After winning back-to-back American League pennants and just the second World Series championship in franchise history the past two seasons, the Royals are going to miss out on the postseason this year. Entering Thursday, they are two games below .500, 10 games out of first place in the AL Central and 7 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot. Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report gives the champs just a 0.5% chance of making the playoffs.
Despite all of that, Kansas City largely stood pat at the non-waiver trading deadline, making just one minor deal: a swap of recently demoted outfielders with the A’s. As for what the Royals should do with the rest of their roster, below are a few suggestions.
Before exploring those options in detail, it’s worth discussing two major issues that will shape both the ideas below and what the team will actually do moving forward.
1. Kansas City’s Post-2017 Apocalypse
As things stand right now, if everyone’s options are picked up, a staggering 13 Royals will be free agents after the 2017 season: centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson, shortstop Alcides Escobar, first baseman Eric Hosmer, designated hitter Kendrys Morales and third baseman Mike Moustakas; starting pitchers Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen, Jason Vargas and Edinson Volquez; and relievers Tim Collins, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar. That’s more than half of their starting lineup, their top two starting pitchers and two of the top three men in their bullpen, at least when everyone is healthy. Everything Kansas City does going forward will need to be in the context of, and a reaction to, that reality.
Most recently, the Royals’ decision to stand pat at the deadline stemmed largely from the fact that they are aware that they have one more year to try to win with their current core. The suggestions below are focused on how K.C. can begin to look past the 2017 season.
2. The Prospect Problem
The Royals’ recent success is the result of having built one of the best minor league systems in recent memory, but with all of those players having graduated to the majors or been traded to other teams, Kansas City’s farm has gone to seed.
Consider the team’s top seven prospects coming into the season, as ranked by Baseball America. Other than the No. 1 choice—shortstop Raul Mondesi Jr., who was just called up to the bigs—the rest of the players have had seasons that must be considered, at best, bad.
No. 2: Kyle Zimmer, RHP: The No. 5 pick in 2012, Zimmer threw just 5 2/3 innings this season before having surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome.
No. 3: Bubba Starling, OF: The No. 5 pick in 2011, Starling has hit .196/.256/.323 in a season split between Double and Triple A.
No. 4: Miguel Almonte, RHP: After making his major league debut last year, Almonte has posted a 5.55 ERA and 1.75 WHIP, walked 6.3 men per nine innings and was demoted first to the bullpen at Triple A and then to Double A.
No. 5: Nolan Watson, RHP: The 33rd pick last year, Watson has posted a 7.88 ERA and 1.78 WHIP at Class A in his full-season debut.
No. 6: Ashe Russell, RHP. The 21st pick in 2015, Russell hasn’t appeared in a game since June 29 as the team reworks his delivery. He has a 4.46 ERA in 13 professional appearances.
No. 7: Marten Gasparini, SS: The native of Italy has hit .205/.256/.325 in his first season above Rookie ball.
So how does a team whose best players are quickly approaching free agency and whose best prospects are quickly approaching oblivion, move forward? Here’s how.
Locked in Place: LF Alex Gordon, RHP Ian Kennedy, C Salvador Perez
Not every Royal is going to reach free agency after the 2017 season. Alex Gordon got there last year and was retained with the largest contract in franchise history—a four-year, $72 million deal with a $23 million mutual option for 2020. He has had an awful season at the plate (67 OPS+), missed a month with a broken scaphoid bone in his right wrist and has been disappointing in leftfield, as well, but you don’t give a core player a contract like that and punt after one lousy season.
Kansas City followed the re-signing of Gordon by giving Ian Kennedy a five-year, $70 million deal, thinking that Kauffman Stadium would help cure his gopheritis. That hasn’t happened, but the Royals’ outfield defense has helped with the balls that stay in the park, with Kennedy posting a respectable 105 ERA+, his best mark since 2011. Kennedy’s contract is still a massive overpay, but for now, he’s not hurting the team, and Kansas City can hope that that he puts it all together next year, contributes to another postseason run and uses his opt-out at the end of the season. If not, the ROyals can explore trading the final three years and $49 million on his deal at that point.
