With one week left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Kansas City Royals. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
95–67 (.586), first place in American League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Jeremy Guthrie*, RHP Greg Holland*, RHP Ryan Madson, LHP Franklin Morales, RF Alex Rios*, 2B Ben Zobrist
C Tony Cruz, RHP Ian Kennedy, RHP Joakim Soria
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
The biggest challenge facing the Royals in the wake of consecutive pennants and their second World Series championship in franchise history is keeping their team together. Doomsday for Kansas City comes after the 2017 season, when, as of right now, the following players are due to hit free agency: Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez, Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Jarrod Dyson, Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen, Jason Vargas, Tim Collins and Tony Cruz. That coming apocalypse gives a heightened importance to the next two seasons, which stand to be what remains of the Royals' window of opportunity to capitalize on the tremendous crop of homegrown talent that the organization has assembled over the last decade.
Given their limited budget, the Royals knew that their big deadline additions, starter Johnny Cueto and second baseman Ben Zobrist, were mere rentals (and they were, with Cueto signing with the Giants and Zobrist joining the Cubs this winter), but they desperately needed to retain their other big free agent, leftfielder Alex Gordon. They did so thanks to a market flooded with talented free-agent outfielders and Gordon’s clear desire to remain in Kansas City (despite declining his $12.5 million player option in November). Gordon grew up a Royals fan in Nebraska, has a brother named after George Brett, went to college in Lincoln, Neb., and was drafted with the No. 2 pick by the Royals in 2005. It should come as no surprise, then, that he gave Kansas City a home town discount, agreeing to a four-year, $72 million deal in early January with a $12 million salary for 2016 and a $23 million mutual option for '20.
With Gordon in place via what was still the largest contract in team history, the Royals quickly turned around and gave righthander Ian Kennedy $70 million over five years to flesh out their rotation, having previously retained postseason hero Chris Young via a two-year, $11.5 million deal with an $8 million mutual option for 2018. The gamble on Kennedy is that Kauffman Stadium will help correct his extreme home-run rate and that the team's outstanding outfield defense (Gordon, Cain and what’s likely to be a platoon of Dyson and Paulo Orlando in rightfield) will turn those balls that fall short of the fence into outs, allowing Kennedy’s solid command of the strike zone (9.3 strikeouts per nine and a 3.12 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last two years) to shine. I still think the Royals overpaid for Kennedy, who doesn’t seem likely to be much more than a league-average innings eater (a level of performance that itself would be a step up from his 84 ERA+ over the last three years), but there’s does at least appear to have been some degree of thought behind that signing.
Before the big deals for Gordon and Kennedy, the Royals signed former closer Joakim Soria to a three-year, $25 million deal to replace reclamation project Ryan Madson in the bullpen. Madson signed with the Athletics for $22 million over the same three-year term, and for the extra $3 million, Kansas City got a more reliable pitcher in Soria who is four years younger and coming off a season in which he featured the best velocity of his career. That's a nice upgrade even before you factor in the delight that Royals fans will have in seeing Soria back in Royal blue.
Unfinished Business: Second base
The Royals' rotation isn’t thrilling, but it’s at least full, with Volquez, Yordano Ventura, Kennedy, Young and Medlen pushing Duffy to the bullpen, where he’ll replace Franklin Morales as the primary lefty, and keeping prospect Miguel Almonte in Triple A. The Dyson/Orlando platoon in rightfield, meanwhile, stands to be an upgrade on veteran Alex Rios in the field, on the bases and at the plate. That just leaves second base as a notable hole on the roster.
The Royals are clearly hoping that Omar Infante’s miserable 2015 season (49 OPS+, dead last among the 211 players with 400 or more plate appearances last year) was simply the result of his nagging arm injuries, and that those ailments have been corrected by the surgery he had in November to remove bone chips from his right elbow. They do still owe Infante $17.75 million for the next two seasons (including the buyout of his 2018 option). Still, the Royals didn’t so much as upgrade the bench behind Infante or sign a potential platoon partner for him. If he struggles again, Kansas City's alternatives will be Christian Colon (who should have replaced Infante at second last year before Zobrist arrived but didn’t and is due to turn 27 in May) or another aggressive promotion for top prospect Raul Mondesi (who is just 20 and posted a .279 on-base percentage in Double A last year). All three are righthanded hitters.
One potential solution could be veteran switch-hitter Jimmy Rollins, who has never started a game at second base but is said to be open to moving to the keystone. The Royals may even be able to get him into camp as a non-roster invitee on a split contract given the overall lack of interest in his services this off-season.
Preliminary Grade: B+
I don’t like the Kennedy deal, but I follow the Royals’ thinking on it, and they did need to sign someone to fill out their rotation. At the very least, Kennedy has a clean injury history, and that deal will look a lot better if he elects to opt out after the 2017 season, turning a five-year, $70 million deal into a two-year, $27 million contract. Adding Kennedy and re-signing Young gives Kansas City the depth it needed in the rotation and allows the overspill (most likely Duffy) to help out in the bullpen, where replacing Madson with Soria looks like an upgrade to my eyes. What this grade ultimately comes down to, however, is Gordon. The Royals' entire off-season hinged on being able to retain Gordon, and they not only kept him, but also did so at a bargain price.