- Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus takes an interesting look at Whit Merrifield’s offensive profile, noting that while the Royals’ unsung star doesn’t rate especially well in terms of Statcast metrics like average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, some of his shortcomings can arguably be attributed to the pitfalls of averages and extremes. Merrifield ranked well when looking at incidents of a 95+ mph batted ball with a launch angle between 10 and 30 degrees, and when adding plate appearances that resulted in walks to the equation, he ranked more than 200 places higher than he did in bottom-line average exit velocity. It’s a very intriguing read on one of the game’s most underrated players and a player who could likely fetch a fortune on the trade market. Of course, both Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star and Rustin Dodd of The Athletic have each recently penned lengthy examinations on why the Royals aren’t likely to trade Merrifield this winter, even though they look unlikely to contend in a weak AL Central division in the near future.
- The Royals announced that they’ve signed right-hander Michael Ynoa to a minor league contract. There’s no mention of an invite to Major League Spring Training. Ynoa, now 27, signed a hefty $4.25MM bonus with Oakland as an amateur back in 2008. He never found his footing in the organization, though, and was traded to the White Sox alongside Jeff Samardzija in the deal that brought Marcus Semien to Oakland. Ynoa made his big league debut with the ChiSox in 2016 and pitched to a 4.42 ERA with 8.1 K/9 against 5.9 BB/9 in 59 innings of work from 2016-17. He was out of affiliated ball entirely last year and is currently pitching in the Dominican Winter League, where he’s allowed just one run on four hits and four walks with 13 punchouts in 10 1/3 innings.
- Whit Merrifield is arguably the Royals’ biggest trade chip, though the team’s lack of interest in dealing him is indicative of GM Dayton Moore’s unique team-building process, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star writes. On paper, a player who turns 30 in January doesn’t have much long-term value to a Royals team that has 2021 as its internal start date to once again be competitive. Moore, however, has spoken openly about how disappointing the 2018 season was for the Royals, and he has been hesitant to enter into a full rebuild. As Mellinger puts it, “holding onto Merrifield serves several purposes simultaneously: projects hope and confidence to players and fans, helps maintain culture of professionalism in the clubhouse, creates the best possible team for 2019, provides time to see what might be needed in a few years, and retains the ability to trade a presumably still valuable asset next summer or winter.”
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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.
The Royals announced Friday that right-hander Brandon Maurer, outfielder Paulo Orlando and infielder Ramon Torres all cleared outright waivers. Maurer has already rejected his outright assignment in favor of free agency, while both Orlando and Torres will become minor league free agents tomorrow. In a series of corresponding moves, Kansas City activated Jorge Soler, Cheslor Cuthbert and Jesse Hahn from the 60-day disabled list. The Royals’ 40-man roster sits at 37 players after these moves.
None of the 40-man subtractions come as much of a surprise. Maurer has spent parts of the past two season in the Kansas City bullpen but struggled to catastrophic levels, yielding 45 earned runs, 36 walks and 11 home runs in just 51 1/3 innings pitched. Though he’s shown the ability to miss bats, he’s far too hittable and was projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn as much as $3.1MM in arbitration this winter.
Orlando, 33, hit just .167/.194/.200 in 93 plate appearances with Kansas City this year and has never replicated the BABIP-fueled 2016 season he enjoyed when he hit .302/.329/.405. Orlando has drawn walks at a 2.4 percent clip in his career, one of the lowest marks in all of baseball, and is a career .263/.289/.384 hitter. He brings his share of speed to the table, though that hasn’t been enough to outweigh his otherwise lackluster offensive output.
Torres, 25, has seen action in each of the past two seasons but mustered a timid .225/.269/.265 slash in that time. His .230/.279/.343 showing in Triple-A this season gave little reason for optimism, though at the very least he does offer some versatility with the glove, having experience at second base, shortstop and third base.
The Royals announced that right-hander Nate Karns has rejected an outright assignment to Triple-A Omaha after clearing waivers. He’ll elect free agency instead and can now sign with any team.
