Sticking with the Royals Veteran Outfield

The pieces are starting to fall into place for the Royals. They’ve started unveiling their youth movement this year, bringing up a number of their top prospects. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy lead the charge of high-end prospects who have debuted in 2011, but they’re not the only newcomers from the highly touted farm system. Jeremy Jeffress, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, and others have contributed in 2011. More will follow in September, and we could see a turnaround really start in 2012.

Even though the Royals do have plenty of potential in their young players, they will not fill the entire roster with 23-year-olds. Every team needs some kind of veteran presence. The Royals do have some experienced players on their roster. In fact, their entire outfield is currently composed of players in their late 20s. These three players — Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur — have led the team in almost every offensive category this season, and it could be worth their while to keep a few of them around as their youngsters grow into major leaguers.

Even though they are all just 27 years old, Gordon, Cabrera, and Francoeur have combined for 9.312 plate appearances thanks to early starts to their careers. Cabrera debuted at age 20 and played 130 games at age 21. Francoeur got in 70 games at age 21 and started playing full-time age age 22. Gordon, the most highly touted of the three, debuted the latest, at age 23, but played 151 games that year. Because they all had high expectations due to early debuts, or, in Gordon’s case, high draft slot, they can perhaps relate to the youngsters coming up through the Royals system and help them adapt to the bigs. But that’s not our concern at FanGraphs. What I want to know is whether keeping these three around is the best path for the team not only in terms of those valuable veteran presents (sic), but also in terms of their on-field contributions.

The Royals do have an advantage here, in that only Francoeur reaches free agency after this season. Cabrera will miss the cutoff by a matter of days, while Gordon still has two more years of team control before he can test the market. Francoeur, then, is the first one to examine, since the Royals will have an actual decision to make on his future with the team.

The one major difference with Francoeur this year is in his power numbers. While his walk rate and BABIP line up decently well with prior years, his power remains a standout from the past five years. In 2006, his first full season, he produced a .189 ISO and appeared to be a budding power hitter. But those numbers have dropped off ever since, leaving the poorly disciplined Francoeur with little value. This year in Kansas City, though, he has surged back to that 2006 level, with a .188 ISO. That has been the driving force behind his .342 wOBA, which is to date his career best. At the same time he’s created far more runs above average than any year of his career. In fact, it is only the third season of his career, counting his half season in 2005, in which he has produced runs above average, rather than below.

When a player builds up a disappointing resume in the manner Francoeur has, it’s tough to justify making a commitment to him. Players have fluke years all the time, and it’s tough to think that Francoeur has turned the corner after years of the same old performances. Even this year he has stood out against lefties, producing 9.4 runs above average against them while falling 0.6 runs below average against righties. Such platoon splits make a long-term contract that much tougher to justify. The Royals clearly like Francoeur, but even they’d have a tough time giving him a substantial three-year deal. If he’ll accept sitting against righties frequently, perhaps the two sides can agree on something like $10 million over two years. Anything more would be out of line with his projectable value.

Cabrera, too, has turned around seasons of same old, same old production and has surged in 2011. As with Francoeur, this is only Cabrera’s third season producing runs above average, and also like Francoeur he has obliterated his previous highs. At age 27 it’s conceivable that he’s turning things around. He does, after all, have a higher ISO right now, .167, than during any other season of his career. He also has a higher BABIP — almost 40 points higher than his career average. Again, in the same way as Francoeur this performance makes it tough to justify any kind of long term deal. Thankfully for the Royals, they can simply tender Cabrera a contract for 2012 and see if he can repeat his performance. He makes just $1.25 million this year, so even with a liberal raise he still won’t bust anyone’s payroll.

Gordon’s case might be the most interesting, if for no other reason than his career arc. He was highly touted as the No. 2 overall pick in 2005, and he appeared to be on his way to stardom in 2008. But then injuries kept him off the field and sapped his abilities, leaving him with just 470 PA and a .222/.319/.365 line in 2009 and 2010. This year, however, he has broken out in a big way, producing a 23.3 runs above average, by far the most of his career. By almost every measure he is the Royals best player. And now we have word that he will seek an extension this winter.

