It’s a new year and we’re still in the cold and snow of winter. But before long, Royals pitchers and catchers will report to Surprise, AZ for Spring Training. This offseason, the Royals had three major needs: a spot in the starting rotation to replace Ervin Santana, right field and second base. And in a series of moves they filled those needs with solid, if not exciting, players.
The first move the Royals made was signing starting pitcher Jason Vargas to a four-year, $32 million contract. Vargas is a soon to be 31 year-old career 4.30 ERA pitcher with a 2.12 SO/BB ratio. His best year was the 2012 season, with a 14-11 record and 3.85 ERA and a 2.56 SO/BB ratio with the Seattle Mariners. Last year for the Los Angeles Angels, Vargas had a 9-8 record and 4.02 ERA and a 2.37 SO/BB ratio.
Vargas isn’t a really good pitcher, but he’s not a really bad pitcher either. He won’t be expected to carry the rotation or even pitch as well as Ervin Santana. That will be left up to James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. If Vargas can pitch like a younger Bruce Chen, it will be a good signing for an $8 million a year starting pitcher.
For a while, the Royals were in the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes before he signed with the New York Yankees. After Beltran visited Kansas City last November, the Royals likely figured he wasn’t going to sign, so they traded pitcher Will Smith to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Norichika Aoki. He spent the last two seasons with the Brewers after eight years in Japan’s Central League. With his two years with the Brewers, Aoki had a .287/.355/.399 line in 306 games and last year led the National League with 140 singles with just 40 strikeouts in 674 plate appearances. The 32 year-old played right field the majority of his tenure with the Brewers.
Aoki projects to be the Royals everyday right fielder and leadoff hitter. The Royals control Aoki for one season and $1.95 million before he becomes a free agent. Aoki is a solid outfielder who gets on base and doesn’t strike out much. The move allows Alex Gordon to move down in the lineup, which the Royals hope gives the team more scoring opportunities. Look for Aoki to be a one-year player before moving on to another team.
Of the three players, the Royals “biggest” signing was the four-year, $30.25 million deal for second baseman Omar Infante. The 32 year-old 12 year Major League veteran played for the Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves, the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and back to Detroit. Infante was the top free agent second baseman this offseason and the Cincinnati Reds and the Yankees were in the running before he signed with the Royals.
Last season with the Tigers, Infante had a .318/.345/.450 average with 44 strikeouts in 476 plate appearances. That’s a good average and on-base percentage. It’s likely Infante will bat second in the lineup behind Aoki. The addition of Infante gives the Royals a big improvement at second base, where Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella were a disappointment last season. Infante’s contact hitting and low strikeout rate should improve the team near the top of the lineup. If Infante stays healthy and plays up to expectations, it will be a good move for the Royals, at least for the first three years of his contract.
What’s interesting about these signings are the players are over 30 years old. Usually the Royals prefer younger players, especially in their lineup. But unlike years past, veterans like Vargas, Aoki and Infante aren’t expected to carry the team. That’s up to youngsters like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. Sure, getting Vargas, Aoki and Infante aren’t “big” moves, but they do fill needs and improve the Royals as a team.