Winter Report Card: Kansas City Royals
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013.
Kansas City Royals
2013 results: 86-76 (.531), 3rd place AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Coming into the offseason, the Royals' most obvious weaknesses were rightfield, second base and the rotation spot being vacated by pending free agent Ervin Santana. Kansas City received sub-par production from shortstop, centerfield and third base as well in 2013, but the weak bats of shortstop Alcides Escobar and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain were made playable by the quality of their fielding, and third baseman Mike Moustakas's former prospect status has earned him one more chance before he reaches arbitration next winter. The Royals did receive impressive stretch-run performances from late-season additions Emilio Bonifacio at second base and Justin Maxwell in rightfield, but the team was right not to trust that either would continue those performances in 2014. Even after his strong finish with the Royals, Bonifacio, who turns 29 in April, hit just .243/.295/.331 on the season, and Maxwell, now 30, has established that he can't be counted on to be simultaneously healthy and productive for a full season.
Thus, Kansas City made exactly the moves it needed to make, trading from strength by flipping lefty reliever Will Smith to the Brewers for rightfielder Norichika Aoki and signing free agent second baseman Omar Infante. The former is a good fit for the leadoff spot given his solid on-base percentages and speed on the bases, while the latter was, after $240 million man Robinson Cano, the best second baseman on the market.
Some may see the four-year, $30 million deal the Royals gave the 32-year-old Infante as an overpay, but if ever there was an occasion to do so, it was this. The Royals' .531 winning percentage last year was their best since 1994, and their best in a non-strike year since 1989. Coming off an 86-win season, K.C. can finally see the opportunity to break a 28-year playoff drought and correctly viewed an upgrade at second base as crucial to that goal. Infante ranks 10th among major league second baseman in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement since 2010, he'll be 35 when his contract expires and the total expenditure is just $6 million more than Cano will make in 2014 alone.
I'm less sanguine about the contract the Royals gave to lefty starter Jason Vargas (four-years, $32 million) to replace Santana in the rotation. In his four full seasons as a major league starter, Vargas, who turns 31 in early February, has posted a 96 ERA+ (below league average) while striking out just 5.9 men per nine innings (well below league average). He isn't a groundball pitcher, nor is he a control artist. He's just an innings eater, one who spent two months of the 2013 season on the disabled list after having surgery to remove a blood clot in his pitching shoulder. Still, credit Kansas City for at least addressing the need.
Unfinished business: None
The Royals could have done better than Vargas, but with top prospect Yordano Ventura ready for his big-league closeup and Danny Duffy back from Tommy John surgery, they could wind up replacing Santana from within and pushing Vargas to the back of the rotation. They also now have Maxwell and utility man Bonifacio on the bench along with speedster Jarrod Dyson and third baseman Danny Valencia -- the latter acquired from the Orioles in a trade for 28-year-old sophomore rightfielder David Lough -- providing depth behind Cain, Escobar, and Moustakas.
Preliminary grade: A-The Royals did exactly what they needed to do this offseason. Sure, they could have made a bigger splash. Bringing in a true front-of-the-rotation starter to partner with James Shields in his final year before free agency (and possibly to replace him thereafter) would have put them in a better position for a wild-card run, but there's upside all over this team, and their most glaring holes have been filled.