When the Kansas City Royals traded longtime third baseman and franchise legend Mike Moustakas to the Milwaukee Brewers in July, we all thought that would be it for Moustakas’ Royals career. Granted, we all thought that would be it for his Royals career in September 2017, and Moose became available for the Royals. Kansas City nabbed him on a one-year deal back then because the stars aligned.
Well, Moustakas may need to change his nickname from ‘Moose’ to ‘Boomerang,’ because he might be coming back to the Royals yet again. The same stars that aligned last offseason seem to be repeating themselves this year.
It is, of course, more likely than not that Moose signs elsewhere. The factors that speak to that still exist, and there are 29 other MLB teams out there. It just takes one to sign someone they like to a big contract, deserving or not (Eric Hosmer waves hello from sunny San Diego).
But, hey, Kansas City signed him last year against all odds. This year, the Royals could do the same. And while the Royals could sign him again for the purpose of offloading him again in July, the Royals are actually positioned to sign him to a for realsies multiyear deal this time. Here’s why.
Kansas City doesn’t have a third baseman in the wings...anywhere
There is no third base tree. There was never a third base tree. Yost’s outburst in 2013 about Moustakas’ struggles and the calls to replace him with someone—anyone—else are absolutely legendary in the Royals manager lexicon. If you hadn’t read it yet:
“You know what?” Yost said. “Maybe when we get home, I can go to the third base tree and pick another third baseman. … Obviously, third basemen who can hit and hit with power, they must grow on trees.”
We all know what happened: Moose became a legitimately good MLB player and is one of 30 humans who currently owns a team record for most home runs hit in a single season. But in 2018, Yost’s comments ring true...again. The Royals ain’t got no third baseman tree.
Don’t believe me? Here are, uh, the Royals’ current group of third basemen in the Majors and Minors that are looking to grab some playing time at the hot corner in the next two years:
- Hunter Dozier, 27: -0.8 career WAR in 110 games. Has hit 22% below league average with poor defensive and baserunning figures.
- Cheslor Cuthbert, 26: -0.2 career WAR in 235 games. Has played a combined 109 games, MLB and MiLB, over the past two seasons due to multiple injuries.
- Rosell Herrera, 26: 0.2 career WAR in 86 games. Has hit 37% below league average. Has been let go by two separate organizations.
- Kelvin Gutierrez, 24: Hit 5% above league average in AA as a 23-year-old. Doesn’t walk much or hit for power.
Sure, someone could come out of nowhere, but that’s not likely considering where the talent currently resides in Kansas City’s farm system. Furthermore, relying on guys to come out of nowhere to fill positions of need is a surefire way to lose your front office job.
Moustakas is a reliable defensive third baseman and the kind of anchor bat that those others aren’t, and the Royals are bad enough with enough lineup holes that you can keep Dozier, Cuthbert, or Herrera around even if you sign Moustakas.
Moose doesn’t have much of a market
The San Diego Padres offered a bejziollion dollars to Hosmer, who took said bejziollion dollars over whatever lesser offer the Royals had on the table. However, Moose isn’t going to demand that big of a contract. Coming off 2017, a year in which Moose cracked 38 home runs and hit 14% above league average, he was projected to receive somewhere in the ballpark of five years and $85 million. He ended up with one year and $6.5 million. Teams that needed his services, like the Los Angeles Angels, went with alternative candidates.
If Moose couldn’t receive a multi-year deal the year after nearly swatting 40 big ones, why would he expect receive a bigger deal one year older when he actually hit worse?
Now, one reason he could expect a bigger deal is if there were more contending teams that need a third baseman, but that’s just not the case. A quick examination of the 2018 third baseman WAR leaderboard shows...a bunch of playoff teams. Cleveland. Houston. Oakland. Colorado. Los Angeles (the good one). Chicago (the good one). New York (the good one). Milwaukee (who traded for Moustakas as a luxury, not a necessity). And one team that wanted third base help—the Atlanta Braves—already went out and got an alternative.
Competition drives up price and often drives small market teams out of the game for certain players. That is not the case here.
Kansas City has the money
After being very very terrible, the Royals are on track to cut payroll. Kansas City is looking to slash payroll from about $120 million in 2018 to a targeted figure of $90 million in 2019. That’s perfectly doable, and the Royals have made no bones about their expectations (or lack thereof) in 2019. That means they aren’t in hot pursuit of a gaggle of free agents.
Make no mistake, though: the Royals have money. While $90 million sounds like a lot, consider that it would have been the fourth-lowest payroll total among all 30 MLB teams in 2018. And after 2019 and 2020, the Royals will have a combined $32.5 million come off the books due to Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy, respectively. That, and the fact that the Royals will have a shiny new television contract soon that will result in a significant bump in revenue.
It’s any guess as to how much Moose might command on a long-term deal, but it wouldn’t break the bank. Now that he’s a year older, lopping off a year from last year’s Fangraphs projection mentioned above would yield a four-year, $68 million deal. But, again, he’s a year older—and he didn’t replicate his 2017 in 2018. Four years, $50 million therefore sounds reasonable, which works out to about $12 million per year. The Royals can cry foul all they’d like, but they can afford that, especially taking into account that the Royals have a grand total of zero pennies committed to salaries after 2021.
If they don’t continue to tear down, signing Moose just makes sense
After a disappointing 2016 season, the Royals tried to thread the needle in the offseason, simultaneously attempting to reload whilst also keep the team competitive. Jarrod Dyson and Wade Davis were shipped out, but Kansas City still wanted to compete, so they opted for MLB-ready talent (Nate Karns and Jorge Soler, respectively) instead of maximizing their return. Furthermore, they declined to trade Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Moustakas.
This half-in-half-out approach did not work. In the 2016 and 2017 offseasons, Moore spent almost $100 million and traded away multiple players to receive less than a single net WAR. The Royals spun their wheels as a .500 team and failed to improve their long-term position.
It bears saying again: the 2018 Royals were teerrrrrrrrrrriiibbblle. The 2019 Royals are likely to be better than the 2018 squad, but owing to the systemic flaws of the 2018 team, the 2019 Royals will be at the very least a 90-loss team. The 2020 squad will also likely be a 90-loss one. With Danny Duffy, Whit Merrifield, and Salvador Perez, the Royals have a trio of effective veterans who are shiny trade pieces.
The Royals are facing a crossroads here. One effective way to rebuild the team is by hosting a fire sale, trading Duffy, Merrifield, and Perez in order to build a more effective long-term farm system. This is, effectively, tanking. In this situation, signing Moose makes no sense.
But that’s only one way forward. Another option is to try to jumpstart their rebuild by becoming competitive ahead of schedule a la the 2018 Atlanta Braves. That entails having enough good players on the team in the first place so that the gulf between non-competitiveness and competitiveness is relatively small. It is in this situation in which signing Moose makes sense. If you’re going to retain Duffy and Perez through 2021, you might as well also have Moustakas, too.
Again: the Royals are unlikely to pursue Moustakas. But he fits a positional need, is affordable, and might just fit with the Royals’ plans anyway. A re-reunion is more likely than you think.