Sep 17, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) drives in a run with a double in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals: Off-Season Preview

Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports


The Royals won 14 more games this season than last. By still finishing five games out of the second wild card spot, it shows just how bad they were in years past and demonstrates the difficulty ahead. The Royals must acquire more impact talent before they have a fighting chance at a wild card berth.

Maybe they won’t be an exceptional team next year, but they might get near enough, where the merciful baseball gods can hear the whispered prayers of fans begging for the last inch of luck.

Bold steps must lay ahead if 2013 is to be revisited in history books as a true stepping stone on the way to the second coming of the Kansas City Royals. Dayton Moore insists that the organization has a multi-year window in which to win a world series, but the team is heavy with stop-gap replacement players and struggling would-be phenoms.

If this will be 1977 revisited, who is the George Brett or Amos Otis or Al Cowens or Frank White? The 2014 Royals will be about the same age as the ’77 team, but it looks like they have as many holes as headliners.

Among other things this off-season, the Royals need to find another top-shelf starter to replace Ervin Santana (or re-sign him); they must find more power, either in right field or second base; everyone who returns needs to hit better.

The Royals are already bumping their budget ceiling which causes their problems feed one another. It’s like they’re tugging on a short shoelace. If they pull too hard on one end, the other side is too short to tie a knot. The Royals have to address all of their problems without skimping one of them so much that the whole endeavor ends in futility.

If they spend a hojillion dollars on a starting pitcher, for instance, they’ll have to trade away young talent to acquire a team-controlled proven power-hitter. This, of course, can cost them in the future.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Royals to trade away Billy Butler and first-round draft pick Kyle Zimmer in a package deal to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick (assuming the no-trade clause is waived).

The pain would be acute in 2015, when the Royals lose James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie turns 36, and their top-pitching prospect starts for the Angels. Because of payroll constrictions, each new off-season signing will limit flexibility needed to address the next problem.

First on the to do list: the Royals must form a rotation that regresses very little from their 2013 levels. One of the more obvious ways to do this, of course, is to re-sign Ervin Santana. It’s no secret that the Royals want to keep him. However, it looks like he’ll get a longer and better deal elsewhere.

On 810 Sports Radio, Dayton Moore said the Royals organization could compete for Santana in dollars, but not in years. It appears that Santana may get himself a five year deal and the Royals (wisely) are unwilling to go beyond a three year contract.

The key piece of information gleaned from the interview is that Moore says the organization can compete in dollars. If a deal with Santana cannot be reached, another front-line starter is definitely within reach.

This new front-line starter may be expensive, but for the first time in a long time, the Royals will not have to overpay to get a good pitcher. On a recent episode of Kansas City Baseball Vault, the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton made the point that the team is winning games and pitchers can expect to compete in their first year of a contract. No rebuilding. No waiting.

David Lesky, on the Pine Tar Press podcast, spoke of what an impressive selling point the Royals defense is to any free agent pitcher. The Royals have the best defense in the history of advanced defensive metrics. They have four exceptional outfielders who can run down most fly balls. They won three Gold Gloves. Everyone loves throwing to Salvador Perez.

Sep 6, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Phil Hughes (65) reacts during the seventh inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the mid-90s, the Royals don’t have to pay free agents a “bad team tax.” That realistically puts quality starters like Matt Garza, Phil Hughes, Dan Haren and A.J. Burnett on the table. With the natural upgrade on the back end of the rotation with the return of Danny Duffy and possibly Yordano Ventura, Dayton Moore might not need another top-tier pitcher, just a solid #3.

That could keep costs low enough to snag a big-gun outfielder (Check out the top ten free agent outfielders for reference). And boy do the Royals need a big-gun outfielder.

If Dayton Moore plans on making the rotation a priority, we might see an inexpensive outfield signing or trade in the near future. The aforementioned Mark Trumbo is a possible right-fielder who can be acquired in a trade. The Angels are desperate for pitching, bullpen or starters.

The Brewers have a handful of powerful outfield bats and might be willing to trade for more pitching. The Royals have lots of power arms to deal.

