They lost three of their top four bats. They have a pair of bloated contracts on the books for at least two more years. Their once vaunted bullpen carries more questions than answers. In baseball 2018, this is justification for a rebuild. Or, if you prefer a cruder word, a tank.
Bless Dayton Moore’s baseball heart, he can’t bear to do it. He just can’t bring himself to field a team that’s completely uncompetitive. (Hold that thought.) Here it is March and Moore is shopping in the bargain bin and uncovering a couple of useful parts.
Last week it was Lucas Duda. Monday it was Jon Jay. Both players fill needs for the Royals to field a
competitive complete team. Neither is blocking anyone more deserving of playing time.
Let’s take a moment to step back and look at the roster. Yes, Hunter Dozier stands to lose time with Duda at first base. However, it doesn’t exactly make sense to anoint Dozier the starting first baseman at this point in his prospect journey. For starters, he played just 33 games last summer, losing time to a pair of injuries. Then there’s the fact he’s played just 99 innings at first base in his entire professional career. Granted, first base isn’t the most challenging position to play on the diamond, but there are certain nuances that need to be learned. The Royals, by their own conservative nature, have never relished throwing a prospect into a new situation in the majors. First base may well be Dozier’s position in the future. He can get some reps there in Triple-A, and if he’s ready, he will be in Kansas City soon enough. Duda isn’t in his way.
Jay, about to turn 33 in a couple of weeks, is at a different point in his career. His outfield versatility, and his left-handed bat, gives the Royals flexibility they crave. He steps in front of Paulo Orlando in the outfield depth chart and is an immediate upgrade. No, he doesn’t move the needle all that much. PECOTA projects Jay to hit .269/.345/.366 with a .246 TAv. With a 6.9 percent career walk rate, there’s some skepticism as to whether he can hit that mark in OBP. Add it all up and the system values him at 0.6 WARP. Orlando, on the other hand, projects to .259/.291/.374 and a -0.9 WARP.
Orlando isn’t a good option for anything beyond fourth outfielder and that may be a stretch. He still has an option remaining, so his role could be more fifth outfielder and I-29 shuttle driver. Of course this move means Bubba Starling probably isn’t breaking camp with the big league club. That was a tall task no matter how fully committed the franchise is to tanking. In 127 games at Triple-A, Starling has hit ..223/.270/.338. He showed improvement toward the end of his season last year, but missed time with an oblique issue. That same problem flared up again this week.
Here’s where things get fun with Jay. He owns a career .344 BABIP. He’s dependent upon batting average on balls in play to boost his on base percentage, and that’s fine because he’s consistently well above .300. That should make for some fun times this summer.
Defensively, Jay can probably play center, but that doesn’t mean he should. He’s posted a positive FRAA in just two of his eight big league seasons. Plus, he’s lost a step or two over the years and is on the low end of Baseball Savant’s sprint speed spectrum for center fielders.
FRAA can be harsh. Let’s call Jay an average to slightly below average outfielder. His shortcomings could be exposed in the acreage of Kauffman Stadium.
By now, you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s the point?” Believe me, I’m right there with you. Why aren’t the Royals and their front office fully committing to what looks to be a long road to respectability? What’s the difference between 65 wins and 70? (And that is certainly overestimating the impact of the Jay-Duda duo.)
It will be interesting to see how the Royals fill out the lineup card once the season starts. One thing we can say with certainty is this is the end of the Whit Merrifield and/or Adalberto Mondesi talk of playing center field. The possibility remains we will still see plenty of Dozier and perhaps even some Starling in Kansas City. Yost has stated he wants to get Jorge Bonifacio, Jorge Soler and Cheslor Cuthbert 500 plate appearances. The Royals have to figure out how to fit time for Dozier, Starling and Adalberto Mondesi if any one (or all) of the three pushes their case for a call-up from Triple-A. Besides, it’s not like the 25-man roster when the club breaks camp at the end of the month is set in stone. There will be injuries, underperformance and general roster churn. It would be surprising if all three of Duda, Jay and Escobar are with the team at the end of the year.
(Quick aside: Alcides Escobar. Why?)
(Another quick aside: Their handling of Mondesi remains completely puzzling. Fast tracked a year ago, he’s sliding further and further down the organizational chart.)
With compensatory selections for the loss of Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain, the upcoming draft is the most important event on the calendar for the franchise this summer. They will still pick high again in 2019, tanking or no, but make no mistake, the future of the franchise swings on how well they do drafting and developing their next draft class.
Jay will earn $3 million, so his impact on the payroll is minimal. Both he and Duda (and please, oh please, Escobar) will likely be dangled as trade bait at the deadline, but neither will bring back much. That’s kind of beside the point. The benefit from moving either would be to insert someone like a Dozier or Mondesi, or even a long shot like Starling into the lineup.
The rebuild is still happening. It’s still on track. Jay and Duda give the Royals some more palatable options in positions where nothing particularly relevant existed in the first place. Now we have to hope the guys in the minors push and give the Royals reason to move them along.