Given Gordon’s potential and his performance this season, it might seem tempting to get him under contract for a few more years. It might cost the Royals a bit, since any extension would undoubtedly include a few free agent years. But it could be worth the price. Not only would the Royals get his on-field production, but they’d have a role model for their younger players. Who better to help bring along young players with high expectations than someone who had similar expectations and initially failed? It sounds like the perfect production and makeup combination to mentor a young team.

At the same time, Gordon’s numbers could be a BABIP illusion. As with Francoeur and Cabrera he has increased his power production, so there is a chance that he’s simply a different player and therefore has different BABIP expectations. But a .356 BABIP might fall outside an acceptable range. After all, only 200 players since 1950 have had even one season with a BABIP of .350 or better, and only 74 have done it twice. If you look at the ones who repeated it more than two times, you get a litany of superstars and Hall of Famers. The top 5: Rod Carew (10 times), Derek Jeter (9), Wade Boggs (7), Manny Ramirez (6), and Larry Walker (6).

Again, the Royals have the advantage here, in that they don’t have to do anything with Gordon this off-season beyond offering him arbitration. He’ll get a substantial raise over the $1.4 million he earns this season, but again it likely won’t be a budget buster. They can then reassess during 2012 and see if he’s really worth an extension — a free agent style extension, since he’ll have only one remaining year of team control. But that could be worth the additional cost to the Royals; it’s better to take the time to evaluate the player and pay more later, than to pay him now and have dead weight on the payroll.

Taking a look at the Royals top 30 prospects, their major deficiency is easily noticeable. While pitching, and particularly left-handed pitching, appears in abundance, outfielders appear scare. Yet the Royals do have three young players, all of whom have significant major league experience, currently roaming the outfield. They’re all having career seasons, too, and perhaps could help them ease into their youth movement. But at the time there appears little reason for them to make any long-term commitments. They have time with both Cabrera and Gordon, and the chance to retain Francoeur will likely present itself.

Perhaps the Royals do have a rare phenomenon on their hands, in that three players with high expectations have finally broken out in their late 20s. But it’s just as likely that they’re experiencing three flukes. The answer, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. The Royals will certainly be better off holding onto at least two of those three, though signing long-term extensions need not be part of the plan. They have time with both Gordon and Cabrera, and they’d be best served by waiting and ensuring that they can, in fact, add a strong veteran presence to the coming youth movement.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

29 Responses to “Sticking with the Royals Veteran Outfield”

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  1. Daniel says:

    It’s definitely fun to be a Royals fan right now… I’m just crossing my fingers that the overwhelming amount of talent and potential in the system starts translating into wins in the near future.

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  2. baty says:

    I wonder what kind of a play they might make within the free agent market. I would wait another year, but a surprise singing would be nice and beneficial.

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  3. hawkinscm says:

    Just so everyone is aware–Gordon’s BABIP, while a likely candidate for regression, has also been accompanied by a revamped hitting approach this season. As Royals fans know, he spent most of the offseason working adamantly with Kevin Seitzer. His new swing has leveled off a little, basically allowing him to make better contact. While the BABIP may be unsustainable, he still has his plate discipline and power. I’d say you could put him down for 40-45 doubles and 18-20 HR–which is perfectly fine.

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    • Paul says:

      Same story for Frenchy and Melky. Gordon gets a lot of press for the change, but he’d actually made most of those changes last September. Frenchy was still struggling with the changes Seitzer made with him the last week of ST. Melky got into great shape in the offseason. He reminds me so much of Johnny Damon now that he’s filled out and works on his conditioning.

      That has become a scary all-around outfield in the context of their ballpark.

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  4. Mr. wOBAto says:

    GMDM ought to look into resigning Francouer and or Melky, then packaging them to the Rockies, a team with two LH OF(Smith, Gonzalez) and two young LH CF(Wheeler, Blackmon) for Iannetta or Fowler.

    A Smith/Francouer RF Platoon would be pretty nice upgrade for COL, and management seems to be less than in love with the two cost controlled up the middle players with above average defense and BB%.

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    • Oasis says:

      *spit take*

      That’s so stupid on so many levels. O’Dowd might do something like after after a high speed car crash with a severe concussion but nobody is THAT dumb. The clock is ticking on Francoeur and it’s almost midnight.

