The Royals have been near the bottom of the American League three years running. They took steps to correct that over the winter, adding a few veterans to deepen the roster. This spring, the Royals locked up a couple key contributors on long-term extensions, one via the largest deal in franchise history.
Major League Signings
- Mike Minor, LHP: Two years, $18MM (contains 2023 club option)
- Carlos Santana, 1B: Two years, $17.5MM
- Greg Holland, RHP: One year, $2.75MM
- Michael A. Taylor, OF: One year, $1.75MM
- Jarrod Dyson, OF: One year, $1.5MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RHP Dylan Coleman from the Padres as player to be named later in last year’s Trevor Rosenthal trade
- Acquired OF Andrew Benintendi and $2.8MM from the Red Sox as part of a three-team trade involving the Mets; Kansas City traded OF Franchy Cordero and two players to be named later to Boston and OF Khalil Lee to New York
Notable Minor League Signings
- Hanser Alberto, Brad Brach, Wade Davis (later selected to 40-man roster), Foster Griffin, Jeison Guzman, Erick Mejia, Carlos Sanabria, Ervin Santana, Bubba Starling
- Hunter Dozier, 3B: Four years, $25MM guarantee with fifth year club option
- Salvador Pérez, C: Four years, $82MM guarantee with fifth year club option (begins in 2022)
- Alex Gordon (retired), Maikel Franco (non-tendered), Ian Kennedy, Matt Harvey, Kevin McCarthy, Mike Montgomery, Glenn Sparkman, Randy Rosario, Matt Reynolds, Óscar Hernández
The Royals’ run of consecutive losing seasons reached four in 2020, as they finished 26-34 in the abbreviated slate. That was at least an improvement over 2018-19, during which time Kansas City had the third-worst combined record in the league (better only than the Orioles and Tigers). The Royals view 2020 as a stepping stone, a sign the organization has put those horrible two seasons behind them. Entering the offseason, general manager Dayton Moore said he expected the team to be more competitive in 2021 than it had been in years past.
Moore was also rather forthright about what he saw as the team’s deficiencies. “We definitely need more on-base guys,” the GM told reporters last October. “We need more quality [at-bats] from probably two other spots in that lineup.” Not coincidentally, the Royals’ biggest free agent position player pickup ended up being Carlos Santana. The veteran first baseman is one of the game’s best at taking quality at-bats. Since breaking into the majors in 2010, Santana has reached base at a .366 clip, a mark that ranks 25th leaguewide (minimum 2000 plate appearances).
The Royals inked Santana to a two year, $17.5MM guarantee in December. It was a bit of a surprise to see him command a multi-year deal coming off a .199/.349/.350 line in Cleveland. Despite the mediocre bottom line numbers last year, Santana’s strike zone feel was strong as ever. The switch-hitter walked at an incredible 18.4% clip while punching out just 16.9% of the time, making him one of only seven qualified hitters with more free passes than strikeouts.
Santana was the Royals’ only major league free agent infield pickup, but the club made another important addition on a minor-league contract. Kansas City agreed to a non-roster deal with Hanser Alberto, who had been non-tendered by the Orioles. The 28-year-old seems likely to make the Opening Day roster and push incumbent second baseman Nicky Lopez for playing time. (Before signing Alberto, the Royals pursued Jurickson Profar in free agency, but the latter eventually returned to the Padres on a three-year deal).
Lopez won’t begin the year on the active roster, having been optioned to Triple-A. The Royals could turn to Whit Merrifield, who has bounced between second and the outfield in recent years, at the keystone. Alternatively, Kansas City could move Merrifield to right field on a regular basis and give the second base job to Alberto with Lopez in the minors. Alberto never walks but he makes a ton of contact, resulting in a productive .299/.322/.413 line (95 wRC+) over the past two seasons. Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. impressed in Spring Training and could also be an option at some point this season. He’ll begin the year in the minors, perhaps at Double-A.
The left side of the infield will be filled internally. Adalberto Mondesi hasn’t consistently performed at the plate but he’s shown flashes of power, good defense and elite baserunning. The 25-year-old will get another shot at a breakout season at shortstop. After breaking in as a third baseman, Hunter Dozier moved to right field last year to accommodate the signing of Maikel Franco. Franco was reasonably productive in 2020, but the Royals non-tendered him rather than pay an arbitration salary projected in the $4.5MM – $8MM range. With Franco gone, Dozier moves back to the hot corner.
The outfield will look quite different than it has in the past. Franchise icon Alex Gordon retired at the end of last season. One of the faces of the Royals’ mid-2010’s playoff runs, Gordon walked away after an illustrious 14-year career in Kansas City. It’ll be difficult to replace his perennially elite left field defense, to say nothing of the unquantifiable impact he had in the locker room and in the community. But Gordon was a below-average hitter in each of his final five seasons, so there’s certainly room for more offense at the position.
The Royals hope that production comes from their top trade pickup of the offseason. In need of a new left fielder and on the hunt for a left-handed bat to better balance the lineup, Kansas City acquired Andrew Benintendi from the Red Sox as part of a three-team deal. They’re buying low on the 26-year-old, who took a bit of a step back from his peak form in 2019 before suffering through a disastrous 2020.
The Royals sent outfielder Franchy Cordero, whose blend of power and speed continues to intrigue teams despite a lengthy injury history and swing-and-miss issues, back to the Red Sox, along with a pair of players to be named later. Outfield prospect Khalil Lee was moved to the Mets as part of the deal. Benintendi is controllable for a pair of seasons, and the Red Sox will pay $2.8MM of his $6.6MM salary in 2021.
