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Considering Mike Moustakas

Could the Royals’ third baseman of the present present the Cardinals with an opportunity in the future?

MLB: All Star Game-Home Run Derby Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Seeing as how the Cardinals are currently embroiled in the 2017 edition of the I-70 series, we’re getting a chance to see firsthand what the Kansas City Royals of this year look like. I don’t know about you, but in spite of the fact the Royals are the nearest team to me after the Cardinals geographically (I think; don’t call me on an exact distance from St. Louis to KC vs Chicago, though I know Chicago is a slower trip), I very rarely pay attention to what they’re doing.

Sure, there was the brief period a couple years ago when the Royals were suddenly on everyone’s collective lips, somehow the most interesting team in baseball, and you couldn’t help but notice them. For my part, though, I tend to just not really care about the Royals; it’s a habit born of growing up in the 90s and maturing as an adult fan in the 2000s, both of which decades saw virtually zero reason to recall the Royals existed, outside of the free 5-1 record the Cards received every year in interleague.

But now the Cardinals are actually playing the Royals, and so I remember who all exactly is on their roster. Which brings me to the subject of my post today.

Mike Moustakas is the Royals’ third baseman, and one of the more productive, meaningful players of their recent past. For a long time, he was the symbol of Kansas City’s futility in trying to climb back to relevance; his failure to become the player it was expected he would be when he was taken second overall in that disastrous 2007 draft stood in for all the Royals’ failures on the player development front. Eric Hosmer was taken a year later, rushed to the big leagues, and then stagnated. Aaron Crow was picked twelfth overall in 2009 and was pretty good for one year as a reliever. Luke Hochevar was a horrible first overall selection in 2006. Alex Gordon was a mediocre third baseman for years before he moved to left field and turned himself into a star. Sal Perez stepped up and became a solid producer (maybe better, depending on how much credit one gives catchers), but for a long time he was the only real success of the Kansas City player development system.

Moustakas, more than any of the others, was the poster child for those failures. Gordon was the anointed one coming out of Nebraska, but the hype for Moustakas on a separate plane entirely. And then he just didn’t develop. The defense at third was very good, but the bat was not. In his first four seasons at the big league level, Moustakas posted wRC+ figures of 84, 90, 77, and 75. Not what you’re hoping for from your second overall hype monster.

But then, of course, Moustakas got better. He started hitting the ball to all fields and his numbers improved. His contact rates jumped up to elite status. He was, beginning with the stretch run of 2014 and the whole 2015 season, a very good hitter, and a very good player. In 2016, things looked even better for the man they call Moose; he posted an 8% walk rate, just an 11.5% strikeout rate, and a .260 ISO in the early going. His line overall was dragged down by an horrific .214 BABIP, yet he still managed a 110 wRC+. It was shaping up to be an incredible season. That is, until a collision with Alex Gordon in shallow left field, when Moustakas suffered a knee injury that cost him the rest of the season. He ended up with just 113 plate appearances on the season, which is honestly kind of a tragedy.

That brings us to the present day, and an article about Mike Moustakas written just a few weeks ago by the inimitable Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs. I had missed this piece and didn’t see it until I pulled up Moustakas’s numbers for the season, but it does me a big favour here. As with most Sullivan pieces, it’s quite good and gives an excellent rundown of some statistical anomaly or other; that is largely Jeff Sullivan’s stock in trade, after all. Rather than rehashing the info included therein, I’ll just point you to that article, and summarise thusly: in 2017, Mike Moustakas is pulling everything, swinging at everything, not walking at all, and hitting a metric ass ton (that’s a technical term), of home runs.

Moustakas is also, you may or may not have heard, a free agent following the 2017 season. He is further also a Scott Boras client, meaning there’s a bit of extra baggage that comes along with him, but nothing too serious. Mostly, you’re looking at a player extremely unlikely to resign for any kind of team-friendly deal with the Royals, so it seems near a fait accompli he will test the market, and probably end up moving elsewhere. The Royals have a lot of players coming to the end of their KC tenure, and will have to be very choosy about who they attempt to keep for the next phase of their franchise. Moustakas could very well be worth a long-term investment, but it’s not an absolute given.

