Fans of Kansas City baseball were treated to a World Series title for the first time in 30 years in 2015, but there’s little time for GM Dayton Moore and his staff to rest, as the club will have a number of holes to fill this winter as it seeks a return to the promised land in 2016.
- Yordano Ventura, SP: $21.25MM through 2019 (includes buyout of 2020 option)
- Omar Infante, 2B: $17.75MM through 2017 (includes buyout of 2018 option)
- Jason Vargas, SP: $16.5MM through 2017
- Edinson Volquez, SP: $12.5MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 option)
- Wade Davis, RP: $10.5MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 option)
- Kendrys Morales, DH: $9MM through 2016 (plus 2017 mutual option)
- Eric Hosmer, 1B: $8.25MM through 2016 (arbitration eligible following 2016 season)
- Alcides Escobar, SS: $5.75MM through 2016 (includes buyout of 2017 option)
- Luke Hochevar, RP: $5.5MM through 2016 (plus 2017 mutual option)
- Kris Medlen, SP/RP: 5.5MM through 2016 (plus 2017 mutual option)
- Kelvin Herrera, RP: $2.55MM through 2016 (arbitration eligible following 2016 season)
- Salvador Perez, C: $2MM through 2016 (plus three club options)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Greg Holland (5.028) – $11.3MM
- Drew Butera (5.018) – $1.1MM
- Mike Moustakas (4.111) – $5.7MM
- Tim Collins (4.097) – $1.475MM
- Jarrod Dyson (4.088) – $1.7MM
- Danny Duffy (4.085) – $4.0MM
- Lorenzo Cain (4.074) – $6.1MM
- Louis Coleman (3.018) – $1.0MM
- Non-tender candidates: Holland (Tommy John surgery), Butera, Collins, Coleman
- Alex Gordon, $14MM player option: Gordon declined
- Wade Davis, $8MM club option: Exercised
- Alcides Escobar, $5.25MM club option: Exercised
- Alex Rios, $12.5MM mutual option: Royals declined ($1.5MM buyout)
- Jeremy Guthrie, $10MM mutual option: Royals declined ($3.2MM buyout)
While Royals fans celebrate the highest pinnacle in baseball, they’re left perhaps with a bittersweet taste in their mouths knowing that Game 5 of the World Series could have been the last in franchise icon Alex Gordon’s career with the team. Gordon is a free agent after declining a player option and a qualifying offer and will test the open market this winter in search of a significant deal. While some might hope to see Gordon take a discount to remain in Kansas City, his initial contract extension with the Royals proved quite favorable for the team, and he may now look to max out his market. Early indications are that the Royals are hoping to retain Gordon on a three- or four-year deal, but I expect clubs to be willing to offer five years, or at the very least, four years at an extremely premium annual value (think Hanley Ramirez money).
The Royals have never given out a contract worth more than $55MM, but if they’re to retain any of their top three free agents, that’s probably going to have to change. Zobrist is the possible exception, but he’s already been linked to roughly a dozen teams and is said to be seeking a four-year pact. If Zobrist does receive four years, it’ll be for more than $55MM in total. Cueto seems bound for a $100MM+ contract somewhere despite some late struggles — his dominant World Series effort probably quelled concerns to some degree, though there are still some red flags — and that type of contract is difficult to envision from the Royals.
Kansas City, then, could face the notion of needing to find a new left fielder, a possible right field upgrade, a second base upgrade, at least one (possibly two) starting pitcher(s) and multiple arms to fill out the bullpen. The front office is riding high on the team’s 2015 success, but Moore and his staff know there’s no shortage of work to be done, and the resources to accomplish that work might be tighter than many realize.
They Royals are already sitting at a projected $90.3MM in payroll, assuming they tender only Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Jarrod Dyson from their class of arb-eligible players. There are undoubtedly some additional World Series funds in Dayton Moore’s war chest, but when factoring in league-minimum players, the Royals are around $95.4MM — or only about $17MM shy of last year’s club-record $112.8MM Opening Day payroll. It should be noted that the Royals do have insurance on the contract of Jason Vargas, who had Tommy John surgery this past summer. The Kansas City Star’s Andy McCullough reported at the time that the team will get about $6MM of his $8.5MM salary back if he does not pitch next season, creating the potential for a bit more financial breathing room. Nonetheless, a return for either Zobrist or Gordon could bring them within striking distance of last year’s mark while only addressing one of the aforementioned needs.
