Cactus League: Billy Butler, Pete LaCock and Lee Smith.

Day 2 from Spring Training. 

Let’s get to it.



Cubs Welcome Country Breakfast

We spent yesterday the Cubs facilities checking in on Billy Butler and the visiting Oakland Athletics. As we all know, the Royals let Billy walk after declining to pick up his 2015 option. Negotiations were extensive, but ultimately Billy took a 3 year, $30M deal to play for the A’s.

I have a rocky past with Billy. I generally cannot stand the designated hitter, and Billy has historically been a frustrating player at that “position.” He hits singles and doubles. He does not hit for power. He does not play defense (although, Oakland plans to give him a lot of time there). I’ve never seen him throw a baseball. He was one of the least valuable baserunners in baseball last year.

So he’s one-dimensional. A one-tool player. He hits for average, and that’s it.

Late in the season, Ned Yost benched Butler. Butler whined. He was obnoxious, and I couldn’t wait for the Royals to let him walk. If the Royals postseason run hadn’t happened, Billy would’ve left town without eliciting any emotion whatsoever.

BUT…then he stole that base.

And the Royals did go on that postseason run, and suddenly Billy Butler became the face of the resurrected franchise. The guy who had been there through the darkest times and came out on the other side a winner.

So strangely, over the course of about 6 weeks, my emotions surrounding Billy Butler were transformed. Which is how I somehow found myself wanting to check in on his yesterday in Mesa, AZ. I’m going to miss Billy – I think Kendrys Morales is a better player and putting aside emotions, it’s the right move for the franchise – but Billy was Billy, and he can’t be replaced.

Except yesterday’s game did nothing but help me forget him quickly.

First, he completely ignored me and Dan as he walked into the visitors dugout. We were 3 feet away. I was wearing my #16 Billy Butler powder blue jersey. I told him we miss him in KC. And he gave us the cold shoulder.

Then he went 0-3 at the plate. Snoozer. Not doing much to keep me interested. The A’s come to Kauffman Stadium on April 17-19. I’ll be there on April 18 – which is Billy’s birthday.

Thankfully, there were other happenings that more that made up for Billy’s disappointing day.



Pete LaCock’s 1980 AL Champions ring

There were a group of former Cubs players signing autographs during the game. Fergie Jenkins and Lee Smith were the big names. But I made eye contact with Pete LaCock and he was noticeably excited that I was decked out in Royals gear.

We talked for about 10 minutes. I asked him about his time in KC, how the 1980 World Series loss compared to the 2014. He answered by taking off his 1980 AL Champs ring and handing it to me. Didn’t even ask. Just gave it to me and told me to try it on. Pretty cool.

Look how faded the front is – it looks like the photo is out of focus it’s so worn. Pretty cool experience as long as I ignored Pete’s complaining about the Royals disrespecting him by only giving him upper deck tickets to the World Series. The nerve.

Meeting Lee Smith

The highlight of the day was meeting Lee Smith. 

He was sitting next to Pete LaCock and I spent most of the time with Pete trying to figure out what I was going to say to Smith when the conversation shifted.

I decided to share the story that I wrote about a few months ago – my experience as a 7 year old watching him pitch for the Cardinals in 1993. We laughed about how long he used to take walking to the mound. He said Tony La Russa’s word for his walk was an “amble.”

“I don’t even know what that word means!” said Smith.

I shook his hand twice and both times was shocked at how massive his hands are. I was tempted to ask him to hold a ball for me, but that felt weird. 

Instead, he brought up how short the Cardinals infield felt while he was on the mound. Ozzie Smith (5’11”), Terry Pendleton (5’9″) and Jose Oquendo (5’10”) all had “short man syndrome” according to Lee, who stand at 6’5″. Add an additional 11 inches from the height of the mound, those infielders would come in for a conference and he felt like he could “scoop em all up and put em in his pocket.” 

Great guy. Huge smile. Very friendly. An honor to meet him. My only regrets: not getting a photo with him and not being prepared with his card to sign. Drat.

***

Today is Yordano Day and my final day in Arizona. Headed to Goodyear to watch the Good Guys take on the Tribe this afternoon. Big win yesterday – Cheslor Cuthbert with a 2-run walkoff in the bottom of the 9th to take down the Rangers for the second straight day. 

Miguel Almonte looked great according to Vahe Gregorian of the Star. Escobar and Morales both had two hits apiece. Bubba Starling went 0-3 with three strikeouts. Woof

-apc.

The Royals sign DH Kendrys Morales for $17M over 2 years.

