The 2014 Royals went from playoff hopeful to Wild Card winners to a Cinderella team that made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. While the Giants ultimately prevailed, the team’s success brought about a baseball renaissance in Kansas City, leading to passionate and raucous crowds at Kaufman Stadium throughout the entire postseason. Now, GM Dayton Moore and his staff must determine how best to position the team for a repeat of that success despite several escalating salaries and the departures of key free agents.
- Omar Infante, 2B: $25.25MM through 2017 (including buyout of 2018 option)
- Jason Vargas, LHP: $25MM through 2017
- Alex Gordon, LF: $12.5MM through 2015
- Jeremy Guthrie, RHP: $12.2MM through 2015 (including buyout of 2016 option)
- Wade Davis, RHP: $7MM through 2015
- Salvador Perez, C: $3.75MM through 2016
- Alcides Escobar, SS: $3.5MM through 2015 (including buyout of 2016 option)
Arbitration Eligible Players (Service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)
- Jayson Nix, INF (5.055): $950K projected salary
- Greg Holland, RHP (4.028): $9.3MM
- Aaron Crow, RHP (4.000): $2MM
- Eric Hosmer, 1B (3.146): $5.2MM
- Mike Moustakas, 3B (3.111): $2.7MM
- Tim Collins, LHP (3.096): $1.5MM
- Jarrod Dyson, OF (3.088): $1.3MM
- Danny Duffy, LHP (3.083): $2.6MM
- Lorenzo Cain, OF (3.074): $2.3MM
- Louis Coleman, RHP (2.159): $700K
- Kelvin Herrera, RHP (2.157): $1.5MM
- Non-tender candidates: Nix, Coleman
- James Shields, Billy Butler, Nori Aoki, Josh Willingham (retiring), Jason Frasor, Luke Hochevar, Scott Downs, Raul Ibanez
Other payroll obligations
- $1MM owed to Bruce Chen for buyout of 2015 option
The Royals opened the 2014 season with a payroll just over $92MM, and they’re already at $52.75MM in 2015 simply by exercising their option on Wade Davis and buying out the option on Billy Butler. That figure doesn’t include arbitration raises for any of the many arb-eligible players, nor does it include pre-arbitration players to round out the roster. Going off Matt Swartz’s projections, arbitration alone figures to boost the Royals up to $81MM in guarantees — a figure that would jump into the mid-$80MMs when factoring in pre-arb salaries.
There isn’t much room between that projection and the Opening Day payroll of 2014, but of course, there will be extra funds to spend thanks to the team’s deep postseason run. Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star wrote recently that the payroll could surpass $100MM for the first time, meaning GM Dayton Moore could have a fairly well-stocked war chest for the offseason. McCullough reported that room for one fairly significant addition does seem to exist.
Perhaps the biggest area of concern for the Royals will be in the starting rotation. Although the team is said to have a strong desire to retain James Shields, odds are that another team will outbid the Royals by a fairly significant margin. That would leave the club with a rotation consisting of Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie. The team does fancy Brandon Finnegan an eventual starter despite his key role in the postseason bullpen, but dropping him right into the fire from day one next season might be ambitious. He threw just 40 innings between the Royals (minors, regular season and postseason) plus another 105 2/3 innings at TCU last year.
The free agent market features a number of second-tier options at starting pitcher, and though the top names among that second tier — Brandon McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Kenta Maeda and old friend Ervin Santana — could command average annual values north of $12MM on multi-year commitments, that seems to be within the Royals’ means. Indeed, McCullough specifically listed Santana as a target for the Royals when writing about the payroll, and there’s said to be mutual interest between the two sides. Of course, if Moore doesn’t want to spend most of his available money in one place, he could look to more affordable arms like Jason Hammel or try to catch lightning in a bottle by signing Brett Anderson or Brandon Morrow in hopes of getting 150+ innings of strong production should either finally remain healthy.
