The Royals didn’t quite tear their roster down to the nuts and bolts, but 2019 nevertheless represented the first full season in another rebuilding effort for the Kansas City franchise. That approach manifested in the form of a ghastly 59-103 record, leaving the team with the fourth overall draft pick in 2020. Despite ample need throughout the roster, though, don’t expect an aggressive winter from the Royals in the midst of a rebuild.
- Danny Duffy, LHP: $30.75MM through 2021
- Salvador Perez, C: $26MM through 2021
- Ian Kennedy, RHP: $16.5MM through 2020
- Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF: $15.25MM through 2022 (including buyout of 2023 option)
- Jorge Soler, DH/OF: $4MM through 2020 (may opt into arbitration this winter; controllable through 2021)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jorge Soler – $11.2MM
- Mike Montgomery – $2.9MM
- Jesse Hahn – $900K
- Cheslor Cuthbert – $1.8MM
- Jacob Barnes – $800K
- Non-tender candidates: Barnes, Cuthbert, Hahn
- Alex Gordon, OF: $23MM mutual option ($4MM buyout)
- None (though Gordon’s option is expected to be bought out)
The first order of business for the Royals will be to anoint a replacement for longtime skipper Ned Yost, who announced his retirement as the manager in K.C. late in the season. The Royals have been conducting what could prove to be a nominal search; it’s been rumored for the past year that former Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny, who was named a special advisor to GM Dayton Moore early last offseason, was being groomed for the spot.
Reports out of Kansas City since Yost’s announcement have largely suggested that Matheny is indeed next in line, although the Royals have interviewed quality control coach Pedro Grifol, bench coach Dale Sveum and bullpen coach Vance Wilson. It’s an all-internal list and one that could’ve benefited from an earnest search for outside voices, if that quartet does indeed represent the entirety of the field. The limited scope of Kansas City’s “search” feels far more insular than it needs to be.
Matheny, the apparent favorite, was booted in St. Louis after taking plenty of criticism for his bullpen management, his aversion to utilizing modern baseball data and amid reports of strife between veterans and rookies in the clubhouse. Right-hander Jordan Hicks, the subject of some such reports, downplayed them last July, but Matheny was dismissed a day later (the extent to which those were related remains unclear).
The first order of roster business is Alex Gordon’s 2020 option. That $23MM figure doesn’t stand a chance of being picked up, so the Royals will instead pay Gordon, who hit .266/.345/.396 in 150 games this past season, a $4MM buyout. That doesn’t necessarily preclude a reunion, of course. Gordon hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he’s interested in returning for his age-36 season, but the Royals have been clear that they’d like him back. The franchise icon may ultimately opt to retire, but if he does play, it’ll be for the Royals.
Once Gordon’s situation is sorted out, the Royals will be primarily tasked with finding ways to bolster the team’s stable of up-and-coming talent and perhaps supplement that group with some low-cost free agents. Kansas City has been largely reluctant to entertain offers on Whit Merrifield in the past, but the team-friendly contract extension to which he agreed last January carries enormous value. The 30-year-old still isn’t a household name but absolutely should be; he’s led the Majors in hits in each of the past two seasons and posted a combined .298/.348/.454 in 2072 plate appearances since becoming a regular in 2017 (despite the pitcher-friendly nature of Kauffman Stadium).
Merrifield will turn 31 this winter, and the Royals aren’t likely to contend until at least his age-32 season — if not his age-33 campaign. A player with that type of offensive output who is also capable of playing a plus second base or any of the three outfield spots would carry trade value even if he were playing near his market value. Merrifield, however, can be controlled for a total of $21MM over the next four seasons (with the fourth year checking in as a $6.5MM team option).
