What’s better than three relievers with lights-out stuff? Five relievers with lights-out stuff. The Royals' bullpen now boasts such a quintet, thanks to two fire-balling, formerly injured free agents—Luke Hochevar, recovered from last spring’s Tommy John surgery, and Ryan Madson, finally healthy after his own procedure back in 2011—who compliment last year’s dominating late-innings threesome of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The bullpen’s ERA is currently 1.58, which is not only twice as good as last season’s, and not only more than half a run better than the second-ranked Cardinals, but also on pace to beat the all-time record of 1.63 set by the 1919 Chicago Cubs.
Any off-season that produced a result like that—over a sample size, of six weeks and 131 innings, that is small but not that small—would have to be considered a successful one. But the additions of Hochevar and Madson represented only a portion of a winter during which the defending American League champions received, at best, mixed reviews. The plaudits went to other clubs, like the Padres, Red Sox and White Sox, who opened their checkbooks and grabbed headlines.
Each of those teams, though, currently hovers within one game of .500, while the Royals have raced out to a 25–14 start and have the majors’ best run differential at +58. It is not too early to contend that the once-maligned off-season overseen by general manager Dayton Moore—one in which he lost both his ace, James Shields, and his regular cleanup hitter, Billy Butler—was actually baseball’s best. What's more, it might serve as a model for long moribund clubs of limited financial resources who have done the hard work of rebuilding themselves into contention, and are faced with the more nuanced task of staying there.
Late last October, when I tracked down Shields in a clubhouse that was as quiet as you would expect for a team that had just lost Game 7 of the World Series, the soon-to-be free agent knew that his time in Kansas City was over, even if he couldn’t quite admit it. “The talent in this clubhouse is through the roof,” he said then. “The pitching’s there, the bullpen’s there and our offense is there. The sky’s the limit for this team. And the main thing is, these guys gained a lot of experience. You can’t teach that. I think they understand how to get to the promised land now.”
That concept informed the foundational philosophy of Moore’s winter, as it had his widely criticized inaction at last July’s trade deadline: His front office believed in the talent of the young nucleus it had assembled and developed, and that it would only continue to improve. It has. Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez are all hitting better than last year, by both batting average and OPS. In particular, Hosmer and Moustakas—who are 25 and 26, respectively—seem to have found the stardom that was once predicted for them when they were top-10 prospects four years ago. Hosmer, a .270 hitter a year ago with substandard power for a first baseman, is batting .322 and already has nearly as many homers (seven) and half as many RBIs (29) as the nine and 58 he produced in '14. Moustakas’s improvement has been even more pronounced, as he’s raised his batting average by nearly 120 points, from .212 to .331, and his OPS by more than 250, from .632 to .884.
If Moore’s strategy was predicated on a continued belief in the players he retained, a corollary was a resistance to panicking about those he lost. Shields did depart Kansas City, signing a four-year, $75 million pact with the Padres in February. That came three months after Butler left for three years and $30 million from the Athletics. Instead of rashly attempting to replace those two cornerstones with a pair of marginally more affordable facsimiles, Moore took the $70 million or so he had to spend and spread it around.
Each of the nine free agents Moore signed this winter had a few things in common. They had experienced success in the past, but each had some readily identifiable knock against him, which meant that each was available to the Royals on a contract of two years or fewer. Therefore, Moore couldn’t possibly cripple a club with a middling payroll of around $113 million if things didn’t work out. In other words, Moore bought low, using the high variance tactics that even talented teams with low payrolls must if they want to win.
That is not to say that each of them was cheap, particularly the pair of 31-year-olds who were signed to fill the holes left by Shields and Butler: Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales. The two years and $20 million Moore gave Volquez seemed like a lot for someone who had only two quality seasons on his resume, but not so much if, pitching in front of an superb defense, he could repeat a 2014 in which he went 13–7 with a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates. The two years and $17 million Moore gave to Morales (plus a mutual option for '17 at $11 million) seems like a lot for someone who had batted .218 in '14, with eight homers and 42 RBIs in 98 games during a fractured season which he’d split between the Twins and Mariners. But not so much if he could deliver the .277 average, 23 homers and 80 RBIs he’d produced the year before that.
Both bets have so far paid off: Volquez has been the Royals’ best starter, going 5–3 through eight starts with a 2.74 ERA, and Morales is batting .293 with four homers and a team-leading 30 RBIs. Even better, from a valuation standpoint, has been the quartet of bargain pitching basement additions Moore made that any team could have had, but didn’t. Madson, a former All-Star closer, signed for $850,000 and has a 1.45 ERA. Oft-injured veteran starter Chris Young, whose effectiveness (12–9, 3.65 ERA) for the Mariners last season no one could quite believe, was available for an incentive-laden $675,000 deal and has allowed three earned runs over his first 28 2/3 innings. Reliever Jason Frasor, who cost $1.8 million, has an ERA of 0.73 over 15 appearances. Lefthander Franklin Morales, signed for $1.85 million, transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen and now boasts an ERA of 3.86.
Moore committed around $21 million to those six players for 2015, and after six weeks—according to FanGraphs’ WAR-based valuation—has already received around $20 million in production from them. Six-for-six isn’t a bad start.
Perhaps the best part, though, is that Moore’s off-season has only begun to bear fruit. Though Hochevar—signed for $10 million over two years—is back and throwing 95 miles per hour again, he’s only worked a total of three innings. Alex Rios, who was available on a one-year, $11 million deal after a sprained ankle ruined the second half of his 2014, seemed up to his old five-tool ways again until a fractured hand sidelined him just seven games into the season, at which time was batting .321 with one homer, eight RBIs and two steals. He could be back in the next two weeks. The real wild card is Kris Medlen, who at one time seemed like a genuine ace for the Braves—he went 25–13 with a 2.47 ERA between '12 and '13. Moore signed him to a two-year, $8.5 million deal last December, and he is currently rehabbing from a second Tommy John surgery. He could return by the All-Star break.
It is always tempting to look back at an off-season and to declare the teams that spent the most, that brought in the flashiest names—Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, Shields, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval—as the winners. The real trick, though, is a matter of valuation, of adding players who will significantly outperform the dollars you will pay to them. The early returns suggest that the Royals—by continuing to believe in their core, by not panicking because of their departures and by gambling on the right mix of mid- and low-level free agents—have pulled off this season’s greatest transactional feat: Make a high-performing, small market club even better.