An alternative solution is the trade market. Reports have already indicated that the Royals will at least listen on some names they’d likely be loath to move, including Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. However, in my eyes, the clearest area for the team to shed some payroll is by breaking up the core of the “big three” relievers that gained so much notoriety in this year’s postseason. Greg Holland could stage a legitimate argument for being the game’s best closer, but he’s also projected to earn a whopping $9.3MM next season — a mark that represents about 10 percent of Kansas City’s Opening Day payroll from 2014. Combining to pay Holland and Davis $16.3MM seems a luxury that is too much for Kansas City to afford. However, with two years of team control remaining, Holland will be an attractive asset even with his quickly escalating salary and could fetch some strong young talent in a trade. Davis could slot into the closer’s role, with Herrera becoming the primary setup man. Given Davis’ club options for 2016 ($8MM) and 2017 ($10M), the additional saves won’t drive up his price tag through arbitration as they would Holland’s. Moore has stated that he thinks the team can afford both, however, and the Royals are reportedly even looking to add to their bullpen, so that speculation may be far-fetched, but it does carry some logic, in my mind.
Around the infield, the Royals are set at nearly every position. Catcher Salvador Perez is one of the game’s best bargains, Hosmer will look to return to his 2013 offensive production, Omar Infante and Alcides Escobar will form the double-play tandem, and Mike Moustakas will hope to build off a sound postseason in which he flashed legitimate power. It’s worth debating whether or not the team could look to upgrade over Hosmer and Moustakas, each of whom has disappointed to some level (Moustakas in particular, at the plate at least), but both have been looked at as cornerstone pieces in the past and both possess significant upside that makes it difficult for Kansas City to go in another direction. At the very least, a right-handed platoon option that can handle either corner infield spot seems like it would be a wise acquisition.
In the outfield, Alex Gordon may be baseball’s best left fielder, and the team can either choose to lean on Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson in center/right or platoon the two and pursue an external right fielder. A reunion with Aoki, to whom they’ve already been connected, can’t be ruled out. The Royals are also reportedly interested in Torii Hunter, and had been listed as a serious suitor for Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, though he is reportedly off the market. An additional (and completely speculative) target could be Justin Upton, who’s owed $14.5MM next year before hitting the open market. Moore knows the Atlanta brass well, and Upton would add some legitimate power (at the expense of defensive value). And, he could net the team a draft pick next winter if he signed elsewhere. However, Atlanta would ask for some high-upside names, likely pitchers, and if the Braves want a Major League ready starter, as they got for Jason Heyward, the very mention of the names “Duffy” or “Ventura” would likely end those talks before they began in earnest.
Another question for the Royals will be how to replace longtime DH Billy Butler, who signed a three-year, $30MM contract with the A’s last week. Kansas City could look to Mike Morse as a DH or attempt to buy low on Corey Hart or Kendrys Morales if the preference is to avoid spending big on designated hitter (which would explain Butler’s departure). They could also elect to use DH as a spot to give Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas and a potential free agent outfield addition some rest (particularly if K.C. ends up adding an older veteran like Hunter). In the conference call discussing Butler’s departure, Moore told reporters, including MLBTR’s own Zach Links, that he was open to either scenario — a dedicated DH or a rotation to keep multiple regulars fresh.
One final piece for Kansas City could be a bullpen arm. Free agent Jason Frasor pitched well in Kansas City after being acquired from Texas and will leave a void in bridging the gap from starter to closer. A reunion could make sense, as he figures to land a one-year deal at a modest cost and knows the team well. Otherwise, I’d peg Kansas City as a potential landing spot for Pat Neshek, Jason Grilli and other solid arms that won’t come with an exorbitant annual value.
In the end, the Royals should be able to boost payroll above $100MM this offseason, but the large arbitration raises due for their core players will prevent them from spending too freely. Moore and his staff could very well look to the trade market to alleviate some of that pressure. The cost-controlled core that is in place should provide the foundation for another run at an AL Central title, so long as the team is able to replace the value lost by Shields’ seemingly inevitable departure. Significant steps forward from Hosmer or Moustakas may take care of that on their own, but Kansas City would be wise to supplement the roster so that those steps forward would be a bonus rather than a necessity.