One of the overlooked successes of this year’s Kansas City Royals has been its strong bench. In a combination of lackluster performance from the everyday players and the superior athleticism of the bench players, it was often difficult to tell the difference between starters and bench players.
Much of the contribution came from a rotating group of fourth outfielders that filled in after Jeff Franceour was released. David Lough, Justin Maxwell and Jarrod Dyson all played the role of fourth outfielder and all of them were better at the plate than the center-fielder and right-fielder that the Royals broke camp with. The Royals are looking for a legitimate replacement for an everyday right-fielder. Assuming that happens, who wins the fourth outfield spot?
It is an excruciating decision because all three are fundamentally different players from one another, with unique strengths and weaknesses. Any team would be lucky to have any of them as a fourth outfielder, but no team can carry all of them.
Dyson was under-appreciated this year, even drawing ire on misplayed balls late in the season. He served as a competent center-field replacement for Lorenzo Cain during another of Cain’s stints on the disabled list. Dyson even outperformed him in each of the triple slash categories (Dyson’s .258/.326/.366 to Cain’s .251/.310/.348). Though Dyson does not have the honed reactions of an elite outfielder, he is so fast that his range at center has been far above average every season at the major league level.
Dyson has game-changing speed. In the equivalent playing time of about a full season, Dyson has stolen 84 bases and has only been thrown out 13 times (and two were blown calls). He has been especially valuable to the Royals because he often pinch runs for Billy Butler, who runs like he’s hauling an open parachute. More importantly, Dyson’s observation and instincts on the basepaths are far superior than Lough’s or Maxwell’s.
While Dyson is an excellent pinch-runner, he has limited use as a pinch-hitter. With all the struggles the Royals have had on offense, pinch-hitters might be a valuable commodity on the bench. Against left-handed pitching, he’s hopeless. His .192/.273/.224 line is worse than Elliot Johnson‘s year-end totals. He has some success against right-handed pitching, with a nice .335 OBP. However, his .266 AVG and .368 SLG don’t help the team much when they need a hit.
David Lough, on the other hand, was born to be a pinch hitter. He hits .277 off righties and .282 off lefties. He has modest pop, but enough speed to churn out doubles and triples. He is the guy most likely to come off the bench and rip a single.
Lough also has afterburners. He doesn’t bolt from the batter’s box as quickly as Dyson (who runs like he was fired out of a cannon), but he might be as just as fast once he rounds first base. It has served him well in the outfield. He’s proven that he can play center-field and has a case for the best game-for-game defensive right-fielder in the league, despite a few amateur mistakes. In only 74 games at right-field he ranks behind only Shane Victorino and Josh Reddick in defensive runs saved in the AL.
Justin Maxwell is intriguing. Even at 29 years old, he looks like he has untapped potential. After joining the Royals, he clobbered the ball. In 111 plate appearances, he hit .268/.351/.505. He has legitimate power. In the past two seasons, he’s maintained an impressive .450 SLG, with 25 home runs in 539 at-bats.
Unfortunately, that’s not the full story on Maxwell. In those 539 at-bats, he’s struck out 192 times, which is… just… wow, that’s a lot of strike outs. That’s Adam Dunn territory.
He has decent speed and the basic range to play center field, but misplays too many fly balls. His speed would make him a decent enough pinch runner if he didn’t make terrible, terrible baserunning decisions. He got picked off in his first pinch-run attempt for the Royals. He got thrown out at third by six feet once. He tried to stretch a double into a tripe for the Astros and was thrown out. He got caught in a run down back in July.
If you know the Royals, you know that they like to “fix” problems. They thought they could fix Jeff Francoeur‘s swing and were wrong. They thought they could fix Jeremy Guthrie‘s delivery and were right. They think they can fix Mike Moustakas‘s swing and sent him to winter league. We’ll see.
They operate on a strong scouting basis. If they believe they have the raw material, they will break their backs in an attempt to mold it into a productive major leaguer. The Royals’ development team managed to turn 50th round draft pick Jarrod Dyson into an effective major league, but seem to have trouble getting the most from high draft picks.
That’s why Maxwell gets the job.
He has all the “stuff” a team could want from a bench player–power, speed, athleticism, arm strength, versatility. Though he has makes a few judgment errors (Ok, a lot of judgement errors), the Royals will attempt to forge his recklessness into productive aggression. The Royals have so many woes with an under-performing offense, they honestly have no choice but to keep a guy with a .450 SLG when he’s healthy. Maxwell’s health shouldn’t be as much of an issue with the Royals. The organization has a top-notch training staff and a manager who is pretty good at keeping his players healthy.
If they succeed, they will have a power-hitting corner outfielder who beats up lefties and can cover center-field when Lorenzo Cain inevitably pulls a muscle, snaps a ligament or breaks a bone. Maxwell may not be the answer for a full-time right-field gig, but he’s a near-perfect fourth outfielder. He can accumulate 300-400 plate appearances and no one will groan when he comes to the plate.