Jason Vargas and Norichika Aoki.
Not exactly the kinds of additions that should really lead anyone to say, yep, that will put the Kansas City Royals over the top and back in the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
Actually, those two additions don’t look like enough to help the Royals win more than the 86 games they won last season while finishing seven games out of first place in the American League Central.
Not when they’re losing Ervin Santana, their ace starting pitcher. Not when the Tigers plugged the hole at the back of their bullpen with Joe Nathan. Not when the Twins signed Ricky Nolasco and former All-Star Phil Hughes for their rotation.
It’s almost mid-December, and there’s time, but the Royals still have some work to do if they want to consider themselves playoff contenders in 2014.
Nolasco signed for four years and $48 million and Hughes for three years and $24 million. Both present better long-term upside than Vargas, 30, who is older than Hughes and three months younger than Nolasco, relies much more on finesse than both and signed for four years and $32 million. I recommended when the season ended that the Royals sign Hughes, 28, who possesses a quality arm and clearly needed a change of scenery after falling into a funk with the Yankees.
Vargas is a decent enough starting pitcher, a left-handed Jeremy Guthrie or a younger version of Bruce Chen. But just because he’s an ex-Angel, he’s not going to bring to the rotation what Santana did in his one season in Kansas City — a pitcher who can at times dominate without necessarily having to rely on the Royals’ stellar defense.
Vargas can be good, but he won’t be great.
And at this point, the Royals are going to have to find someone great to plug into their rotation, and more than likely it’s going to have to come from within. That’s the way the Royals have to continue building anyway — this year’s offseason moves only illustrate that one-year fixes aren’t cure-alls for lower revenue clubs like Kansas City.
There are candidates. Danny Duffy is obvious. Yordano Ventura could do it, too. Kyle Zimmer, who could pass through Class AAA Omaha at some point this season, might be the answer by midseason. Will Wade Davis be the pitcher the Royals thought they were getting? Do the Royals want to mess with Luke Hochevar, so successful out of the bullpen last season after struggling for so long in the rotation?
There was another internal candidate: Will Smith. The problem is that Smith was sent to Milwaukee for Aoki.
I like Aoki, the outfielder who is expected to bat leadoff and likely relegate Jarrod Dyson and David Lough to reserve roles — assuming Lorenzo Cain can stay healthy. Aoki has put together two remarkably consistent seasons since coming over from Japan, compiling a .287 batting average and .355 on-base percentage. The Royals say having Aoki at the top will allow them to move Alex Gordon to the middle of the order to put him in more RBI situations. And Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Gordon in the middle of the order does look pretty solid.
Aoki, though, will be 32 this season. And I’m just a little skeptical about league-average National League players (Aoki’s two-season OPS+ is 103; average is 100). Gregor Blanco has had OPS+ figures of 94 and 102 in two seasons with the Giants after he frankly wasn’t good enough to beat out Dyson, Lough and Cain when they were in Omaha in 2011. Kansas City essentially gave him away. Joaquin Arias had an OPS+ of 97 with the Giants in 2012 after being an Omaha role player in 2011.
Smith, 24, was dominant after being moved from the rotation — where he was plenty good in Class AAA — to the bullpen, striking out 43 in 331⁄3 big-league innings while posting a 0.93 WHIP. I would have advised the Royals to take another shot with Smith as a starter — he was 6-9 with a 5.32 ERA for Kansas City in 2012, when he made his debut at age 21 — but he was about No. 6 on the bullpen depth chart as well as the list of starting pitching possibilities.
The Royals also had the best pitching staff in the American League in 2013, and posted the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) of any team since 1990. Pitching is their strength, even without Santana, and the offense needed an upgrade — although a breakout year from third baseman Mike Moustakas would be as significant as nearly any potential offseason offensive acquisition.
They made a run at prodigal son Carlos Beltran, which would have been interesting.
All in all, let’s give them a thumbs down on Vargas (especially considering the length of the deal, when Hughes could have been acquired for the same price) and a very slight thumbs up for Aoki — but consider that Houston made a trade with much bigger offensive upside in acquiring outfielder Dexter Fowler from the Rockies for pitching prospect Jordan Lyles and journeyman outfielder Brandon Barnes.
The Royals’ payroll is already getting pretty close to maxed out, and the chances of reeling in the likes of pitchers such as Santana, Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett or Ubaldo Jimenez or hitters such as Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz weren’t all that good before they committed to Vargas. There are a handful of aging, somewhat reliable closers and set-up men on the market (Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney leading the way), should the Royals decide to shift an Aaron Crow (I’m wearing that one out, right?), Kelvin Herrera or Hochevar to the rotation while at the same time asking a veteran to take a lesser role (and less money) to set up for Greg Holland.
Beyond that, the free-agent pickings with any long-term value are slim. A trade is possible, especially considering the club’s bullpen depth.
But, as of now, the Royals of 2014 don’t appear to be as good as the Royals of 2013.