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Royals’ Flawed Off-Season Continues

Surprisingly, over the last few weeks, Dayton Moore was on quite the hot streak. Within the span of four days, the Kansas City Royals made the Best Free Agent Signing Of The Winter, and gained $12 million after Gil Meche abruptly retired. The run of good fortune ended Thursday, as the Royals signed Pedro Feliz to a minor league contract. While it’s no guarantee that Feliz will make the team, this signing continues some of the head-scratching decisions made by the Royals this off-season.

Feliz enters a battle with Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit at third base. Betemit, who seems to be a perennial breakout candidate every year, provides value with the bat, but he has posted a negative UZR at third base the last five seasons. Aviles’ high contact/low walk approach, meanwhile, leaves him susceptible to BABIP fluctuation. Aviles doesn’t walk much, so a drop in his average would have a huge effect on his value to the Royals. That leaves Feliz, who is coming off his worst season in the majors. Always a strong defender, Feliz posted a -5.8 UZR at third base last season. The low numberĀ could be an aberration, but for a 35-year-old it could signal the end of the road. Feliz’s value is tied up in his defense (he posted a laughable 3.0 BB% last season), so if he’s really lost a step in the field, he might not make this team.

The battle for third base may seem troublesome, but it highlights a trend in the Royals off-season transactions. An astounding amount of the Royals acquisitions this off-season have no idea how to take a walk.

This particular problem began when the Royals comically signed Jeff Francoeur in December. As Matt Klaassen explained at the time, Francoeur was the ideal Dayton Moore acquisition. His connection to the Braves, combined with his career 4.9 BB%, made Francoeur an attractive commodity for Moore. Despite all the criticism Moore received for the move, he continued to employ his “strategy” during the remainder of the off-season.

Both Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, who were acquired in the Zach Greinke trade, fit in with the low-OBP hitters. Cain, who posted nine walks in 158 plate appearances, needed a BABIP of .370 to post a decent on-base percentage last season. That number should regress this season, and how much it regresses will play a major role in how much value he adds to the Royals next season.

Escobar experienced the worst case scenario for a high contact/low walk player last season. Due to poor luck, Escobar’s BABIP plummeted, resulting in both a low average and on-base percentage. Since almost all of Escobar’s offensive value is tied to his average, he had to rely on his strong defense in order to consider his season successful.

The issue with many of these players (Escobar, Cain, and Aviles) is that too much of their value is tied up in their high-contact approach at the plate. When their hits are falling, as Cain experienced last season, their plate discipline issues are easily swept under the rug. Once their luck begins to turn, those issues move to the forefront. The acquisition of Feliz shows that “The Process” is still alive and well in Kansas City. While It’s clear that the Royals have no intention of contending this season, Moore’s acquisitions this off-season don’t necessarily inspire confidence once the farm system is ready to play and the team is close to contention.

Just to highlight the ineptitude of the Royals, I would like the readers to take another look at one of the tables Matt Klaassen posted in his Francoeur article.

“The four worst hitters hitters (by wOBA) among qualified players from 2008-2010.

127. Pedro Feliz, .284 wOBA*
126. Jason Kendall, .288 wOBA*
125. Yuniesky Betancourt, .291 wOBA
124. Jeff Francoeur, .298 wOBA*”
*current Royals player

That farm system had better be as good as advertised.