The Royals are set behind the plate, where Salvador Perez, as most know, has one of the most team-friendly contracts in recent memory. He’s guaranteed $2MM next season and has three club options on his deal which range from $3.75MM (2017) to $6MM (2019). There’s been talk of extending Perez to make him a Royal for life, but from a pure baseball perspective, I’m not sure I see a reason to do so — at least not at this time. Perez is already under control cheaply through his age-29 season. As it stands, he’ll hit the open market entering his age-30 season and coming off an eight-year Royals career in which he’s been more heavily used than any catcher in the game. Perez caught 137 games in 2013, 146 (!) in 2014 and 139 in 2015 (not including postseason games). If that usage pattern continues, there’s no telling how his body will age, especially considering the fact that his 6’3″, 240-pound frame is rather large for a catcher in the first place. An extension that begins in 2020 seems overly risky from the team’s vantage point.
Turning to the infield, Eric Hosmer is a lock at first base, and there’s no doubt as to who will be manning shortstop (Alcides Escobar) or third base (Moustakas). The one possible area of upgrade, as previously mentioned, is at second base. Omar Infante is earning $7.75MM next season and has a sizable amount of money remaining on his contract, but he’s batted a dreadful .238/.268/.329 in two years with the Royals. That type of production won’t cut it for a contending club, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals shopped Infante around to see about lining up on an exchange of bad contracts. One speculative trade scenario would be to swap Infante for Milwaukee’s Matt Garza. While he’s owed more money, Garza could rebound in Kansas City’s large park and with their tremendous defense, making him a more palatable allocation of finances. (And, from the Brewers’ vantage point, Infante could fill in around a thin infield and would save them some money.)
If Infante is still in Kansas City next season, it could be in a bench role with either Christian Colon or an external addition slotting into the everyday role. That could mean a reunion with Zobrist on a three-year deal in the $16-18MM-per-year range — Zobrist has spoken highly of his time in Kansas City and resides in the relatively nearby Nashville, Tenn. — or a run at one of several free-agent second basemen. Howie Kendrick strikes me as a Royals-esque target, given his perennially high contact rate and his track record of solid defense (even if metrics like UZR and DRS felt he slowed down in 2015). Kendrick probably requires at least a three-year deal as well, however, if not four years, though I can envision a lesser annual rate than that of Zobrist in his case. Nevertheless, it’d make for a risky investment by the Royals. Chase Utley would be a more affordable alternative, though he’s far from a sure thing himself.
In the outfield, Cain will reprise his role as one of the game’s most valuable all-around players in center field. Last winter’s Alex Rios signing never paid full dividends, as he suffered a broken hand early in the season and was never terribly productive. The Royals could go with a platoon of Dyson and Paulo Orlando in right field, but the club balked at pursuing a platoon scenario with Dyson upon Nori Aoki’s departure following the 2014 season, so perhaps they’ll look for another full-time solution to keep Dyson in a reserve role.
Korean outfielder Ah-seop Son makes plenty of contact and has been favorably compared to Aoki. We’ll learn the outcome of Son’s posting next week, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kansas City take a look. Aoki himself is again a free agent, though he dealt with concussion issues late in the season. Gerardo Parra is another affordable corner option that fits the Royals’ profile, and a pursuit of either Austin Jackson or Denard Span has some logic behind it, if the allure of playing for the reigning World Champs makes either free agent more amenable to shifting out of center field.
The rotation is a clear area of need for Kansas City, as Cueto, Chris Young and Jeremy Guthrie are all free agents (though Guthrie lost his rotation spot this season anyhow). Additionally, the team will probably be without Jason Vargas until at least August or September, as the veteran lefty underwent Tommy John surgery in late July.
