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Dayton Moore’s free agent nightmare season mercifully comes to a close

It couldn’t have gone much worse.

MLB: JUL 20 Royals at Indians Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With Billy Hamilton designated for assignment the purge is complete. The Royals signed eight free agents who opened the season in Kansas City. All are gone.

In some cases, there were trades. In others, underperformance and/or trade deadline factors led to a release. Some players have found new clubs. Others—including Hamilton as of this writing—have not. This is Dayton Moore’s annus horribilis.

Royals 2019 Free Agent Signings

Player Contract Exit Date Reason fWAR
Player Contract Exit Date Reason fWAR
Billy Hamilton $5.25M 8/16 DFA 0.3
Chris Owings $3M 5/31 DFA/Released -0.9
Jake Diekman $2.75M 7/27 Trade 0.8
Martin Maldonado $2.5M 7/15 Trade 0.4
Wily Peralta $3.25M 7/20 DFA/Elected FA -0.4
Brad Boxberger $2.2M 6/26 DFA/Released 0.0
Lucas Duda $1.25M 7/27 DFA/Released -0.7
Terrance Gore $.65M 7/12 DFA/Trade 0.6
TOTALS $20.85M 0.1

Of course, not all was lost. Martin Maldonado was signed out of necessity once Salvador Perez hit the injured list with a torn UCL. His contract was not out of line for his service and Moore was able to spin the backstop to the Cubs for a starting pitcher with two-plus years of control in Mike Montgomery. Maldonado provided the Royals with 0.4 fWAR, some plus defense and a handful of comical baserunning gaffes. Montgomery has been worth 0.6 fWAR in six appearances since joining the Royals. Pitching and position player’s fWAR may not be created equal, but for this exercise it’s good enough. A signing that was essentially forced on the Royals turned into a very fine piece of business.

Fiscally, the deal was a wash with Maldonado earning $2.5 million this year and Montgomery making $2.44 million as a first year arbitration-eligible player.

That’s where the good news ends.

Wily Peralta has yet to find employment and it’s easy to understand why. Since the Royals reworked his contract last winter to include a mutual option, he’s radioactive on the free agent market. He’s not good enough for a contender to sign in hopes he can shore up an unsteady bullpen. And with a $1,000,000 buyout on an option along with the prorated portion of the major league minimum, no other team needing bullpen innings will take him.

(I think this is how it works when a team picks up a player, puts them on a big league roster and has to decide on an option.)

Many gigabytes of bandwith have been exhausted discussing the awfulness of the Chris Owings signing. He got into 40 games in Kansas City and was abysmal, posting the lowest fWAR of any Royals free agent signing. He’s since landed in Boston and inexplicably hit leadoff for them once. It will not surprise you to learn he whiffed three times in that game. Maybe Boston doesn’t have scouts. Or the internet. Owings will collect around $2.8 million of his salary from the Royals with the Sox picking up the remainder.

It’s kind of surprising the second best performer on the above table is the erstwhile Terrance Gore at 0.6 fWAR. Had we accepted wagers at the beginning of the season, I doubt much cash would have been put next to his name in the “Place” category of fWAR among Royals’ free agent signings. But in the small sample of 58 plate appearances—triple his career total spread over five seasons prior to 2019—Gore showed the ability to accept a free pass and posted a .362 OBP. Now plying his speed trade with the Yankees Triple-A club, he has a .410 OBP over 39 plate appearances.

Gore was never slated to be a free agent signing that was flipped for anything of value. When the Royals went that route with Gore last summer he was flipped to the Cubs for cash considerations. It was no different this year, elevated OBP be damned.

A somewhat similar outcome befell Lucas Duda, the owner of the second lowest fWAR on the above list. Duda, who had previously shown the ability to hit right-handed pitching, couldn’t hit no matter what hand was throwing the ball this year. And like Gore, his return engagement on a rebuilding team was confounding. Perhaps he was there to mentor the young Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel. Then explain why Duda hung around long after Schwindel was sent packing and O’Hearn was regaining confidence in Omaha. Whatever. The Braves brought him back, this time without the courtesy of cash considerations. The Royals remain on the hook for his entire salary until he is recalled to the majors.

Those of us who pontificate on the internet point at a reliever like Jake Diekman and exclaim, “That’s exactly the kind of player the Royals should be pursuing!” Diekman, the club’s Pitcher of the Month for May, netted a pair of prospects from the Athletics. By finding a trading partner, the Royals also realized a savings of around $1.25 million. Now Ismael Aquino and Dairon Blanco are a pair of lottery tickets, but that’s why you buy them in the first place. Who knows what will happen when you do that scratchy thing with a quarter? Worth getting them just to find out. It’s not exciting, but it’s how rebuilding teams need to do business.

(Edit: As stated in the first paragraph, I’m limiting this exercise to those on the Opening Day roster. Homer Bailey started the year in Triple-A, but would fit in the Diekman category. At the major league minimum salary, Bailey returned 1.2 fWAR and one of those lottery ticket prospects, clearly the best addition of the Royals off season.)

On the flip side of the Diekman signing you have Brad Boxberger. Shame he couldn’t survive until Player’s Weekend for the emoji on the uniform, but baseball is unforgiving, man. Boxberger has yet to return to the majors which is costing the Royals money. Signed to a minor league deal with Washington, he threw 8.2 innings for their Double-A affiliate and performed fairly well, but upgrades came from other sources, so Boxberger was once again cut loose. He’s now with the Reds Triple-A club and is having a difficult time adjusting to the insane offenses at that level. The Royals may not recoup any of their salary there.

Which brings us back to Hamilton. He opened the season as the sixth-highest paid player on the club and as of this writing, the Royals are still on the hook for his entire $4.25 million contract for 2019 and the $1 million buyout on the mutual option for 2020. It’s not inconceivable to think there’s a market for a player like Hamilton who brings plus speed and defense, especially when the rosters expand in a couple of weeks. Yet the team that values speed the most just let him go.

Besides, who could be surprised at this outcome? Hamilton didn’t manage to barrel a single batted ball (in 206 balls put in play) and astounding result for a major league professional. His average exit velocity of 78.3 mph was the lowest in the majors this season (minimum 200 batted ball events). That’s actually the lowest average exit velocity in the history of Statcast. The previous low was 78.6 mph set by... Billy Hamilton in 2017.

His 44 wRC+ was the lowest of his career. Among Royals batters with over 100 plate appearances this year, Duda, Hamilton and Owings own the fifth-lowest, third-lowest and lowest wRC+. (The others in the bottom five are Bubba Starling and Nicky Lopez.)

The Royals opened the season with a payroll of roughly $96.5 million and committed a staggering $20.85 million to these eight free agents. That represents 21.6 percent of their total Opening Day payroll. In return for that outlay, the Royals got a total of 0.1 fWAR and one controllable major league pitcher in Montgomery. They designated for assignment $15.6 million in salary, a vast majority they will not recoup.

It was never going to be easy assembling a team on a budget with the goal of not losing 100 games. Yet last offseason has to go down as a failure on the Dayton Moore curriculum vitae. As The Process 2.0 progresses the stakes only get higher. That’s what makes this effort so disheartening.

This offseason simply has to be better for the Royals and Moore if they are to stick to their rebuilding timeline. It can’t get any worse.