Well, that was interesting.
After nearly three decades of irrelevance, the Kansas City Royals stayed in contention for a playoff berth until the final week of the season and finished above .500 for the first time since 2003.
A long, slow rebuild under General Manager Dayton Moore has reached its highest point yet. Is there another peak beyond, or is Kansas City about to descend?
Let’s say there are some pieces in place, but there is more work to be done. And much of it could center on whether the Royals can find a way to sign a free agent starting pitcher — whether it’s by re-signing Ervin Santana or finding his equal.
Kansas City has, arguably, the most electric collection of bullpen arms in the game. All are under the team’s control for the near future. Same goes for every spot in its everyday batting order, from Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to Eric Hosmer. The problem is that some of their top performers are starting to become eligible for arbitration, meaning their salaries will jump — potentially dramatically, even if they agree to terms before arbitration — and slice into the team’s payroll flexibility.
Last offseason, Kansas City shored up its starting pitching with a steal of a trade (which netted Santana), a controversial trade (which landed James Shields) and a key free-agent re-signing (Jeremy Guthrie).
Yet, with the offseason here, it’s starting pitching that the Royals will most likely have to address again to stay competitive in the American League Central. Because the Tigers — with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister, not to mention Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, all locked up through at least 2015 — aren’t going anywhere.
Kansas City was 12th in the American League in runs, dead last (15th) by a wide margin in homers (110), 14th in slugging (.378), 13th in walks and ninth in on-base percentage (.315). The Royals were fifth in batting average and first in stolen bases, but help is needed. Unfortunately for Kansas City, short of Robinson Cano and his apparent $300 million contract expectation, there are few offensive possibilities at positions of need available on the free agent market.
While their increasing success might draw more attention from free agents than in the past, ultimately there is still a price level the Royals can’t reach. A case could be made that they really don’t need another offensive player IF their young stars continue to develop, and IF the pitching staff can repeat its 2013 exploits.
Gordon, who turns 30 in the offseason, may be slipping ever so slightly offensively (his OPS+ has gone from 140 in his breakthrough 2011 season to 123 last year to 103 this season) but he’s still an All-Star and a bargain at $10.75 million next year. Butler doesn’t have the home run power of many designated hitters, but his OPS+ of 117 this season is his worst since 2008. He doesn’t turn 28 until April and, like Gordon, he’s underpaid at $8.5 million next season.
Hosmer bounced back from a disappointing 2012 to become one of the top young hitters in baseball — and the first baseman will get a nice salary bump as he is eligible for arbitration. The Royals need third baseman Mike Moustakas to have an offensive bounceback similar to Hosmer’s in 2014. Same goes for shortstop Alcides Escobar, who is locked up through 2015 at $3 million annually. Catcher Salvador Perez, like Hosmer, is one of the best young players at his position — he’s locked up through 2016 and makes $1.5 million next year.
It was another injury-plagued year for Lorenzo Cain, who still seems capable of hitting .275 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases at the big league level. Jarrod Dyson and David Lough have shown in limited opportunities that they can contribute. Among Cain, Dyson and Lough, there appear to be two capable, low-cost outfield starters, leaving more money available to make a run at a free agent starting pitcher.
That leaves second base. Kansas City’s faith in Chris Getz wavered in 2013, and he became a nonfactor after the team traded for veteran Jamey Carroll and Emilio Bonifacio within a week. Bonifacio became the September starter and may have the inside track to the starting job in 2014, though he’s arbitration-eligible after making $2.6 million. Johnny Giavotella still hasn’t carried over his Class AAA Omaha success to the big league level, and former first-round draft pick Christian Colon had a strong second half with Omaha, was the team’s offensive player of the year and has to be protected on the 40-man roster this offseason. Looks like a three- or four-man race.
So it’s pretty much the same offense. And that comes with a positive byproduct in that Kansas City will again have one of the best defensive teams in baseball. That should be attractive to free agent starting pitchers.
The Royals’ bullpen has no shortage of quality. Greg Holland (arbitration eligible) emerged as one of the game’s best closers. Right-handed setup men Aaron Crow (arbitration eligible) and Kelvin Herrera weren’t as effective as they were in 2012, but deposed starter Luke Hochevar (arbitration eligible after making $4.6 million) and Louis Coleman were revelations. Among left-handed relievers, Tim Collins (arbitration eligible) was solid again and Will Smith was, like Coleman, another midseason breakthrough after being promoted from Omaha.
Maybe, as has been speculated in the past, Crow or Herrera will be groomed as a starting pitcher.
Oh, yes, starting pitching.
Kansas City will likely pick up the option on Shields, for $12 million. Guthrie is owed $11 million. But the other key piece to the rotation this season was Santana, a free agent who will likely command much more than the $13 million he made this season. And, by midseason, veteran Bruce Chen settled in nicely as the fifth starter while making $4.5 million. He, too, is a free agent.
With Shields and Guthrie, the Royals have only two holes in the rotation filled. Since Wade Davis ($4.8 million in 2014) was trumpeted as perhaps the key piece in the Shields trade — in which Kansas City gave up both outfielder Wil Myers and starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi — he’ll likely get another shot at the rotation though his only season with an ERA+ over 100 (the league average) was as a reliever. That leaves Danny Duffy, who was at times spectacular in his return from Tommy John surgery, Felipe Paulino (who wasn’t spectacular in his return from Tommy John surgery) and impressive youngster Yordano Ventura as three likely candidates for the back end of the rotation.
If Duffy and Paulino pitch well in the spring, expect them to be in the rotation, with Ventura biding his time in Omaha — and delaying his service-time clock — until the need arises. If not them, and if not Herrera or Crow, then perhaps Smith or Hochevar would return to the rotation. Chris Dwyer, the Omaha pitcher of the year in 2013, is another possibility. The guess here is that Kansas City has moved on from 2011 Omaha pitcher of the year Luis Mendoza, who opened the season as the fifth starter but barely pitched the final three months.
Kansas City had an $82 million payroll in 2013 and is already committed to $42 million in 2014 — and that’s before deals for Hosmer, Holland, Hochevar and several other arbitration-eligible players are completed. Assuming Shields’ option is picked up, the total rises to $54 million. There is more revenue available because of baseball’s new television contract, but the Royals likely won’t have much money available to land more than one big-ticket free agent, if that. More like a medium ticket.
Can they get back Santana at an acceptable price?
At 31 next season, Santana offers perhaps the best combination of recent performance and future expected value among a group of free-agent starters that includes A.J. Burnett, Hiroki Kuroda, Tim Hudson, Matt Garza, Tim Lincecum, Ricky Nolasco, Jorge De La Rosa, Bronson Arroyo, Phil Hughes, Dan Haren and Jason Vargas. The best bet for the Royals, realistically, would be to perhaps snare someone like Hughes at an acceptable price (he made $7.2 million in 2013) and hope he bounces back to 2012 and 2010 form.
Trades, of course, are the wild cards in offseason scenarios. Would the Royals and Tampa Bay do another deal, this time for David Price? Would it cost Kansas City Ventura or Kyle Zimmer? Kansas City isn’t quite as flush with just-about-ready big league talent as it was last year.
Considering all the options, Kansas City’s best bet is likely to try to keep Santana at a hometown discount, find a reasonably priced free-agent starter and — if unable to accomplish either of those — to hope that the expected improvement of its young offense and its developing starting pitchers are good enough to keep pace with the Tigers.
What you saw in 2013 is pretty close to what you’ll see in 2014. Kansas City has to hope it’s just a little bit better.