The Royals had a surprisingly active off-season a year ago. It seemed as if those moves had panned out nicely after the team sprinted off to a league-best record in April, on the backs of strong performances from many of their new players. But the team faded over the sumemr, and ended 74-88.
I wanted to take a look back with the benefit of hindsight and see what would have been a better move for the Royals last off-season. I don’t mean “trading Hunter Dozier for Shohei Ohtani”, I mean realistic moves the Royals could have made with their circumstance. This exercise is not to criticize the Royals - it would have taken some miraculous foresight to have gotten all these transactions right (although would it kill them to invest in a time machine or at least a fortune-teller?) Rather this is to illustrate that it is possible to upgrade the team without spending a fortune.
Instead of acquiring Andrew Benintendi...sign Robbie Grossman
The Royals were looking to improve their patience at the plate this season, and while Benintendi went on a tear to post a fairly productive season, it was the worst walk rate of his career. Benintendi was a fine 2.1 fWAR player, but he not only cost the Royals $6.6 million in salary, they had to give up three minor leaguers - outfielder Khalil Lee and pitchers Luis de la Rosa and Grant Gambrell.
Instead, the Royals could have improved their plate discipline by signing free agent Robbie Grossman, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Tigers. The switch-hitter batted .239/.357/.415 with a career-high 23 home runs and the fifth-highest walk rate in baseball. He wouldn’t win a Gold Glove in left field like Benintendi did, but he was still worth 2.7 fWAR.
Alternatively, the Royals could have signed Hunter Renfroe, who essentially replaced Benintendi in Boston’s outfield. The 29-year old hit 31 home runs with a line of .259/.315/.501, and while his defense can be an adventure at times, he has one of the best arms in baseball. After he was non-tendered by the Rays, the Red Sox signed him to a one-year deal worth $3.1 million. Either way, the Royals wouldn’t be out as much money and they could have held onto their minor leaguers.
Instead of signing Michael Taylor...sign Enrique Hernandez
The Royals are always looking for a ballhawk in center, and last off-season they turned to former Nationals outfielder Michael A. Taylor with a one-year deal worth $1.5 million. Taylor was outstanding with the glove, but his bat was lackluster. Overall, he wasn’t bad though producing 1.9 fWAR and winning a Gold Glove.
However if the Royals wanted to be a bit more offensive-minded in centerfield, they could have turned to Enrique Hernandez. The former Dodgers signed with Boston to a two-year $14 million deal. Perhaps he took that kind of money to play for a contender, but he put up a fantastic 3.9 fWAR season with a line of .250/.337/.449 with 20 home runs, and was easily within Kansas City’s budget.
Alternatively, if the Royals were looking to emphasize defense, they could have pursued a trade for Myles Straw. This is a bit of a stretch since Straw was not traded by the Astros to the Indians until July, when he was acquired for reliever Phil Maton. Maton put up pedestrian numbers - a 4.57 ERA but 3.15 FIP with Cleveland although as an intriguing reliever with more potential. Perhaps there was no deal there, but a 26-year old with 30 steals and a 3.7 fWAR season would fit in the Royals’ long-term plans better than the 30-year old Taylor.
Instead of signing Carlos Santana...sign C.J. Cron
Carlos Santana had killed the Royals for years when he was with Cleveland, and if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The Royals inked the 35-year old switch-hitter to a two-year, $17.5 million deal, even coming after a season in which he had hit under the Mendoza Line, becauase he had led the league in walks. The slugger hit well the first two months, but age and injury caught up to him, and he ended with one of the worst offensive lines of any starter in baseball.
C.J. Cron has been let go by more teams than you would expect for a player with a career 114 wRC+. The Rays placed him on waivers coming off a 30-home run, 123 OPS+ season in 2018 and the Twins non-tendered him after a 25-home run season in 2019. The Tigers spent $6 million on him in 2020, but he played just 13 games due to injury. So the Rockies were able to land him on a minor league deal that ended up paying him $1 million. He responded with the best numbers of his career, hitting .281/.375/.530 with 28 home runs. Yes, he did have a massive home/road split, but his .235/.337/.397 road numbers still outperformed Santana, and there is some evidence that Coors Field actually hurts Rockies hitters when they go on the road.
Alternatively, the Royals could have also pursued Jonathan Schoop, who signed with Detroit on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. A second baseman most of his career, he moved to first for the Tigers, and at age 29 hit .278/.320/.435 with 22 home runs, good for a 1.5 fWAR season.
Instead of signing Mike Minor...sign Robbie Ray
The Royals needed a veteran to help eat innings and keep them from overexposing their young starting pitchers. They brought back lefty Mike Minor on a two-year, $18 million deal hoping he could return to the form he showed in 2019 when he was a 4.1 fWAR pitcher with the Rangers. He had mixed results, finishing with a 5.05 ERA but a 4.29 FIP in 158 2⁄3 innings, good for 2.3 fWAR.
But what if the Royals had taken a gamble on another lefty coming off a tough 2020 season, Robbie Ray? Ray had a disastrous 2020 season, but was three years younger than Minor and had always been able to miss bats. Since his rookie season of 2015, he has the third-highest strikeout rate among anyone with at least 500 innings pitched. Ray ended up re-signing with Toronto on a one-year, $8 million deal and enjoyed his best season, posting a 2.84 ERA with 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and winning the Cy Young Award.
Alternatively, the Royals could have signed right-hander Anthony DeSclafani, who went to the Giants on a one-year, $6 million deal. Under the development of director of pitching Brian Bannister, DeSclafani became a 3 fWAR pitcher with a 3.16 ERA in 167 2⁄3 innings, re-upping with the Giants this week on a three-year, $36 million deal. Lefty Cole Irvin was another possibility, but instead the Athletics purchased him from the Phillies. The 27-year old posted a 4.24 ERA and was a 2.1 fWAR pitcher in Oakland.
Instead of signing Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Ervin Santana....sign Paul Sewald, Adam Cimber, and Anthony Bender
Reliever performance can be so volatile and many of the top bullpen performers this year were originally acquired by their clubs in minor, overlooked transactions. The Royals brought in veterans Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Ervin Santana on minor league deals to add depth. Bringing in relievers on low-cast minor league deals is a great idea, but all three were over the age of 35, and they combined for n ERA of 5.28 in 163 2⁄3 innings.
The Mets non-tendered right-hander Paul Sewald last winter, but he signed with Seattle and had a remarkable turnaround, striking out 104 hitters in 64 2⁄3 innings with a 3.06 ERA. Cimber had been an okay reliever with the Indians, but they didn’t have room for him in their pen anymore, so they sold him to the Marlins. He had a 2.88 ERA in 33 games with Miami before they shipped him to Toronto for their pennant push, and he had a 1.69 ERA in 39 games for them. Anthony Bender was originally drafted by the Royals, but he bounced around to the indie leagues before the Marlins found him and got him in the big leagues, where he posted a 2.79 ERA in 61 1⁄3 innings.