The Royals and the tightening free agent market
The Royals' options for that left-handed bat are dwindling.
In sports, we like to talk about “windows.” Normally, the term is applied to teams that get good enough to play for a championship. Their “window for contention.” Following the Royals, you are undoubtedly familiar with this.
Turns out there are windows in the free agent market, as well. And one feels like it’s closing on the Royals.
Movement seemed to pick up at the end of last week and into the weekend. A top—and admittedly lofty—target for the Royals, Michael Brantley re-signed with Houston after his former teammate, George Springer—in no way a target for the Royals—bolted north of the border. Then, Jurickson Profar—a completely realistic target for the Royals—decided to stay in San Diego for three years at an average annual value of $7 million, along with opt-outs in each of the first two seasons.
Profar and Brantley are just two players who fit the coveted “left-handed bat” (although Profar is a switch-hitter) the Royals are seeking this offseason. But they are two who were at the top of a lot of shopping lists. Normally, that wouldn’t be so disappointing. The Royals, after all, are the Royals. Their free agent aspirations are generally limited in scope and grounded in a certain fiscal reality. Yet, disappointment lingers. General manager Dayton Moore has been adamant these last couple of months about adding a left-handed bat to a lineup that leans right. Then, coming off a stretch where the club signed a quality bat in Carlos Santana and added some length in the rotation in Mike Minor, it feels like a bit of a letdown that they have yet to make another move.
The window still remains open. But the options are dwindling.
The top of the left-handed-hitting outfield free agent class (feels like we should have an acronym for this. But it’s probably just as exhausting to write LHBOFFA all the time.) is now one Jackie Bradley Jr., late of the Red Sox. And with that distinction comes great responsibility. At the start of the winter, FanGraphs projected two years and a contract between $18 and $20 million. Major League Trade Rumors had two years and $16 million. Had this been the case, these terms would’ve been right in the Royals’ wheelhouse. Now, they feel extremely low.
Again, take this with a grain of salt because estimating free agent contracts is not one of my strengths, but it seems like Bradley Jr. should be entertaining offers of at least three years and $45 million. As I’ve previously written, the Royals should be able to afford a contract like that; it just doesn’t seem to fit in with their current fiscal plan. The free agents they have signed this winter are for two years and under $10 million AAV. These are affordable deals that don’t handcuff the payroll in the future.
Obviously, Bradley Jr. is a different cat as he turns 31 in April, plays a premium defensive position and plays it well. He generally reaches base at a better than average clip and, in a good year, can bop more than 20 home runs while hitting 30-plus doubles. At this point we wade into familiar Royals free agent territory and speculate that if the market for Bradley is at least three years, the Royals would probably have to go at least four. Would the Royals do that at this point of their, ahem, rebuild?
If Bradley is unobtainable, the next tier would perhaps include Joc Pederson. Pederson really struggles against lefties, so he’s really best deployed in a platoon. I just have to throw this random stat in there: Pederson has hit 130 home runs in his career. Just nine have come against southpaws. Defensively, he’s good enough in either corner outfield position that it’s not a concern.
Maybe it’s doesn’t have to be an outfielder? Tommy La Stella makes plenty of contact, has the ability to post a strong OBP and has infield versatility. We know the Royals seem to be fine with moving Hunter Dozier to third base on a more full-time basis, but the Royals could gain even more versatility with the addition of La Stella who can bounce all around the infield. However, La Stella isn’t a regular, as he’s topped 100 games in a season just once in his career. And the Royals may not want to dip into a free agent market for a utility profile.
If you’re tired of all this flexibility and defensive versatility, maybe you’re interested in Kolten Wong? Wong is strictly a second baseman, so that would cause a whole bunch of dominoes to tumble. For starters, it would shut Nicky Lopez out of any real playing time. It would also push Whit Merrifield to the outfield and severely limit playing time amongst the plethora of players already itching to get on the field. But Wong is an excellent defender, a slightly below-average hitter and would probably be a costly short-term upgrade that could have long-term implications. It’s a name, and an interesting one, but I don’t see the Royals moving in this direction. Even if the financials fit.
How about Eddie Rosario? Perhaps the most affordable of this tier, his offensive fortunes seem tied to the BABIP Gods, but he has been an above-average offensive performer the last four years, with an average wRC+ of 111. He’s good for around 25 dingers and 30 doubles. His splits aren’t as extreme as say, a Pederson, but they do exist. Defensively, he’s a bit of a mixed bag in left having the most difficulty going back on fly balls.
So after Bradley, the next tier of available left-handed bats are not without significant flaws. It’s to be expected as the big names remain out of reach and the ones previously thought attainable find new addresses throughout the league.
But wait! It appears there’s another free agent the Royals are looking at!
Hmmmmm…This, I’m not sure I understand. There’s a reason the Royals are seeking a left-handed bat. Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier all hit from the right with Adalberto Mondesi and Santana the two switch-hitters. Adding another right-handed bat when Edward Olivares is in the picture as well just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
And while Puig can be an electric player, there is considerable baggage, including a civil suit for sexual harassment filed last October in Los Angeles, run-ins with teammates and coaches and just general (at times) questionable play.
I always grimace when I hear someone say that a player with a less than stellar personal history is a bad fit on the Royals because of the value structure that exists within the organization. If anything, it’s an argument for a particular player. No, the Royals don’t want a distraction, but they’ve built a culture that can withstand that and oftentimes they believe they can help an individual. Now whether or not that player can be helped is another matter entirely. In this case though, the on the field fit just doesn’t make sense. Honestly, it’s difficult to see how the Royals were lumped in with the Yankees and the Marlins in this rumor. Overnight, it was reported that the Marlins aren’t on Puig. Really, it’s kind of bizarre the Yankees were mentioned here, too. So let’s just forget this rumor ever happened. Such is the wonder of Twitter.
We are about three weeks out from the opening of spring training camps. As names come off the board, the Royals will have to act with haste if they are to add that left-handed bat—at least one of marginal quality. It feels like time is running short.