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Mike Moustakas has power, but at what cost?


The third baseman slugged his way to an all-time Royals home run record, but he’s definitely an imperfect free agent.

I spent a lot of time looking for a historical comp for Eric Hosmer in my last free agent prediction, and I came up with Wally Joyner. It wasn’t meant to be a dig; Joyner was a solid first baseman for many years. Teams should know that they’re going to pay MVP money for an occasional All-Star first baseman, and if they’re okay with that, I’m okay with that.

Hosmer’s former teammate Mike Moustakas also deserves a historical comp, but for different reasons. This comparison is going to be less kind.

Moustakas is now the all-time single-season home run record holder for the Kansas City Royals, which is both good and bad for them. It’s good because they don’t have to keep hearing about Steve Balboni’s season from three decades ago, but it’s bad because they’re still the only team in baseball to never have enjoyed a 40-homer season. Moustakas entered September needing five home runs to get there, and he hit three. He had just two after belting one on Sept. 1, which is both amusing and baseball-tragic.

That the Royals don’t have a 40-homer hitter isn’t Moustakas’ fault, though, and he should be praised for hitting 38 of the suckers. That’s a lot of home runs, good enough for the eighth-most in baseball, and it helped him win the He Was Injured Last Year But Now He Isn’t Award, known in some circles as the Comeback Player of the Year Award. The timing was excellent, too, as now he gets to charge into the free agent market after nearly doubling his previous best in home runs.

My unkind comparison has to do with another left-handed third baseman who pounded out 30+ homers in a season where home runs were a-flyin’. Like Moustakas, this player was young (27), and he struggled with keeping his on-base percentage at acceptable levels. The low OBP contributed to a low WAR (even if it wasn’t invented yet), which mirrors Moustakas, whose 1.8 WAR last year ranked him 156th in baseball, tied with Juan Lagares and just behind Eric Sogard.

Like Moustakas, this player’s name was “Mike,” and he helped a Midwestern team win exactly one championship, which means this is an absolutely perfect comparison.

I’m talking about Mike Pagliarulo, ol’ Pags, who had four pretty solid years with the Yankees before injuries got to him. It’s not fair to hold the injuries from a player 30 years ago against a comparable player now, so forget how the career ended. Just look at Pagliarulo’s numbers when he was right. Poor OBP. A couple seasons that were stuffed with dingers. Defense that was fine, but never in danger of winning awards.

At the time, nobody thought Pagliarulo was a star. In retrospect, it was clear he wasn’t a star. He was a fine player for a couple years, and he could have been a fine player for a few years after that. There were strengths and weaknesses, flaws and credits, but nothing that really stood out. That is, unless you paid too much attention to the raw number of home runs in a single season that was filled with players setting personal home run marks.

Don’t do that. Don’t pay attention to the raw number of home runs.

TEAM: I would like to offer you scores of millions of dollars because of your raw number of home runs.

OTHER TEAM: I would like to offer you more money and quietly suggest that you be offended at the previous offer.

Oh, Moustakas is going to get paid. There aren’t a lot of home runs at free agent Costco, and he’s a relatively young player, so there will be at least two teams that convince themselves there’s more blood to squeeze out of that stone. All it takes are two teams.

I cannot stress enough, though, how just-a-guy Moustakas is. His career OPS+ is 96. He doesn’t run well, and his fielding is average, at best. His batting average is usually on the lower side, which is why it takes him having an uncharacteristic .272 batting average to get his OBP all the way to .314. What he does is hit dingers. At least, it’s what he did last year.

If you don’t like the comparison to Pagliarulo, that’s fine. I’ll move on to a simple list of players who a) had enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title, b) had an OBP under .325, and c) had a slugging percentage over .500. After getting rid of the under-25 players to filter out the raw rookies, there were 32 of these players. It’s a list of players who didn’t age especially well.

There are exceptions, like Nelson Cruz and Garret Anderson, but for the most part, there aren’t a lot of players you would have wanted for years and years on a long-term contract. Names show up that you haven’t thought of in a while, like Garrett Jones, Jay Gibbons, and Tony Batista. A marriage of making outs and socking dingers is a tempestuous marriage, and it takes just the tiniest slip in bat speed to turn a previously fine player into a liability. Especially when the player is making $18 million or so every year.

My contract offer for Moustakas: 3 years, $36 million, and I hate myself for going that high. He would not accept this offer, though, because he has several for much more. Much, much more.

Which teams will be in the hunt for a modern day Mike Pagliarulo?

The ideal fit

Royals, dammit, come get your regional hero and find him a good home.

Seriously, I know you can’t afford it, but you’re going to have to sign one of these guys, right? Someone to remind fans of the good times, before the cruel realities of the open market ripped apart one of the most beloved teams in franchise history? Because I’m not going to write 900 words of skepticism and then be like, “Oh, the Yankees are the ideal fit.” It doesn’t make sense to slap Moustakas on a smart team.

The problem is that all 30 teams are smart these days, give or take, which leaves an opening for a team with overbearing owners who overrule their analytics team, or a sentimental team. I’ll choose the sentimental team. C’mon, Royals. Get your third baseman, put the order in for bobbleheads, and call it an offseason.

The likely fit

I keep seeing the Giants linked to Moustakas, as if he’s the kind of left-handed hitter who would hit more than 12 homers at AT&T Park. He would hit .230/.280/.360 for them, cost them two draft picks and international bonus money, and send them into the luxury tax. If they’re even considering it, it would be an upset. There are teams that would benefit from Moustakas in 2018. The Giants are not one of them.

No, he needs to go to a team that’s either rich, has an acute need, and isn’t close to the luxury tax, or he needs to go to a team that has a remarkable amount of payroll space open, like the Phillies. I would pick the Yankees if they hadn’t added a lot of salary in a minor trade, but they’re focused on pitching. I’d pick the Mets if they weren’t the A’s of New York, unable or unwilling to spend.

I keep seeing people predicting upwards of five years and $80 million, but looking at Moustakas’ stats, the draft picks he’ll cost a new team, and the finances of the teams that might be interested in a new third baseman, and I’m not seeing a single one that makes sense. Every one of the possible fits comes with a huge, deal-breaking catch.

Except for one.

Prediction

Royals, three years, $48 million. Use the Alex Gordon deal as a reference point, where the market fell out from under him, and he found a home with the only team he had ever known. There will be bobbleheads. There will be nostalgia.

As long as it, uh, works out just a little better than the Gordon deal, it will make everyone happy.