Karns, 31 next month, didn’t make it back to the mound in 2018 after seeing his 2017 season cut short by surgery to alleviate throacic outlet syndrome. The righty has shown promise as a potential back-end starter at times in the Majors, including a 2015 campaign in which he notched a 3.67 ERA with 8.9 K/9 against 3.4 BB/9 in 147 innings with the Rays. Those 147 frames stand out as a career-high in the Majors for Karns, though, and while he gave Kansas City a respectable 4.17 ERA in 45 1/3 innings in 2017, his last time on a big league mound was nearly 18 months ago (May 19, 2017).
The Royals agreed to pay Karns a $1.375MM salary for the 2018 season last winter, avoiding arbitration in his first offseason of eligibility. But he’d have been arb-eligible for a second time this winter and would’ve received that same sum while carrying considerably more uncertainty as pertains to his health.
The Cubs announced Wednesday that they’ve exercised their $10.5MM club option over left-hander Jose Quintana and claimed left-handed reliever Jerry Vasto off waivers from the Royals organization. It’s the first of two options that the Cubs hold on Quintana, who’ll turn 30 in January. Chicago also has an $11.5MM option on the lefty for the 2020 season.
While Quintana may not have performed at quite the level the Cubs had hoped, picking up his option was a flat no-brainer, as even in a “down” season (by his standards), he turned in 174 1/3 innings of 4.03 ERA ball with 8.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and 1.29 HR/9 with a 43.2 percent ground-ball rate. Durable and largely consistent year over year, Quintana took the ball on 32 occasion for the Cubs, marking his sixth consecutive season with 32 or more games started. Even if he doesn’t return to the peak form he showed with the White Sox, having Quintana on a one-year deal with an affordable club option for the 2020 season is still quite a nice value for the Cubs.
Vasto, 26, made his MLB debut with the Rockies in 2018 but appeared in just one game and tossed only two-thirds of an inning before being traded to Kansas City in exchange for backup catcher Drew Butera. Vasto was hit hard in his first season of Triple-A duty in 2017 but has turned in considerably more promising results with Colorado’s top affiliate in 2018: a 3.16 ERA, 10.7 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 0.73 HR/9 and a 43.5 percent ground-ball rate in 37 innings. The southpaw tossed just one scoreless inning with Kansas City’s Triple-A club before joining the Major League bullpen, where he allowed one earned run with three strikeouts and one walk in 3 2/3 innings of work.
This new deal seems to tweak things only slightly, perhaps simply as a means of delaying part of Peralta’s 2019 salary obligation. He’ll now take home $2.25MM for the season to come, per the report. In 2020, the deal calls for a $7MM mutual option with a $1MM buyout.
In addition to adding a bit of extra guaranteed money, Peralta can now earn a bit more if he remains in the closer’s role for the Royals. The deal will provide him another million dollars if he finishes 55 games, per MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan (via Twitter).
Peralta, 29, ended up sliding into the ninth inning in K.C. after joining the organization on a minors deal and opening the year at Triple-A. In his 34 1/3 MLB frames, he worked to a 3.67 ERA with 9.2 K/9 and ended up recording 14 saves.
That said, Peralta also allowed a disconcerting number of walks — just over six per nine innings, in fact. The former Brewers starter did throw his four- and two-seam fastballs as hard as ever before, averaging over 96 mph on each, and reached a double-digit swinging-strike rate (an even 10.0%) for the first time.
The Royals announced that they’ve declined their half of right-hander Jason Hammel’s mutual option, thereby making him a free agent. Hammel will receive a $2MM buyout rather than a $12MM salary for the 2019 season and will hit the open market in search of a new club.
The 36-year-old Hammel’s two-year pact with Kansas City proved to be a sizable misstep for the organization, as the veteran righty limped to a 5.29 ERA in 180 1/3 innings in 2017 before turning in a 6.09 ERA in 127 frames in 2018. Hammel lost his rotation spot in Kansas City this season and finished the year in long relief for a Royals club that finished last in the American League Central.
