Last night, the Kansas City Royals inked Mike Moustakas to a one-year deal with only $6.5 million guaranteed. When it was Moustakas’ turn in Pin the Tail on the Free Agent, Moustakas was blindfolded and everyone just left, leaving him alone and in the dark. Like every graduating music or journalism major, a lack of options forced the jobless Moustakas into a far less lucrative situation than he expected.
Moose’s disappointment was the Royals’ gain. At $6.5 million, which could balloon to $8.7 million after reaching certain incentives in his contract, Moustakas will cost at least $71.3 million less than Lorenzo Cain (who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers) and $135.3 million less than Eric Hosmer (who signed with the San Diego Padres). Moose cranked 38 home runs last year, a new Royals single-season record, in his first year back since major knee surgery. Moustakas’ contract is simply a steal.
The reason that this happened is simple: the free agent market, whether due to collusion or other factors, just crashed this offseason. Among the top 20 free agents by ESPN’s ranking, four could only win a one-year deal, and another four are still jobless despite the date approaching the Ides of March.
General Manager Dayton Moore did not set out to sign Moustakas, or else Kansas City would have signed him weeks ago at a higher rate. It just fell into his lap.
Other veterans fell into Moore’s lap this offseason, too. Kansas City signed Lucas Duda to play first base, and Jon Jay is likely to man center field; both were signed one inexpensive one-year deals. Now that Kansas City has added Moustakas to a group that includes Alex Gordon and Whit Merrifield, five of their eight starting position players are at least in their age-29 season. Furthermore, the four starting pitchers with inside tracks to slot into the opening day rotation—Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Danny Duffy, and Nate Karns—are also at least 29.
The Royals in 2018 are going to be an old, veteran team, despite similar team makeups sauntering to a 161-163 record over the last two seasons. None of their youngsters, other than Adalberto Mondesi, is under 25. Maybe at one point the Royals were committed to rebuilding and giving their inexperienced players more playing time, but that time has come and gone.
So it is what it is: the 2018 Royals are going to be mostly a veteran team, and are probably going to have a better record for it. But for the most part they aren’t an expensive veteran team because of the depressed free agent market. So there exists an interesting opportunity here: if Moore leans into the current free agent market in search of a few more one-year, buy low type of players, he might be able to squeeze a decent team from pretty much nothing.
Dirty South fell to deadly warrior Tommy John Surgery in 2015 and missed all of 2016. The Colorado Rockies finally signed him to a one-year contract for the following season, and Holland mostly succeeded in 2017 despite Coors Field’s altitude.
Holland looked to be gunning for the type of Kenley Jansen/Aroldis Chapman/Mark Melancon multi-year deal, if his performance the first half of 2017 was any indication. Holland was elected to his third All-Star Game, putting up a 1.62 ERA and saving 28 games. But in the second half of the year, Holland sort of fell apart: he put up a 6.38 ERA and only saved 13 games, though he did maintain his strikeout-to-walk ratio.
That second half probably scared away a lot of teams, especially considering Holland’s injury history. But if Kansas City can get Holland for $5 million or so, they could have an affordable player and gamble for some upside. Holland on his game is as unhittable as any great relief pitcher in the history of baseball.
The veteran St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher has been very consistent and very good for most of his career. From 2012 through 2015, he put up between 2.8 and 3.7 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs version) every season. Like Holland, Lynn sat out the entire 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Like Holland, Lynn’s 2017 season was decent—1.4 fWAR in a healthy 33 starts—but a sagging strikeout rate, a sudden weakness to the long ball, and his age (31 this season) have scared away suitors.
Lynn’s sweet spot on a one-year deal is probably between $6-$8 million.
Royals fans probably remember Cobb the most as the guy who Eric Hosmer unintentionally bonked with a screaming line drive in Tampa Bay (well, bonked is mild, but there aren’t many words to accurately describe the violence of that impact). But the 30-year-old Cobb has carved out a career as a nice starting pitcher when healthy.
Cobb missed 2015 and most of 2016 because of, you guessed it, Tommy John Surgery (sense a pattern here?) but returned in 2017 for a healthy 29 starts. Cobb’s 2017 campaign was actually pretty good, and his production wasn’t too far removed from his pre-injury seasons from 2012-2014.
Cobb has a greater injury history than a lot of guys, and has cracked the all important three-zero, but productivity and depth is difficult to acquire in a rotation, so $6-$8 million should be the Royals’ target for Cobb.
Fun fact: who has been the better hitter for the last three seasons—Lucroy or Salvador Perez?
The answer is, perhaps surprisingly to some of you, Lucroy. Over the past three years, Lucroy’s adjusted on base plus slugging, or OPS+, is just a few ticks above league average at 102. Perez’ OPS+ over that same time is a below average 94.
Of course, Lucroy is entering his age-32 season, and Perez his age-28 season. Both ZiPS and Steamer projection systems think that Perez will be more valuable than Lucroy next year, which passes the eye test. But backing up Perez is 34-year-old Drew Butera, the definition of a replacement-level player (though his hair is SIGNIFICANTLY above replacement-level), and behind Butera is the unproven Cam Gallagher.
It’s also important to note that the famed durability of Perez is waning as he gets older:
- 2014 | Age-24 | 150 games played
- 2015 | Age-25 | 142 games played
- 2016 | Age-26 | 139 games played
- 2017 | Age-27 | 129 games played
Lucroy would be a fabulous backup who could step up as a regular should Perez spend time on the disabled list with an injury. There’s also a non-zero chance that he outperforms Perez next year in a variety of rate stats. Kansas City should look to lock Lucroy up between $4-$6 million.
How the Royals approach the rest of what offseason remains is related to how much faith Moore has in his team to make a run at competitiveness. If any of these four players are looking at one-year deals, and if Moore thinks his team could compete, there might be some serious bargains to be found here.
And the best part—should it not work out, and Kansas City falls out of contention, they’ll have a bevy of attractive pieces during the trade deadline dance.
Who should the Royals try to sign to a one-year deal?
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