On the surface, the outfield free agent market looks stacked, but that is somewhat deceiving. We know that the Yankees are trying to re-sign Curtis Granderson and the Cardinals want Carlos Beltran back. The Reds are looking for ways to keep Shin-Soo Choo. The Red Sox also want to keep Jacoby Ellsbury, giving stiff competition for most of the top guys on the market.

Texas is the next most likely team to bag Granderson if the Yankees can’t. If they don’t sign Granderson, they could keep Nelson Cruz by taking him back from the free agent market. Detroit might stick with Andy Dirks, but they will also surely prowl the market.

The Diamondbacks are on the cusp of the playoffs and desperately need outfield help. The Orioles and Padres want outfield help and would serve as direct competition to the Royals. The shrewd Tampa Bay Rays are always looking to sneak away with a good deal. Don’t count them out of the fight.

Ten or eleven teams are fighting over seven-to-ten impact outfielders. Mike Morse, Nate McLouth and Jason Bay  represent the quality in the next echelon of outfield free agents, if that tells you anything. The Royals would be better off sticking with David Lough.

Given the stiff competition for power bats and Dayton Moore’s open disdain for the free agent market, a trade is every bit as likely as a free agent signing. The Royals might not get out of this off-season without giving up something considerably valuable.

If the Royals fix the hole in right field and maintain a decent starting rotation, it will chew up most of the money they had to spend and still leaves holes in the lineup at  at second base, third base, shortstop, and center field. If the organization is being honest and serious about contending for World Series, they’d have to admit that just about all other positions in the lineup are under-performing as well. Every playoff team had at least one or two bats with a 130 or higher OPS+. The Royals didn’t have a single batter top 120.

Eric Hosmer, despite vast improvement, wasn’t quite as good Mike Napoli and doesn’t have the proven pedigree of Prince Fielder, whose teams made it to the ALCS. For teams to get that far, they need all of the power-positions to provide significant SLG. Hosmer’s a good hitter, but he needs to continue on his improving trajectory if the Royals want to make up for all the “ifs” in the lineup.

Alex Gordon had a pretty good year in left-field, but, again, if the Royals rely on him to pick up the slack for the hapless infield bats, he needs to hit off-speed pitches like he did in 2012. Billy Butler was the second best DH in the league according to OPS, but it would sure be nice if he hit like he did in 2012.

The Royals can do more than cross their fingers with Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas. Escobar’s glove kept him barely above replacement level. He was THE worst everyday hitter in the major leagues and Moose’s .651 OPS was 91 points worse than league average. These guys need off-season hitting help.

The organization has already started working on Moose. They forced him to play in the Venezuelan League under hitting coach Pedro Grifol. It might give him the swift kick in the butt he needs to get in gear.

Escobar is off doing Escobar things somewhere, enjoying the off-season. The Royals might feel like he needs the time off; he did look awfully distracted this season. Still, he should be in a batting cage.

The Royals acquired Emilio Bonifacio, who would serve as an excellent utility infielder on many teams. The Royals may try starting him at second base, but his career .662 OPS demonstrates his inability to hit. If the organization has no confidence in Johnny Giavotella, as it appears, they have to find a starting second baseman.  Christian Colon is not ready. Trading only for a second baseman is a risky move when only a handful of players consistently hit at the position. Dayton Moore might have to bargain bin shop for someone like Kelly Johnson, Nick Punto or Ryan Roberts if he wants to stay under budget.

Dayton Moore has the opportunity and ability to make this off-season work in his favor. While other teams are beating up one another for free agent scraps, Moore can make a trade for an impact outfielder and maybe even package in a second baseman. While teams are fighting over top-notch starting pitchers, Moore can forgo the “aces” on the market and aggressively pursue a #3, which he’d probably have to settle for anyway.

While all the rich teams are going down their lists, Moore could get a head-start talking to a guy like Ricky Nolasco before other teams lose bidding wars on their favorites and reach out to him in desperation. Moore’s managerial style that oddly mixes paralytic preparation and aggression could work for him this off-season. He just needs to focus on the right players early.

Tags: Billy Butler Eric Hosmer Ervin Santana Kansas City Royals Mike Moustakas

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