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After a patient week at the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, the Royals finally made a move to improve their club by signing switch-hitting power DH Kendrys Morales to a two year, $17 million with performance incentives up to $18.5 million. With the addition of Morales the Royals have addressed one of their three major needs.

Morales played with the Angels from 2006-2011, joined the Mariners from 2012-2013, and he chose to turn down his qualifying offer entering free agency prior to the 2014 season. Mistake. No team wanted to surrender the draft pick to add Morales and he remained a free agent until finally Minnesota picked him up in June. He played 39 games with the Twins before being sent back to Seattle to help a Mariners playoff push that never came to fruition.

With such a tumultuous offseason, it’s not surprising that Morales’s 2014 production dipped significantly from his 2012-2013 campaigns. In fact, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball in 2014 hitting .218/.274/.338 and only 8 HRs in 98 games split between two clubs.

Thus, the primary question we’re all asking of Morales is whether 2014 was an anomaly or the start of a legitimate decline in ability.

Personally, I’m willing to look past his 2014 campaign. I don’t know what missing Spring Training and the first 2 months of the season can do to a baseball player physically and mentally, but it certainly isn’t ideal and is an easy explanation for such a decline. Sure, Morales is 31 and probably past his peak athleticism, but a drop that significant seems to be an obvious result of bizarre contract circumstances. He hit .280/.333/.480 from 2006-2013. To me, that outweighs 2014 enough to sign the guy called upon to replace Billy Butler.

The Royals chose to let Butler leave for free agency rather than picking up his $12.5 million option for 2015. Dayton Moore was quoted yesterday as having some regret for not bringing him back. It seems the DH market was thinner than anticipated which is likely why they ultimately seemed to panic and sign Morales to a somewhat pricey contract. That amount – $17M over 2 years – seems a bit high, but the Royals likely didn’t have much choice. With such a thin DH market, they were likely going to have to overpay no matter what. It’s the market they were presented with, unfortunately.

Everyone wants to compare Billy to Kendrys, and I’m no different. Billy gets on base more often (.359 vs .324 OBP), but Kendrys hits more homers (18 vs 25 HR/162 game avg). Billy is three years younger. Morales grounds into almost as many double plays as Billy does. Neither are fast. Both can play first base if called upon.

So, yeah, Billy Butler scores out as the slightly better player, and his contract in Oakland ($30M over 3 years) reflects that as would his contract in Kansas City had they decided to pick up his 2015 option.

Except the primary beef on Billy over the years has been this: for a DH he lacks power. Some of that is due to playing in an expansive Kauffman Stadium, but at this point we all know he’s a singles hitter with the occasional double to the gap. So before we get too far down the “why did we let Billy go, he was this team’s savior” road, let’s not forget that Ned Yost benched Billy down the stretch due to his lack of production, and we were all begging for Dayton Moore to ship him away at the trade deadline. Just because the dude had a few key hits in the postseason and took out a full page “thank you” ad in the KC Star on Thanksgiving, don’t let that cloud our eyes from our past frustrations about Billy. Fans have always had a love/hate relationship with Billy Butler, and I’m sure our relationship with Morales will be the same. I think relationships with DH’s are just like that – they have one specific job (hitting), and when they’re good at it, we love them, and when they’re bad it at, we don’t.

Kendrys Morales can drive the ball – specifically fastballs from the right side of the plate – and he can drive them farther than Billy Butler can. He just doesn’t do it quite as regularly. So it’s a trade off: OBP vs HRs. We needed a power bat and the DH was one of our primary needs. It’s not a sexy pick up, and Morales doesn’t solve all of our problems in a single player, but assuming he has even the slightest bounce back from 2014, he helps this team maintain it’s DH production from a year ago (which, we also can’t forget, wasn’t anything to write home about anyway).

And just because he’s not everything that Billy Butler was, we’re saving $3.5M this season by adding a player in Morales who is very close to Butler in OBP and exceeds him in HR. This seems like a lateral move overall, and that’s what this team needs to do. I’m fine with it.

Which means that $3.5M can be used elsewhere.

Remember that scene at the beginning of Moneyball when Billy Beane and his old school scouts are all trying to figure out how to replace Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen? They didn’t need to replace each one individually, they simply needed to replace their collective value. We need to do the same.

Butler had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014, but averages 1.6 over his career.
Aoki: 1.0 in 2014. 2.5 career.
Shields: 3.3 in 2014. 3.0 career.

Interestingly, they all had down seasons in 2014 (even Shields compared to recent years). For consistency’s sake, that means we need to replace a cumulative 4.0 WAR from 2014, but maybe closer to 7.2 WAR for their careers.