Prior to his time in Kansas City, though, Hammel enjoyed a solid three-year run with the Athletics and Cubs. From 2014-16, he tallied 513 2/3 innings of 3.68 ERA ball, averaging 8.3 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings pitched. He saw his strikeout rate deteriorate with the Royals, though, and his ability to strand runners plummeted from roughly league-average territory to one of the worst in baseball with men on base. Those struggles seem likely to make it difficult for his camp to find a guaranteed role on a staff in 2019, but he’ll presumably still be viewed as a low-cost depth option by a number of teams.
The Royals’ rebuild won’t be a lengthy endeavor if general manager Dayton Moore has his way. The veteran front office exec addressed the media today and covered a number of offseason-related topics (links via Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star and Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com), making clear that the Royals don’t plan to tank in an effort to improve their farm system.
“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. “It’s not. … That’s our responsibility — to win games.”
That said, Moore also emphasized that restoring his minor league system to its once-elite levels is the team’s top priority. Several years of picking at the back end of the first round and trades for some veteran players (e.g. Ben Zobrist, Johnny Cueto) have contributed to a depleted Kansas City farm system. The balance of striving for continually increased levels of competition while also seeking to bolster the farm won’t be easy to strike, though, especially not with so many teams throughout the league aggressively gunning for one extreme end of the spectrum or the other.
The Royals are reportedly looking to cut payroll by as much as $30-35MM from their recent record levels of spending, leaving little in the way of budget room for free agents. Much of that payroll paring will be organic, it should be noted. The Royals already saved money by during the 2018 season by shipping out impending free agents like Kelvin Herrera, Mike Moustakas, Jon Jay, Lucas Duda and Drew Butera. In 2018, Kansas City was also on the hook for all of Travis Wood’s salary despite having traded him to the Padres in 2017, plus part of their prior obligations to the also-traded Joakim Soria and Brandon Moss.
At present, Jason Martinez of Roster Resource and MLBTR projects the Royals at $90.325MM on the books for the 2018 season, including arbitration projections from MLBTR’s Matt Swartz and also including pre-arb players. The Royals seem likely to non-tender Brandon Maurer ($3.1MM projection) and could conceivably cut loose any of Nate Karns ($1.375MM projection), Cheslor Cuthbert ($1.1MM projection), Brian Flynn ($1MM projection) or Jesse Hahn ($1.7MM projection). Jettisoning that whole group would result in an estimated $8.275MM worth of salary off the books, which could create some flexibility to add roster help while still remaining in their reported target range of $85-90MM.
If there’s an area the Royals will add, be it via free agency or via trade, it seems likely to be the bullpen — an area in which Moore bluntly said his team “need[s] better options.” Kansas City relievers posted a disastrous 5.04 ERA on the season as a whole, adding in the lowest K/9 mark of any big league bullpen (7.31), the sixth-highest BB/9 (4.15) and the sixth-highest HR/9 (1.28).
[Related: Kansas City Royals depth chart]
As for the lineup, Moore said he doesn’t expect much turnover, as the team is “prepared to go forward” with in-house options for the most part. To some extent, that’s understandable. Catcher Salvador Perez, upstart shortstop Adalberto Mondesi and second baseman Whit Merrifield are all quality options at their positions. Ryan O’Hearn obliterated right-handed pitching in his late-season promotion and could be paired with Hunter Dozier in a first-base platoon. Alex Gordon rebounded to some degree and is locked into left field with a $20MM salary. The Royals will want to get looks at Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin and Jorge Bonifacio in the outfield, and Jorge Soler hit well when healthy in 2018.
On the whole, that doesn’t paint an especially promising outlook, though Moore expressed confidence in the manner in which his team finished. Of course, much of the team’s 20-14 record in its final 34 games looks attributable to multiple series against lackluster Twins and Tigers clubs, plus a series against the Orioles and another against the White Sox. It’ll be up to a large group of unproven players to deliver on Moore’s show of faith. If the Royals are to somehow achieve the goal of simultaneously improving on the field and in the farm system, they’ll need numerous players to step forward in the same manner that Mondesi did in 2018, as Moore’s comments don’t indicate that there’s much hope for outside help on the horizon.