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American League

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Signed RHP Edinson Volquez to a two-year deal worth $20 million. [12/17]
Signed RHP Kris Medlen to a two-year deal worth $8.5 million with incentives and a mutual third-year option. [12/18]

The Royals are using an acquire-in-bulk method to try to replace James Shields, the leader of the 2014 AL Champion staff. In adding Volquez and Medlen, they add a pair of arms who carry big questions, but for quite different reasons and at quite different costs.

Volquez’s 2014 is the type of season that will divide opinion leaders. The basic numbers look nice and the results were there, but don't necessarily scream repeatable. The good: His walk rate has dropped each of the past four seasons, from an atrocious 13 percent in 2011 to a respectable, but still worse-than-average 9 percent last year. After battling injuries early in career, Volquez has actually become rather reliable (as far as actually taking the mound goes) and has topped 170 innings each of the past three seasons.

Under the tutelage of genius-of-the-moment Ray Searage, Volquez has also evolved his approach to pitching. More curves-and-sinkers these days than four-seamers-and-changeups, he has seen his Ks drop (to 17 percent last year) along with the walks. Ideally, that leads to weaker contact, and along with a reduced line-drive rate he had the lowest BABIP of his career. That’s a strategy that works with Pittsburgh’s strong defense, or at least it did once; Kansas City has the defense, though it also has a spacious ballpark that has plumped up BABIPs over the past decade.

Of course, it's no surprise that a pitcher who depended on a career-best BABIP doesn't find much shine with advanced metrics. Even with a career-best 3.04 ERA and the most innings he’s tossed since his fake rookie season, he managed only 0.4 WARP, with a FRA of 4.57 and FIP of 4.12. If Volquez’s ERA does end up settling in the low fours, it isn’t disastrous, but still worse than average, and $10 million a year for a meh fifth starter is the stuff budget squeezes are made of. The super-early and not-close-to-official PECOTA projections aren’t too bullish on Volquez, predicting a 4.23 ERA in 156 1/3 innings; that's good for the roundest of round WARPs: 0.0.

Clearly the Royals are gambling that the changes he made under Searage are just a sign of things to come. It’s not an awful bet, but a steep one. The gamble on Medlen, on the other hand, is easier to applaud. When healthy, Medlen has been one of the better pitchers in baseball, and the Royals are taking on little risk with the structure of the contract.

It’s easy to remember what Medlen was when his elbow wasn’t barking and he was at his best. He relies on strong command to keep men off base and the ball in the park. In 2012-2013, Medlen delivered a 156 ERA+, 21 percent K-rate, and 5 percent walk rate. The ERA+ was the second best in baseball in that time, the FIP the eighth best. Of course, if a list of eight is short, the list of two-time TJ survivors is even shorter. To expect Medlen to get back to that 2012-2013 level would be too much; if he does make it back, it likely won’t be before June. That's an optimistic return date, and might mean a bullpen role.

What the Royals have essentially done is pay Medlen to rehab under their watch in 2015, and if things work out in their favor they’ve banked an extra year of a healthy and effective Medlen in 2016, at middle-relief wages. Of course, the downside is that he's never healthy again, and those 8.5 million dollars produce nothing more than 60-day transaction logs, but that’s why they call it a risk. —Sahadev Sharma

Fantasy Impact

Edinson Volquez

The down arrow here is almost entirely the product of Volquez moving on from the tutelage of Searage and the pitch-framing of Russell Martin. After consistently underperforming his peripherals throughout his career Volquez flipped the switch in 2014, posting a 3.04 ERA despite a 4.15 FIP. A freefalling line drive rate helped him log a BABIP 35 points below his career rate, and his 60 percent first-pitch strike rate was far and away a career-best mark. The result was a return of $16 in NL-only value to crack the top 30 of Senior Circuit pitchers despite a whiff rate that vanished into thin air.

How the kind of dramatic transformation he underwent last year translates into future projection is anybody’s guess, however. He's thrown four pitches that have all graded out as above-average offerings when it comes to generating whiffs in his career, but all of them backslid last year. He managed to offset the loss of K’s with a corresponding drop in his walk rate and a ton of batted ball help, but that kind of evolution is generally less favorable for predicting future fantasy value.

One of the more interesting changes in his batted ball profile last season involved an enormous drop in his home run rate to right-handed hitters, and that’s a development that will be tested with the move to Kauffman Stadium. Volquez has always been a guy who has struggled with the longball, and he’s historically featured a reverse platoon split in this area. That changed significantly in 2014, as he allowed a significantly smaller ISO on both his four-seamer and curveball to righties en route to cutting his career home run rate almost in half. Part of the credit surely belongs to PNC Park, which suppressed right-handed power more than any other ballpark in 2014. Kauffman plays much closer to neutral, so the challenge of a repeat performance will be all the more daunting.

Ultimately Volquez was set up to be a difficult recommendation for 2015, and the added uncertainty that comes with this move won’t help at all. His production last season was that of a solid SP3 in NL-only leagues, and his draft day value is likely to reflect something close to that. Problem is, he was already facing nasty headwinds driven by the vanishing whiffs and outlying home run and general batted ball rates. Now the move into a slightly less friendly park and battery context makes the odds that Volquez returns equivalent value to his draft position that much longer.

Kris Medlen

Not a ton changes for Medlen’s value with this deal, outside of the ramifications for AL- and NL-only leagues. As Sahadev notes above, there’s precious little context for projecting two-time Tommy Johners, and once he’s finally done rehabbing a couple months into the season, Medlen will likely find himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot in Kansas City just as he would have in Atlanta before he was designated. His elite command and sneaky ability to miss an above-average amount of bats made him a highly valuable pitcher in 2012-2013, so even accounting for the massive uncertainty, he probably deserves end-game consideration as a $1 injury investment on draft day. If nothing else he’ll likely offer the potential to return marginal surplus value as someone to flip for low-grade reinforcements once his activation is imminent. —Wilson Karaman

SEATTLE MARINERS
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Acquired OF-R Justin Ruggiano from Chicago Cubs in exchange for RHP Matt Brazis. [12/18]

Ruggiano was someone the Cubs identified last offseason as a potential bounce-back candidate. In 2012, he slashed .313/.374/.535 in 320 plate appearances, then plummeted to .222/.298/.396 the next season with increased playing time (472 PAs). Ruggiano delivered on some of that recovery promise—his 111 OPS+ perfectly split the difference, actually—but every time he seemed to be hitting a groove, he was slowed by injury; first a thigh, then an ankle injury that required surgery and ended his season prematurely.

The Mariners have made it clear that they’re on the lookout for help in the outfield, and while Ruggiano likely doesn’t end that search, he's a body. He isn’t a plus defender by any means, but he's versatile enough to play all three positions. While he’s never really been a part of a straight platoon in his career, he does provide pop against lefties, slugging .508 against southpaws in his career. While he might not need to sit against every righty the Mariners face, Seattle will want to maximize his value without overextending him against the difficult same-side matchups he might face along the way. —Sahadev Sharma

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