Morales had a WAR of -0.3 in 2014 – same as Billy, amazingly – and has a career average of 1.2 WAR. Added power. Lost OBP. So what we’d like to be able to find is two guys whose cumulative WAR is in the 4.0 to 5.0 range and we’ll come out ahead and we have more power to show for it with more money to invest in it.

Easier said than done? Of course it is. Looking strictly at the numbers makes the whole game seem like cake. But my point isn’t to solve the equation as much as it is to offer the equation itself.

We still need pieces, and it’s possible when all is said and done that the addition of Kendrys Morales will look just fine in conjunction with a right fielder and a starting pitcher (and I might even throw in a utility man who can add value off the bench…or in place of Omar Infante if the Royals happen to find any suitors).

One small caveat here before I wrap this up: I am a bit confused as to how this signing happened after all the conversation about the Royals utilizing a flexible DH spot in 2015 to get Salvy and others a few days off in the field. To me, adding a RF/DH hybrid was what needed to happen to provide that sort of fluidity, but alas, looks like we’re stuck with Salvy’s catching another 150+ games in 2015.

What I’m saying is that Morales is only one piece of the offseason puzzle. Hopefully my optimism in Morales bouncing back is not misplaced. There are still more moves to come, so calm down, Kansas City. The offseason is long – it’s December 11 and we have until early March to make moves – and Dayton Moore is not done adding pieces for 2015.

Stay the course, and let’s all revisit the Morales deal in March when the roster is set and in October when the Royals take the crown.

-apc.

Photo here: It’s All About the Money

Free Agency: What are the Royals biggest needs this 2014-15 offseason?

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Following the 2010 season – a mere 4 years ago – I’m not sure I could’ve written this post. Things were just too terrible to address in a 1000-word post.

That year, 2010, Billy Butler played 158 games at 1B and Yuniesky Betancourt played 151 games at SS. Gil Meche and Jose Guillen accounted for over 1/3 of the team salary. Coming off his 2009 Cy Young campaign, Zack Greinke had a bit of a set back (also he didn’t want to be in KC and was a borderline poison in the clubhouse) and was being shopped around the league, eventually going to the Brewers. Luke Hochevar was disappointing to say the least. Kyle Davies was the absolute worst. Brian Bannister was out of baseball. Bruce Chen was arguably our best pitcher this time 4 years ago.

Billy led all position players in WAR at 3.2. David DeJesus was second with 1.9, but he was a free agent heading to Oakland. Alberto Callaspo had a decent year but was traded to the Angels mid-season. Mike Aviles seemed to be a bright spot, but his .304/.335/.413 would drop to .255/.289/.409 in 2011.

Things were dark, and it was not easy to look at the organization and pinpoint three or four steps to becoming contenders.

It was a hot mess.

Thankfully, Dayton Moore knew what he was doing. He flipped Greinke for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi. Two years later he flipped Wil Myers and Odorizzi for James Shields and Wade Davis. Alex Gordon emerged as an all-star left-fielder. And Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez were groomed within the system and suddenly a championship team took shape.

This isn’t the 2010-11 offseason. This is the 2014-15 offseason, and it’s amazing how easy building in free agency can appear when you’re already a contender.

Today – again, just 4 years later – it’s relatively easy to pinpoint those key places the Royals need to address. It’s clear where this team has holes – some holes bigger than others, but holes nonetheless. So let’s look at the spots where the Royals need to improve and what they might be able to do to address each position.

Starting Pitcher

This is the big one. We all know how important starting pitching is in Major League Baseball. James Shields has officially rejected his qualifying offer, so the current Royals rotation for 2015 currently looks like this:

Yordano Ventura
Danny Duffy
Jason Vargas
Jeremy Guthrie

There is the possibility that Brandon Finnegan could be added to that list, but I think most of us would like to see him log some additional time in the minors prior to being thrown into a starting roll. Even if he is lights out in Spring Training and earns a spot on the roster, I’m not comfortable leaning on him for 20-30 starts. Besides, we need depth for when Yordano inevitably needs Tommy John surgery. Ugh, I hate that that is always a looming possibility.

So what are our options? Well, if Shields is out of our price range, then Jon Lester and Max Sherzer certainly are too. But second-teir starters like Francisco Liriano or Ervin Santana could be a fit. Santana loved his time in KC in 2013, and we know he can have success in the friendly pitching confines of Kauffman Stadium. Liriano’s 2014 campaign wasn’t nearly what his 2013 was, but he posted a low-3’s ERA for the second straight year and threw 150+ innings for the 4th straight year.

Personally, I’d love to see Ervin back in blue. Apparently the Royals have scheduled a meeting with his agent at the GM winter meetings coming up. Go get him.

