The Royals replaced Billy Butler with an older, Cuban version of the same model. The thinking is simple, and straightforward, though it comes mixed with perhaps a tinge of regret.
By signing Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million contract that includes up to $1.5 million in incentives, the Royals are betting that his horrendous 2014 season is an anomaly — perhaps fueled by sitting out the first two months after a failed reading of the free-agent market.
If they are correct, they have just signed a highly motivated, switch-hitting slugger who in each of his last three full seasons hit more home runs than any Royal did last season. If they are right here — and it’s worth pointing out that general manager Dayton Moore has a good track record betting on talented players coming off bad years — then they have their best power hitter in more than a decade.
If they are right, Morales is a significant upgrade from what Billy Butler gave them last year at the same salary, and, for whatever it’s worth, on a shorter and cheaper contract than Butler got in free agency from the A’s.
But if the Royals are wrong, and Morales’ 2014 struggles — .218 with eight home runs in 401 plate appearances — have more to do with him turning 31 than anything else, they are wasting a lot of money for an older and inferior designated hitter.
What’s particularly interesting is that even if they’re right, the Royals are going against a long-held desire to move away from the full-time DH model. (Though Morales, particularly if the Royals had these conversations with him already, will likely be less pouty than Butler when not in the lineup.)
Think of this as a rough plan: Morales is the DH 130 games next year and plays first base in 10 to 20 others. Taking away 10 games without the DH in National League parks, that gives the Royals 22 games to “rest” Salvador Perez or Alex Gordon without sacrificing their bats in the lineup.
Aside from whatever production you’d expect, that’s a more comfortable setup than the Royals would’ve faced with Butler, who has never been shy about his disappointment when left out of a lineup.
Production is the most important thing, obviously, and it’s interesting how similar the past and future Royals DHs are.
Both men peaked in 2009. That’s the year Butler hit .301 with 51 doubles and 21 homers. Morales hit .306, with 43 doubles, 34 homers and 108 RBIs. He finished fifth in MVP voting.
Both men remained dangerous hitters from 2010 to 2013. Morales has more home-run power (25 home runs per 162 games, compared with 18 for Butler). Butler’s production has been a little better overall, and Morales missed the equivalent of almost a full season because of a broken leg suffered celebrating a walk-off home run in 2010.
Both men experienced severe drop-offs last year. Scouts and some within the Royals organization thought Butler expanded his strike zone and for the first time in his career tried to hit home runs, either because the Royals were finally in a position to win or he was playing an effective contract year, or both. Morales did not play until June 9 after not being satisfied with his offers in free agency.
It should be noted that Butler’s bad year — .271 with nine home runs and 66 RBIs, all career lows — was much better than Morales’ bad year.
The way this all played out for the Royals means that Butler and Morales are now in a bit of a metaphorical arm-wrestling match. Fans will undoubtedly keep an eye on how Butler does for the A’s, comparing his production to Morales’ in the same way many tracked Wil Myers after the James Shields trade.
If the Royals had known this is how the market would shake out, they probably would have picked up a $12 million option for Butler in 2015 instead of paying him a $1 million buyout. Two years and $17 million for Morales is roughly what many thought Butler would get in free agency.
Moore has hit on these short-term, make-good situations before, perhaps most notably with Melky Cabrera in 2011 and Ervin Santana in 2013.
The Royals forced their own hand in this one, letting Butler walk in what now looks like an initial misread of the market. They have a new full-time DH after years of saying they didn’t want a full-time DH.
Replacing Butler with Morales is neither an enormous mistake nor cause for celebration. But an offseason in which the Royals have clear holes to fill — and a mandate to be better on opening day in 2015 than they were on opening day in 2014 — is moving along at a brisk pace.
The Royals, for the first time in decades, are operating from a position of strength. They have a terrific and young nucleus that enjoys being around each other, fits Kauffman Stadium like a tailor-made suit, and now carries both the confidence and hunger that comes with losing game seven of the World Series by 90 feet. American League teams are chasing the Royals now, not the other way around.
Thing is, it won’t last like that if the offseason ends without the Royals making the kind of move that’s cause for a celebration.
A few hours after the Morales news broke, the Twins and Santana agreed to a contract. That’s one fewer chance for the Royals to celebrate.