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    • Sean O'Neill says:

      Why wouldn’t the Rockies just cut out the middle man and sign Francouer themselves? The scenario you laid out makes a little more sense for Melky, though the Royals would clearly have to add a substantial piece or two to go from Melky to either Iannetta or Fowler.

      P.S. Iannetta’s defense is in no way, shape, or form above average. He’s a good hitter for the position, but his defensive abilities leave much to be desired.

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    • Mr. wOBAto says:

      O’Dowd is not a fan of either Fowler or Iannetta he has sent them both to AAA in the last year(Fowler twice) for basically being who they are, elite BB%, K too much and don’t hit for high average. Melky definitely makes more sense but Alex Gordon(especially if he can play an average 3B) makes the most sense.

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      • marlu says:

        There’s no reason for sign-and-trades in baseball. When you sign a free agent, he usually has zero marginal value since you just paid full price for him. The only reason you see this in other sports is because of salary cap rules.

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  5. Oasis says:

    I think the Royals should only keep Gordon. His BABIP isn’t too far afield from his 20% LD%. And it’s close to his career average too. I’d be willing to bet the other two are complete flukes.

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    • Deadpool says:

      There’s some evidence to the contrary. Just looking at Francoeur, the article above fails to mention he’s walking at a 6.4% clip this year compared to a 5.1% clip for his career. It’s bumped his OBP up near average levels. So now he doesn’t have to crush the ball to compensate, he can get by with what power he has.

      The knock on the guy was never his physical attributes, it was his approach. He’s been more patient for almost a year, it’s time to start considering he’s turned a corner.

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      • Paul says:

        Right. I don’t think Frenchy is a fluke, but I also would not sign him long-term because he’s just a guy on a championship team – although his defense is so good that you deal with his problems against righthanders.

        Melky is a different story. I can’t believe if anybody has watched him this year they’d think what he’s doing is fluky. He regularly takes pitchers pitches and just hammers them. I actually think this is his jumping off point. He’s arb eligible and a likely type A FA after next season. Extremely valuable.

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      • saucypony says:

        Be careful about drawing a conclusion like that based on percentages. That 1.3% off his career norms amounts to just 6.5 more walks this season over the course of his 505 PA. Certainly not enough to discount random variation. And actually, if you disregard his his first full season and his abysmal 2009 he’s walking at a rate right in line with the rest of his career.

        It’s pretty clear though looking at the plate discipline stats that he’s changed his approach. He’s taking more strikes than he ever has before, while at the same time seeing far fewer strikes than he has in years past. The major spike it would seem though is the amount of contact he’s making with pitches outside the strike zone. I may’ve done the math wrong here with only a couple minutes to do it on my lunch break, but his new approach seems to have increased the number of pitches he sees per AB by about .25.

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  6. RK says:

    “Every team needs some kind of veteran presence”

    Care to provide any evidence of this? I’ve seen none and will continue to consider that cliche manager/commentator speak until I am shown to the contrary. What exactly do veterans provide that young players can’t? I get that the arguement isn’t quantifyable, but baseball is one of the most individual team sports there is – and having certain people around doesn’t make a given player any better IMO.

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    • baty says:

      I think that statement is specific to the Royals situation. You can’t have a roster that almost entirely relies on the projection of 20-25 year olds. It’s not that they need a veteran presence specifically, but they need presence of stable production/expectation to balance things out.

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      • baty says:

        …which more likely occurs with experience

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      • RK says:

        If anything, I would think the opposite is true of the Royal’s situation. Think of it like a stock market challenge, the winner is the one who buys the riskiest stocks and gets lucks. Buying bonds (if you can call any of those OFs safe or stable) will likely land you in the middle) and that’s if everyone starts with the same amount of money. The Royals have to take more risks than anyone if they intend to seriously contend long term given their competitive disadvantage in terms of money.

        I do understand that predictability is worth something and teams want to pick their spots to take risks, but the “veteran presence” arguement is never framed like that – in this article or elsewhere – it’s always that the team needs some old guys around to tell the young guys how to play better which I believe has little to no meaningfull impact on performance.

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    • fothead says:

      While most on Fangraphs may like to, you cannot ignore the psychological limitations and needs of human beings.