What I’m really interested in, though, is determining if Moustakas would be a fit for the Cardinals long term. Don’t get me wrong; I’m enjoying this sudden run of offensive excellence, and will gladly take the ride if this club suddenly wants to get 2011 hot, but the issues we’ve seen from the Cardinals this whole year still exist. They’re still a club in search (and need), of centerpiece, building-block type players. So at least for the moment, I’m still looking ahead.

So let’s take a look at what kind of fit Moustakas would represent. First off, he has age mostly on his side. He’s not 25/26, the way a Jason Heyward was when he hit free agency, or the way Bryce Harper will, but Moustakas will play 2018 at age 29. You hand him a five-year deal, you’re out after 33. Now, the question of whether you’ll be able to get him for five years instead of seven or more is tougher to answer, but he’s not such an elite free agent he’ll simply be able to demand teams do stupid things to land him. (Boras will try, though, I’m sure.) As far as age goes, Mike Moustakas represents a better bet than many players who will be hitting the market soon, but not a slam dunk as far as getting a bunch of his peak years.

Now, the real question is this: is Mike Moustakas a centerpiece type player? And a very good question. And not a particularly easy one to answer.

Offensively, Moustakas over the last three seasons has posted these wRC+ numbers: 122, 110, and 118. The 118 is this year’s ultra-aggressive homer monster, the 122 was his lower-power all-fields high-contact 2015 season, and the 110 is the amazing what could have been of 2016. So what we have is a three-year track record of a player who is solidly above average with the bat. The weird thing is that he’s been three different hitters those three years; they’re just all similarly above average.

So what sort of hitter should we expect him to be going forward? Well, in 2016 and ‘17 he’s hit for ISOs of .260 and .279, respectively, while still striking out well less than league average. So there’s no real reason to think he’ll need to sacrifice power for contact. Ergo, I think the power stays. He’s also hit 32 home runs so far this season while playing in Kauffman Stadium, in a division with a couple of other pretty strong pitcher’s parks (Detroit and Minnesota, specifically), so it isn’t as if he’s inflating his numbers clubbing dingers in Great American or something.

The more intriguing question, at least to me, is what kind of plate discipline Moustakas is capable of. He’s always been an aggressive hitter — career 6.3% walk rate — but it’s arguable that aggression is justified due to his high contact rates, and also Kansas City has always had an aggressive hitting philosophy. (The Royals, by and large, do not believe in walking.) This season, though, that aggression is almost out of control, to the tune of a 4.2% walk rate. Again, he’s hitting for tons of power and still striking out less than league average, so it isn’t as if he’s going up hacking Grichuk style and coming up empty (also Grichuk style), but a four percent walk rate severely limits how good one’s on-base percentage can really be.

But what if Moustakas were to get into an organisation that preached patience? The Cardinals clearly have a grinder’s mentality, with players like Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Tommy Pham all posting very high walk rates. (Hell, even Kolten Wong is walking ~10% of the time this year.) There are exceptions, obviously; Paul DeJong and his nightmarish K:BB ratio comes to mind. But in general, the Cardinals are a patient bunch. If Moustakas were in that environment, would we see him move closer to that 8% rate he was posting in 2016? Or was that just a small sample issue and that kind of measured approach just isn’t in the Cards for Moose?

Perhaps the toughest question of all is in regards to Moustakas’s defense. The offense seems to have stabilised in the range of 15-20% above league average, with maybe a little room for growth if you squint. The defense, though, has gone in the opposite direction, and that has to be a real concern.

Early in his career, Moustakas put up some tremendous defensive numbers. In 2012, his first full season at the big league level, DRS had him as a +14 defender. Plus/minus had him at +15. By UZR/150 he was a +14.3. In other words, we know defensive metrics take an appallingly long time to become reliable, but in 2012 at least all the major systems thought he was really effing good.

