‘Return of the Moose’? Why a Moustakas Royals reunion may be difficult in 2020

On Friday, the Milwaukee Brewers announced that former Royals and World Series stud Mike Moustakas declined his team option, which officially makes him a free agent this Winter.

And not surprisingly, the Royals fanbase is at odds in terms of whether or not the Royals should make a run at 31-year-old third baseman:

It makes sense that Royals fans would like to see Moose return to Kansas City. Moose is coming off a stellar full season in Milwaukee, as he was traded to the Brewers in the summer of 2018 for outfielder Brett Phillips and pitcher Jorge Lopez. In 584 plate appearances with the Brewers, Moose put up a triple slash of .254/.329/.516 to go along with 35 home runs, a wRC+ of 113, and a WAR of 2.8. The 35 home runs was the second-highest in Moustakas’ career, with his initial Royals season record of 38 in 2017 being the previous high mark.

At 31-years-old, Moustakas isn’t old by any means, but he isn’t young either, which puts the Royals in a peculiar situation. Should the Royals and new owner John Sherman look to sign Moose to some kind of two-to-four year deal in order to build good will with the Royals fanbase after back-to-back 100 loss seasons? Or would it be better for the Royals to pass on Moose, with the idea that he doesn’t necessarily fit the long term plan in Kansas City?

Let’s take a deeper look at what Moustakas would offer the Royals, and why bringing Moose back will be harder than Royals fans think.


Moose is more polished than ever at the plate

The batting average doesn’t look great at .254. However, when one looks deeper into his numbers, it’s amazing to see the kind of seasons Moose had with the Brewers in 2019. His .845 OPS was a career high and his 113 wRC+ was tied for the second-highest mark in his career in that category (he also posted a 113 wRC+ in 2017; his highest wRC+ was in 2015 when he posted a 123 mark).

His Statcast numbers further paint a picture of how polished Moustakas was at the plate with the Brewers. His barrel percentage at 10.3 percent was a career high, and almost two percent higher than a year ago. His hard hit percentage was 40.7 percent, which was his highest mark since 2016, which his season was cut short due to injury. And to add on, Moose didn’t just hit the ball harder, he showed better plate discipline in 2019 after a couple of inconsistent seasons in a row. After posting a walk rate of 8.0 in 2016, that fell to 5.7 in 2017 and 7.7 in 2018. Last year though, his walk rate rose to 9.1 percent and his BB/K ratio also rose from 0.36 in 2017 and 0.48 in 2018 to 0.54.

The bottom line? Moose not only is a more powerful hitting corner infielder than ever before, but he also has developed a batting eye that would be sorely needed on a Royals roster that tends to be “free-swinging,” which is putting it nicely. With guys in like Adalberto Mondesi and even Hunter Dozier to an extent who struggle with “swinging and missing”, Moose would be a welcome addition who could rub off on the Royals’ younger hitters who are still developing their batting eye.


But where does Moose play in the field?

While Moose’s bat would definitely be welcomed in the Royals lineup by new manager Mike Matheny, it’s his glove that would be the issue. Moustakas is a good, not amazing glove at the hot corner. He posted a Def rating of two runs above average a year ago, according to Fangraphs, meaning that he’s better than the typical Four-A third-baseman in the National League. However, he has stagnated a bit the past couple of years (most likely due to him recovering from injury), as he was 4.4 runs below average according to Def in 2017, and only a run above average in 2018. Thus, while Moose is just slightly above average defensively, he tends to get a lot more love from Royals fans thanks to this memorable play at Kauffman Stadium during the ALCS against Baltimore:

Which begs Royals fans to ask the following couple of questions: should Moose bump Doz off the hot corner in KC if signed? And if not, where else would he play?

In terms of the first point, one could justify Moose being a better defensive option than Dozier. Doz posted a Def of 5.7 runs BELOW average in 2019, meaning that he’s a sieve at the hot corner in comparison to Moose. However, Dozier, originally drafted as a shortstop out of college, has struggled to find a position at the big league level, and the stability of playing every day at the same position most likely contributed to his break out campaign a season ago. Furthermore, it’s unlikely Doz will offer much value defensively anywhere else in the field: he’s probably an average first baseman at best, and his outfield work was spotty as well, as evidenced by him being 2 outs below average in the outfield, and sporting a negative-four catch percentage added, according to Statcast.

