The Kansas City Royals have a lot to consider when making their 2016-2017 offseason plans. There is one factor that must drive all decisions that Dayton Moore and the front office make: half of their roster will be free agents after 2017.
What’s At Stake?
This is barely hyperbole. Here are the players eligible for free agency after next season: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas, Jarrod Dyson. Wade Davis and Alcides Escobar both have club options for 2017, which will almost certainly be exercised, but they are both free agents after the year too. That’s every starting position player, except their left fielder and catcher, since 2011 or thereabouts, their two best left-handed pitchers, one of the best closers in baseball, and one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball.
Given that their payroll is already expected to shatter the previous high-water mark, set this year, it’s safe to say that most of those guys will be playing for different teams come 2018. With that in mind, the Royals must approach 2017 with a narrow focus if they want to try to make one last title run before starting over. Here are their three most pressing concerns going into the offseason.
Royals 2016 Offseason Needs
The No. 5 Spot in the Rotation
It’s not completely accurate to say the Royals need a No. 5 starter, although that would have certainly helped this year. The Royals cycled between the likes of Chris Young (6.19 ERA, 28 home runs allowed), Kris Medlen (can’t stay healthy and has a $10 million club option for next year), and Dillon Gee, who was their most effective option. This isn’t saying much, as he had a 4.68 ERA and cut his season short because of blood clots in his lungs, an issue he has struggled with in the past. So what are the Royals options?
Vargas projects as a fifth starter in a good rotation, so the Royals should search for a better external option. A rotation of Duffy, Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy, Vargas, and a starter better than Vargas should be good enough. The problem is that there are no such pitchers in the organization. Kyle Zimmer is a potential ace but can’t stay healthy. Matt Strahm is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and, as dominant as he was out of the bullpen late in the year, is probably not ready to shoulder a major-league workload.
This leads to an even bigger problem, which is that the starting pitching free agent market this off-season is incredibly weak. This not only limits the Royals options, it means the few decent options will be getting completely unreasonable contracts. Rich Hill was very good as a comeback player for the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers this year, and would be a great fit for a team with a great defense and pitching coach. He’s also 36 years old, will be 37 in spring training, and, because of the market, could easily get a massive deal that even a team in full win-now mode would be foolish to sign. A trade might be more reasonable, but the Royals may have to totally clean out their relatively weak farm system to get a middle- or top-of-the-rotation arm.
This may seem surprising, given that the Royals started the modern blueprint for winning—get a lead and have a bullpen full of cyborg-esque relievers who will never relinquish it—but it’s true.
Even if the Royals don’t trade Davis, which they very well might, there are not a lot of proven options within the organization. Joakim Soria will probably bounce back from this year, but in order to pitch up to the Royals standards for relievers, he’ll have to really bounce back to be considered a shutdown option. Strahm might be an option, but there is the concern that leaving him in short relief for too long may ruin his future as a starter, as it has with so many other top pitching prospects: Aaron Crow, Neftali Feliz, etc.
Luckily, given the way relievers suddenly come and go, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope that one of the Royals currently unknown pitching prospects might take a major jump onto their radar. Former closer Greg Holland is said to be showcasing for scouts soon as he rehabs from his own Tommy John procedure, so maybe he’s a good buy-low candidate. Regardless, this is an area the team must shore up.
This one is a common flashpoint between fans, as the Royals have had four straight .500 or better seasons with an offense that was always dead last or almost last in home runs. But with DH Kendrys Morales likely hitting free agency, unless he accepts the qualifying offer—assuming the Royals extend one to him—the team needs a jolt in the power department. Morales led the roster with 30 homers, becoming just the second Royal to reach that plateau this century after Jermaine Dye in 2000. That kind of bat cannot be easily replaced, so this is the one area where the Royals may have to make a decision that is clearly not in their best interest post-2017, but is justified by the mass exodus looming after the season.
If Morales takes the one-year qualifying offer, great. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he will, given that the QO figure is $17.2 million this year, a figure which no DH can reasonably expect to earn in free agency. Throw in the fact that another outstanding DH, Edwin Encarnacion, is on the market, plus Morales’ history with the QO (he declined one after 2013, didn’t sign until June of 2014 and had his worst season in the majors as a result), and maybe the bloated one-year deal is good for both sides. If not, Moore may have to swallow his good sense and commit to one too many years, or a few too many million, to keep the lineup intact.
What to Do
Given that the Royals problems are those of a team with a window, the future should be now. But because so much of the roster is already in place for next year, the Royals should be slow to act unless the market shapes itself in unforeseen ways. This is the best way to not get burnt badly on a decision. Despite this, there also must be a sense of urgency. Maybe some of the younger players: Raul Mondesi Jr., Cheslor Cuthbert, etc., will make 2018 less bleak than it appears. The fact remains, however, that the clock is ticking on this chapter of the Royals. There is only one page left.