That leaves Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen as rotation options, and there’s plenty of uncertainty within that group. Ventura was demoted to Triple-A but recalled before making an appearance down there due to Vargas’ injury. While he was much improved after that possible wake-up call, he’s yet to demonstrate prolonged consistency in the Majors. Duffy logged a 4.35 ERA, 4.65 FIP and 4.80 xFIP as a starter last season before shining in a relief role. He’ll probably return to the rotation, but he’s never topped 155 innings in a season and hasn’t held up for a full year in the rotation. Medlen tossed a combined 88 2/3 innings in returning from his second Tommy John surgery, making an increase of 100 or so innings a lot to ask.
Bringing back Young, whose extreme fly-ball skill set meshes quite well with Kauffman Stadium and the Royals’ emphasis on outfield defense, could be a nice low-cost way to add some of the needed innings for Kansas City. Other low-cost options could include Colby Lewis and Mike Pelfrey.
Of course, the Royals don’t necessarily need to limit themselves to the bargain bin. While a run at David Price or a Zack Greinke reunion doesn’t seem realistic, Kansas City could play in the middle tier of rotation arms if owner David Glass is comfortable escalating the payroll beyond 2015’s Opening Day mark. Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo and Ian Kennedy are among the names whose annual values shouldn’t break the bank, and Kansas City could continue to employ its usage of mutual options to offset some of the early costs on a contract. Medlen, Morales, Hochevar and Volquez could each depart following the 2016 season, so backloading some contracts is an avenue that the Royals will consider. Kennedy, Pelfrey and perhaps Wei-Yin Chen, in particular, are plausible targets given Scott Boras’ seemingly strong relationship with ownership and the front office. (Hosmer, Moustakas, Rios, Hochevar, Colon, Holland and both Franklin and Kendrys Morales are repped by Boras.)
Trades, too, will be an avenue worth exploring. Options are vast, though in addition to the aforementioned Garza/Infante bad-contract swap, Oakland’s Jesse Chavez is reported to be available and would serve as an affordable name with whom the Royals are familiar. (Chavez pitched in Kansas City back in 2010-11 before breaking out with the A’s.) The names of Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran have both circulated in the rumor mill as well, though the cost of acquisition on either player would be high.
Whatever route the front office chooses, external rotation options are needed, as many of the arms from Kansas City’s once-vaunted farm system have graduated to the Majors (Duffy, Ventura) or been traded. John Lamb and Brandon Finnegan, for instance, went to Cincinnati in the Cueto deal, while Jake Odorizzi went to Tampa in the James Shields/Wil Myers trade. (Although, in retrospect, perhaps we should begin referring to that as the Wade Davis/Jake Odorizzi trade.)
As dominant as Kansas City’s bullpen has been in recent years, it’s going to be an area of need this winter. Brilliant closer Greg Holland pitched the better part of a year with a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Kansas City will non-tender Holland but hopes to work out a backloaded two-year deal to keep him in the organization. Regardless of the result of those efforts, Holland isn’t pitching in 2016.
That moves Davis into the closer’s role, which he’s more than equipped to handle. Kelvin Herrera can serve as his primary setup man, and the team will hope for Hochevar to look more like his dominant 2013 self than his 2015 self. That’s not to say he had a poor year — Hochevar, in fact, was quite solid in his first year back from Tommy John — but the blow of losing Holland would be softened were Hochevar to again deliver a sub-2.00 ERA.
The Royals are losing reclamation projects Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales to free agency and will need to replace both, in addition to Holland. Tim Collins will be back from his own Tommy John at some point, but a left-handed reliever should be acquired in some capacity. Tony Sipp is said to be a target of the Royals. As far as right-handed options to replace Madson and Holland, the Royals are believed to be interested in a reunion with Joakim Soria, but his price tag will be quite high. Shawn Kelley, Mark Lowe and Korean right-hander Seung-hwan Oh could all be more affordable options, to name a few.
While that, of course, is a rather lengthy to-do list for Moore and his staff, many of the pieces for a contending club are already in place. Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Perez and Escobar is a nice group of position players to build around, and a bullpen anchored by Davis and Herrera will be formidable. The rotation looks suspect at the moment, but there will be additions made, and Kansas City’s elite defense and huge park should benefit whatever collection of arms comprises next year’s rotation, much as it has the past two seasons.