RC's conclusion: We're pleased
Allard Baird dished out some dollars on Friday.
Well, Friday was certainly an active day for the Royals. Indeed, after a slow start to the offseason that had many fans nervous, the Royals responded with a series of moves that RC believes has made this team better for 2006 without sacrificing their financial ability to compete in 2007 and beyond -- when they add the next stage of the young core to the roster.
In fact, in Friday's press conference, Allard Baird summarized RC's feelings quite nicely when he pointed out that "to this point, we've added two innings starters, we've added some team speed, we've improved our defense, [and] we've increased our depth in the bullpen."
Indeed. Baird has quietly addressed a good deal of the club's concerns without wildly overspending, and he's added some quality veterans who will give prospects like Justin Huber, Donald Murphy, J.P. Howell, and Andres Blanco more time to properly develop in the minors. Anyhow, here's our take on how Friday's signings will impact and help the club.
RC is most impressed by Grudzy's signing. Frankly, we didn't give the Royals much of a chance to lure him to the club, since we figured he'd be one of the more sought-after free agent second basemen available. Grudz signed a one-year guaranteed contract at $4 million with a player option that will kick in at $3 million for 2007 if he attains 500 plate appearances. In short, that essentially makes Grudzielanek's contract a two-year deal, since he'll reach that threshold rather easily, provided he stays healthy.
However, the second year is not troubling whatsoever -- as long as Grudzy doesn't tank in 2006 -- because the $3 million in 2007 is very reasonable and shouldn't be hard to unload if the Royals need some more financial flexibility or determine a young player like Murphy, Blanco, or Jeff Bianchi is ready. Of course, if Grudz has a quality year in which he stays healthy, he'll likely decline that option anyway.
In the meantime, Grudzielanek offers the Royals a quality defensive second baseman who carries a plus bat at the position. He's not exactly smooth on the more difficult plays -- unlike Blanco -- but he has the arm strength to convert most of those difficult plays to outs. And on double plays, few second basemen are better or more fearless. All told, Grudz gives the Royals a nice net upgrade at second base, and the best part of the whole deal is that they didn't have to break the bank to get him.
Mientkiewicz is probably the most fascinating signing from Friday, simply because it creates all sorts of question marks about what, precisely, Matt Stairs' role will be in 2006. It would make a lot more sense if Minky hit from the right side, but since he's a lefty and Stairs has been pretty much banished from the outfield, this signing promises to severely limit Stairs' playing time. We believe Mientkiewicz will probably see the majority of time at first base, thus rendering Mike Sweeney a DH most of the time vs. RHP.
It's no secret that Minky's defense is his calling card. He is a master at digging throws out of the dirt, and the Royals just might see some 3-6-3 double plays this season, which will be a welcome development. In fact, the value of Mientkiewicz's defense will ultimately be hard to quantify, but there is no doubt that his defensive abilities will significantly help Angel Berroa and Mark Teahen, saving them numerous throwing errors over the course of the season.
As for his bat, it's true that Minky's had a tough run over his last 600 plate appearances. However, he's maintained his plate discipline, and his isolated power last year was a career high .167, signaling that his power may actually be improving (of course, last season also could have been a fluke). On his career, Mientkiewicz has hit lefties just as well as righties, so his presence gives the Royals additional flexibility with their lineups. If Minky can hit around .270 this season (roughly his career BA), he should be a net upgrade at first base, particularly if he continues to hit the ball out of the ballpark as often as he did last year. If not, then he only cost the Royals $1.85 million, and Huber will be ready to take over in 2007. It's a good risk, and a good signing.
As far as the contracts from Friday go, Elarton's two-year deal at $8 million makes us the most nervous. Of course, in this market, $4 million for a guy who's averaged 30 starts over the past two seasons with a league average ERA outside the altitude of Colorado is probably pretty reasonable. Perhaps his greatest value to the team is that while he's giving us league average starts, our young pitchers like Howell will get more time to develop in the minors. We're not sure if that is worth $4 million, but hey, it's not RC's money!
As you can see, Elarton is a really big guy, but amazingly this won't be the first team on which he's played that has a player (Andy Sisco) he'll actually have to look up at -- in 1998, he pitched on the same staff as baseball's other 6'-10" lefty, Randy Johnson. Watching him pitch is actually quite entertaining. You'd expect a big guy like Elarton to throw smoke, but he works off a tailing fastball that runs between 88-92 MPH. His other two pitches are a nice tailing changeup, and a big, slow, looping curveball. When they're working, Elarton gets through innings by inducing weak contact, but when they're not, the kids in the outfield stands who brought their gloves to the game get to laugh at their friends who mocked them for doing so. He has a rather unorthodox short-armed throwing motion, but it can be very deceptive to hitters as long as he doesn't leave his pitches up in the strike zone.
We are somewhat indifferent to Elarton's addition to the ballclub. We agree with Baird's desire to add another "innings starter" to the rotation, and spending $4 million a year on a guy who pitched decently the last two seaons on an AL Central team might not be a bad investment. In addition, if Elarton gets off to a nice start, he'll radically increase his value, and he may be a nice candidate for a trade if all goes well.
But if he fails, the Royals are stuck with a pretty bad contract in 2007. However, since the Royals have been so fiscally responsible thus far, they probably won't have much trouble eating $4 million in 2007 if Elarton stinks. It's not an ideal situation, but when you look at it that way, you see the risk of this signing is still quite minimal. Or maybe this is the best way to look at Elarton's signing: he can't possibly be any worse than Jose Lima, and he is therefore an upgrade. That might not be the most ringing endorsement for Elarton that you'll read, but it's still not too bad.
Bako has caught 2,562 innings in the Major Leagues. That's his primary value. RC, like the Royals, would have preferred Todd Pratt, but Pratt backed out of a handshake agreement with the Royals to sign with the Braves after they traded Johnny Estrada. Regardless, backup catcher is pretty much the least significant role on the 25-man roster, so it really doesn't matter what he's done offensively in his career (which is good, because Bako's line of .239/.313/.330 would make a billy goat puke). All that matters is that the Royals believe he can help make John Buck a better catcher, and that's good enough for us.
All told, Friday was a pretty good day for the Royals. It's clear that Baird wanted to upgrade the defense and add some quality veterans to the ballclub, and he did just that, all without breaking the bank. The contracts are all perfectly reasonable, and they'll allow the Royals to continue unimpeded on their youth movement. With some luck, the Royals may have even made a significant stride toward the 20-game improvement RC wants to see next year. We'll keep our fingers crossed, but in the meantime, we're happy.