Upwards of half the teams in baseball should salivate over the notion of acquiring him at that rate, and the Royals could rightly ask for multiple MLB-ready (controllable, pre-arbitration) pieces in return. Kansas City reportedly sought three such players in July and should aim high again this winter. That’s not to say they should shrug and accept the best package if the offers are underwhelming, but cashing in Merrifield’s deal for multiple younger players whose ages more closely align with the Royals’ timeline to competitiveness is sensible, even if some K.C. fans will bristle at the notion. Whether Moore & Co. legitimately try to move him remains to be seen, but it’d be surprising if Merrifield’s name didn’t come up in trade rumblings this winter.
Looking elsewhere around the roster, the other veterans on board could generate some interest. Starting pitching is in demand every winter, and this winter’s trade market is particularly lacking in terms of quality veteran names who could be on the move. Danny Duffy’s value isn’t what it used to be, and his contract probably feels a bit heavy to other clubs. But he’d likely generate some interest, particularly if the Royals agreed to take on a smaller contract in return.
Ian Kennedy is overpaid at $16.5MM but was able to successfully reestablish himself as a viable big league arm in 2019. The Royals reportedly didn’t have interest in paying down any of his salary at this year’s trade deadline. Taking on a lesser contract in return for Kennedy’s deal, though, could grease the wheels on a deal and perhaps net some minor league talent for an otherwise expiring asset who won’t command a qualifying offer (and would be ineligible to receive one anyway by virtue of having already received a QO earlier in his career). Kennedy turned in 63 1/3 innings of 3.41 ERA ball (2.99 FIP, 3.46 SIERA) while averaging 10.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9 and 0.85 HR/9 this past season. He also racked up 30 saves and notched a career-best 44.4 percent ground-ball rate. Ian Kennedy the starter had fallen off the map, but as noted back in May, Ian Kennedy, the reliever, is rather interesting.
If there’s another asset with waning team control who could be marketed, that’d be your surprising American League home run king: Jorge Soler. However, drumming up a market could be tough, even with Soler coming off a 48-homer season. The 27-year-old (28 in February) also led the American League in strikeouts and comes with negative defensive value. He’d likely need to land on a team with a pure DH opening, and there simply aren’t many around the league — at least not among teams that are hoping to contend in 2020-21 (when Soler is under club control).
On that note, it’s worth laying out Soler’s contract structure. He’s entering the final season of a nine-year, $30MM deal signed with the Cubs as a prospect back in 2012. That deal, as is common among Major League deals for Cuban-born amateurs, allows Soler to opt into arbitration when he’s eligible. He opted not to last winter on the heels of a miserable 2017 season but surely will do so with a 48-dinger campaign in the rear-view mirror. The type of deal Soler signed is no longer permissible under MLB’s international free agency structure, so he’ll be one of the final players with this type of opportunity.
MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan wrote not long ago that rather than explore a trade of Soler, he expects the team to instead explore an extension with the burgeoning slugger. There’s certainly an argument against doing so, but I explored what such an arrangement might look like at greater length late last month.
As pertains to the open market, the Royals aren’t likely to be big spenders. They opened this season with a payroll just under $97MM and have about $77MM committed to the 2020 roster, including arbitration-eligible players. They could have around $20MM to spend and still keep in line with last year’s payroll, but that doesn’t mean they’ll spend that entire sum.
A new deal for Gordon would probably cost only a few million dollars (perhaps with some incentives), but if he retires, the outfield is a plausible area for upgrade. Merrifield seems ticketed for right field in 2020 — at least early on as a means of getting a continued look at prospect Nicky Lopez at second base. Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling could compete for center-field reps, but the Royals otherwise are lacking in appealing options. Jorge Bonifacio served an 80-game PED suspension this season and didn’t even receive a September call-up; his grip on a 40-man roster spot hardly seems secure.