      What a “veteran presence” (of course one who actually can play too) could do for a young team is to provide experience on the life of being a major leaguer. Tolerating failure, being comfortable with the exposure you get, instilling confidence, encouragement are all things a MLB player needs to learn in addition to hitting, catching and throwing.

      Sure there are probably some young players that could provide that, but the likelihood is (especially these days) that a bunch of young 20’s kids have a great deal of personal immaturity. It’s more likely an older 30’s-ish player may have better insight into managing what’s between the ears. These guys serve to keep the younger guys “in line” and could at as an extension of a teams coaching staff.

      Having a workplace filled with guys who generally get along and strive to pick each other up during bad days is very helpful to overall production. This could be a factory, a sales floor, or a baseball team. Players with more experience have more validity than younger players because they have been through more as players and as people. This adds a net value to a team provided said veteran still has usable on-field skills.

      While players perform individually at the plate, no one knows whats going on inside them. I know Ive had jobs where Ive hit the wall, gotten discouraged and had performance suffer as a result. I’ve also had people try and help. Some can, some only makes matters worse. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this to some extent. My point- Sometimes all it takes for a young player to click is to have the right encouragement and support. It’s always easier to do better while mostly content and comfortable.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        What a “veteran presence” (of course one who actually can play too) could do for a young team is to provide experience on the life of being a major leaguer. Tolerating failure, being comfortable with the exposure you get, instilling confidence, encouragement are all things a MLB player needs to learn in addition to hitting, catching and throwing.

        Knowing where to eat in each city, knowing what bars (strip clubs, etc) to avoid, knowing what time you need to leave the hotel to get to the stadium in time, etc.

        Veteran players know a whole lot of stuff, about the game and each city, that young players would benefit from knowing … rather than everyone having to learn the hard way.

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  7. MoreHR's&LesNorman says:

    With limited financial resources, the Royals should pick one of the three (I would vote Gordo) and sign him this off-season.
    If Gordon repeats his production next year, and he’s only one year from free agency, his price increases dramatically. If the Royals think his season is legit, it’s a worthwhile risk to commit to him now.
    I think the “wait and see” approach would be correct for a team with more resources, but if the Royals wait and see his price tag go up, it’s just less money they have to fill other holes (like that awful rotation).

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  8. Ben says:

    How do you think this will affect Wil Myers’ ETA? I know it was originally predicted to be mid-2012, but with his struggles combined with the Royals’ OF productivity, I wonder if it will hold him down longer.

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    • Daniel says:

      The Royals have the “luxury” of being patient with guys like Myers and Christian Colon now that they’re evaluating their current nucleus at the ML level. I’d say the current odds are 85% that Colon repeats AA and 60% that Myers does the same.

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  9. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    You guys forget that many a very good ballplayer never saw much major league time until they were 27 years old. It is very likely that all three of these players were just brought to the majors to soon and are just now becoming who they are meant to be. If I was the Royals GM, I would try to sign Frenchy to a decent team deal with 3-4 years and give the others a year to prove they are legit. But, an outfield of these three guys could be a playoff teams outfield easily if this year is not a fluke and it seems somewhat likely to me it isn’t. 27 is not old by any measure!

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  10. Paul says:

    Not sure how Lorenzo Cain and Wil Myers get overlooked here. Cain in particular gives them the luxury of letting Frenchy take his option or just letting him walk. Not only is Cain just as good, he’s more athletic and he has a cannon for an arm. They can just plug him in and let Melky increase his value staying in CF on a dirt cheap salary out of his last arb year. The Royals would be absolute, damn fools to even entertain the notion of long term deals for Frenchy and Melky. In 2013 the OF is Gordon-Cain-Myers.

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  11. test says:

    I know they have a bright future, but if my team had an entire OF having career seasons, I would hope they could do better than last place in a bad division. That young pitching better arrive, and soon, if they are going to start contending.

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  12. Thoam says:

    Here’s your comment on Francoeur I want to remind you of and to state how inaccurate your perspective is. Boggers are simply people with opinions and no real link into the executive management suites of sports. Lets see you take your blogging game to a higher level. Thoam

    The Royals clearly like Francoeur, but even they’d have a tough time giving him a substantial three-year deal. If he’ll accept sitting against righties frequently, perhaps the two sides can agree on something like $10 million over two years. Anything more would be out of line with his projectable value.

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