Since that time, his defense has been a bit up and down, with more ups than downs, but certainly not historically good or anything. He’s been consistently positive by UZR and Plus/Minus, with DRS seeing a bit more of a mixed bag. In general, though, you would look at Mike Moustakas’s defensive ratings and say he appears to be a moderately above-average defender at third base. Combine that with 15-20% better than league average offense and the natural positional adjustment that comes with playing third base, and you’re talking about a pretty damned solid player.

Unfortunately, this year Moustakas has seen a serious, serious downturn in his defense, at least by the numbers. He’s played a little over 800 innings at third this year, and DRS has him as a -7 defender. Plus/minus has the same opinion, -7. UZR/150 thinks he’s been a little less awful, at -1.5 total runs, but it’s still bad. And if we look at the components, Moustakas has been solidly above-average in terms of not making errors; it’s the range that has seemingly gone to hell.

Now, as I said, single-season defensive ratings are incredibly unreliable. Worse yet are partial season ratings. But here’s the thing: it’s very scary when a player’s range seems to drop off a cliff, and he just happened to have missed the previous season with a serious knee injury. I don’t watch nearly enough Royals games to have a good feel for the eye test with Moustakas, but when a player suffers a major knee injury and then comes back the next season with what appears to be severely diminished range, well...that’s a frightening deal.

There’s also the fact that Moustakas this season looks heavier and slower than in the past. Now, he’s never been the sort of player one would put the jeans model label on; Moose is just one of those people who doesn’t look like a premium athlete until you see him in action. It’s always been a thicker body, but in the past the uniform was loose and made him look heavier than he was. This year...well, you know how when you were a kid shopping for school clothes, and your mom would buy a jacket a size too big and say you would grow into it? You don’t want your baseball players doing that.

If pressed, I would say the conditioning this year is just a little off from in the past, and likely due to the same knee injury that casts doubts on his defensive skill. Lower body injuries are notoriously difficult to maintain conditioning through, and probably Moose looks a little pudgier than usual because he spent much of 2016 unable to work out as he normally would. However, it’s all of a piece: he suffered a severe knee injury, missed a ton of time, came back in worse shape than before, and appears to have lost range in the field. That’s a troubling combination of things.

So if we take all these things together, and ask ourselves if Mike Moustakas is really a centerpiece sort of player, the kind of offensive engine that could drive a lineup already filled with on-base skill at the top but lacking in middle-order thunder, we probably have to admit it takes some projecting, maybe we might even call it wishcasting, to get him there. The power, I think, is real, and here to stay. He’s strong, has tremendous bat speed, and doesn’t struggle to make loud contact consistently. The contact rate compared to the power is outstanding. The plate discipline is a real issue, in that a third baseman with an OPS in the .850 range sounds really good, until you look and the OBP is only .304, so you’re not going to see him on base a ton. The defense and the conditioning, I think, are concerns going forward, considering the fact he now has a major knee surgery in his past.

But...if Moustakas were to come to a place like St. Louis, and take the approach of more patient hitters to heart, and if he were to fully rebound physically two years out from knee surgery, and if he maintained the power he’s shown the past two years while maybe tweaking his profile to attack in a more strategic fashion at the plate, then yes, you could very much be talking about a centerpiece player.

That sure is a lot of ifs, though, isn’t it?

There’s also the question, of course, of how much better you believe Moustakas to be than the incumbent third baseman. Jedd Gyorko has been a very pleasant surprise since coming over from San Diego in return for Jon Jay, and at least defensively in 2017 has been nothing short of elite. Now, obviously we have to ask if we believe that’s going to continue, but both DRS and Plus/minus have Gyorko at an astounding +14 runs in ~740 innings.

