Royals Bet on Alex Rios’ Health

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Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

They say there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract. The Royals hope that cliche proves to be true in 2015, as they have reportedly agreed to sign Alex Rios to a one-year, $11 million deal.

Rios is 33 and coming off a down season in which he had a 92 wRC+ and hit only 4 home runs for the Rangers. Injuries also led to poor showings in the field and on the basepaths. I wrote about Rios a little while ago, mentioning that he could be a nice buy-low candidate with some upside, if he’s back to being fully healthy.

I wasn’t planning on this buy-low candidate getting an eight-figure guarantee, but that’s the market we’re in right now. The Dodgers just gave Brett Anderson $10 million, and he’s thrown 88 innings since the start of 2013. Justin Masterson was simply awful in 2014 (and 2012) and he’s getting $9.5 million next year. Nick Markakis will undergo neck surgery soon, and he just received $44 million from the Braves. The list goes on and on.

There’s a lot of money being thrown around baseball today, so perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising to see a guy with a fairly good track record get  this kind of contract.

After all, even in Rios’ down year, he still was very good against left-handed pitching, with a 142 wRC+. He’s got quite a bit of value as the short side of a platoon, so the Royals likely see that would as his floor in 2015. Jarrod Dyson has been slightly better against righties than Rios has been in the last couple of years, meaning the Royals could use a platoon to get the most value from each player. That is, of course, if they think Dyson can handle playing so often.

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I think the Royals are skeptical of that, and even though I’m a big Dyson fan, I’m also somewhat skeptical of that. We’ll have to see what the organization says when they announce the deal, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they have Rios in right field almost every day. With the exception of his injury-riddled 2014, he’s been perfectly adequate in the field, so they can live with his defense for the most part – again, as long as he’s healthy. If he looks like he can’t cut it out there, they can use Dyson as a defensive replacement.

Dyson should still get his time in the field, giving some rest to both Rios and Lorenzo Cain. But I’m guessing Rios is the primary guy, and if he’s healthy (I realize I’m repeating myself, but it’s kind of important) that’s probably not a bad thing. Rios was an above average hitter, a terrific baserunner (42 stolen bases in 49 tries), and a scratch fielder just a year ago. He’s not getting any younger, but we also shouldn’t expect a player with Rios’ pedigree to fall off a cliff at the age of 33.

He’s been remarkably durable throughout his career, so a return to health wouldn’t be shocking. The only seasons in which Rios has played fewer than 145 games since his rookie year were 2006 (128 games) and 2013 (131 games). I’m not going to pretend like I’m familiar with his medical records, but the Royals value durability, and they’re clearly of the mind that Rios can stay on the field and help the club in 2015.

There is some potential downside to this deal, of course. Rios shares the “swing a lot and put the ball in play” approach with many other Royals, meaning he’s at the mercy of the BABIP Fairy quite often. He’s a line drive hitter with above average BABIPs for much of his career, but that doesn’t mean he’s immune to a few bad breaks. And while all hitters could see some bad luck, Rios doesn’t have great on-base skills or power to help make up for a low batting average. He needs to consistently make solid contact to produce any kind of offense.

There’s also the age factor. Rios will be 34 in 2015, and he has declined each of the last two seasons, so maybe Father Time is simply catching up to him. I’m not convinced his performance drop last year is solely aging-related, however. A player’s baserunning and defensive play shouldn’t crater like that with a single year of aging. So once again, this comes back to health.

It seems like one of the worst case scenarios here (beyond Rios being injured and/or bad at baseball) is that the Royals will be paying $11 million for a platoon bat. That’s not ideal, but that’s also not without value. A one-year contract carries little risk, and considering Rios’ history, there’s even room for some upside if he can rediscover some of his power. He hit 18 home runs in 2013 (for what it’s worth, ESPN’s Home Run Tracker says that all but two of them would’ve left Kauffman Stadium), so it’s not crazy to see him getting 12-15 next year. Plus, his line drive ability could easily result in 30 doubles and a handful of triples.

Early projections have him looking slightly worse than that, but you don’t have to squint too hard to see him outperforming last year’s numbers. If the Royals’ excellent training staff can keep him healthy, they could see a big upgrade in right field. Unless you think he’s completely toast, in which case, welp.

Rios is a flawed player in a pool of flawed players, and he’s coming to Kansas City for one season. It’s an $11 million gamble, but that’s the only real cost. They don’t have to surrender a draft pick, and they don’t have to give up any prospects in a trade. The Royals won’t be sacrificing any future success to acquire him, but they do have to hope a healthy Rios brings success to the present.

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