Coming into this offseason, the Royals front office didn’t seem to think right field was as much of a priority as finding a solid starting pitcher or second baseman. Many fans felt a powerful bat in right field was a bigger need, but most comments from Dayton Moore indicated that was not terribly important. If the team wasn’t able to sign or trade for an outfielder, they could have gone with a platoon of Justin Maxwell and either David Lough or Jarrod Dyson in right field. With Norichika Aoki seemingly placed atop the Royals’ lineup and slotted into right field, what was already a somewhat crowded outfield just got a bit more congested.
As of right now, the Royals plan to start Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center, and Aoki in right. Obviously they’ll want to carry a fourth outfielder, and all three of Maxwell, Lough, and Dyson could fill that role capably. However, all three players are out of options, meaning at least one of them could find themselves with a new organization before next season. Who will the Royals choose?
Maxwell offers a few things the other players don’t. He’s right-handed. He draws walks at a higher rate (10.6 BB% for his career). Even though he doesn’t hit righties as well, Maxwell’s ISO is actually higher against right-handed pitching than it is against lefties (.209 compared to .191), and that kind of power is always a great asset to have on a bench. Maxwell doesn’t have a ton of speed, but he is an above average baserunner. On defense, he had mixed results with the Royals. Maxwell made a few really difficult plays, but he also didn’t seem to have excellent range or instincts, and overall he was 1 run below average in DRS in his time in Kansas City. However, this was the first season in which Maxwell was below average defensively, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he bounces back in 2014.
Lough came up to Kansas City last season after Dyson was injured in May, and he immediately made an impact, posting an OPS of .785 in May and .816 in June. The next two months weren’t quite as kind to Lough. After a .281/.290/.404 line in July, Lough hit just .246/.286/.277 in August. He did have a nice September, putting up an OPS of .801, though in just 45 plate appearances. Lough did well for what the Royals asked of him. He played very solid defense and ran the bases well, accumulating 2.4 fWAR along the way, although I have some doubts about Lough duplicating his offensive performance from 2013, especially if he doesn’t improve his plate discipline. Lough walked in just 3% of his plate appearances, and while his contact skills are above average, he doesn’t have enough power to make up for a lack of on-base ability. While Lough isn’t terrible at anything, he’s also not elite at anything, which makes for a perfectly adequate fourth outfielder.
I’ve been a big fan of Dyson since I first saw him play in Omaha in 2010. His speed is so incredible to watch, especially in person. On defense, Dyson doesn’t make great reads – although he has improved in the last couple of years – but his speed helps mask a lot of mistakes he might make, and overall he’s a terrific centerfielder. He has a strong arm to go along with excellent range, so covering all that ground at the K isn’t much of a problem. Offensively, Dyson is about what you would expect from a 5’9”, 160 pound baseball player. He hits the ball on the ground a lot, doesn’t have a ton of power, but can take an extra base here and there because of his speed. Despite only posting a wRC+ of 90 in 2013, Dyson’s offensive value overall was positive because of what he brings to the basepaths. In the last 2 seasons, Dyson has appeared in 189 games, stolen 64 bases, and has only been caught 11 times. He’s been worth 14.7 baserunning runs above average in what amounts to just over a full season of games. Here’s a comprehensive list of players in all of baseball worth more runs on the basepaths in the last two seasons: Alcides Escobar, Jacoby Ellsbury, Rajai Davis, and Mike Trout. That’s it. And among those four players, only Ellsbury accumulated that value in less than 250 games. It’s fair to say that Dyson is one of the very best baserunners in the game, and he’s an incredibly valuable asset to have on a team’s bench.
So which direction will the Royals go?
Dyson’s elite speed and defense are too valuable to not have on the bench, so unless someone offers enough in a trade, he seems like a strong candidate to be in Kansas City. However, keeping Dyson doesn’t necessarily mean that Maxwell and Lough are both out. The team could choose to carry 5 outfielders, using Dyson more as a pinch runner. It would be easier to do if any of the three candidates could also play on the infield, but I’m guessing that’s not a realistic option. Regardless, if the Royals do go with 5 outfielders, I would want to keep Maxwell’s bat around as some right-handed pop for late-inning situations. He and Dyson can each give Cain a day or two off each week to keep legs fresh, with Aoki moving to center on days Maxwell starts. Unfortunately, this would leave Lough on the outside looking in, meaning he would need to be traded or designated for assignment. I like Lough and what he brought to the club last season, but there are just other, better options ahead of him right now.
Of course, this is all based on the current roster construction, and with the way this offseason has gone, who knows what might happen at the Winter Meetings next week that could make everything you just read completely moot. With my recent track record, that seems like a probable scenario.