The Royals' offseason revolves around their search for top-of-the-rotation pitching.
- Billy Butler, DH: $26.5MM through 2015
- Joakim Soria, RP: $6.75MM through 2012 (plus two club options)
- Aaron Crow, RP: $1.1MM through 2012
- Minor leaguer Noel Arguelles also has a guaranteed contract
Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)
- Mitch Maier, UT OF: $700K
- Chris Getz, UT IF: $1.2MM (non-tender candidate)
- Brayan Pena, C: $900K (non-tender candidate)
- Felipe Paulino, RP: $1.6MM
- Luke Hochevar, SP: $4MM
- Melky Cabrera, OF: $4MM
- Alex Gordon, OF: $4.3MM
For the Royals to continue their turnaround and post a winning record in 2012, they must acquire starting pitching this offseason. It's never easy to obtain front-end starters, but the Royals' strong, young core of position players and relievers will allow them to focus on adding to their rotation in the coming months.
The Royals finished next-to-last among Major League teams in rotation ERA in 2011 (4.82), only leading the Orioles. Their starters were also among the bottom ten teams in strikeout rate (5.9 K/9), walk rate (3.1 BB/9) and innings pitched. They need help and the farm system hasn't produced pitchers as prolifically as it has churned out position players.
Kansas City won 71 games on one of MLB's lowest payrolls last year: $38MM. It will be hard to avoid a more expensive 2012 team. If the Royals offer contracts to all their arbitration eligible players except Chris Getz and Brayan Pena, they'll have committed about $31.5MM in payroll before accounting for their many minimum salary players. They spent $75MM as recently as 2010, so GM Dayton Moore should be able to make competitive free agent offers if necessary, especially since Gil Meche chose not to accept the final $12MM on his contract.
Moore has said he'll look internally first, then to the trade market and finally at free agents as he searches for rotation help. It's possible Aaron Crow or Everett Teaford could transition to the rotation and join starters Luke Hochevar, Felipe Paulino and Danny Duffy.
The trade market may feature pitchers such as James Shields, Gio Gonzalez, Jason Vargas and Wandy Rodriguez. The Braves, Moore's former team, have impressive pitching depth and Mike Minor and Jair Jurrjens could be linked to the Royals, who have said they'll trade prospects for pitchers. Minor leaguers Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi could join the rotation in 2012, while John Lamb will spend much of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Two of the Royals' most effective and reliable starters, Jeff Francis and Bruce Chen, are eligible for free agency and could re-sign in Kansas City. It makes sense for the Royals to offer arbitration to Chen, a Type B free agent. If he accepts, they have a solid starter for a few million on a one-year deal. If he declines and signs elsewhere, the Royals obtain a supplementary first-round pick in 2012.
The free agent market also offers front-end pitchers, but it's hard to imagine C.C. Sabathia or C.J. Wilson leaving their current teams for Kansas City. Free agent Edwin Jackson would instantly become the Royals' top starter and they could theoretically add an ace by winning the bidding for Yu Darvish. Realistically, it would be problematic for the small-market Royals to fit an elite free agent into the budget, so Moore's reluctance to build through free agency makes sense.
Joakim Soria struggled at times last year and the Royals' bullpen wasn't overwhelming, but there's reason for optimism. Soria, Greg Holland, Blake Wood, Tim Collins and Louis Coleman provide manager Ned Yost with many viable options. That doesn't include possible starters Crow and Teaford or Rule 5 acquisition Nathan Adcock. Next year's bullpen appears to be in place, though the Royals could trade some relief depth to obtain the starting pitching they need.
Few teams integrated as many rookie position players as the Royals in 2011, as Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella and Mike Moustakas established themselves as starters. Even so, Kansas City finished sixth in the American League in runs scored (730). Every Royals regular is under team control next year, so Moore can build his bench and consider extensions.
Chris Getz could provide the Royals with depth behind Giavotella, but at $1.2MM, Getz would cost three times as much as Yamaico Navarro and has become a non-tender candidate. The same can be said for Brayan Pena, now that 24-year-old Manny Pina is a legitimate option behind the plate. The Royals could also non-tender Pena and seek a more established backup, such as Kelly Shoppach, Jose Molina or Ivan Rodriguez. Handing over the catching duties to Perez and Pina would show a level of confidence teams rarely display with rookie backstops. Perez and Pina have just 43 combined games of MLB experience, so I believe it would be too much to ask them to hit, catch and help develop a young pitching staff without the support of a more experienced catcher.
Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur, two of Moore's best free agent acquisitions, will join Alex Gordon in next year's outfield. It's possible that the Royals will discuss an extension with Gordon — MLBTR's Tim Dierkes has suggested a four-year deal for less than $30MM could work for both sides — and they might even look to extend Cabrera. However, it wouldn't be surprising if outfield prospect Wil Myers reached the Majors in 2012, so the Royals may not want to lock up their entire outfield, despite its impressive production in 2011.
The Royals are better-positioned than most of baseball's 90-loss teams. They have no bad contracts on the books and many promising prospects in the minor leagues. Their young position players are proving themselves at the Major League level and their bullpen features intriguing, effective arms. Dayton Moore's next challenge, the search for a front-of-the-rotation starter or two, will define Kansas City's offseason and shape the team's chances in 2012.