Alex Rios & The Hope for a Bounce-Back

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Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Despite his rough season in 2014, Alex Rios was a player we heard the Royals were interested in around the trade deadline, but instead of paying the remainder of his salary in the hopes of a rebound, the team stood pat and allowed Nori Aoki to play right field every day. That seemed to work out pretty well.

Now, Aoki is gone, and the Royals are looking everywhere for a new right fielder. Once again, Rios’ name has come up in rumors.

Rios is 34 and coming off a down year in which he had a 92 wRC+ for the Rangers, along with just 4 home runs in 521 plate appearances. His dinger power wasn’t the only thing missing, either. Rios’ isolated slugging percentage was .118, his lowest mark in that category since his 2004 rookie season. Considering the Rangers held a $13.5 million option for 2015, Rios picked an awful time to stop being productive.

Along with his offensive struggles, Rios performed poorly in the field, with both DRS and UZR rating him roughly 3 or 4 runs below average. Rios is typically a very good baserunner, but even that part of his game disappeared this year, as he was caught on 8 of his 25 stolen base attempts, and he took the extra base (scoring from 2nd on a single, from 1st on a double, etc.) in only 42% of his opportunities, down from his career rate of 47%. It was just an all-around bad year for Rios.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why the Royals would be showing interest in a player coming off a season with that level of production. That’s a fair question.

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Obviously I’m not involved in the team’s internal discussions, but if I had to guess, I’d say there are a few reasons for being interested in Rios. One of them is likely his cost. Because he wasn’t good in 2014, and he’s getting up there in age, they shouldn’t have to give him a big contract. It’s probable that a one-year deal would do the trick.

Now, just because a player is cheap doesn’t mean signing that player is a good thing. The player still has to be kind of good, or at least useful. If the Royals do go after Rios, it will be because they think he can bounce back from this season. He didn’t go on the disabled list this season, but he did miss the final month due to an ankle injury, and it’s possible that he may have been nursing that for other parts of the year, which might help explain the massive decline in his baserunning and defensive value. That’s just speculation, but in my head it makes sense. If Rios is healthy in 2015, he might be able to get closer to his career numbers.

And those career numbers are not too shabby, especially against left-handed pitching, which is another reason the Royals might be interested. As I mentioned above, Rios had a poor season at the plate, but he actually was still very good against lefties. In 133 plate appearances against southpaws, Rios had a 142 wRC+ and a .220 ISO. That’s a small sample size, but it does show that even when the rest of game was giving him trouble, he still did something well.

Plus, Rios has been solid against lefties for his entire career, and he’s been great against them in the last 3 seasons. Since the start of 2012, he has a 136 wRC+ versus left-handed pitching, which is the 12th-best mark among qualified outfielders in that time. His .221 ISO is better than that of Yoenis Cespedes, and only slightly behind that of Mike Trout. Rios isn’t an elite hitter, but his offensive value increases greatly against lefties.

It just so happens that the Royals desperately need a right-handed hitter, preferably one with some power. Rios fits that mold, though not perfectly. His home run total from this season was very disappointing, but he also hit 30 doubles, and his 42 extra-base hits would’ve been the 4th-highest total on the 2014 Royals. A low bar of success, to be sure, but the point remains: Rios would add some power to their lineup.

I’m sure some may suggest that Rios’ hitter-friendly home ballparks played a big role in his offense recently, but he actually was a better hitter away from home in the last two seasons. Besides, Kauffman Stadium is not the pitcher’s park many think it is. It suppresses home runs, but allows more doubles and triples because of the expansive outfield, which is something that line drive hitters can take advantage of, and as luck would have it, Rios is a line drive hitter.

His career line drive rate is right at 20%, although in the last 3 seasons, it’s been even better, topping out at 23.5% in 2014. This, along with an infield fly ball rate of only 5.9%, allowed Rios to post a BABIP of .335 on the season. That may regress some in 2015, but a player who hits a lot of line drives and fewer fly balls is going to have a higher BABIP, and Rios’ career mark is .311, which suggests he may not regress that much.

I’ve said this about a lot of players this offseason, but I’m going to keep saying it when it applies: Rios isn’t my first choice for the Royals to go after, but as a buy-low candidate, he could make some sense. He isn’t a perfect player, and he’s not getting any younger, but I do like some of the things he’s capable of doing.

They’d have to make sure he’s fully healthy, and obviously the money would have to be right, but I do think he could still bring some value to a team next season. The Royals may need to save some money while filling at least one of their roster holes, so finding guys on the cheap is going to be crucial. Rios probably isn’t the solution, but he might be part of a solution, and that might be good enough.

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