This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
After one last, half-hearted gasp with the scattered remains of 2015’s championship core, the Royals have finally committed fully to a rebuild.
Major League Signings
- Billy Hamilton, CF: One year, $5.25MM plus mutual option
- Chris Owings, UTL: One year, $3MM
- Jake Diekman, LHP: One year, $2.75MM plus mutual option
- Brad Boxberger, RHP: One year, $2.2MM
- Terrance Gore, OF: One year, $650K
- Kyle Zimmer, RHP: One year, $555K
- Total spend: $14.2MM
Trades and Claims
- Selected RHP Sam McWilliams from Rays with 2nd overall pick in Rule 5 Draft
- Acquired RHP Chris Ellis from Rangers for cash considerations after he was selected from Cardinals with 8th overall pick in Rule 5 Draft
Notable Minor League Signings
- Drew Storen, Homer Bailey, Andres Machado (re-signed), Jason Adam (re-signed), Taylor Featherston, Winston Abreu
An ’18 return to 100-loss territory, a land so often populated by the club in the early part of the century, marked a bitter end to the Royals’ most successful run in ages. With meager expectations at most spots on the roster, the club oversaw a rather quiet offseason. Bargain bullpen pickups were collected, some with significant upside, and the Royals again chased down a couple of burners to roam the Kauffman prairie.
Billy Hamilton, non-tendered just before the late-November deadline by the Reds, serves as the big-ticket item here. The 28-year-old checks all of Kansas City’s favorite boxes: speed, defense, a contact-oriented approach (albeit one without much contact), and a strong presence in the clubhouse. The longed-for breakout still hasn’t arrived, as Hamilton’s offensive profile – super-soft contact, a curiously high pop-up rate, and an ongoing inability to work the count – has stayed mostly stagnant in his five career big-league seasons. He’s a savant on the bases, though, maybe an all-time great, and could lead the AL in swipes if he sits atop manager Ned Yost’s lineup for much of the year. And if a plate surge is still to come, if Hamilton starts filling those massive gaps with liners and shows a newfound devotion to the strike zone, the Royals could have the steal of the decade: the speedster has, after all, posted two seasons of almost 3.0 fWAR despite never having eclipsed the 80 wRC+ plateau.
Kansas City, under GM Dayton Moore’s watch, has never soured on its taste for former top prospects (especially of the homegrown variety), and again took a bite this offseason with the inking of utilityman Chris Owings to a minor deal. Owings should see plenty of time in the infield, with much of it likely coming at the hot corner, and he’ll look to a rebound from a career-worst output in 2018. The 27-year-old shares many Hamilton traits, including a longstanding allergy to the walk, but he did up his hard-hit rate to a career-high 39% late season despite an ugly .206/.272/.302 batting line. The contact-over-discipline has philosophy has invited scorn from all manner of pundits during Moore’s tenure, and can at times yield disastrous results (especially, as has been the case with Hamilton and Owings, when the low-walk totals aren’t offset by suppressed K rates), but the Royals remain zealous devotees.
On the pitching side, Brad Boxberger, Jake Diekman, and Drew Storen were all brought in to shore up a shoddy pen that ranked last among all MLB teams with -2.2 fWAR last year. The club needs more than just that aging trio, of course, but it’s nonetheless a massive upgrade from ’18, when failed starters and low-impact mercenaries were expected to fill the shoes of former giants. Boxberger, who was Arizona’s closer for much of last season, at times seems unhittable; other times, he looks lost, missing too often over the middle of the plate, or being unable to find it entirely. Kauffman’s dimensions should negate his gopher-ball itch, but seem an ill fit for Diekman, who keeps most of his contact in play. Storen hasn’t been effective in years, but comes with almost zero risk on a minors deal. His pedigree, too, is right up the Royals’ alley.
The Royals did almost nothing to address a torched rotation, adding just Homer Bailey and Kyle Zimmer low-commitment deals. The club apparently has high hopes for Jakob Junis and Brad Keller, both of whom were around league-average in ’18. Both are useful, young, affordable pitchers, though neither scouts nor stats seem to see much in the way of upside. Otherwise, veterans Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy will look to rediscover their form, while Jorge Lopez and Ben Lively are among the other 40-man options. It’s an underwhelming unit on the whole. Help is on the way – the club plucked polished college arms with each of its four first-round picks, all of which came in the top 40 – but still a couple years out. In the meantime, KC might have done well to lock down a Drew Pomeranz/Mike Fiers-type or two (low-cost options with fly-ball tendencies).
With Salvador Perez expected to undergo Tommy John surgery, catcher is now an issue as well. The club has been connected recently with free agent Martin Maldonado, but subsequent reports suggest the team is more comfortable going with a questionable Cam Gallagher/Meibrys Viloria duo. The latter is seen in some circles as a rather intriguing prospect, but he has yet to play above the High-A level apart from a late-2018 taste of the majors. Perez will miss the entire season if he goes under the knife, so a stopgap would fit nicely, but the Royals have always prized in-house options more than outside ones.
The plan for the rest of the roster involves a series of dice throws. KC will give first base to Ryan O’Hearn, who earned a longer look after an eye-opening late-season debut but hasn’t produced much offense in two seasons at Triple-A. Hunter Dozier didn’t thrive in 2018, his first substantial MLB time, but the oft-injured top draft pick appears to be in line for much of the time at third. In the outfield/DH mix, the Royals have a foursome of former top-100 prospects vying for time: Brett Phillips, Jorge Bonifacio, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler. All have flashed talent at times but each is still looking to find his ceiling — or, at least, consistent production and a steady MLB role. There’d be more chances to work with were it not for the ongoing presence of Alex Gordon in left field. He has posted a dreadful .225/.310/.355 slash line since signing a four-year, $72MM deal that will expire at season’s end. It’s possible that one or more of these players could emerge as important pieces, but projection systems don’t love the odds. The Royals could cycle through some of the roster spots occupied by this slate of names if there are any stumbles or if more appealing opportunities arise.
Fortunately for the Kansas City faithful, the one roster spot we haven’t yet touched upon is also the most exciting one. If there’s a potential building block in place, it’s the affordable and controllable middle-infield combination. Adalberto Mondesi finally took over for the clingy Alcides Escobar at short last season and flourished in a full-time role. The 23-year-old son of Raul has a long track record of out-making in the minors – though yes, he was rushed – so there’s still some variability here, but the tools are exciting and projection systems are bullish. Mondesi will turn two with the club’s best player, the recently-extended Whit Merrifield. The Royals bought some cost certainty and a bit of upside in the deal, which arguably makes sense for the player even while increasing the value of his contract rights. While the club has resisted trade interest in the past, Merrifield could still be the juicy trade bait the team desperately needs to kick the rebuild into high gear.
What to Expect in ’19
The full-rebuild Royals could again threaten for the franchise record in losses in 2019. Always the high guys on their farm-produced regulars, Dayton Moore’s staff anticipates the downturn will be a quick one. But the young major-league squad is littered with checkered minor-league pasts and the farm system is generally ranked among the bottom third leaguewide. The team would do anything to avoid reprising its pitiful stretch in the 90s and early aughts, but the current trajectory, kicked off course by a series of missteps and high-round failures in recent drafts, is veering dangerously close to the edge.
How would you grade their offseason? (Link for app users.)