Offseason Outlook: Kansas City Royals

The Royals came close to a playoff berth for the first time in decades in 2013, but major questions surround their rotation heading into the offseason.

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General Manager Dayton Moore’s rebuild of the Royals' organization finally bore fruit at the Major League level in 2013, as products of the farm system and trades helped propel the team to its first winning campaign since 2003. No longer the American League Central’s perennial doormat, the Royals remained in the hunt for a wild card spot until the final weeks of the season, a significant step forward for a club that hasn’t been considered a legitimate contender in at least 20 years. The accomplishment netted manager Ned Yost a two-year contract extension, and something similar could be in the pipeline for Moore. His current deal runs through 2014, and it’s not often that a manager’s contract extends beyond that of the GM who hired him.

Following an 86-win season, conventional wisdom might suggest that Royals officials simply need to make a few tweaks to push the club into contention in the AL Central. And indeed, with players considered to be franchise cornerstones at several positions across the diamond, the Royals are unlikely to see a large-scale makeover this winter on the offensive side of the ball. Young players such as first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez turned in strong seasons. Shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas were liabilities at the plate, but both continued to play good defense and look to get at least one more season’s worth of plate appearances to try to figure things out. Left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler, other franchise fixtures, are coming off of down seasons but have time left on long-term extensions.

The Royals’ bullpen is also unlikely to see significant turnover. While we can’t count on Royals relievers to be as dominant in 2014 as they were this year — the unit’s 2.55 ERA was easily the AL’s best — all key contributors are in line to return next season. Pieces like Greg Holland (67 IP, 1.21 ERA), Tim Collins (53 1/3 IP, 3.54 ERA) and Aaron Crow (48 IP, 3.38 ERA) are under club control for years to come, so expect any bullpen signings to be limited to deals for situational arms. Luke Hochevar is a bit of a wildcard, as his success this year in the pen (70 1/3 IP, 1.92 ERA) could lead the Royals to try him again as a starter.

Things change when we turn to the rotation, where Moore and his lieutenants may find themselves making significant investments this winter just to stay in place. Ervin Santana stands out as the most prominent example — his 211 innings of 3.24 ERA ball will be tough to replace if he departs to another team in free agency. While there’s some possibility that the Royals could retain Santana — they’ve already indicated they plan to extend him a qualifying offer, which would depress other teams’ enthusiasm for the righty — the No. 6 ranked player on our Free Agent Power Rankings is likely to attract plenty of other suitors. In addition, Moore has said that he expects 2014’s payroll to hover in the range of this season’s $82MM, suggesting Santana could quickly price himself beyond the Royals’ budget. Another decision looms with free agent Bruce Chen, whose 3.27-ERA, 121-inning season places him firmly in crafty lefty territory. The Royals may opt to pass on bringing back the 36-year-old Chen, however, if his asking price extends to two years.

There’s more uncertainty in the rotation behind Santana and Chen. It’s an open question how long Jeremy Guthrie can continue his low strikeout rate tightrope act, as his K% fell to 12.3% this season, good for last in the majors among qualified starters. Guthrie doesn’t walk many batters, but it’s difficult to survive in today’s game if you don’t miss more bats than Guthrie does. Elsewhere in the rotation, Wade Davis may get another shot at turning things around in 2014, but he should be on a short leash if he doesn’t turn in better results than the 5.32 ERA he coughed up this year. Even rotation anchor James Shields, the prize of the controversial Wil Myers trade, saw his peripherals slip despite a sterling 3.15 ERA in 228 2/3 innings. If he posts similar strikeout and walk rates next year, Shields could see his ERA rise to something more in line with the 3.72 that xFIP projected him for this year.

Luckily, several young pitchers may be ready to help the Royals’ staff in 2014. Yordano Ventura turned heads in the season’s final weeks by lighting up the radar gun with a triple-digit fastball, and he should be in the mix for a rotation spot in 2014 Spring Training — particularly if the club can’t hang on to Santana. Top prospect Kyle Zimmer could reach the big-league team at some point next season. There’s also Danny Duffy, who clawed his way back from Tommy John surgery to make five starts as the season drew to a close. If one of these three can stick in the majors in 2014, the rotation picture looks magnitudes brighter.

