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The Royals, George Kottaras, and Cash

Back in March, I wrote about the alleged spring training positional battle story for the Royals’ backup catcher spot between George Kottaras. For all of Kottaras’ defensive liabilities, it was pretty clear he was going to be the choice to be Salvador Perez‘ caddy in 2013 since he had a clearly superior bat to Hayes that overcame his defensive issues. As a left-handed hitter, Kottaras also provided a useful platoon player so that Perez’ off days could be scheduled versus a right-handed starter. Kottaras was a useful bench bat in general. Finally, since the Royals went out of their way to claim Kottaras off of waivers from Oakland, they clearly wanted him around.

Kottaras was indeed the Royals’ primary backup catcher in 2013, but Hayes (or perhaps Francisco Pena) seems to have gotten the last laugh. Kottaras was designated for assignment a few days ago by the Royals, and yesterday was traded to the Cubs for cash. It is essentially a minor transaction, and in itself does not make a huge difference. It might, however, help us raise questions about the Royals’ off-season strategy.

In 2013 there is little need to point out that Kottaras .180 batting average this past season should not be a concern. Most readers understand 126 plate appearances as a backup say very little about a player’s true talent in general, especially when it comes to batting average. Moreover, despite the low batting average (due to a combination of Kottaras’ almost always-low BABIP and a high strikeout rate even for him), his power and walks still allowed him to be a slightly above-average hitter with a 102 wRC+ (.180/.349/.370). Kottaras will be 31 in May, but while the strikeout rates are eye-popping and stabilize relatively quickly, the sample is still pretty small. Kottaras’ Steamer projection will probably change from what it is on the player page once the depth charts update his projected playing time. At this point, he is projected to be a roughly league average hitter again, which is more than good enough for a catcher. A catcher with league average offense and average defense is an above-average player.

If Kottaras had anything like average defensive ability, he would probably be starting somewhere. Kottaras might be decent at blocking pitches, but he is easy to run on and most evidence points to him not being much of a pitch framer. This is confirmed both by different metrics and Kottaras being relegated to part-time duty on all of his previous teams, who clearly did not want his glove out there every game.

Brett Hayes is currently the Royals’ in-house replacement for Kottaras. He is just a year younger than Kottaras, so it is not as if he has a bunch of upside. If Kottaras’s career is pretty much one of a backup catcher, Hayes’ career is the picture of the backup’s backup during his. It is hard to say what Hayes’ defense is like given the paucity of major league playing time. It is probably fair to assume that is better than Kottaras. While Kottaras has a career 98 wRC+ due to walks and some pop, Hayes has a career 67 wRC+, strikes out even more than Kottaras, walks less than half as often, and features less power. Steamer projects Hayes for a 79 wRC+ next season (with the usual caveats about playing time adjustments), but even that might be generous given how much it relies on minor league translations. Hayes might be a better defensive catcher than Kottaras, but he would need to be elite to make up the difference between their bats.

There is no need to belabor the point: Hayes is basically a replacement level catcher. Kottaras, despite his defensive limitations, has enough pop and platoon value to be worth about a win even in part-time play as a catcher, bench bat, and occasional DH. The Royals were willing to pay Kottaras $1 million in 2013, and he was not likely to get much more in 2014. As of this writing, I have not seen any reports on what sort of money Kansas City is getting back from Chicago, but it probably is not much. The Royals are saving some money here, but the question is whether it is worth it.

Some may be tired of dollars to wins calculations, but they are still important and relevant (if difficult to establish). Just measured on that scale, in isolation this looks like a bad decision for the Royals, even if it is minor. Kottaras is no great shakes, but he had a definite role on the team. Hayes is just a placeholder (and if he was really a defensive wizard, he likely would have played in more than 148 games spread over five major league seasons).

Nevertheless, moves like this cannot just be examined in isolation. Yes, the Cubs are still rebuilding, but they also have money. Spending a little over a million dollars is not a big deal for them to get a platoon-appropriate backup for Wellington Castillo. Their end of this is not quite as interesting as the Royals’. The Royals, of course, do not have the money the Cubs have. Unlike the Cubs, though, the Royals are trying to contend, or at least should be given their moves during the last off-season (most notably the James Shields/Wil Myers, or, if you like, the Elliot Johnson/Mike Montgomery trade, also the Jeremy Guthrie contract) and this one so far (the Jason Vargas signing). Whatever one thinks of those various moves for the Royals, they are clearly the moves of a team trying to contend.

Kottaras versus Hayes is not likely to make a big difference. Perhaps the Royals will take the money saved and put it towards a backup catcher better than Kottaras, but that seems unlikely since a catcher substantially better than Kottaras would probably be close to being a starter and would want more money and need more playing time than the Royals could give this hypothetical player.

Just because the Royals could afford Kottaras last year does not mean they can afford him this season. Sure, Ervin Santana is (very likely) gone, but they Royals have a number of players due for raises in arbitration. Some they probably will not bring back, but it is safe to say that, for example, Eric Hosmer and Greg Holland, just two players who made the minimum last year, will be 2014 Royals and will be getting significant raises.

Every little bit saved helps, but it will be worth watching which of the other arbitration-eligible players the Royals keep around, e.g., Luke Hochevar or Emilio Bonifacio. Hochevar looks like he will be a useful reliever, but will he be worth paying $5 million in 2014 if the team cannot afford to pay a decent backup catcher (who might help them almost as much) a bit over $1 million? One can go down the list this way. And if the Royals cannot afford either, the question one might ask is whether they should have been “going for it” at all by taking on salary while trading away cost-controlled players).

Trading away George Kottaras only hurts the Royals a bit on the field if Hayes is his replacement. On the other hand, the money they are saving is just a drop in the bucket. By itself, it is minor move. Perhaps the Royals’ larger plan will make more sense of it. If the Royals do have money to, trading away Kottaras does not make tons of sense. If they do not have much money, then trading him away might make sense, but many of their other, bigger moves this off-season and last seem less justifiable. Kottaras himself is not the issue. The Royals’ willingness to make themselves a bit worse for small amount of money during a period in which they are trying to contend is. It makes watching the Royals’ arbitration moves and other budgetary issues more intriguing than usual as ciphers into their thinking.