All signs point to a quiet winter for the Royals. They are still in the nascent stages of their rebuild and conventional wisdom holds that it doesn’t make sense for clubs to throw copious amounts of money at free agents while they are waiting for the folly of prospects. Develop today, win tomorrow.
Nevertheless, Dayton Moore will be shopping in the free agent market this winter. It’s unavoidable, even for the rebuilders. He will just be looking for bargains and inexpensive players to fill a few holes in the roster.
So it’s a good time to take stock in how Moore has approached the free agent market during his tenure as Royals General Manager. This article reviews every impact free agent signing made by Moore over the last 13 years. I’m borrowing this exercise from Jim Margolis at Sox Machine who did something similar for Rick Hahn earlier this month. It’s an interesting read, especially given the fact the two clubs compete in the same division.
A few ground rules:
First, this study is limited to free agents only. That is, players who were on the open market and free to sign with another team. That means Alex Gordon prior to the 2016 season counts. Salvador Perez signing an extension buying out a couple of his free agent years doesn’t. Jeff Francoeur’s 2011 season counts. He signed an extension that August so his 2012 and 2013 season don’t. (Moore can thank me later.)
Second, it’s limited to free agents who signed major league contracts or players who signed minor league deals but saw significant major league time. There are just far too many minor league deals and honestly, almost all of them lack impact one way or another.
Third, with few exceptions, the Royals paid full freight on nearly of the names listed below. So all players are listed with their initial terms they agreed to in their contracts. I’ll note where the Royals were able to get out from under noteworthy financial obligation.
I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet with Royals transactions since Moore was hired back in 2006. At the old Royals Authority site, I maintained a page titled “Dayton Moore’s Transactions.” I”m pulling the free agent signings from this resource and confirming dates with Baseball Reference. I’m using Cot’s Contracts for the final totals on the money, Baseball Reference for the WAR, and Baseball Prospectus for catcher WARP. As Margolis explained in his entry, WARP incorporates catcher defense far better than other metrics. The players are listed in the order they signed.
Let’s get started.
The Introductory Splash
Just over six months on the job and Moore is making big moves. The Royals shocked the industry in inking Meche to a five year deal at $11 million per. Meche repaid the faith with two strong seasons where he totaled 426 innings and a 3.82 ERA. Then, Trey Hillman worked his magic. Meche retired and forfeited the last year on his contract, saving the Royals $11 million in the process. Ever hear of Meche Money?
Have to admit, I don’t remember Riske being that effective in the bullpen. Dotel was spun to the Braves (I know, you’re shocked) at the deadline in exchange for Kyle Davies.
That trade aside, Moore had quite the honeymoon period. It looks even better when you shave around $14 million off the Royals initial commitment due to the Dotel trade and Meche retirement. That knocks the $66 million down to close to $52 million for 13.5 bWAR. That’s a promising start for a new GM.
And Moore promptly threw away that first year goodwill on broken down vets and bum relievers. Guillen was a disaster almost from the start. It’s safe to say he’s Moore’s biggest free agent blunder. Yabuta hung around the periphery of the bullpen but walked almost as many as he struck out. Mahay had one good year, but couldn’t survive the second and was released in August, 2009. Tomko threw 60 innings at a 6.97 ERA before he was mercifully shown the door. Olivo was serviceable as part of a tandem that featured John Buck.
Building A Better Bullpen
After two winters of awarding at least one eight-digit contract, Moore scaled back the spending ahead of 2009. Bloomquist was last decade’s Chris Owings, in that he could have been a nice backup but somehow grabbed over 425 plate appearances and was overexposed. The rest of money was spent on the bullpen. Waechter made five appearances for the Royals and never appeared in the majors again. Ramirez was on his second tour with the Royals, having been traded to Chicago the previous summer for Paulo Orlando. He lasted 19 games before he was released in June. Cruz made it through his first year, but was jettisoned a month into his second season in KC.
Farnsworth’s value came mostly from the following year where he posted a 2.42 ERA and a 7.3 SO/9. He was dealt to Atlanta (of course) at the deadline for a package that included Gregor Blanco. That turned out well for San Francisco.
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
A motley collection of free agent signings. None of these players would end the season on the club. Kendall tore his rotator cuff in July. Ankiel was packaged with Farnsworth in the Atlanta trade. Podsednik was shipped to the Dodgers. Arguelles was the Royals first major foray into the International free agent market. He threw 362 innings with a collective 5.47 ERA in the minors and never pitched above the Double-A level. TINSTAPP always applies.