The free-agent market also features more corner outfield types than teams in need of such players (particularly when factoring in the ample supply of outfielders available via trade). Any of Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos, Avisail Garcia, Yasiel Puig, Corey Dickerson or Kole Calhoun (assuming the Angels buy out his option) could make sense in Kansas City — though Ozuna and Castellanos may be too pricey (particularly if Ozuna receives a qualifying offer). Names like Domingo Santana, Nomar Mazara, Hunter Renfroe and Jesse Winker could all circulate on the trade rumor mill. Options aren’t in short supply, and adding a corner bat for the Royals makes sense.
Looking to the infield, the Royals have Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop and Lopez beginning the season at second base, but adding a veteran middle infielder for depth seems prudent. Mondesi underwent shoulder surgery following a somewhat bizarre sequence of events late in the season. Kansas City activated him from the injured list in early September, with Yost telling reporters at the time that Mondesi had been asked not to dive for balls in the field or slide headfirst into bases (Twitter link via Flanagan). Mondesi instinctively dove for a ball to his right later that month and reinjured his left shoulder — incurring the tear that led to his surgery. His availability for the start of the season isn’t guaranteed, so adding a veteran in the Jose Iglesias mold could be sensible to safeguard against an early Mondesi absence and/or poor play from the yet-inexperienced Lopez.
Hunter Dozier, fresh off a breakout, should lock things down at third base. Kansas City has a tentative platoon of Ryan McBroom and Ryan O’Hearn at first base, but adding a more experienced first baseman certainly wouldn’t hurt. O’Hearn impressed in 170 plate appearances in 2018 before faceplanting in 370 PAs in 2019. McBroom will be a 28-year-old rookie with 83 career plate appearances under his belt next season.
Behind the plate, there’s no need for an addition with Salvador Perez coming back and a pair of backup options in Cam Gallagher and Meibrys Viloria. But the Royals will need to take a hard look at who’s throwing the ball to said receivers.
In Duffy, Brad Keller and Jakob Junis, the Royals have a talented but inconsistent top three starters. July acquisition Mike Montgomery will be tendered a contract and get the opportunity to make some starts as well. Beyond that, the combination of Glenn Sparkman, Jorge Lopez (who may be strictly a reliever now), Heath Fillmyer, Eric Skoglund, Trevor Oaks and Jesse Hahn doesn’t do much to inspire confidence. Kansas City has some notable rotation prospects on the way with Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic inching closer to the big leagues, but there’s room to add a veteran starter to this mix on a one-year deal.
In the ’pen, things are even more muddled. Kennedy is lined up to close, and righty Scott Barlow has some promising stretches even with a brutal run in the middle of the year. Tim Hill had a solid half-season’s worth of innings from the left side. Kevin McCarthy posted a middling ERA with one of the game’s lowest strikeout rates. Between Lopez, Hahn, Rosario and Kyle Zimmer, the Royals have four out-of-options relievers on the 40-man roster. The bullpen is ripe for turnover and is also perhaps the clearest place to add some veteran stabilizers who could eventually be flipped for younger talent. The Royals won’t be pursuing a Will Smith reunion, but the market should have plenty of interesting short-term options (Steve Cishek, Craig Stammen, Joe Smith, etc.) and bounceback candidates (Cody Allen, Brad Brach, Jeremy Jeffress). There’s room and reason to add multiple pieces here.
Moore began the 2018-19 offseason by speaking of the need to win more games, and a tepid offseason that saw the Royals spend $14.2MM on Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, Jake Diekman, Brad Boxberger, Terrance Gore and the aforementioned Zimmer didn’t get them there. Kansas City lost 104 games in ’18 and 103 games in ’19. While no one’s expecting the Royals to vie for a postseason berth in 2020, the team’s collection of pitching prospects is a year closer to the Majors. Mondesi is more established. Soler and Dozier enjoyed breakout seasons. The Gordon contract is expiring, and Kennedy’s deal is nearly off the books, too. The Royals aren’t in for an aggressive offseason relative to the rest of the league, but they should be more aggressive than they were last winter — particularly if the front office is serious about last year’s pledge to strive for more wins.