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A lengthy rebuild for the Royals culminated in consecutive World Series appearances and a 2015 championship, but competitive cycles are an ever-present reality for smaller- and mid-market clubs, and the Kansas City organization now faces what will likely be a franchise-altering offseason.
- Danny Duffy, LHP: $60MM through 2021
- Ian Kennedy, RHP: $49MM through 2020
- Alex Gordon, OF: $44MM through 2019 (includes $4MM buyout of 2020 mutual option)
- Salvador Perez, C: $43.5MM through 2021
- Jorge Soler, OF/DH: $12MM through 2020 (may opt into arbitration this offseason but is unlikely to do so)
- Jason Hammel, RHP: $11MM through 2018 (includes $2MM buyout of 2019 mutual option)
- Joakim Soria, RHP: $10MM through 2018 (includes $1MM buyout of 2019 mutual option)
- Brandon Moss, 1B/DH: $8.25MM through 2018 (includes $1MM buyout of 2019 mutual option)
- Drew Butera, C: $2.3MM through 2018
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Kelvin Herrera (5.157) – $8.3MM
- Brandon Maurer (4.089) – $3.8MM
- Mike Morin (3.089) – $700K
- Nate Karns (3.033) – $1.4MM
- Non-tender candidate: Morin
Other Financial Obligations
- $6MM to the Padres for Travis Wood’s contract
- Eric Hosmer (received qualifying offer), Lorenzo Cain (received qualifying offer), Mike Moustakas (received qualifying offer), Mike Minor, Jason Vargas, Alcides Escobar, Trevor Cahill, Melky Cabrera, Peter Moylan
A year ago at this time, I noted that the Royals would be facing some tough decisions on their longtime core of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Alcides Escobar and Wade Davis. With each of that group set to hit free agency after the 2017 campaign, it was a virtual impossibility that the Royals could retain them all. Kansas City took definitive action with two of the six, locking Duffy up on a franchise-record deal for a pitcher while trading Davis to the Cubs in the hope that former super-prospect Jorge Soler could blossom in a new setting. (Thus far, it has not worked.)
The other four remained with the club as GM Dayton Moore and his staff eyed one more run at a postseason berth with the core that brought baseball back to life in K.C. The Royals were in possession of a Wild Card spot at the trade deadline and had just watched the former first-place Twins drop six of seven games. Moore acted decisively, operating as a buyer rather than selling off Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas for prospects.
The GM has drawn his share of flak for that, but he’d almost certainly have been widely criticized for selling while in possession of a playoff spot had he moved his veteran core. That’d send an awful message to fans, and the city would’ve been left wondering what might’ve been when the team plummeted in the standings. That outcome, unfortunately, came to fruition for the Royals in spite of acquiring Melky Cabrera, Trevor Cahill, Ryan Buchter and Brandon Maurer. While Cabrera and Cahill have departed for free agency, both Maurer and Buchter can remain on hand as longer-term pieces in the bullpen.
In addition to whatever value Maurer and Buchter provide in future seasons, Kansas City will quite likely recoup three picks in the 30 to 35 range of next year’s draft if Hosmer, Cain and Moustakas all sign elsewhere. That will give them one of the largest bonus pools to work with in the amateur draft — a nice consolation prize and a good start on restocking a farm system that was depleted by trades for Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist and others over the course of the Royals’ impressive run of success.
While it can’t be entirely ruled out that the Royals bring back one of their departing stars — they’re reportedly most focused on Hosmer and Moustakas — it’s also difficult to see how they’d fit into a crowded payroll picture. Agent Scott Boras figures to pitch owner David Glass on the importance of both Hosmer and Moustakas not only to the on-field unit but also to the clubhouse and to the fanbase. Whether that argument carries weight with ownership remains to be seen.
Hosmer is a polarizing free agent due to his inconsistencies at the plate and the disconnect between scouts’ positive valuation of his defense and his substandard defensive metrics. He has at times been one of the better-looking hitters in the American League but has also yet to string together consecutive excellent seasons. He won his fourth Gold Glove this season but also posted one of the worst Defensive Runs Saved totals of any first baseman.
The Royals are said to love Hosmer, though, and he’s been one of the faces of the franchise as the team has returned to prominence in the AL. It’s possible that ownership ultimately views him as a special exception and fits him into the payroll, though doing so would eat up the majority of the Royals’ resources while only addressing one spot on a roster that is teeming with question marks.
Recent reports have suggested that the Royals are growing increasingly pessimistic about their chances of retaining any of that trio, though. If it ultimately proves that all three sign elsewhere, it’d open a number of doors for Moore and his staff as they ask themselves whether to take aim at another playoff pursuit in 2018 or to set their sights on a return to contention a couple of years down the line.
The Royals have little in the way of short-term assets that they could sell off for prospects. Late-inning relievers Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria would appeal to contenders, but both are fairly expensive and come with just one year of control. (Soria technically has two, but the second year is a mutual option, which is almost never exercised by both parties.) Brandon Moss and Jason Hammel each struggled in the first season of their respective two-year deals in 2017; Moss surely comes with negative trade value, while the best the Royals may be able to hope with regard to Hammel is that his 180 innings and respectable FIP convince a competitor to take a decent chunk of his salary off their hands.
If Kansas City deems, then, that a full rebuild is necessary, it’d have to face the tough scenarios of marketing longer-term assets in trades. Left-hander Danny Duffy, who has four years and $60MM remaining on his contract, would be one of the top starting pitchers on the trade market and could fetch multiple quality prospects and/or an MLB-ready young talent. Few teams are aggressively seeking starting catchers, but dangling the remaining four years of Perez’s contract would cause some teams to rethink their catching situations. And late-blooming star Whit Merrifield, controlled all the way through 2022, would be of immediate interest to teams in need of infield upgrades.
