Free agency was supposed to be different for Mike Moustakas this time around. Last winter, coming off his second All-Star appearance and a career-high 38 home runs, the longtime Royals third baseman turned down a $17.4 million qualifying offer in anticipation of a multiyear contract, only to receive a frosty reception on the open market. Ultimately, he made a belated return to Kansas City on a one-year deal, was traded to the contending Brewers in late July, and hit free agency again this fall — this time without a qualifying offer and associated draft pick compensation. Yet once again, he only landed a considerably discounted one-year contract. He’ll return to the Brewers on a $10 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2020.
Moustakas, who turned 30 on September 11, hit a combined .251/.315/.459 with 28 homers, a 105 wRC+, and 2.4 WAR in 2018. His offense wasn’t quite what it was in 2017 (.272/.314/.521, 114 wRC+) but his defense improved significantly in terms of both DRS (from -8 in 2017 to 2 in 2018) and UZR (from -4.5 to 1.0). Given that he was finally more than a year removed from the right ACL tear that limited him to 27 games in 2016, that shouldn’t be tremendously surprising; according to Statcast, his average sprint speed also increased substantially, from 24.0 feet per second to 25.7, though even that puts him somewhere around the 15th percentile of major league regulars.
Moustakas’ defensive rebound helped offset his slight offensive downturn; his overall WAR was a bit ahead of his 2.1 from 2017, if still shy of his career-best 3.8 in 2015. He’s not what you’d call the most disciplined hitter; his 37.0% rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone places him in the 15th percentile among qualifiers, while his 7.7% walk rate puts him in the 35th percentile. He doesn’t strike out much (16.2%, 72nd percentile), but even so, 2018 saw his highest K rate since 2012, his first full major league season. A pull-happy hitter, he had 372 plate appearances against a traditional shift, the majors’ third-highest total. He hit for just a .243 average with a .311 slugging percentage and a 43 wRC+ in those plate appearances, which is 14th percentile stuff. Combine that with his non-blazing speed and you get a .259 BABIP, the majors’ 15th lowest among qualified hitters.
So yes, his is a limited profile when he’s not putting a charge into the ball, but fortunately, Moustakas produces the thunder often enough to be an above-average player. Over the past two years, the only third base types with more homers than his 66 are Nolan Arenado, who plays half his games at Coors Field; Manny Machado, who’s played more shortstop than third base in that span; and Jose Ramirez, who’s spent a fair amount of time at second base in addition to third. Overall, Moustakas is tied for 14th in homers over the past two seasons, while ranking 27th in isolated power (.227).
Steamer projects Moustakas for 31 homers, a 111 wRC+ and 2.8 WAR this year, so by even a conservative dollars per win figure, say, $8 million, he’ll likely be rather undercompensated. This might not be Scott Boras’ finest hour, but the past two winters’ trend towards squeezing over-30 players is less the product of one agent’s work than it is an industry reaction to a larger set of conditions, including a reduced number of teams playing to win, an increased number of said teams treating the Competitive Balance Tax threshold as a hard salary cap, and a wave of analytically-inclined front offices suddenly becoming much more conservative when it comes to issuing longer-term deals.
That said, Moustakas is still in a better position than last year, when he waited until March 11 to sign and settled for a one-year deal that included a $5.5 million base salary, $2.2 million worth of plate appearance-based incentives that he maxed out, and a $15 million mutual option for 2018, with a $1 million buyout. He turned his side of that option down, but even if he hadn’t, it’s highly unlikely the Brewers would have picked up their side. For what it’s worth, in our Top 50 Free Agents list, Kiley McDaniel estimated that Moustakas would receive a two-year, $22 million deal, with the median crowdsource figure coming in at three years and $36 million.