To be frank, the Royals would be better off keeping Doz at third, have him work there all Spring, and hope that he can continue to make strides at the hot corner much like Alex Gordon did when he moved from third base to the outfield. If the Royals truly consider Doz a part of their long-term plan, they need to give him a position and let him develop there, and Moose coming in and bumping him off the hot corner would only further complicate that process.

In terms of moving Moose to another position, it’s unlikely that he would offer much value anywhere else. Moose did have some experience at second base during his tenure with the Brewers. While he is a better hitter than second-baseman Nicky Lopez, Lopez is a superior glove in the middle infield (6.9 runs above average according to Def). And in addition, Lopez, who had a solid finish to 2019, could be a candidate to break out in 2020, much like Doz in 2019. Considering Lopez’s youth and cost, the Royals would be better served going with the younger, cheaper, and stronger defender in Lopez rather than make Moose the Royals’ second-baseman in 2020.


The Royals do not have a lot of flexibility payroll-wise to sign Moose

The biggest hurdle to signing Moose at this point may be Moustakas’ value. Moose turned down a $10 million option from the Brewers, which means that he is looking for something similar price-wise, but with more years. It would not be surprising to see Moose and his team ask for a deal in the 3-4 year range with the price being $10-12 million per year, which is a perfectly reasonable ask after a solid campaign in 2019.

However, offering Moose that kind of deal may be impossible for the Royals, even with the promise of new ownership this off-season. First off, we know about the Royals’ challenges to sign talent as a small-market club. However, the Royals are already strapped, and the hot stove season has barely begun. As of now, the Royals are already committed to a little over $76 million in payroll, according to Cot’s Contracts. The Royals had an Opening Day payroll of over $96 million a year ago, and it’s likely that new ownership will continue to try to stay under that $100 million mark, especially after attendance declined dramatically in 2019 (they ranked 26th in attendance a year ago). To have roughly around $20 million to play around with doesn’t leave Dayton Moore with a whole lot of options when it comes to free agency.

And that lack of financial flexibility makes a Moose homecoming nearly impossible. The Royals do not need another third baseman. They got Doz. They need a starting pitcher. They need an arm or two in the bullpen. They maybe need a replacement for Gordo if he retires (though he may not, as he did win another Gold Glove award). Unfortunately, for Royals fans looking to get nostalgic and shout “Moose” again at the K, Moustakas is a luxury the Royals simply cannot afford at this time.


Final thoughts about Moose and Kansas City

It would be nice to see Moose come back to the Royals in 2020. It seemed ike Moose fit in well in KC, even though he was a California-raised kid. He didn’t have the high-profile charm of Eric Hosmer or the infectious attitude of Salvador Perez, but Moose had his legion of fans in KC. The fact that Royals fans are even discussing this idea even though it is clear that the Royals are in a rebuild just goes to show how much good will Moose has built in Kansas City. After all…nobody is clamoring for Hosmer to come back from San Diego.

But, the Royals have a third-baseman for 2020 in Doz…and Doz is good. He may not be the defensive player that Moose is now, but Doz has more power and he has more ability to grow both at the plate and in the field as long as he stays healthy. If Moose returns, he is a guy who will be a leader in the clubhouse, sure, but he won’t be the main “guy”. Dozier has a chance to be that “guy”, that guy Royals fans can depend on in the big moments and in the clubhouse, especially after the year he had in 2019. And they can have him a bit longer than Moose as well.

Maybe down the road Moose can return to Kansas City. Maybe we can celebrate him at the 10-year anniversary of the Royals 2015 World Series championship. That would be a great moment, to see the whole gang reunited, with smiles on their faces, and Royals hats on their heads.

However, for 2020, the Royals needs to pass on Moose. He will get paid more elsewhere, and the Royals not only need to trust Doz, but their young talent in general.

Royals fans need to let go of the 2015 core and start empowering the current core that will be taking the field in 2020.

Hopefully, Royals fans can look at Whit, Mondi, Soler and Doz in 2020 and beyond as fondly as Gordo, Moose, Hosmer, and Cain back in 2014-2017.

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