Torii Hunter, Dayton Moore turned to a free agent with a contentious history - slugger Jose Guillen. Those big signings left the team in a financial bind, unable to pursue anything more than role players to fill out the roster - veterans like Jason Kendall, Willie Bloomquist, Scott Podsednik, and Rick Ankiel.
Dayton Moore did make a shrewd pair of signings in two young outfielders that had hit the free agent market early - Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur. Both were signed to cheap, one-year deals, and had enough upside that they ended up being well worth the value. As the team become more competitive, the team spent even more. When the organization failed to develop as much starting pitching as desired, Dayton Moore went outside the organization to acquire Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, and Edinson Volquez. After the Royals won a championship in a magical season that brought record attendance, the Glass family authorized the two largest contracts in franchise history, a pair of $70 million deals to re-sign Alex Gordon and sign Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy.
Below is an evaluation of the value of the free agents signed by Dayton Moore. These are players allowed to file for Major League free agency that signed Major League contracts (one exception is Miguel Tejada who signed a minor league contract, but only as a technicality until a roster spot opened). This does not include the value from player contract extensions. Only their value with the Royals is reflected, although some players were dealt in the middle of their contract. For the players still under contract, the amount paid thus far is reflected in their salary.
|12/8/2006||P John Bale||2||$4,000,000||0.9|
|12/8/2006||P Octavio Dotel||0.7||$3,500,000||0.2||Traded to Braves with $1.5 mil left|
|12/13/2006||P Gil Meche||4||$44,000,000||10.3||Forfeited the fifth year of his deal|
|12/20/2006||P David Riske||1||$2,250,000||2.2||Declined $2.9 million player option|
|11/28/2007||P Yasuhiko Yabuta||2||$6,000,000||-0.6|
|12/4/2007||OF Jose Guillen||2.7||$36,000,000||-2.3||Traded to the Giants, Royals paid salary|
|12/20/2007||P Ron Mahay||2||$8,000,000||1.5|
|12/27/2007||C Miguel Olivo||2||$4,900,000||2.1||Second year was a mutual option|
|1/21/2008||P Brett Tomko||1||$3,000,000||-0.5|
|12/11/2008||P Horacio Ramirez||1||$1,800,000||0.0||Released in July|
|12/11/2008||P Doug Waechter||1||$640,000||-0.1|
|12/13/2008||P Kyle Farnsworth||1.7||$7,900,000||1.7||Traded to Braves with $1.35 mill left|
|1/9/2009||IF Willie Bloomquist||2||$3,000,000||-1.3|
|2/28/2009||P Juan Cruz||2||$6,000,000||-0.1||Cost the Royals a 2nd round pick|
|1/8/2010||OF Scott Podsednik||0.7||$1,100,000||0.1||Traded to Dodgers with $650k left|
|1/21/2010||OF Rick Ankiel||0.7||$1,925,000||0.3||Traded to Braves with $825k left|
|12/8/2010||OF Jeff Francoeur||1||$2,500,000||3.1||Signed a two-year extension|
|12/10/2010||OF Melky Cabrera||1||$1,250,000||4.4||Had one more year of club control|
|1/14/2011||P Jeff Francis||1||$2,000,000||0.3|
|1/15/2011||P Bruce Chen||1||$2,000,000||1.8|
|11/23/2011||P Bruce Chen||2||$10,000,000||2.0|
|11/29/2011||P Jonathan Broxton||0.7||$2,800,000||1.1||Traded to the Reds with $1.2 mill left|
|12/20/2011||IF Yuniesky Betancourt||1||$2,000,000||-1.1|
|12/21/2011||P Jose Mijares||1||$925,000||0.9|
|11/20/2012||P Jeremy Guthrie||3||$25,000,000||0.4|
|12/31/2012||IF Miguel Tejada||1||$1,100,000||0.5|
|11/21/2013||P Jason Vargas||2.3||$18,050,000||2.7||4 year $32 million deal|
|12/16/2013||2B Omar Infante||2.3||$14,900,000||0.2||4 year $30 million deal|
|2/1/2014||P Bruce Chen||1||$3,000,000||-1.2||Team declined $5.5 million option|
|11/28/2014||P Jason Frasor||1||$1,250,000||0.7||Released in July|
|12/4/2014||P Luke Hochevar||1.3||$5,650,000||0.7||2 year $10 million deal|