Early last winter, Moustakas reportedly turned down a three-year, $45 million offer from the Angels, though Boros has denied the veracity of that report. This time around, the Moose reportedly had interest from the Padres and Phillies — two teams still in the hunt for Machado, possibly to play third base — as well as the Angels again. Perhaps Moustakas simply got tired of waiting for Machado to make up his mind, or for the apparent game of chicken between Machado and the winter’s other marquee free agent, Bryce Harper, to end, thus helping to move the broader market along. Or, given the wobbly rumors circulating on Sunday night, connecting Harper to Philadelphia and Machado to San Diego, maybe Moustakas saw the writing on the wall and took the best of the remaining options.
By returning to Milwaukee, he does get to play for a team that fell one win short of a trip to the World Series, and one on which he apparently fit in very well. Unlike last winter, when they added Lorenzo Cain and Jhoulys Chacin in free agency and Christian Yelich via trade, the Brewers have had a relatively low-key offseason, with Yasmani Grandal’s one-year, $18.25 million deal representing their only other free agent signed to a major league contract; they’ve added a few other players to split or minor league deals, including Cory Spangenberg and Josh Tomlin. They do have pitchers Zach Davies and Jimmy Nelson returning from injury-marred seasons, as well as a whole lot of other talented young hurlers to compete for rotation spots, but they’ve also shed a lot of useful bodies, with Wade Miley and late-season pickups Gio Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, and Joakim Soria all gone via free agency, and Xavier Cedeno, Dan Jennings, and Jonathan Schoop non-tendered. They did trade away outfielders Keon Broxton and Domingo Santana, getting back some prospects and Ben Gamel. By and large, they haven’t added a whole lot, so the return of the Moose is significant.
When the Brewers traded pitcher Jorge Lopez and outfielder Brett Phillips to Kansas City for Moustakas, they moved starting third baseman Travis Shaw to second base, a position he’d never played before but one that he took to with respectable results (-1 DRS, -1.5 UZR in 39 games).
While the initial assumption when Moustakas signed was that Shaw (who lists at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds) would return to second base, manager Craig Counsell told reporters on Monday that Moustakas (who lists at 6-foot and 225 pounds) would spend the spring learning the position, which he’s never played professionally (he did play 65 games at shortstop in 2007-08). “We would explore Mike at second base, is what we’re going to do, because that’s what we don’t know about,” said Counsell. Prior to the signing, Moustakas had reiterated an openness to moving around the diamond that he first expressed upon joining the Brewers last summer, though at that time Shaw had a bit of a head start in preparing for the move. For what it’s worth, the two players have very similar UZR/150 rates at the hot corner (2.3 for Moustakas, 1.7 for Shaw), though DRS favors Shaw (10 runs above average per 150 games) over Moustakas (dead even), and the former was an NL Gold Glove finalist at the position despite the late-season move.
So long as the team can get some semblance of average play out of one or the other at second, the addition of Moustakas represents a significant improvement given that the lefty-swinging Spangenberg, the righty-swinging Hernan Perez, and backup Tyler Saladino — with very minor contributions from Shaw and top prospect Keston Hiura — were forecast to produce a meager 0.9 WAR, 29th in our depth charts rankings. Thus, Moustakas could represent about a two-win upgrade, and his presence does lessen the urgency to promote Hiura, a 2017 first-round pick who placed 13th on our Top 100 Prospects list and profiles as a future All-Star, but who spent the second half of 2018 at Double-A and likely needs more seasoning.
All told, Moustakas is probably far from where he thought he would be about 18 months ago. The guaranteed money on his two free agent deals doesn’t even add up to the qualifying offer he declined, to say nothing of both the rumors and even the more modest projections attached to him; after all, this isn’t a banged up 34-year-old coming off a subpar season, or showing signs of needing a reduced role. You’d think that a palatable multiyear deal would have been available to him from somewhere (and maybe there was one, if that report regarding the Angels last winter was true). That said: he’s not about to go broke, he’s healthy, and starting for a fun, contending team. It’s hardly ideal, but it works for now.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.