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The Orioles are the only team in baseball that lost more games than the Royals in 2018, but the Kansas City organization has suggested it doesn’t plan to embark on a lengthy rebuild featuring multiple years of tanking. Significant improvement, however, remains a tall order for general manager Dayton Moore and his staff.
- Danny Duffy, LHP: $46MM through 2021
- Salvador Perez, C: $36MM through 2021
- Ian Kennedy, RHP: $33MM through 2020
- Alex Gordon, OF: $20MM through 2019
- Jorge Soler, OF/DH: $8MM through 2020
- Wily Peralta, RHP: $3.25MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Alcides Escobar, Jason Hammel (option declined), Brandon Maurer (outrighted), Nate Karns (outrighted), Paulo Orlando (outrighted)
The Royals lost an abysmal 104 games in 2018. While it was never expected that they’d contend for a division title, general manager Dayton Moore expressed open disappointment and frustration with his team’s noncompetitive nature — both in the days leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline and again, more emphatically, after the conclusion of the season. “I think when you create a mindset that we’re rebuilding, you somehow build in or make an excuse that’s it’s OK to lose baseball games,” said Moore when speaking to reporters in mid-October. “It’s not. … That’s our responsibility — to win games.”
If Moore’s comments do indeed indicate that he’ll make a concerted effort to make the Royals a more competitive club in 2019, he could be walking a fine line. The Royals are reportedly aiming to cut payroll by as much as $35MM next season after spending at record levels, and that won’t leave Moore with a great deal of flexibility when pursuing upgrades. Much of the payroll cutting can be accomplished organically; the contracts of Hammel, Brandon Moss and Travis Wood are now all off the books, while 2018-19 free agents such as Kelvin Herrera, Mike Moustakas, Lucas Duda and Jon Jay were moved during the season — most with some degree of salary relief being included in the deal. The Royals, Moore explained in July, deliberately sought players who were MLB-ready or close to it (e.g. Brett Phillips, Jorge Lopez, Kelvin Gutierrez) — a further sign that ownership and management don’t want to see another prolonged stretch of futility.
The Royals have also already cut ties with would-be arbitration-eligible players like Nate Karns and Brandon Maurer, further reducing their 2019 payroll projections. At present, between the six guaranteed deals referenced above, the three arb-eligibles remaining and another 14 pre-arbitration players to round out the 25-man roster, Kansas City projects to enter the season with a payroll just north of $90MM. As such, they’re already looking at a savings of roughly $31.5MM over their 2018 Opening Day payroll. That falls within the reported $30-35MM target range, but doesn’t leave for much in the way of free-agent pickups or added salary on the trade market.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Royals are precluded from adding any pieces at all. Perhaps ownership recognizes that it’s simply not possible to add much to this roster, as currently constructed, and keep payroll in the $90MM range. Perhaps the front office will be permitted to apply any savings accrued in last year’s midseason trades toward the 2019 payroll. (The Royals, for instance, saved more than $4MM by trading Herrera to the Nationals in early June.) Kansas City has also habitually backloaded contracts during Moore’s time as GM — often utilizing mutual options with relatively notable buyouts as an accounting measure to effectively defer some of the guaranteed portion of the deal. Moustakas, Hammel, Moss, Wood, Mike Minor, Chris Young, Edinson Volquez, Joakim Soria and Kendrys Morales all had mutual options on their free-agent pacts with the Royals.
It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that the Royals will add much salary to the books in 2019, but if we see yet another offseason of somewhat creative spending out of Kauffman Stadium, there are a few obvious areas of upgrade — starting with the bullpen. Kansas City, at present, will have Peralta back in a late-inning role after he enjoyed a rebound year, to an extent. The former Brewers starter posted a solid 3.67 ERA and averaged better than a strikeout per inning but also walked 23 batters in 34 1/3 innings. Beyond him, Flynn and Tim Hill are options from the left side while Jesse Hahn, Kevin McCarthy, Burch Smith and Jorge Lopez are options from the right side. With Hahn, Lopez and Flynn all out of minor league options, they’ll need to make the roster in some capacity or be exposed to waivers.
When a bullpen’s most established figure walked more than six batters per nine innings the season prior, there’s obviously plenty in the way of openings. It’d be a surprise to see the Royals spend on top-tier relief arms or even those in the second tier of free agents, but the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium and the allure of guaranteed innings could help draw rebound candidates like David Phelps and Drew Storen (2017 Tommy John surgery) or AJ Ramos and Carson Smith (2018 shoulder surgery). Relievers coming off down seasons (e.g. Tyler Lyons, Justin Wilson) could make some sense, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a backloaded two-year pact for a solid but non-elite reliever coming off a quality season — someone in the Bud Norris vein, perhaps. There’s little reason for the Royals not to be active on the waiver wire and in offering minor league pacts with Spring Training invites, as well.