In an October Kansas City Star article, Moore was quoted as saying that the Royals would like to add or retain a veteran starter, given the inexperience of pitchers such as Ventura and Duffy. One-year deals for a reclamation project along the lines of Dan Haren or Phil Hughes could make sense, or the Royals could look to swing a trade for an arm with bounce-back potential, as they did with Santana around this time last year. However, Moore adds in the same article that it’s not inconceivable that the Royals enter 2014 without having acquired a veteran pitcher. “The bullpen was used very wisely this year,” Moore said. “ … If our bullpen has to be used a little bit more next year in the first part of the season, so be it.” Comments such as these suggest that the Royals will look to make an acquisition but are comfortable with the pieces they have in place if the right opportunity doesn’t materialize.

After the team scored just 648 runs this season, many Royals fans expect Moore to conduct a thorough search for offensive help over the winter. Second base stands out as an immediate need, as Royals second basemen hit just .240/.296/.306 for the year. Emilio Bonifacio slashed his way to a .285/.352/.348 line and stole 16 bases down the stretch after coming over from the Blue Jays in August, appearing to stabilize the position for the Royals. However, The Star’s Bob Dutton writes that the club will still look to acquire a second baseman this winter, with an eye toward shifting Bonifacio to a utility role. Who might pique their interest?

The Royals’ name surfaced frequently in trade talks surrounding the Angels’ Howie Kendrick in July, and as an above-average hitter who’s provided quality defense at second base, he appears to be a fit. However, Kendrick will require a significant prospect haul in return. Ian Kinsler is another veteran target, given the Rangers’ middle infielder logjam, but he’s just a year into a five-year, $75MM contract — consummating a deal would likely require the Rangers to absorb a significant portion of that amount. It goes without saying, but trades for proven performers like these would be expensive and risky for a small-market team like the Royals. And yet, I’d be surprised to see Moore target a buy-low candidate like Danny Espinosa or Rickie Weeks – with Bonifacio in the fold, the Royals can afford to be a bit more selective.

It's worth noting that ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted earlier this week that the Royals are "ready to talk" about including Butler in a trade this winter, a report Dutton later confirmed. Dutton noted, however, that Moore has indicated he's willing to trade any player in the right deal. Dealing Country Breakfast for say, an everyday second baseman this winter would be selling low on a player who posted a 116 OPS+ this season but who had previously managed a mark of at least 125 every year since 2009. It would also immediately task the Royals with finding DH help outside the organization, as there doesn't appear to be a player in the minors ready to replace Butler.

If the Royals can't put together a trade for a second baseman, Omar Infante could be an option — behind Robinson Cano, he’s probably the best player available at the keystone in free agency. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes predicted a three-year, $25MM deal for the 31-year-old, which might be in the Royals’ price range. Beyond Infante, though, it’s an uninspiring market.

The outfield would also appear to be in need of an upgrade — Royals outfielders collectively hit just .259/.314/.392 in 2013. However, that same group also combined for a 52.5 UZR, suggesting that they were the majors’ best defensive outfield by a wide margin. Adding a marquee name like Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury is likely out of the question for the Royals, and the club may eventually decide that the defense-focused unit they have in place is a better fit for spacious Kauffman Stadium than a free agent outfielder from the second tier. Nelson Cruz, for example, hasn’t posted quality defensive numbers for years. And in Kauffman, he may not provide enough of an offensive upgrade over the late-season David LoughJustin Maxwell platoon to counteract the defensive downgrade. Instead, a player like Marlon Byrd could work for the Royals, as he grades out as a strong right fielder and could provide an offensive boost even with some regression from this year's standout season.

The Royals found themselves on the cusp of contention in 2013 for the first time in decades. However, the club must address multiple holes this offseason if it hopes to stay there. Significant regression is likely in the starting rotation, and success in 2014 likely hinges on whether Moore & Co. can counteract it. The Royals will also need to find a way to add to their young offense, as this isn’t a playoff-caliber lineup as currently projected.

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