Personally, I admit to being a bit of a downer on Gyorko. Don’t get me wrong; coming into the season I believed he should absolutely, positively, 100% be the starting third baseman, but that had more to do with the ghost of Jhonny Peralta looking like toast to my eye than me believing Gyorko was a revelatory sort of player. Going forward, I think Jedd Gyorko is about a league-average bat, maybe a touch above, and probably a solid 55 grade glove at third base. He had the absurd HR/FB rate in 2016 pushing him to 30 home runs in partial playing time, and this season has posted a batting average on balls in play significantly above his career line (while seeing his HR/FB% regress back to where it was in 2015), to help keep his overall line up. If you asked me what kind of hitter I expect Jedd to be in the future, I’d say a 100-105 wRC+ sort of hitter. And a 2.0-3.0 win player. Again, that’s not bad at all, but if you’re looking for a spot to potentially upgrade with a big bat/franchise cornerstone, I think third base is a decent place to keep an eye open.

But is Moustakas really a big enough upgrade at third to justify what will probably be a pretty hefty contract, even with the caveats and concerns I’ve raised here? Well, Jedd is currently at 1.9 fWAR on the season, and will probably end up about a three win player, assuming he can get himself back on track and not continue to scuffle as he has since the all-star break. That would be his best season, by a fairly comfortable margin. Moustakas, on the other hand, was worth 3.6 fWAR in 2015, his best year, and is on pace for a 3.0-3.5 win season this year. In other words, no. The marginal difference from Gyorko to Moustakas is barely worth simply trading the two; paying whatever contract Moose will get this offseason would seem to be not at all worth it.

But what about all those ifs? It’s hard to ever think of describing a Scott Boras client as a ‘buy low’ candidate, and considering the kind of season Moustakas is having with the bat he’s probably still going to get a very sizable contract this offseason. Power may be up around the game, but Moustakas is probably going to hit 40-45 homers with a sub-20% strikeout rate. That’s not easy to come by. In terms of the overall game, though, there are some red flags with Moose this season that teams are going to be questioning.

At various points in his career, Moustakas has shown tremendous power, elite contact rates, and above-average defense. He’s never been a particularly patient hitter, but again, that’s part of the organisational philosophy there in Kansas City as well. So there are certainly elements to Moustakas’s game, present at various different times, that could make one think he’s on the verge of superstardom.

It’s entirely possible a team could look at Moustakas and believe he has another level to his game. And not believe he has another level to his game because they think they have the secret sauce of coaching to get something out of him we’ve never seen before; we’ve seen all the aspects of stardom from him, just not all at the same time. And if a team thought he was close to that breakthrough, where it all comes together, well, then in that case you most definitely are talking about a meaningful upgrade over Jedd Gyorko.

And yes, signing Mike Moustakas would essentially take you out of the Manny Machado sweepstakes of the 2018 offseason prematurely, but come on. Does anyone here really believe the Cardinals will swim in those waters? Because I frankly don’t.

As is the case in so many other of our player-acquisition hypotheticals, we’re left with the ultimately unsatisfying answer of, “Well, yeah, that might be an upgrade, but probably not a huge one.” I’m personally tired of highlighting how tough it is to substantially upgrade a roster full of the average and slightly above, but once again here we are talking about a potentially very large investment that might only yield a win extra per year.

Unless, of course, all those ifs came true.

I just don’t know about Moustakas, honestly. I find him to be a fascinating player, even on a team I occasionally forget exists, because he’s had such a bumpy road along the way, and because all those different skills and tools have been manifest at one time or another.

As an investment opportunity for the Cardinals, I can’t say I’m certain he’d be worth it. Considering clubs no longer surrender a draft pick for signing free agents, it’s nice to not have to factor that in, making acquisitions through the open market that much less onerous. But for what the player would cost, and the very real risks present that Moustakas is simply not as good now physically as he was a few years ago, it’s hard to see the answer to the question of Moose as a centerpiece as anything other than a resounding ‘maybe’.

You know maybe, right? It’s what we have with this team, over and over and over again. We have maybes.

And in this case we also have if.