As for Perez, I slammed the five-year, $52.5 million extension the Royals gave him in March largely because they already had him locked up for far less through 2019 via a trio of club options. The raise may have been a nice reward for his play, but it was unnecessary from a cost standpoint. Still, he has been the team’s best player this year and, at 26, remains a key part of Kansas City's immediate future.
Extension Candidates: CF Lorenzo Cain, LHP Danny Duffy, 1B Eric Hosmer
Of that baker’s dozen list of pending free agents listed above, these are the only three who are worth trying to re-sign. Like Perez, Hosmer is 26, and he's on the athletic end of the spectrum for first basemen. Cain is 30 and has been injury prone in his career, but when healthy, he is Kansas City’s best player. Given that both are having down years, this winter would be a good time to buy low. In both cases, the length of the deal should be capped at five years, with 2017 as the first of those seasons. For Cain, who is already due to earn $11 million next year, that would take him through his age-35 season; for Hosmer, who is heading for arbitration this winter, it would give him a chance to reach free agency after his age-31 campaign.
Duffy, at age 27, has emerged as the staff ace since returning to the rotation in mid-May, going 7–1 with a 2.98 ERA, 10.4 strikeouts per nine and a 5.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 starts. Extending him risks buying high, but his erratic career to this point should limit his demands, and he’ll come cheaper this winter than if he proves he can pitch like this over a full season next year. The Royals are desperate for reliable starting pitching; locking up Duffy this winter seems like as good a place as any to start.
Isolated Youth Movement: 2B/SS Raul Mondesi, 3B Cheslor Cuthbert, LHP Matt Strahm
The one place Kansas City’s kids seem to be alright is on the left side of the infield. With Moustakas out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, 23-year-old Cheslor Cuthbert has proven a capable major league hitter at third base. Mondesi, who made his major league debut by striking out in Game 3 of last year’s World Series, has recently been called up and installed at second base. Meanwhile, third base prospect Hunter Dozier, the No. 8 pick in 2013, has rebounded from a brutal ‘15 season to hit .306/.376/.549 in an age-24 campaign split between Double and Triple A. Dozier is a far better fielder than Cuthbert, but between the two of them, the Royals should be able to replace Moustakas internally come 2018.
Meanwhile, the club should take full advantage of Mondesi’s fielding prowess and install him as the starting shortstop in 2017. That means trading Alcides Escobar this winter. Escobar has played a prominent role in the Royals’ recent success as their starting shortstop and frequent leadoff hitter, but he has been at or below replacement level in three of the last four years, as his awful performance at the plate (.258/.288/.327 and a 68 OPS+ over the last four seasons) has undermined his strong play in the field, and he will turn 30 in December. He is not helping this team win, and his replacement is already sharing the infield with him. It’s time for him to go.
As for Strahm, the team’s eighth-ranked prospect prior to the season: He just got called up straight from Double A to serve as a second lefty in the bullpen. As a 24-year-old who had Tommy John surgery in July 2013, he’s no blue-chipper, but with a fastball that reaches the upper 90s from the left side and experience as a starter (he started in 18 of his 22 appearances at Double A this year), he could be a valuable arm going forward.
Trade Bait: SS Alcides Escobar, RHP Edinson Volquez, RHP Yordano Ventura, CF Jarrod Dyson
Perhaps Kansas City can find a team that will overvalue Escobar based on his glove and his strong postseason hitting (.311/.325/.467). If so, he should be flipped either for a near-ready second baseman or some pitching help. At the very least, a quality setup reliever doesn’t seem like too much to ask for an everyday shortstop, does it?
As for Edinson Volquez, he isn’t likely to pick up his end of the $10 million mutual option on his contract for next year because he'll be one of the best options on a thin free-agent market for starting pitchers. With so many teams still in need of starting pitching this year, the Royals could potentially work out a waiver-deal to get something back for Volquez this month and then use that $10 million for next year to try to land another free-agent starter, or even to re-sign Volquez themselves.
Yordano Ventura is 25 years old, throws triple-digit heat complimented by a pair of filthy off-speed pitches and is signed to a team-friendly deal with options that would take him through 2021 for a total salary of $43.25 million for the next five years. He also has significant temperament issues and has been lousy this season, with all of his peripherals heading in the wrong direction. The result has been a 4.83 ERA and 4.87 FIP in his third full season as a major league starter.