That said, the American League Central isn’t an intimidating division at present, with both the White Sox and Tigers rebuilding. Rather than a full rebuild, it seems likelier that Kansas City could look to operate similarly to the 2016-17 offseason. Herrera and/or Soria could be marketed as a means of acquiring some young talent and shedding payroll while still largely attempting to field a competitive unit. After all, both Duffy and Perez would come with substantial value whether marketed now, next summer or next offseason. With that in mind, the Royals may well look to shorter-term solutions at affordable rates as they wait for Moss, Hammel and albatross deals for Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon to come off the books.
In the outfield, the Royals will have little choice but to hope that Gordon can somewhat return to form in the third season of a four-year, $72MM contract that has proven disastrous thus far. Jorge Bonifacio’s .255/.320/.432 output and 17 homers this past season could get him a full season’s worth of at-bats in right field, and the Royals at some point likely feel they need to see what they have in Jorge Soler — be it as a DH or an outfielder. Paulo Orlando and Terrance Gore remain on the 40-man roster, but at this point there’s little reason to believe that either can hit enough to command regular playing time in the Majors. Bubba Starling represents another 40-man option, but he posted a dismal .303 OBP in 80 games at Triple-A last year. Billy Burns gives Kansas City another option for a reserve role.
All of that is to say, there’s probably room for at least one outfield addition. Cameron Maybin has already been reported as a potential option, and there’s a natural on-paper fit for Jarrod Dyson to return to the Royals as a free agent. If the Royals are willing to spend a bit more, then Carlos Gomez could be brought in to play center field and likely provide more offense than any of the previously mentioned outfield candidates.
The infield is also rife with options but littered with uncertainty. Merrifield will absolutely hold down a starting spot after hitting .288/.324/.460 with 19 homers and a league-leading 34 steals. The rest of the infield is anyone’s guess. Assistant GM J.J. Picollo recently told MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan that some combination of Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier could man the infield corners in 2018 if neither Hosmer nor Moustakas is retained. Moss will be on hand as a first-base/DH option, unless the Royals can find a taker for his salary (a daunting task in a market with so many left-handed corner bats already available). Young Raul Mondesi Jr. will likely be given the opportunity to prove his mettle at shortstop.
As is the case in the outfield, though, there’s enough uncertainty here that the Royals could add a veteran without completely blocking the paths of all their young but unproven options. Logan Morrison has already stated that it’d be a “dream come true” to play in front of his family for his hometown Royals. The Royals could once again try to wait out the first-base market as they did last winter, hoping to land a bat at a discount rate, as the supply again looks to outstrip the demand for such players.
It’s a similar situation at shortstop; as intriguing as Mondesi may be, it’d be hard not to take a look at Zack Cozart if his market remains in the three-year range. At a certain point, he represents a notable value play even if he “blocks” a shortstop option. Furthermore, Merrifield could theoretically be moved to third base or left field if the team wished to get Mondesi or prospect Nicky Lopez a look at second base.
On the pitching front, the Royals will enter the year with Duffy, Hammel, Kennedy, Jake Junis and Nate Karns penciled into the rotation — at least as things currently stand. Certainly, there’s room for another addition. Junis has yet to log a full big league season, while Karns is returning from thoracic outlet surgery. Duffy, Hammel and Kennedy have all had injuries in recent seasons as well, and no club can expect to navigate a full season with just five starters. Eric Skoglund and Sam Gaviglio are nice depth pieces, but there’s room for the Royals to add either a bounceback candidate or a solid innings eater. Chris Tillman, Clay Buchholz and Brett Anderson are among the rebound candidates available, while Jaime Garcia, Wade Miley, R.A. Dickey and Doug Fister are among the names that could be counted on for some back-of-the-rotation innings.
The bullpen, too, should give the Royals ample room to make some opportunistic additions later in the offseason. It’d be unwise to jump early and beat the market for a top-tier reliever, but there are always a few arms expected to receive hefty multi-year deals that ultimately settle for more reasonable one- and two-year pacts. It’s next to impossible to accurately forecast which arms will be left out in the cold, so to speak, but the Royals’ in-between status heading into the 2018 season likely affords them the luxury of waiting to find out.
Kansas City opened the 2017 season with a franchise-record $143MM payroll and brought that number closer to $150MM by the end of the season. With Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain all potentially departing, it’s hard to imagine owner David Glass green-lighting anything beyond that 2017 Opening Day mark. The Royals currently project to have around $129MM on next year’s books, though potential trades of Herrera, Soria, Hammel or Moss would impact that number. Assuming there’s no exception made for one of the big three free agents, then, Kansas City could have somewhere in $10-20MM worth of available funds to add to the 2018 roster (again, contingent on moving at least one veteran’s contract).
It’s not an enormous amount to play with, but the Royals have made a habit of backloading contracts and effectively utilizing mutual options as an accounting tactic to defer the guaranteed salary on a contract. That strategy could again allow the team to pursue some veterans on two- and three-year commitments this offseason.
The Royals are highly unlikely to enter the 2018 season as any kind of division favorite. However, the fact that they’re in a division with two all-out rebuilders and have their most appealing trade assets controlled for another four years makes a compelling case for Kansas City to sell short-term assets and make mid-range commitments in an effort to hang around in 2018. If that plan fails to pan out, they’ll still be able to fall back on dealing their most palatable chips down the road and embarking on a more aggressive rebuild.