What was the story last season?
The World Champion Royals suffered a pretty major championship hangover. The team underperformed all season and were never in the AL Central hunt. A September surge might have kept them in the wildcard picture but it never materialised as they ended the year 81-81. Injuries and inconsistency plagued the roster as the team that made a habit of winning found itself battling to stay above .500.
Any impending free agents?
Kendrys Morales: Morales and the Royals had an $11m mutual option for 2017 but agreed to go their separate ways after two steady seasons of productivity at DH from the 33 year old switch hitter. Morales has since signed a three-year deal with Toronto meaning KC will have a hole to fill in the line-up at designated hitter.
Edinson Volquez: Volquez too had a mutual option for 2017, but again he elected free agency and tested the open market. Volquez logged at least 189 innings and at least 139 strikeouts in both seasons with the Royals, and although he was far from consistent in 2016 the Royals will need to replace his innings somehow. Volquez signed a 2 year, $22m contract with the Marlins.
Kris Medlen: Do you guys remember when Medlen joined the Braves rotation in 2012, threw 40.1 innings without an earned run and ended the season with a 1.57 ERA? I bet Kris remembers. Unfortunately, injuries have plagued his career since then, and Medlen was able to pitch just 83 innings in the Majors in two seasons with KC.
Where does the team need improving?
The aforementioned departing players leave holes at designated hitter and in the rotation that need addressing. Breakout star Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy and Jason Vargas will be expected to make up the front of the rotation, but KC will need some back-end depth even if Chris Young is given another chance in the fifth starter role.
The trade that sent Wade Davis to the Cubs depleted an already talent-starved bullpen that now consists of Kelvin Herrera, Matt Strahm and a broken Joakim Soria. The Royals won’t be in the market for one of the big arms out there (not that there are many left now) but they will need to pursue some depth with the oft-injured Luke Hochevar and Tim Collins also heading to free agency.
Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas will return as the cornerstones of the infield, and all four represent above-average-if-not-great options. At the very least, they are four of the finest defenders at their positions in the league. Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield are both options at second base, although the Royals will undoubtedly keep an eye on the FA pool there.
Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon will lock down two outfield spots, again elite defenders who have shown some offensive upside whilst the acquisition of Jorge Soler presumably means he will slot in as the everyday right fielder. Jarrod Dyson may platoon as a lefty bat and will be an asset either way with his superhuman speed.
So… what’s the plan?
Much like their divisional rival Tigers, the Royals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The roster isn’t bad. As I just outlined, the only hole in the line-up is at DH (and maybe 2B) which is literally the easiest spot to fill. The rotation has enough talent to keep the Royals in games and even with a heavily depleted unit the bullpen can hold some leads.
But there really aren’t many stars on this team. Eric Hosmer took a step back in 2016. Mike Moustakas likewise. Lorenzo Cain has been oft-injured. Alex Gordon signed a big contract and was then terrible. Yordano Ventura is too busy picking stupid fights to turn his 100mph fastball into ace results. I want to back this unit to contend for the AL Central in 2017 but I really can’t.
And that’s a pretty big problem. You see, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar and Danny Duffy all hit free agency after next season. The entire core of this team will be gutted from the roster and the Royals won’t be able to resign all of them.
Which makes me think that the Royals window is right now. Literally 2017 or bust, because they don’t have the payroll to buy big and they don’t have the impact prospects to seamlessly transition into competitiveness. They also play in a stinky division. The Indians are great and will presumably coast to another title. The Tigers are fine but may be rebuilding themselves. And the White Sox and Twins are pretty much actively trying to lose.
The Davis trade was strange on the surface: given the remarkable hauls demanded of Chapman and Miller mid-season, the return of Soler felt lukewarm at best. Given his arm troubles and his impending free agency however, it was a nice trade for the Royals who clearly believe in the 24 year-old outfielder who (by the way) is under contract through 2020.
The Royals have to try to compete now, and the best way to do that is mostly to sit still. They need a DH and a number of guys remain available including Napoli, Moss, Carter and Lind. Signing one of them two a two-year deal feels pretty realistic even within the constrained payroll limitations the Royals face.
If everything goes right, this team is in the play-off hunt come September and can have one last shot with the roster that brought them a title. If everything goes wrong then we see a fire sale by July as Dayton Moore desperately tries to recoup some value from the players that will leave at season end. But do you know what? It’s a small price to pay for a championship. Flags fly forever, and Royals fans will appreciate that as much as anyone.
Best case scenario: GM Dayton Moore keeps his ears open to trade offers but tries to make the roster competitive for 2017. They sign Adam Lind to a back-loaded two year, $22m contract and pick up some cheap rotation depth and bullpen options on one-year deals.
Worst case scenario: The Royals tear it all up. Yes, they’ve dealt Davis and rumour has it they’re listening to offers on Cain. I don’t think they get enough value from a rebuild to justify it though. The farm system is barren and dealing guys like Hosmer and Moustakas won’t fix that. Try to compete in 2017, re-assess in June.
Likely scenario: The Royals sit on their hands. Moore and owner David Glass haven’t shown any kind of indication they expect a busy off-season and the team was barely mentioned once at the Winter Meetings outside the Davis deal. “The Process 2” begins in earnest, without fanfare or outrage.