Except for the whole spending money part, it’s almost as if this year didn’t even happen.
This is just impressive. Damn impressive. A free agent tour de force. Of course 2011 was the pivotal year of the process as we saw the debuts of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez. But forgotten was how freaking good that offense was. The team was fifth in the AL in OBP and Slugging and sixth in runs scored. Cabrera and Francoeur were both plucked from the scrap heap as reclamation projects and were massive contributors.
But… there’s always a flip side to the Moore plays in free agency. The club extended Francoeur that August for two years and $13.5 million where he promptly produced -3 bWAR before he was released in July of 2013. Add it up and it’s a $16 million commitment for 0.2 bWAR. (Again, Moore is fortunate I’m not including extensions in this exercise.) Cabrera was traded to the Giants for Jonathan Sanchez and after making the 2012 All-Star team, was popped for PEDs. Sanchez was a bust in KC but turned into Jeremy Guthrie who we will see further down the list. Likewise, we will see Chen’s name a couple more times. It will not be as positive as we see here.
Treading Water In A Sea Of Mediocrity
Chen is back. Broxton was traded for a pair of scratch-off lottery tickets. Mijares was waived. And Betancourt… my god. Betancourt. Why?
Prelude To A Pennant
A light year on the free agent market as the big off season splash for the Royals was the
James Shields Wade Davis trade. Guthrie was worth 2.3 bWAR in 2013 and 2014, throwing 414 innings with an ERA just a tick above 4. He gave back most of his value with an abysmal coda in 2015.
Have to be honest and admit I forgot all about the Miguel Tejada Era. That was weird.
Remember a “major baseball-related announcement?” We mocked, but it turns out signing Vargas was quite a nifty piece of business by the GM, never mind the Tommy John surgery that cost most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Vargy pitched some great games and two-plus decent seasons in the back end of the rotation.
Chen makes his third appearance on the list, but is another example of Moore going to the well once too often. The Infante deal didn’t make sense at the time and didn’t age well. He couldn’t even get voted into the All-Star Game.
A unique and massive free agent class in that Moore was filling holes on a club that had won the AL pennant the year prior. Morales comes in for Billy Butler as the primary DH, Rios steps in for Nori Aoki and Volquez takes most of the innings James Shields provided in the rotation. Moore also struck pay dirt with Young although, as we’ve seen so often previously, that short-term success would lead the Royals GM to a negative longer-term decision. Still, you can’t deny the success.
It also begs the question if you hit the go-ahead double in Game 5 of the ALDS, does your -1.1 bWAR really matter?
The End Of The Line
Excuse me, what? Take a moment and revisit that total above. Over $188 million in dollars committed to free agents in one off season. That’s more than the Royals spent in the previous four winters combined. The lesson: It’s a long road to the top and crazy expensive to attempt to stay there.
The bWAR for this class is tops in Moore’s tenure, but it’s still not enough given the amount spent. The Royals shelled out over $13 million for 1 bWAR, nowhere near the return they needed to justify the expenditure. (Moore has averaged around $11.1 million per bWAR.) Basically, they used the same blueprint that worked so well in the previous season. Soria was brought in as a replacement for Greg Holland and Kennedy would soak up the innings from the departed Jeremy Guthrie. The Kennedy signing carried the extra fiscal burden of the qualifying offer where the Royals forfeited their first round pick in the 2016 draft. Minor was a long play as he was rehabbing from injury.
Bringing back Young on that deal was ill-advised. His peripherals pointed to unsustainable success beyond 2015. When the Gordon market failed to develop the Royals jumped back in. They probably figured there would be a steady, natural decline, but no one foresaw the complete offensive collapse in his game. The majority of his value above came from the glove.
Soria was the first free agent signing in the Moore Era who was traded with a full year left on his deal. Prior to the 2018 season, the Royals sent $1 million to the White Sox with Chicago covering the remainder of the $8 million owed. So if you adjust the table above to two years and $17 million for Soria to go along with the 1.5 bWAR, it looks a little better, knocking the average per bWAR to around $12.6 million. Closer, but still not good enough.
Free agent signings from the prior winter combined with a core group of players entering their final season of control before they would hit the open market meant the Royals set an all-time payroll record in 2017. That also meant funds were tight when it came to free agents.
But they didn’t spend wisely. Moss played one year in KC and was shipped to Oakland with the Royals paying down $3.25 million of salary. The Royals wouldn’t get so lucky with Wood, only getting $750k as half the buyout on a mutual option from San Diego.
