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.