Free agency is supposed to be the reward. Of course, not every player gets treated the same, but, in general, free agency tends to reward good hitting. Mike Moustakas has blossomed into a pretty good hitter. Free agency tends to reward good fielding. Mike Moustakas has been a fine defensive third baseman. Free agency tends to reward winning experience. Mike Moustakas was part of a World Series champion. And, importantly, free agency tends to reward youth. Mike Moustakas is 29 years old. He’s just one year older than Eric Hosmer, who signed for massive terms with the Padres. It feels like it should’ve been there. It feels like Mike Moustakas should’ve earned his reward.
Moustakas is returning to the Royals. It’s a one-year contract, with a $6.5-million guarantee, and while there exists a second-year mutual option, those are never picked up. It was the Royals who extended to Moustakas a $17.4-million qualifying offer, which Moustakas, in turn, declined. Now he won’t come close to that money. There’s been talk for a while this market is strange, but the Moustakas terms in particular are jarring. It’s incredible that his free agency got to this point.
MLB Trade Rumors figured Moustakas would sign for five years and $85 million. The FanGraphs community figured he’d sign for five years and $85 million. Dave Cameron figured he’d sign for five years and $95 million. Now, Moustakas can still earn big money. He won’t have a qualifying offer attached next offseason, and another strong year would improve his stock. And, also, it’s easy to try to point things out after the fact. No one knew this was how Moustakas would end up. But, in hindsight, there were issues from the beginning. A variety of factors came together to prevent Moustakas from finding the commitment he wanted.
Right away, Moustakas has been a third baseman. This wasn’t a market with many teams in need of a third baseman. The best fit always seemed like it would be the Angels, but they enthusiastically added the defensively superior Zack Cozart. And while Moustakas would’ve also been open to signing with the Giants, they preferred Evan Longoria. Maybe the Padres could use a better third baseman than Chase Headley, but, Headley is fine, and they spent their money on Hosmer.
You can look at the landscape now. There are only so many teams where Moustakas might fit. The Tigers would work, but they’re rebuilding, and since they just went over the luxury tax, they’d have to give up their second and fifth-highest draft picks, as well as $1 million in international spending money. That’s too much of a deterrent. The Yankees would’ve had to pay the same penalty, so they went for Brandon Drury. They’re also not really looking to block Miguel Andujar. The Phillies could’ve signed Moustakas, but they’re still working on Maikel Franco. The Rays, Marlins, and Pirates have never been very involved in premium free agency, and they all have their own third-base options, anyway. Matt Duffy, Christian Arroyo, Martin Prado, Brian Anderson, Colin Moran, David Freese — small-budget teams always prefer the lower-cost options. Outside of the Royals, you end up left with the White Sox and Braves. Good teams just weren’t in position to be involved. Pretty much only mediocre or bad teams remained out there as destination possibilities, and those are the very teams with the least use for Mike Moustakas’ short-term future.
Moustakas is a Scott Boras client. A big factor, I believe, is that the right market just didn’t exist. A certain amount of that is just bad luck. No one can perfectly forecast how an offseason is going to play out. Yet it’s also Boras’ job to come up with the best forecast possible. So I think another factor was relatively poor representation. I think Boras generally deserves a lot of credit, and, clearly, he’s developed a strong reputation for finding money for his players. But in this case — in this particular case — it appears Boras misled Moustakas on what would be reasonably possible. Maybe Boras really has been representing too many quality free agents lately. Maybe he just hasn’t fully adapted to the changing evaluation practices. But when something like this happens, it’s typically not the fault of the player.
Look at the picture today. If not the Royals, the best fit would probably be the Braves. And yet the Braves were signaling they weren’t very interested in Moustakas all the way back in early November. Boras still came out with his initial high demands. Maybe, if not for a certain event, it could’ve worked. This brings us to the third factor. I think that it’s been largely under-discussed.
A screenshot will do:
I didn’t want to embed a video. You don’t need to see the video. In May of 2016, Moustakas ranged deep into foul territory, in pursuit of a fly ball. It was in foul territory that Moustakas collided with Alex Gordon. It was Gordon who came out of the game, but it was Moustakas who wouldn’t play again that season, having torn his ACL.
