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December 27, 2005
Double Word Score -- If you recall our last episode of As Kaufman Stadium Turns, the Royals reportedly had $20 or so million to spend on players this off-season, with an underwhelming hit list of players to bring aboard.
Now, some $15 million later, we have a better picture of what's going on. It started with the acquisition of Mark Redman from the Pirates, in exchange for Jonah Bayliss. The Royals then went on to sign Elmer Dessens, and grab up Esteban German in exchange for one of their Rule 5 selections. And then came the Friday Free Agent spree, when in one fell swoop Allard Baird brought infielders/copywriter's nightmares Doug Mientkiewicz and Mark Grudzielanek, pitcher Scott Elarton, and catcher Paul Bako aboard, jettisoning reliever Shawn Camp, prospect-turned-suspect Ken Harvey, and corner outfielder Matt Diaz from the 40-man roster.
It's a whole lot of grizzled veteran-ness, none signed past 2007, all of it brought in to raise the short-term prospects of a team that should be building for the future. What does it all mean?
The conventional wisdom is that the new right side of the infield--y'know, the one brought to you by Scrabble--flashes such mad leather that it will have a settling influence on the ballclub, beyond the odd 3-4-3 double play. Behind their solid defensive wall of consonants, the veterans are supposed to increase the confidence of their younger, less reliable partners across the infield, who will then benefit from Minky smoothly scooping their throws in the dirt, and Grudz's sure hands on the pivot. Like a chain reaction, better defense is supposed to beget better pitching. Better pitching is supposed to beget a first division finish.
With apologies to Hemingway, wouldn't it be pretty to think so?
Before you can predict any such sweeping effects, you first have to establish that the Scrabble Brothers are actually superlative defenders. Let's see what the Davenport Translations have to say about Minky at first, and Grudz at second:
Mientkiewicz Grudzielanek Games Rate RAR Games Rate RAR 2001 148 111 25 133 96 16 2002 143 109 20 147 105 27 2003 139 100 9 121 101 19 2004 124 93 0 76 103 12 2005 83 94 0 137 100 21Mientkiewicz's defense, once gold-glove caliber, has been on the decline since 2003, actually preceding the death of his bat in 2004. Nonetheless, Minky's defensive reputation has survived, even though he looks like he might actually be worse in 2006 than the cumulative Royals' defenders were in 2005 (Rate of 95 for a slew of first basemen headed by Matt Stairs and Mark Sweeney). Grudzielanek, on the other hand, is legitimately an above-average defender based on this data, even if it's doubtful that he will be challenging Orlando Hudson for next year's defensive hardware. "Above-average" is nothing to scoff at, since Royals' second basemen were not within shouting distance of average in 2005 (cumulative Rate of 95 on a group headlined by Ruben Gotay).
The two players' bats mirror their defensive performance. As mentioned above, Mientkiewicz cratered from a career-high .290 EqA in 2003. This past season, he posted a below-average .254 EqA, utterly unacceptable for a first baseman. Grudzielanek has an average bat--his offensive value is extremely dependent on batting average, he has little power (career high slugging percentage: .436) and absolutely no patience (45 walks in 2000 was a career high). Now 35 years old, Grudzielanek's speed left the building some time ago. The Royals had best hope these guys' gloves are worth the investment.
Is Average Good Enough? -- Somewhat like the infielders, the starting pitchers the Royals have picked up in the last month are good…compared to what they were replacing. In 2005, Elarton and Redman were very similar players--both posted SNLVAR of 2.7, each had an RA+ of 0.91, they had identical below-league-average strikeout rates (5.10), and each pitched a similar number of starts (31 for Elarton to 30 for Redman) and innings (181.7 to 178.3). You could pretty much call them statistical twins, except for their disparate VORP (11.0 for Redman, 17.6 for Elarton) and their divergent flyball/groundball tendencies--Elarton's 0.90 G/F ratio made him one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in MLB last year, Redman's 2.07 figure puts him firmly in the "groundball" camp.
Now, pitching improvement seems almost inevitable because one of these guys will replace Jose Lima. Lima's 2005 VORP, -30.8, was the fifth-lowest since 1971. It's rare that any pitcher is allowed to start so many games, despite the horrifying results. Going by support-neutral statistics, going from Lima (-1.1 SNLVAR) to the 2005 performance of one of the Redartons would produce a swing of roughly four pitching wins. What's more, if you consider the remaining Redarton as someone who's soaking up the 31 starts the Royals used last season on Kyle Snyder, Brian Anderson, J.P. Howell, Ryan Jensen and Jimmy Gobble, there's an additional three game swing. Seven net wins, before any improvement by Zack Greinke and Denny Bautista, isn't bad.
The question is, will the Redartons keep their 2005 performance level? Last year's long-term PECOTA projections had both pitchers falling off a cliff in 2006--losing more than half their projected value, by VORP, going from 2005 to 2006--despite the fact that neither fellow is terribly old (Elarton will be 30 in February, Redman 32 in January). A collapse by either pitcher could be very ugly, but given the dollars and years involved--each player is making about four million dollars per year, and there's no commitment past the 2007 season--these risks are reasonable.
That's the big theme of these acquisitions, one that reportedly will continue with the signing of outfielder Reggie Sanders. The Royals are on a two-year plan, matching the time remaining on Mike Sweeney's contract, in which they intend to use veteran placeholders to support their youngsters. Like cedar chips in a closet, having a bunch of mildly above-average thirtysomethings around the clubhouse could keep the club from stinking while the Royals await the arrival of prospects like Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Justin Huber, and Chris Lubanski. In 2008, all those players could be in the show, along with $15 million which will come off the payroll in veteran players. In comparison, if the Royals had signed A.J. Burnett to the same five years, $55 million he received from the Toronto Blue Jays, they'd have a good, but not great, pitcher on a bad team now, and probably a 31 year-old innings-eater making $11 million in 2008.
"B" Is For Catcher? -- There are only 14 catchers in major league history with a four-letter last name, beginning with the letter B. The king of this group was International Man of Mystery Moe Berg, who caught 529 games in the 20's and 30's. By adding Bako to a club which already employs John Buck, the Royals have--apparently, for the first time--brought two such catchers together on the same roster. Bako's a cipher, and as a lefthanded-batting backup, liable to steal significant playing time from Buck. That's a mixed blessing--bad in that Buck will lose playing time to an inferior player, but good in that another 19 games at catcher will make Bako the King of the B-Plus-Threes (as we like to call them). Now, if only the Royals could swing a deal for Josh Bard…