Just a disaster all around. Although Moylan was always guaranteed fun.
The Rebuild (Again)
And we have arrived at The Process 2.0. And it’s ugly. Contention is so last year. Now, it’s a bunch of dumpster-diving, one year deals that can hopefully be flipped for a prospect.
Let’s just run through the entire list.
- Peralta - walked 6 batters per 9 and somehow convinced the Royals to pick up his option for 2019. (That option is reflected in the terms above.) Released in July of 2019.
- Goins - Released in July.
- Boyer - A 12.05 ERA in 21 appearances. Released in August.
- Duda - Traded for cash to the Braves. Royals picked up all but $300,000 of his salary. And thought it was a good idea to bring him back the next year.
- Jay - Traded to Arizona for Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Luciano was subsequently lost to Toronto in the next winter’s Rule 5 draft when the Royals didn’t know about a loophole making him eligible.
- Moustakas - Traded to Milwaukee for Jorge Lopez and Brett Phillips. The Brewers assumed the nearly $3 million that was owed in salary and the buyout on a mutual option for 2019.
- Grimm - A 13.50 ERA in 16 outings. Released in July.
Moustakas fell in the Royals lap. And it was a positive they were able to get Milwaukee to pick up the balance owed while netting a pair of potentially useful players. Otherwise, just a spectacularly awful free agent class.
And it continues. A series of one year deals and not a single player from the list above finished the season in Kansas City. Maldonado at least returned Mike Montgomery who should continue to soak up innings in the rotation.
We’re just spinning our wheels here, going nowhere.
Let’s get the high-level view of free agent signings in Moore’s tenure.
Total Free Agent Spending
Overall, Moore has spent almost exactly $11 million per bWAR. I know that dollars per WAR have fallen out of favor as a measure of a player’s value, but in this case, I’m using it as a yardstick. In other words, looking at how much is Moore committing for his return. Some years, (2007, 2011 and 2012) it’s quite great. Other times... not so much.
Without doing the legwork, we don’t have the numbers for any other GM’s besides Hahn from the Sox Machine article. Margolis found that Hahn committed around $10.7 million per bWAR. So Moore and Hahn have found similar results. However, Hahn’s numbers are skewed by the signing of Jose Abreu. Remove that contract and Hahn has actually netted a negative bWAR from his free agent signings. That takes some work.
Moore doesn’t have that kind of success story that would twist the numbers. Likewise, his failures are modest. His best free agent signings are probably ones you don’t expect. The only Moore free agent signing to post a double-digit bWAR was his first, Gil Meche. Meche ($5.4 million per bWAR) and Jason Vargas ($4.4 million per bWAR) are contenders for the best long-term deals. The first Jeff Francoeur contract along with Melky Cabrera that same year rate among his best one-year signings. Jose Guillen is the only signing with a bWAR worse than -2. Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt and Blaine Boyer are among a handful of signings who finished with a bWAR worse than -1. Any negative rap probably comes from the failures that seemed mostly predictable. While Ian Kennedy has provided 6.2 bWAR, he’s making premium reliever money and he’s not a premium reliever. The added cost of the draft pick and the inability to move his contract places him in the poor signing category.
Still, it’s difficult to find a free agent signing that would classify as impact. Part of that has to do with market size and state of the franchise for most of Moore’s tenure. It’s not easy to lure free agents to Kansas City. Recall with one of Moore’s best signings (Meche) where the Royals went the extra year to outbid the competition. That’s not something that can regularly happen.
It’s interesting to note that for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Moore signed a total of 17 players at roughly $261 million. That’s nearly 42 percent of his career free agent expenditures in two seasons. Those players have returned 43 percent of his bWAR, so at least that is consistent. The Royals said they would spend when the time was right. They did.
As you can see above, there are years where Moore has gotten a negative bWAR for his troubles. Most alarming is the recent trend of the last three seasons. He’s reverted to his spending habits of the 2009 through 2013 seasons (it’s a rebuild doncha know!), but has found none of the success. It’s fair to ask what’s different. Why is finding even one decent player on the open market so difficult? His lone success story in the last three seasons was Mike Moustakas, but as we all know the Royals got lucky he was available when his market failed to materialize.
In the last three seasons, Moore has signed 21 players to free agent contracts totaling $86 million. His return? A -1.1 bWAR. That’s not just abysmal. It’s unacceptable. Even in a rebuild.
Recent track record aside, when it comes to the free agent market and Dayton Moore, it’s a mixed bag of mediocrity. Some moderate hits, some misses, and a whole lot of vanilla in between.