It’s been a fun, hot stove season for Kansas City Royals fans, which hasn’t necessarily been said about the team in a while. Of the current AL Central clubs, only the Chicago White Sox have been as aggressive, as they acquired Lance Lynn in a trade with the Texas Rangers (though I think they may regret trading Dane Dunning), and Adam Eaton from the Washington Nationals through free agency. However, while the Royals have made some major free agent splashes in Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, and Michael A. Taylor (well…Santana and Minor are major at least), it may seem that the Royals may be done when it comes to acquiring “serious” free agent targets, as evidenced from this Tweet below:
While big-name free agent bats such as George Springer and Marcell Ozuna seemed like overly optimistic possibilities in Kansas City, Schwarber and Bradley seemed like realistic options at one point. It is widely known that the Royals have liked Schwarber for a while, as Moore nearly acquired the Cubs power hitter in 2016. As for Bradley, he is a former college teammate of Whit Merrifield, as the two patrolled the outfield together at the University of South Carolina. However, even though John Sherman is looking to upgrade the talent on this team and see them compete in the Central division in 2021, he may not be looking to just frivolously throw money on players, especially ones that may not be long-term options in Kansas City (which may be the case for Schwarber and Bradley).
That being said, that doesn’t mean the Royals are done adding, as they still have two spots to fill on the 40-man roster, and Moore has been outspoken about the Royals’ need to add a left-handed bat to the lineup for 2021, as evidenced by his most recent interview with the press on December 14th:
Left-handed outfielder? Well there are certainly plenty of options available, and Max Rieper of Royals Review did a thorough job of outlining the possibilities for the Royals this Winter. However, which low-cost, short-term options should Royals fans be excited about? And which ones should Royals fans be cautious on? After all, it would be nice if the Royals avoided another Billy Hamilton or Chris Owings situation in 2021 (i.e. disappointing, but low-cost acquisition).
Here are three available free agent outfielders who may satisfy Moore’s criteria in terms of cost and fit (i.e. left-handed outfielders), but should probably be avoided by the Royals this off-season.
Nomar Mazara, Chicago White Sox
Mazara is a tempting free agent target for a couple of reasons: he’s hit 20 homers in a single-season three times in his career, and somehow he is still only 25-years-old. However, Mazara was supposed to be a boost to the White Sox lineup in 2020 after coming over from the Rangers and was anything but, as he posted a wOBA of .267 and wRC+ of 68, both career worsts, according to Fangraphs. While Mazara has demonstrated the ability to hit for home run power, he doesn’t really demonstrate good plate discipline (career 0.34 BB/K ratio), and his defense is atrocious. Over his career, in terms of overall outfield defense, he is 22 runs BELOW average according to DRS, and he also has a career UZR of -0.7. Baseball Savant OAA data rates him slightly better, as he combined for 1 Out ABOVE average in 2019 and 2020 combined, but he was coming off a 8 Out BELOW average season in 2018 with the Rangers.
Mazara can hit the ball hard, for even last year in Chicago, he ranked in the 82nd percentile in barrel rate and 90th percentile in hard hit percentage, according to Baseball Savant Statcast metrics. However, Moore has said that improving outfield defense is a priority this off-season, and Mazara doesn’t fit in that mold. His acquisition would not only put more pressure on Taylor and Cordero/Olivares to make up for Mazara’s inadequacies defensively, but it would also push Nicky Lopez to a utility role off the bench. While Whit isn’t bad, Nicky is a much better defensive option at the keystone position.
That being said, Nicky moving to a utility infielder role is understandable with the right free agent signing. But the Royals would be sacrificing too much defensively by removing Nicky and replacing his spot with Mazara in right. Furthermore, one has to wonder if Mazara has benefited from Texas’ hitter friendly confines, and Mazara’s first year outside of Arlington didn’t give baseball fans a whole lot of hope that his hitting can transition outside of the Rangers organization.
Nick Markakis, Atlanta Braves
I don’t want to sound like the Oakland Athletics head scout in the movie “Moneyball”, but while Markakis is a big name and has been in a lot of big games (like David Justice), I’m not sure if he’ll live up to his reputation if acquired. Markakis originally opted to sit out 2020, but changed his mind after the 2020 season began. The waffling certainly didn’t help Markakis’ line, as he posted a .307 wOBA and 89 wRC+, his lowest metrics in those categories since 2013.