Moustakas, of course, returned, and just had a strong offensive season. And an ACL tear doesn’t have to be devastating. In 2015, Zack Cozart tore his ACL, and some other things for good measure. And yet, in 2017, Moustakas was different. Different in a way that I suspect would cause some otherwise interested teams to hesitate.
Statcast can come in handy here. We can look at sprint speeds, from Baseball Savant. In 2015, Moustakas’ average sprint speed ranked in the 38th percentile, and the 48th percentile among third basemen. In 2017, however, Moustakas’ average sprint speed ranked in the 7th percentile, and the 9th percentile among third basemen. Suddenly, Moustakas was moving slower, and it’s evident in his baserunning measures. In terms of moving up an extra base on hits, Moustakas just ranked in the lowest percentile. Moving from first to third on singles, Moustakas ranked in the lowest percentile. Moving from first to home on doubles, he ranked in the 3rd percentile. Moving from second to home on singles, he ranked in the 14th percentile. Moustakas, in 2017, didn’t attempt a single stolen base. Moustakas did very little running.
And that wasn’t the only casualty. Looking at third basemen between 2014 and 2016, and blending both DRS and UZR, Moustakas’ defense ranked in the 64th percentile. This past season, again among third basemen, his defense ranked in the 23rd percentile. Moustakas came back, and he hit. He hit a bunch of home runs. But while that was happening, Moustakas had slowed down. He was playing worse defense, at least statistically, and the Royals started him 17 times at DH.
A player might DH for any number of reasons. And it’s absolutely true that defensive metrics are noisy. What we can’t yet conclude is that Mike Moustakas is no longer a good defensive third baseman. It’s just suspicious. The timing of everything suggests that Moustakas has lost a good amount of his athleticism. Maybe 2017 was just a recovery year. Maybe everything is about to bounce back. But, look at this from a team’s perspective. How much would you really want to invest in this player as a medium- or long-term third-base solution? And then, look at this from an agent’s perspective. How hard do you really want to push this player as a medium- or long-term third-base solution, knowing there are so many athleticism-related question marks?
It’s easy to say now, but it seems like expectations should’ve been lower from the beginning. If Boras knew teams were concerned about Moustakas’ body, he might’ve even advised taking the qualifying offer. Now, I doubt it, but with real concern out there, $80 – 100 million just wasn’t going to happen. Lumbering sluggers haven’t been faring very well. Moustakas has to prove he’s more than just a lumbering slugger at this point.
It does make me somewhat hopeful. At least, by signing for just one year, Moustakas can get back out there, unencumbered, and maybe his defense will improve. We all know people who’ve benefited from putting another year between themselves and an ACL operation, and if Moustakas recovers any of what he lost, he could score in nine or ten months. He’s going to get a chance to play every day in a familiar setting, in front of fans who still love him. Remember, Moustakas is a guy who only got good as a hitter after learning to hit to the opposite field. Moustakas has already evolved at the major-league level before, which might be a good indicator of what’s ahead. The game smiles upon players who can adjust and improve. Moustakas has done that.
And from the Royals’ perspective, there’s nothing lost here, aside from some playing time for Cheslor Cuthbert. There’s nothing lost, and plenty gained, as Moustakas will take some of the sting out of what could’ve been a painful season. In that way, he’s similar to Jon Jay and Lucas Duda. The Royals probably won’t be very good, but they won’t be as bad as possible. There’s value in winning extra games, even if you play under .500. There’s value in keeping around a favorite, if only for a year, if only because the market didn’t work out the way that favorite wanted.
Mike Moustakas deserves more than this. Because of the positional landscape out there, because of his agent, and because of his injury history, he’s had to settle for something that would’ve been unthinkable in October. The reasons are right there. They are what they are. Nothing to do at this point but hit a bunch more dingers. And maybe field a few more grounders, and take a few more extra bases. If the athleticism doesn’t come back, a freak accident will have robbed Moustakas of his one free-agency splash. And if it does come back, at least we shouldn’t be having this conversation again in a year. Few things can motivate quite like another contract season.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.