Ventura’s issues are no secret, but his stuff, his age and his contract are all impressive enough that there should be a team out there willing to pay a significant price for him in an off-season trade. He shouldn’t be moved for pennies on the dollar, but he should definitely be shopped this winter. Would the Dodgers be interested in Ventura for fellow über-talented problem child Yasiel Puig? It wouldn’t hurt to ask.
As a perennial backup who turns 32 later this month, Dyson won’t yield nearly as much as the others here. He can be easily replaced on the roster by newly acquired speedster Billy Burns, who was called up on Thursday. Unlike the lefty Dyson, Burns is a switch-hitter and has four years of team control remaining.
Stand Pat: 3B Mike Moustakas, DH Kendrys Morales, OF Paulo Orlando, OF Billy Burns, RHP Wade Davis, RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Luke Hochevar, RHP Joakim Soria, RHP Chris Young
Davis, Hochevar, Morales and Moustakas are all part of the Class of 2017, but with Davis (flexor strain) and Hochevar (thoracic outlet syndrome) both dealing with arm-related injuries, there’s not much that can or should be done with them right now. With those two hurt, Herrera, who is under team control through 2018, and Soria, who is signed through ‘18 with a $10 million mutual option for ‘19, take on increased importance. Soria has had a disappointing season, but his velocity is up, so perhaps he can rebound in the coming seasons.
Morales, a designated hitter heading into his age-34 season, wouldn’t appear to have much trade value. Kansas City is better off hoping for a bounceback season in 2017, and then letting him walk or trading him at the deadline if he gets off to a strong start but the team doesn't. One potential long-term solution to Morales’s departure could be moving Cuthbert to DH once Dozier arrives to assume third base. That would require best-case development from both of those young third basemen, but it would also allow them to get some major league at bats in preparation for 2018.
Young has been awful this year, but he’s owed $5.75 million for next year, not counting the $1.5 million buyout of his $8 million mutual option for 2018. His strikeout rate and velocity are both up this year, and he has value as a swing man if he can simply return to mediocrity next year.
As for Orlando, his solid line this year (.320/.345/.415) is inflated by his .400 batting average on balls in play. Still, given his speed and excellent fielding in all three pastures, he has value as a fourth outfielder or the short side of a platoon. He’ll turn 31 in November but has five team-controlled years remaining and won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2018 season. Orlando and Burns could combine to make for an acceptable solution in rightfield if Cain’s bat recovers in center.
The Others: C Drew Butera, IF Christian Colon, LHP Brian Flynn, RHP Dillon Gee, RHP Peter Moylan, RHP Chien-Ming Wang
This is the fungible portion of the roster. Butera, Gee, Moylan and Wang are all veterans on one-year deals. Colon, last year's World Series hero, and Flynn are pre-arbitration players who won’t reach free agency until after the 2020 season. None of Gee, Moylan or Wang are essential pieces, but it could be fun to sign Butera to a minor league deal and convert him to a pitcher; he has a 1.09 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine in four career mop-up appearances in the big leagues. Colon and Flynn will remain as role players off the bench and out of the bullpen, respectively.
If the Royals follow this plan, they’ll have five members of their starting lineup locked up beyond 2017 (Cain, Gordon, Hosmer, Mondesi and Perez) with a plan to replace a sixth internally (with Moustakas yielding third base to either Dozier or Cuthbert) and possibly even a seventh (Cuthbert to DH in place of Morales). With Burns and Orlando serving as a safety net for rightfield, that will allow Kansas City to focus its attention this off-season on acquiring a viable everyday second baseman and to flesh out its pitching staff, some of which might be accomplished via the trades of Volquez this month and Dyson, Escobar and Ventura in the off-season.
These moves are not a guaranteed recipe for success, but they should help blunt the impact of the post-2017 roster apocalypse. They would also put the Royals in better shape to remain competitive beyond next season, rather than having to blow it all up and return to the rebuilding stage that it took them more than two decades to climb out of.