Under the Radar Free Agents – The Infielders

I recently wrote about a couple of under-the-radar free agent pitchers I thought the Royals could look at as low-risk targets for this offseason. While the pitching certainly cannot be ignored, the biggest need for the Royals is to add an impact bat. Or maybe 4 of them. Going by wRC+, the Royals had just 4 hitters who played regularly and produced at an above average level. Dayton Moore will almost assuredly be pursuing several different options to help upgrade the offense. Many people are speculating that he’ll target a new right fielder.

Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

While the offense from right field was incredibly bad in 2013 (only 3 teams had a lower wRC+ from their right fielders), in order for the Royals to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs, they’ll need improved production from several other positions as well. Even though the front office has expectations that this offense will magically bounce back and be better in 2014, I still have my doubts. Sure, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas couldn’t be much worse, but then again, Buddy Bell taught me better than that.

In my opinion, the Royals need to add at least a couple of bats to this team to provide enough quality depth should the current lineup lose track of Moore’s Magic Beans™. Most people already know about the big name free agent bats on the market this winter. And there are a lot of them. Because there are so many options out there to choose from, I do feel that the Royals will be able to sign one of the first or second-tier guys. On the off-chance Moore misses out on all of the main targets, however, I’ve looked into a few players he could turn to as backup plans.

Kevin Youkilis

Youkilis only played in 28 games in 2013 before requiring season-ending back surgery in June. Because of his injury problems in the last few years, Youkilis should come at a very affordable, low-risk cost. If healthy, Youkilis is a guy that can give Moustakas a day off at third base against a tough lefty, or can step into a more regular role should Moose not bounce back. And if Moustakas does perform well enough, Youkilis can serve as a solid pinch hitter for late-inning situations. Last season was the first in his career in which he did not draw a walk in at least 10% of his plate appearances, so a team could feel comfortable sending Youkilis to the plate in high leverage moments. As an added bonus, Youkilis would bring with him all that veteranny goodness that Moore so desperately desires. And can you imagine having TWO “Greek Gods of Walks?”

Jeff Baker

Baker was recently designated for assignment by the Rangers and granted free agency after putting up a .279/.360/.545 line in 175 plate appearances in 2013. If you look up the rest of his statistics, you may wonder why I’m including him in a discussion of infielders. Last season, Baker spent the majority of his time in the outfield, primarily in left field, where he wasn’t very good defensively. However, for his career, Baker has served mostly as a second baseman, with another chunk of time at first and third base, all positions at which he wasn’t very good defensively. Just so I make myself clear here: Baker is not a good defender. He isn’t a guy I would want to see as a regular starter. What Baker does extremely well is hit left-handed pitching. In 123 plate appearances facing lefties in 2013, Baker posted a slash line of .314/.407/.667, which, even when adjusting for park factors, is good for a wRC+ of 186. In his career, Baker has an .875 OPS against lefties, compared to just a .647 OPS against righties. He’s another guy who could give Moustakas a day off against lefties if needed, or supply some right-handed pop off the bench with his .173 career ISO.

Kelly Johnson

When I first started compiling this list, I was under the impression that the Royals were fairly comfortable moving forward with Emilio Bonifacio at second base. While I would understand doing so, I have some doubts about Bonifacio’s offensive capabilities in 2014. Despite putting up a .700 OPS in 179 plate appearances in Kansas City, Bonifacio has only had 1 above average offensive season in his career. I like his patience at the plate, evidenced by a career 8% walk rate, but his defense isn’t anything special, and he’s not going to hit of for a ton of power, so I don’t know if he would provide enough value as a regular starter. All in all, you can do better than Bonifacio, but I thought the Royals were content with him. Then came this tweet from Bob Dutton just yesterday:

A very welcome yet surprising development, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not typically a fan of paying utility players the nearly $3 million Bonifacio is likely to earn, but his speed and versatility would be great to have on the bench, and him getting a couple of starts per week shouldn’t hurt the team much at all. If the Royals do decide to look elsewhere for a second baseman, I think Kelly Johnson would be an excellent fit.

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson is coming off a season in Tampa Bay, where he served as a semi-utility man, playing some left field, third base, second base, and even first base. In 407 plate appearances, Johnson had a .715 OPS, which comes to a wRC+ of 101 after adjusting for park effects.  He doesn’t have great contact skills, meaning he’s not going to win any batting titles. However, Johnson has a career walk rate of 10.5% and a career ISO of .174, meaning he gets on base at a decent clip and has some pop in his bat. Two skills that are not all that common among Royals’ recent second basemen. Beyond the offensive production, Johnson plays defense that rates out at a tick above average and can even steal a few bases.

Johnson made $2.4 million in 2013, so he should certainly come at a reasonable cost. Signing Johnson to a relatively cheap 1 or 2 year deal would allow the Royals to shift Bonifacio to a super utility role and give them a bit more roster flexibility. Johnson can play third base as well and actually has a slight reverse platoon split for his career (.770 OPS vs LHP, .759 OPS vs RHP), so using him against lefties if Moose needs a day off would be yet another option.

Since Robinson Cano won’t sign in Kansas City because we hurt his feelings in 2012, and guys like Jhonny Peralta, Chase Utley, and Omar Infante will likely be out of the Royals’ price range, Johnson fits a need and allows Moore the financial flexibility to pursue other impact bats in order to improve an offense that was among the worst in the league last year.

Topics: Kansas City Royals

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  • jimfetterolf

    Johnson looks interesting. I don’t think Moore looks at anyone with a bad glove. I still think what we’re likely to see is Bonafacio at 2nd with Ciriaco at UIF until Colon is ready, them him taking the UIF slot at minimum. Bonafacio’s ability to take a walk and his speed will work on a daily basis for this year, just as Lough and Maxwell will be good enough in RF.

    Youkalis is an interesting idea, but back surgery? I think we all know guys who have had back surgery and in baseball they work best as coaches.

    • Hunter Samuels

      I wouldn’t be surprised if they stuck with Boni, but Dutton’s tweet caught me off guard a bit. I still don’t think they’re sold on Colon, which is why I could see them looking elsewhere. And yeah, Bonifacio isn’t likely to hurt you on offense as long as other positions step up a bit more like they should. As for Youk, it’s definitely not all that likely, but if his medicals check out, he can be in a Tejada-like leadership role, since Moore loves to have one of those.

      • Michael Engel

        Youk would solve the “we’re stuck with no backup plan if Moose still flops” problem at least. IF he’s healthy, of course.

        If not… welp.

  • NTrovert

    I’d like the Royals to take a long, hard look at Howie Kendrick at 2B. That said, Johnson might be an interesting pickup. He won’t hit for average, but he does still have both some pop and some speed, and is a better than average defender at 2B. And if he can also play 3B, so much the better, as I expect that Moose is either going to have to pull his weight from the get-go or find himself at Omaha.

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