The unexpected American League champion in 2014, did the Royals do enough this winter to ensure a return to the postseason? Early signs suggest no.
With just two weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
Kansas City Royals
2014 Results: 89-73 (.549), second place in AL Central, lost World Series (Hot Stove Preview)
The Royals are a team largely comprised of players still in their cost-controlled years with a payroll in the bottom half of the league coming off a surprise World Series appearance, so we knew that their offseason was unlikely to be eventful. Not counting superannuated late-season pickups Raul Ibañez, Josh Willingham, and Scott Downs — the youngest of whom, Willingham, has since retired — the Royals had three key free agents heading into the offseason: Billy Butler, Nori Aoki, and James Shields, none of whom seemed likely to be re-signed. Indeed, the Royals replaced them with three other veteran free agents — Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez — and the story of Kansas City's winter can largely be summed up with those three.
If you toss out Morales' miserable 2014 season, in which he didn't even sign with a team until June, and instead focus on his production before that (as well as Butler's sharp decline at the plate the last two years), one can see Morales' two-year, $17 million contract being a better investment than the Athletics' three-year, $30 million pact with Butler. However, it's difficult to be that optimistic about Rios, given the soon-to-be-34-year-old's Butler-like decline at the plate the last two years and near replacement-level performance in 2014. Aoki didn't set the bar particularly high last season, but Rios, who was signed for one year and $11 million despite failing to meet his personal standards in any facet of the game last year, looks like a player on his way out of the league.
Still, there's some chance that Rios rebounds to replace Aoki (even if it's just a dead-cat bounce). There would seem to be no chance that Volquez will adequately replace Shields. In fact, it feels wrong even to type the second half of that sentence. Shields gave the Royals 227 innings of a 124 ERA+ last year. Volquez, meanwhile, has never thrown more than 196 innings in a season, and his 117 ERA+ for the Pirates and pitching coach/miracle worker Ray Searage was his first above league average since 2008. His strikeout rate dropped for the second straight season, down to 6.5 K/9, and despite a corresponding drop in walks, he still hasn't struck out twice as many men as he has walked since 2008. Volquez's fielding independent pitching mark last year and over the last three years combined is 4.15. Move him to the AL after seven years in the NL, and the Royals will be lucky to get 180 innings of a 4.15 ERA out of him in either season of his two-year, $20 million contract.
The one caveat there is that the Royals also signed Kris Medlen to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with a $10 million mutual option for 2017. Medlen, who missed all of 2014 following his second Tommy John surgery, is a complete gamble, but if he can return to full strength, he's easily a better pitcher than Volquez, though one who has surpassed 140 innings pitched in a season just once.
Speaking of players coming off Tommy John surgery, the Royals re-signed free agent Luke Hochevar to a two-year, $10 million contract with a $7 million mutual option for 2017 in the hope that he can return to the level of dominance he showed as a set-up man in 2013. They then traded arbitration-eligible Aaron Crow to Miami for a pair of young arms of little distinction — one of whom, 6-foot-7 lefty Brian Flynn, who will turn 25 in April, could help replace southpaws Francisely Bueno (who was non-tendered in December) and Downs in the bullpen. Kansas City also re-signed veteran righty Jason Frasor for one year and $1.8 million with a $2 million option for 2016.
Unfinished business: Arbitration settlements
The Royals could have done a better job of filling the holes in their roster, but they did fill all of them. Their remaining work this winter is their four remaining unsigned arbitration-eligible players: first baseman Eric Hosmer, lefty Danny Duffy, closer Greg Holland and setup man Kelvin Herrera. Of that lot, Duffy and Herrera won't be much trouble, having filed for $3 million and $1.9 million, respectively.
Hosmer's and Holland's cases will be interesting to watch. The latter filed for $9 million, a figured topped only by Mat Latos' $10.4 million among arb-eligible players (Latos ended up settling for $9.4 million). Hosmer's $6.7 million filing figure is 45 percent higher than the Royals' offer of $4.6 million, the largest percentage difference between filing figures for any un-signed player who filed for more than $6 million.
Preliminary Grade: D+
Most of the above focuses on how well the Royals replaced what they had, but Kansas City's job this offseason was larger than that. As delightful as the Royals' pennant-winning run was, the team obviously overachieved. By third-order record, they were a 79-win team during the regular season. Thus, their job wasn't to replace what they lost, but to improve upon it. They not only failed to do that, but also rather clearly took a step backward (assuming Shields ultimately signs elsewhere, which is a near certainty).
None of that is to say that the team's young players aren't capable of building on their postseason performances to make the team better in 2015. But the front office made no effort to assist them in taking that step forward, making it all the more likely that the 2014 may have been a stand-alone season rather than the start of a new era of contention in Kansas City.