In the rotation, things look to be more set. Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jakob Junis and Brad Keller (arguably the most successful pick in last year’s Rule 5 Draft) figure to have rotation spots more or less set in stone. Hahn, Lopez, Heath Fillmyer and Trevor Oaks are among the options in the fifth spot. That said, the back of the rotation does present the Royals with the opportunity to promise some innings to rebound candidate with some upside; Drew Pomeranz, Lance Lynn and Tyson Ross could all make some level of sense in that five spot.
As for the more expensive names who are already penciled into rotation slots, it seems rather unlikely that the Royals would move them. Selling low on Duffy, a core piece who a season ago looked like a solid trade chip, would be difficult for the Royals, and it’s unlikely that they’d be able to accomplish that goal without absorbing some of the $46MM remaining on his deal. Financial help would be all the more required to move Kennedy, who has floundered through 52 starts and allowed 54 home runs through 273 1/3 innings over the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, the lineup is perhaps a bit more set than some would expect. Salvador Perez is entrenched at catcher and unlikely to be traded despite the fact that there’d be interest. Whit Merrifield has quietly emerged as one of the better all-around players in the American League (9.4 rWAR, 8.1 fWAR over the past two seasons), while his double-play partner, Adalberto Mondesi, hit .276/.306/.498 with 14 homers and 32 steals in just 75 games last year. Mondesi badly needs to improve his plate discipline (3.8 percent walk rate, 37.1 percent chase rate, 18.2 percent swinging-strike rate), but he clearly has some pop and isn’t lacking in baserunning or defensive chops. At first base, Ryan O’Hearn emerged late in the season and bludgeoned right-handed pitching at a .313/.403/.705 clip. Some regression is coming, but he could be paired with an affordable righty free-agent pickup late in the season to form a platoon. Hunter Dozier and Cheslor Cuthbert remain on hand as internal options for that role, but neither has hit in the Majors to date — even in favorable platoon matchups.
Looking to the outfield, Gordon is assured of his spot in left field. While his four-year, $72MM contract has been a flop, Gordon remains a premium defender in left and had his best year at the plate since 2015 this past season. Center field isn’t exactly a certainty, but the organization likely wants to get a further look at rocket-armed Brett Phillips, who opened eyes with three highlight-reel outfield assists in 33 games but hit just .188/.252/.313 in 123 PAs after being acquired for Moustakas. The former top 100 prospect is strikeout-prone but nonetheless brings an exciting skill-set to the outfield. Jorge Bonifacio should see some time in right field, perhaps in a split with left-handed-hitting Brian Goodwin, who can handle all three outfield spots. If that group proves unable to cut it, Merrifield has proven versatile enough to handle some time in the outfield and could shift off second base if prospect Nicky Lopez hits his way to the big leagues.
There’s room for Kansas City to add some depth in the outfield, but they have enough relatively young options that it probably won’t be deemed a priority. Still, given the manner in which some outfielders have been squeezed out in free agency in recent offseasons, if there’s an intriguing veteran available on a one-year deal or on a non-roster invite in February or early March, the Royals could act opportunistically (as they did with Jon Jay last winter).
Beyond a platoon partner for O’Hearn at first base and perhaps a backup to Perez at catcher — Cam Gallagher has not hit much, and depth is thin beyond him — third base is the most apparent spot for the Royals to upgrade. Cuthbert and Dozier, the top internal options, simply have not delivered at the plate in the Majors. Cuthbert has tallied 830 PAs with just a .252/.303/.378 slash to show for his efforts, while Dozier has batted .228/.279/.388 in 409 PAs.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect the same result for a second consecutive season, but the Royals once again seem like a logical landing spot for Moustakas in free agency. With no qualifying offer attached to him this time around and a better defensive showing with his 2016 ACL surgery further behind him, it seems likely that Moose will land a multi-year deal this time around. It’d be easy enough to backload that deal to go easy on the ’19 payroll, especially considering the fact that Gordon’s deal will come off the books in the 2019-20 offseason. If not Moustakas, veterans like Logan Forsythe, Josh Harrison and Asdrubal Cabrera could be options. If the Royals can look beyond his off-the-field issues, perhaps Jung Ho Kang could fit there on a short-term deal as well.
Regardless of the moves made by the Kansas City front office this winter, it’s difficult to see the Royals contending in 2019. Moore has plainly stated that his top priority is to improve the team’s farm system, but he’s coupled that with simultaneous desire to win more games. It’s a dichotomous pair of goals, and in recent baseball history, most teams (particularly, those with lesser resources) have focused on one or the other — either being content to accept some losing years in the short term in exchange for a prolonged run of success or showing a willingness to mortgage some of the future for a chance at immediate glory. The Royals, though, appear as though they’ll strive for some incremental improvements without detracting from the minor league ranks. Even though it’s hard to envision the strategy leading to a 2019 winner, despite a weak division, expect the Royals to add some second- and third-tier free agents to the margins of the roster as they aim to put a miserable 104-loss season behind them.