In the other corner outfield spot, the Royals could turn to Merrifield regularly with Alberto and/or Lopez at second base. When Merrifield’s on the dirt, Edward Olivares, Nick Heath and prospect Kyle Isbel could work in right. Those players could all be options in center field, as well, but the bulk of time there seems likely to go to a pair of free agent signings. The Royals have long valued speed and range more than most teams, and their moves at the position reflect that. Kansas City signed each of Michael A. Taylor and Jarrod Dyson to low-cost, one-year deals. Neither player offers much at the plate, but they’re high-end defenders and Dyson, in particular, is an excellent baserunner.
Dyson’s addition is also emblematic of another organizational pattern: reacquiring former Royals. Last winter, Kansas City brought back former All-Star closer Greg Holland on a minor-league deal. That proved to be a masterstroke, as Holland tossed 28.1 innings of 1.91 ERA/3.20 SIERA ball, eventually reclaiming his old ninth inning role. The veteran righty is back again, having re-signed on a surprisingly modest $2.75MM contract this offseason.
Holland isn’t the only member of the Royals’ old fearsome bullpen to return. Wade Davis, arguably the best reliever in baseball from 2014-16, will be on the Opening Day roster after signing a minor-league deal over the winter. Davis’ stint with the Rockies was a disaster, and he’s now a couple years removed from being productive. But there’s little risk in bringing him back and hoping for a resurgence. That’s also true of former Oriole bullpen stalwart Brad Brach, a fellow minor-league signee.
The team’s biggest free agent pickup of the winter is another player who once had plenty of success in Kansas City. Mike Minor revived his career with a breakout 2017 season working out of the Royals’ bullpen. That earned him a three-year deal with the Rangers, where Minor stretched back out as a starter. The lefty had plenty of success over his first two years in Texas, earning an All-Star selection in 2019. Minor had a difficult 2020 season in terms of run prevention, pitching to a 5.56 ERA in 56.2 innings. He struck out a career-best 25.9% of opposing hitters, though, and pitched to a 4.20 SIERA that was actually better than in either of his previous two seasons.
The Royals’ front office clearly believes in Minor’s ability to bounce back, as they signed the 33-year-old to a two-year, $18MM guarantee with a 2023 club option. He joins Brad Keller and Danny Duffy as rotation locks. Brady Singer seems likely to open the year in the starting five as well. Jakob Junis and Kris Bubic will almost certainly factor into the rotation at some point (although Bubic will open the year in the minors). Prospects Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch are in camp as non-roster invitees, as is Ervin Santana, another former Royal brought back over the winter.
Many teams around the league scaled back payroll this offseason on the heels of last year’s revenue losses. The Royals are an exception, entering 2021 in the same range they were prepared to open 2020. Cot’s Baseball Contracts pegs their projected Opening Day payroll at just under $88MM (not yet including Davis’ $1.25MM salary, which became guaranteed when he earned a spot on the active roster). The Royals opened last season just north of $89MM (before prorating salaries), Cot’s estimates.
Adding Davis to the ledger should put the Royals’ 2021 payroll at or a little above last year’s mark. (If Alberto makes the team, he’d lock in a $1.65MM base salary). That’s still one of the lower figures in the league and around $54MM shy of 2017’s franchise-record outlay of $143+MM. However, that the Royals didn’t dramatically cut costs this winter could bode well for their chances of increasing future spending as they put their rebuild behind them.
Indeed, the Royals have started to fill in the long-term books over the past few weeks. That began with an extension for Dozier that guarantees $25MM and keeps him under club control through 2025. It’s a bet on a bounce back for the 29-year-old, who performed well in 2019 before falling off a bit last year. Dozier had to work back from an early bout with COVID-19, so it’s not unreasonable to believe he can regain some of his lost power with a more normal offseason.
The Dozier extension was a precursor to a more meaningful pact. The Royals locked up Salvador Pérez, who had been scheduled to reach free agency after this season, on a four-year extension covering 2022-25 and including a club option for 2026. The deal guarantees the 30-year-old backstop $82MM and can max out at $93MM over five seasons, making it the largest investment in franchise history.
It was a bit surprising to see Pérez command that level of commitment, particularly a year in advance of free agency. Still, he’s clearly beloved within the organization and by the Kansas City fanbase and is coming off an incredible 2020 season. No one expects Pérez to repeat last year’s .333/.353/.633 slash line over a larger sample, but Pérez is one of the game’s preeminent workhorses behind the plate and has a long track record of outhitting others at the position.
It’s possible Moore and his front office look to hammer out another long-term deal or two in the next few days. They reportedly discussed an extension with Mondesi early in Spring Training. Talks apparently didn’t get very far, but they could revisit those negotiations. Mondesi is controllable through 2023 via arbitration.
There’s a bit more urgency if the front office wants to keep Jorge Soler off the open market. The 2019 AL home run champ is scheduled to be a free agent at year’s end. The Royals had interest in working out an extension with Soler last offseason. It isn’t clear if that’s still the case after he hit just .228/.326/.443 and battled an oblique injury in 2020.
It remains to be seen whether the Royals did enough to seriously contend for a playoff spot this season. Public projections still paint them as something of a longshot, but the fanbase has some reason for hope for the first time in a while. At the very least, the Royals should be more competitive in 2021 than they’ve been over the past few years.
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