|12/16/2014||DH Kendrys Morales||1.3||$9,200,000||1.3||2 year $17 million deal|
|12/18/2014||P Kris Medlen||1.3||$3,650,000||-0.9||2 year $8.5 million deal|
|12/19/2014||OF Alex Rios||1||$11,000,000||-1.1||Team declined $12.5 million option|
|12/29/2014||P Edinson Volquez||1.3||$10,350,000||3.2||2 year $20 million deal|
|3/7/2015||P Chris Young||1||$5,300,000||3.0||$5.3 million in incentives|
|12/7/2015||P Chris Young||0.3||$1,275,000||-0.5||2 year $11.5 million deal|
|12/10/2015||P Joakim Soria||0.3||$2,100,000||0.2||3 year $25 million deal|
|1/6/2016||OF Alex Gordon||0.3||$3,600,000||0.1||4 year $72 million deal|
|1/29/2016||P Ian Kennedy||0.3||$2,250,000||1.1||5 year $70 million deal|
|2/19/2016||P Mike Minor||0.3||$600,000||0.0||2 year $7.25 million deal|
By this evaluation, Dayton Moore has paid about $7.39 million per 1 Win Above Replacement (WAR). However, this is a bit skewed, since the players currently under contract are on backloaded deals, with low salaries in the first few years of the deal. If we use the average annual value of their contract and apply it to their time with the Royals, the amount spent jumps slightly to an average of $7.784 million per 1 WAR. The number would go up more if Gil Meche had not retired and forfeited $11 million of his guaranteed contract.
According to an analysis done by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs back in 2014, the average cost of a win that winter was between $5 and $7 million on the free agent market, so Dayton has overspent a bit. Dayton Moore's free agent signings have primarily been low-risk, low-ceiling. That comes of little surprise since he has shopped primarily in the mid-tier market for free agents.
Easily the best value free agent Dayton Moore ever spent on was Melky Cabrera, who the Royals paid just $284,091 per 1 WAR. The signing makes sense as the best value, Cabrera was very young for a free agent at age (26), due to being non-tendered, and was thus still in his prime, and was paid a low salary. Jeff Francoeur was second (although this does not count his costly contract extension), and he was also signed to a low-cost deal at a young age.
The worst contract was Jose Guillen, the malcontent power bat that ended up being well below replacement-level for $36 million. Alex Rios was another costly venture, although he ended up getting a championship ring. Reliever Juan Cruz proved to be costly not only in money, but he cost the Royals a second-round pick in a draft that saw Indians All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis get selected that round.
One problem with some of Dayton Moore's signings is he has followed up a smart transaction with a rather foolish one. For example, he found Horacio Ramirez on a minor league deal and got some value from the seemingly washed-up lefty, acquiring Paulo Orlando from the White Sox for him. However, he followed that up by signing Ramirez to a Major League deal the next winter, and Ramirez turned back into a pumpkin. Dayton was able to dump the negative-valued Yuniesky Betancourt on the Brewers in the Zack Greinke deal, only to re-sign Betancourt a few seasons later. He found good value getting Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie and Jeff Francoeur, only to offer them ill-advised contract extensions or new deals.
It is not easy for small market teams to navigate the free agent market, particularly teams in less glamorous markets. Dayton Moore certainly had an uphill battle trying to convince free agents to come to Kansas City initially. He has certainly had some significant busts, and even in more successful days, he has overpaid a bit for low-upside players. At the end of the day, however, he has gotten ownership to spend more money, which has allowed them have more leeway in overpaying for mediocrity.