Less than 24 hours have passed since the Royals clinched just the second championship in franchise history and the first in 30 years. Baseball, however, never rests. The off-season begins today, and despite coming off back-to-back pennants with the help of a talented, largely home-grown core, Kansas City has as much work to do this winter as any other team.
Factoring in options that are likely to be declined, as many as seven members of the Royals’ 25-man World Series roster are likely to become free agents in the next few days, including both of the team’s big trade deadline additions and a key member of that home-grown core. Here’s a look at the tasks at hand for general manager Dayton Moore and his staff, as well as some possible solutions.
Results: 95–67 (.586), won World Series
Third-Order Record: 86–76 (.532)
It’s a given that the Royals will pick up Davis's and Escobar’s options. Gordon will almost certainly decline his player option, but you should expect there to be mutual interest in Gordon remaining in Kansas City via a new multi-year deal. The Royals may have some interest in retaining Rios, Guthrie and Gomes (though they shouldn’t), but I still expect them to decline all three options; all three would be overpaid at those salaries.
Not listed above is closer Greg Holland, who had Tommy John surgery on Oct. 2 and is heading into his final season of team control. Given that combination, he is likely to be non-tendered or released on or before the Dec. 2 deadline.
Targets: Corner outfielders; second baseman; pitching, pitching, pitching
With Gordon and Rios both likely to become free agents, the Royals obviously need to fill their corner outfield positions. A reunion with Gordon, who will be entering his age-32 season, seems likely and appropriate, but the team can do better than Rios, who will be 35 next season and saw his decline continue this year, hitting .256/.290/.356 in 462 plate appearances in the regular and postseasons combined.
Simply giving the rightfield job to Jarrod Dyson or Paulo Orlando, or, perhaps better yet, having those two slick-fielding speedsters platoon at the position (Dyson hits lefthanded, Orlando righthanded), would be an upgrade over Rios, who sank below replacement level in 2015. Triple A outfielder Reymond Fuentes, a former first-round pick who was acquired from the Padres in a minor deal last November and won’t turn 25 until February, is another intriguing in-house option there.
It seems safe to say that the Royals can’t afford to make a meaningful run at Jason Heyward, who would be a perfect fit for this team as something of a younger, lefthanded version of Lorenzo Cain. But there are plenty of cost-conscious alternatives on this year’s market who would also represent an upgrade on Rios. Among those, Denard Span (who is coming off hip labrum surgery), Gerardo Parra and Will Venable seem like they would be good fits for the Royals’ style of play, even if they're not necessarily the best options, generally speaking.
The Royals also have internal options at second base with Omar Infante under contract for two more years and Game 5 hero Christian Colon deserving more playing time than he received this past year. The Royals’ first preference would seem to be to re-sign Zobrist, who will turn 35 in late May but is nonetheless a near-perfect Royal: He is a virtual clone of Gordon at the plate, offers defensive flexibility and hit .289/.364/.466 in 339 plate appearances for Kansas City between the regular and postseasons this year. The Royals will have to compete for his services, but with the younger Howie Kendrick and Daniel Murphy on the market as well, there may be opportunity for them to bring back Zobrist at an affordable price. Kendrick would be a good fit on the Royals as well, but he may be more expensive, and with Infante already owed $17.75 million over the next two years, the Royals seem unlikely to want to overspend to relegate Infante to the bench, no matter how lousy he was in 2015.
The holes free agency will create in the Royals' lineup are obvious. Less obvious but every bit as significant is the impact free agency will have on the pitching staff. With Holland and Jason Vargas lost to Tommy John surgery and Cueto, Young, Madson and Morales due to become free agents, the Royals’ have just 12 healthy pitchers on their 40-man roster. Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Luke Hochevar—the last now an extra year removed from his own Tommy John surgery—may form a typically dominant top three in the bullpen. But the other relievers currently on the roster—Louis Coleman, Scott Alexander, Michael Mariot and Tim Collins, the last of whom lost the season to Tommy John surgery—combined to pitch 10 major league games in 2015.
Danny Duffy excelled in the bullpen in the postseason, but as the roster stands, he’s needed in the rotation. That starting group currently consists of Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Duffy, Kris Medlen (a two-time Tommy John recipient who has made just eight starts since his second surgery) and either Guthrie or prospect Miguel Almonte, the last of whom has yet to make a major league start. Collins could return to action early in 2016, but he’s no sure thing, and there’s not much depth beyond that.
The Royals clearly need to add to both their rotation and bullpen this offseason. Don’t be surprised to see them re-sign Madson and Young, but they’re not expected to pursue Cueto, who, heading into his age-30 season, is likely to land a monster contract. Kansas City's budget constraints—last year's payroll, while a new franchise record, reached just $112.8 million, 17th in all of baseball—mean no David Price, likely no Jordan Zimmermann and no Zack Greinke reunion, either, but the Royals could be players for second-tier free-agent starters such as Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Marco Estrada or maybe even Jeff Samardzija. They needn’t go even that big to flesh out their bullpen, but flesh it out they must, and while a reunion with Joakim Soria may be tempting, landing a high-leverage lefty should be a higher priority. Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo are the most intriguing free agents in that category, though the Royals could also move Duffy in to that role if they add enough arms to their rotation.
Bottom line: Seven months ago, we looked at the Royals’ middling run differential and third-order record from 2014, as well as their underwhelming replacements for James Shields (Volquez) and Nori Aoki (Rios), and assumed they’d sink back into the pack in the AL Central behind some combination of the Tigers, Indians and White Sox. We won’t write them off quite so easily next year, in part because of the big steps forward taken by Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer this past season, because the optimism about Kendrys Morales was validated, because Volquez proved he could continue to succeed outside of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage’s tutelage, and because the rest of the division proved surprisingly meek competition.
Still, Moore has a lot of work to do this offseason, and it should start before Gordon and Zobrist are able to begin negotiating with other teams on Saturday. You would hope that, having now won back-to-back pennants and their first World Series in 30 years, the Royals will be able to continue to expand their payroll in an effort to continue their run. Based on what we’ve seen from this team the last two years, it will reward the Royals’ ownership for every penny they spend this winter.