Markakis has had an illustrious career, and Royals fans will know him from his Baltimore Orioles days, as he faced off against the Royals in the 2014 ALCS. Over 15 years at the MLB level, Markakis has a career wOBA and wRC+ of .340 and 109, and has accumulated a 28.8 career WAR, according to Fangraphs. That being said, while his -0.4 WAR during a COVID-affected year may at the surface seem like a blip on Markakis’ career radar, he has actually been regressing for quite a while.
Over his six-year tenure in Atlanta, Markakis only posted a WAR over 2 once, which came in 2018 (2.6 WAR). Additionally, his defense has regressed significantly, especially over the past four seasons, as he has been four runs below replacement level, according to DRS (defensive runs saved), and 9.5 runs below replacement level, according to UZR (ultimate zone rating). Baseball Savant rated him slightly better, as he was one out above average in 2020. However, he was two outs below average in 2019, 3 outs below average in 2017, and 4 outs below average in 2016, according to Baseball Savant Statcast data.
Hence, over a fuller sample, Markakis is pretty much Gordo at the plate, but without Gordo’s defense or arm in the field. I don’t think that’s exactly the kind of replacement Royals fans would want for Gordo in the outfield.
Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers
The problem with Pederson is that he is not a bad option in the Royals outfield, per se. After all, he hit 36 home runs in 2019 and 25 home runs in 2018, and posted a 127 wRC+ and 126 wRC+ in 2019 and 2018, respectively. And considering that he accumulated nearly 6 WAR in 2018 and 2019, combined, Pederson, on paper, could do a lot when it comes to improving this Royals lineup in 2021.
However, there are two main concerns with Pederson’s profile: his regression in 2019, and what he is expected to command financially on the free agent market.
In terms of the first point, Pederson plummeted in a lot of ways, as he posted a .297 wOBA and 88 wRC+, his worst marks since his rookie season in 2014 (which was only 18 games). However, while 2020 was bad, it really is the tip of the iceberg, for Pederson showed some concerning signs in 2018 and 2019, despite putting up some decent production. Over the past three seasons, his BB/K ratio has decreased, as it has fallen from 0.57 in 2017 to 0.47 in 2018, 0.45 in 2019, and 0.32 in 2020, the latter a career low. This regression has mostly been fueled by an uptick in strikeout rate as his K rate has gone up from 19.2 percent in 2018 to 21.6 percent in 2019 to 24.6 percent in 2020. It’s understandable for Pederson to not hit for high average (his career batting average is .230). That being said, those concerning signs in plate discipline should worry Royals fans about a potential Pederson arrival, as his BB/K ratios may be a sign that 2020 wasn’t a complete aberration.
Second, Pederson is projected to command a two-year, $20 million deal this off-season with an AAV of $10 million per year, according to Roster Resource’s Free Agent projections. It’s hard to determine if Pederson would be worth that amount, especially for a club like the Royals who have Khalil Lee and Kyle Isbel waiting in the wings. While Pederson would most likely surpass his 2020 numbers, it doesn’t seem likely he’ll match his 2018 or 2019 metrics either, which makes a $10 million per year deal harder to stomach for a small market club like the Royals who have already handed out similar deals to Minor and Santana this off-season.
On a positive end, Pederson has a proven power upside that makes him a significantly better option at the plate than Mazara (who succeeded in a hitter-friendly park) and Markakis (who just doesn’t have any power anymore). Defensively though, he is a mixed bag, especially when one examines his advanced metrics. Over his career in the outfield, he is 2 runs below replacement level by DRS standards, but 2.2 runs above replacement level by UZR standards, according to Fangraphs. On the other hand, Baseball Savant OAA metrics show him to be a WELL below average outfielder, as he has been 21 outs BELOW average defensively since 2017 (though he is only 15 outs below average as an outfielder, as he was six outs below average at first base in 2019).
Pederson is not necessarily a bad option, but the question is this: would he be worth a $10 million AAV contract over 2-3 seasons for the Royals, which is probably what it would take to ink him? Probably not, especially considering his regression in plate discipline and questionable defensive skills. Granted, Pederson is a big name, and it is understandable why Royals fans would be clamoring for him, as he would bring added name recognition to the lineup with Santana in 2021.
That being said, the Royals could probably get similar overall production (though with less power upside, but more defensive upside) from options like Robbie Grossman, Jurickson Profar, or even Tyler Naquin. And they would all come considerably cheaper as well (like $4-8 million AAV cheaper, honestly).