The Royals: Curiouser and Curiouser

The Royals receive a lot of attention on these pages and it’s probably an understatement to suggest that not all of that attention is positive. Under Dayton Moore, the club has made some moves that stand out in a head-scratching sort of way. There was The Contest, the Jeff Francoeur era, and the James Shields mega-package to name a few. Now the Royals have made another curious move; they designated Emilio Bonifacio for assignment in favor of Bruce Chen.

Granted, today’s topic is dissimilar from the other moves listed above. The unusual element here is that the Royals designated Bonifacio for assignment just 16 days after the two parties avoided arbitration with a $3.5 million agreement. Arbitration contracts are non-guaranteed, so the Royals are (probably) off the hook for most of that contract. Here is the relevant text from the Collective Bargaining Agreement:

ARTICLE IX – Termination Pay

A. Off-Season

A Player who is tendered a Uniform Player’s Contract which is subsequently terminated by a Club during the period between the end of the championship season and the beginning of the next succeeding spring training under paragraph 7(b)(2) of the Uniform Player’s Contract for failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability shall be entitled to receive termination pay from the Club in an amount equal to thirty (30) days’ payment at the rate stipulated in paragraph 2 of (1) his Contract for the next succeeding championship season…

It is unclear what will come of Bonifacio. Hypothetically, the Royals could try to outright him to the minors. However, it seems like he was designated for financial reasons, which means that the club will either trade or release him. If they do release him, they’ll be on the hook for roughly $580,000.

The other bit of uncertainty comes from the line about “failure to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability.” Prior to the 2007 season, the Padres released Todd Walker and his $3.95 million salary. Walker and the MLBPA sought legal recourse. Unfortunately for Walker, a .225/.262/.300 performance over 42 spring plate appearances qualified as a failure to exhibit skill.

In the case of Bonifacio, his 2013 slash line wasn’t much better than Walker’s bad spring – .243/.295/.331. However, Bonifacio also stole 28 bases while playing multiple positions, so he did provide value. Per WAR, he was somewhere between a replacement level player and one win. The actual reported figure is 0.6 WAR, but WAR isn’t really accurate to decimal places. The Royals agreed to terms with Bonifacio despite knowing his 2013 production, so they ostensibly believed that he was worth $3.5 million. I’m not sure if that latter point is legally relevant when it comes to filing a grievance. Even if it is not, Bonifacio may have a legitimate case that he did not qualify for the lack of skill clause.

The Royals add a familiar face in Chen, who has been with the organization since 2009. They reached agreement on a one-year, $3 million contract with a $5.5 million option for 2015 and a $1.25 million buyout. The guarantee is for $4.25 million and he could earn an additional $1.25 million if he makes 25 starts in 2014. On the face of it, this seems like a very savvy signing. As Rany Jazayerli laments, the only thing not to like about this deal is that the Royals signed Jason Vargas to four-years and $32 million to be nearly the same pitcher as Chen.

Despite very pedestrian numbers before joining the Royals, Chen has been decent in recent seasons. Since 2010, he’s posted 6.4 WAR and 7.6 RA9-WAR ( a measure of WAR based on runs allowed). That’s closer to league average than replacement level over that four year span. Oliver and Steamer are far from enamored with Chen, since he outperformed league average in peripherals like BABIP and HR/FB last season. However, Chen is an extreme fly ball pitcher, which probably explains the lower than average BABIP. As for the HR/FB rate, Kauffman stadium suppresses home runs by about six percent. In other words, there is some cause for optimism.

He rejoins a rotation that is fronted by Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and Vargas. Chen will compete with some combination of Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Wade Davis for a spot in the rotation. According to manager Ned Yost, the job is his to lose.

From a roster and payroll perspective, the pair of moves will cost the club a net total of about $1.33 million in guaranteed money – at least if the most likely scenario comes to pass. The team loses super utility man Bonifacio but picks up a good depth pitcher for an otherwise shallow rotation. Given Davis’ terrible 2013 and the uncertainty around Duffy and Ventura, Chen is probably worth about a win to the Royals. Meanwhile, it’s hard to judge the downgrade from Bonifacio to Pedro Ciriaco. In the best case scenario, neither player would have been needed for more than 150 plate appearances. Ciriaco’s value is entirely in his utility, whereas Bonifacio can also provide value as a pinch runner. Let’s be conservative and call the difference between Bonifacio and Ciriaco half a win.

With these rough estimates, it looks like the Royals improved by about half a win for a net cost of just $1.33 million. If you’re a glass half full-type, that’s a tidy little move. If you’re of the half-empty persuasion, then you’ll probably want to point out that we’re just talking about error margins and fractions of wins – and wins are indivisible in the real world. Either way, what happened on Saturday is curious and may yet become more curious.

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Ivan Grushenko
Ivan Grushenko

I don’t get how a team can agree to a contract with a player and then void it based on on spring training results. It would be different if the team lost an arbitration case, because then they would have been consistent in never showing any belief that the player was worth that much. This seems wrong.