Right Field/Designated Hitter

I’ve lumped these together because we ought to be able to kill two birds with one stone here. If we could find a power hitting right fielder, it would provide a lot of flexibility for this lineup moving forward. You could utilize a more fluid DH position between different guys – most importantly Salvador Perez who played a billion games behind home plate this season.

Names like Torii Hunter and Melky Cabrera have been floated around. Cabrera hasn’t played much right field (could we put him in CF with Lorenzo Cain full time in RF?), but we wouldn’t be putting him out there for his defense. Besides, with Jarrod Dyson available off the bench for defense, we would have the flexibility to simply utilize Melky as a DH as well. Torii is intriguing to me – more veteran leadership a la Shields and Raul Ibanez this past season, sure, but I’m not sure I want to sign a guy whose career is so clearly on the decline. But he wants a ring badly, and he would certainly make us better.

There’s still a possibility that Billy Butler returns for a much cheaper payday than he might get elsewhere, and if that happens, it would be interesting to see what the Royals did in RF without the need for a DH bat.

Nori Aoki isn’t completely out of the question either, although I’ve heard he’s seeking 3 years and I’m not sure the Royals would want to commit that much to him. He did a great job getting on base for us in 2014, but his defense remains an adventure.

And who knows – maybe Dyson can be a legitimate every day starter and we can unleash The Ultimate Outfield every day next year. He’s one of the best CF in the game. He’s such a threat off the bench, but he also put up 2.8 WAR this year as a part-time player which is the highest of his career.

If Melky is affordable, I’d love to see him back in a Royals uniform on a 2 or 3 year deal as a hybrid DH/OF. To me, he’s the best option. Better than Torii Hunter. And don’t try and convince me that Ichiro is even worth considering.

The other idea that has been circulating since the trade deadline this year is the possibility of trading for Marlon Byrd. Not sure what we would have to give up, but it’s worth noting.

One last thought: This time last year I was gushing over the possibility of Carlos Beltran making his way back to KC. Lots of people weren’t in support of the move, but I think we can all agree that he would be the perfect guy to complete this lineup. Freaking Yankees.

Update: Okay one more thought – apparently the Royals are pursuing Ryan Howard assuming the Phillies agree to eat the majority of his contract. Very interesting news.

Third Base/Utility Infielder

“But, you said that Mike Moustakas was a different player in October!” Yes, I did say that, and I still believe that he was. Moose looked relaxed, as if he no longer felt he needed to prove himself.

But he still wasn’t that great. In 15 postseason games, he hit .251/.259/.558. His 5 postseason home runs set a Royals record and resulted in a huge SLG split, but even with his AVG at .251, is that good enough to give him 150-160 starts next year? Especially when he hit .172 off of lefties…not acceptable as a full-time player.

That said, we’ve had a small sample size of Moose as a “relaxed” postseason player. I’d like to see a full campaign from him to determine whether he’s turned it around or not. Verdict is still out.

Omar Infante played with an injured shoulder to finish the season. If that lingers or becomes a trend it would be nice to have infield depth.

And God forbid Alcides Escobar gets hurt. He played all 162 regular season and 15 post season games last year, and we didn’t really have a backup plan for a while until Christian Colon was called up mid-season.

All that to say, we need options, and I’d prefer versatile options if possible. I’m a huge supporter if the utility man.

Christian Colon has proven he’s good enough to be on the roster coming off the bench, but I’m not sure he has much of an upside beyond his current role as a backup. Somebody like Emilio Bonefacio or Mark Reynolds might work. Just more as a safety net than anything else in case of injury or the return of MoustakAZ .

Left-Handed Bullpen Arm

Finally, we need a lefty out of the bullpen. We’re stacked with righties – Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are all righties – but we are weak on lefties. Francisley Bueno and Tim Collins aren’t the scariest of foes out of the ‘pen. Of course, to compare anyone to those other three is unfair, but I’d rather see any of those guys than any lefty we currently have on the roster.

Brandon Finnegan was our best option during the postseason, and he made for a decent bandaid when called upon. He really only had one bad outing – Game 4 of the World Series – but we want him to be a starter in the future. Somebody like Josh Outman or Andrew Miller would be nice, but they might be too expensive depending which of the above moves we choose to make.

It would be wise for us to take a gamble on a lefty arm. We can’t call on HDH every time like we did this year. They just about ran out of gas in August/September.

***

It’s a new time in KC and there are very few holes on this team moving forward. With our postseason revenue and likely increase in season ticket sales next year, we ought to have more money than ever before as well.

The best thing we have going for us? The fact that winning usually begets more winning. So let’s wheel and deal. After all, we just need to get 90 feet better.

-apc.