NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s no secret. The Royals’ task is clear to all as baseball’s annual Winter Meetings unfold over the next four days within the holiday trappings of the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
By BOB DUTTON
The Kansas City Star
Find another starting pitcher. (At least one, actually.)
The preference is for an impact arm to anchor the front of an overhauled rotation but, failing that, general manager Dayton Moore is willing to grab a reliable veteran capable of eating innings.
“It’s important – if we get the right guy,” Moore said. “It’s got to be an upgrade over the guys who we have because we continue to believe in Jake Odorizzi. We believe in Will Smith. We believe Mike Montgomery. We believe in Nate Adcock. (Justin) Marks pitched terrific in the Fall League….”
That belief coupled with previous moves to bolster the rotation – acquiring Ervin Santana in a trade and then retaining free-agent Jeremy Guthrie – should permit the Royals to sift through possibilities without urgency churning into recklessness.
“That’s why we moved out of the gate when we did on Santana,” Moore said. “We didn’t know where Guthrie was going to end up at that point. You take a bird in the hand if it’s clearly an upgrade and you believe it’s not going to cripple you. We did that.
“I’m confident and believe in the current pitching staff that we have, but we’re going to continue to look to get better. David Glass (the owner) will support what we need to do to improve our team in all areas.”
The Royals, accordingly, have already checked on the availability of James Shields in Tampa Bay, of Jon Lester in Boston and of R.A. Dickey with the New York Mets. Any of the three would instantly go to the front of the club’s rotation.
Those inquiries, along with others, are certain to be revisited over the next few days, but this much is already clear: The acquisition price will be stiff.
The bartering generally starts with a demand for outfield prospect Wil Myers, the consensus minor-league player of the year, or first baseman Eric Hosmer, whose potential remains appealing despite a disappointing sophomore season.
The Royals, from all appearances, might be willing to part with Myers (or Hosmer) to obtain Shields or Lester. They seem unwilling to do so to acquire Dickey, a 38-year-old knuckleballer.
But Dickey’s is under contract for only $5 million next year before becoming a free agent. That fits far better in the Royals’ payroll structure and heightens his attractiveness – if the Mets will accept a collection of prospects that doesn’t include Myers.
Moore remains reluctant to part with either Myers or Hosmer, although he admits to a greater willingness to surrender prospects rather than young cornerstone players already on the big-league roster.
“Our goal all along was for Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to turn into players,” he said, “and to then have a wave of talent to come in behind them – and then to use all of the existing talent our farm system is developing to support this group of players.
“That’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to do everything I can to support this group of players.”
Even so, Myers is one of three prospects the club is loath to surrender along with outfielder Jorge Bonifacio and shortstop Adalberto Mondesi.
But remember: Moore and many of his top staff members cut their teeth in Atlanta, which for years swapped highly-regarded prospects for proven big-league parts. Some of those same officials now point out, albeit privately, clubs generally over-value prospects.
“Alex Gordon has turned into an All-Star-caliber player,” one said. “He’s a guy you build around, and we’ve done that. But you tell me … when was his trade value higher? Now? Or back in 2006 before he even played a major-league game?”
Others argue the acquisition of a front-line starter, if he proves decisive in turning the club into a legitimate contender, is worth virtually any cost. They see incalculable benefits to shedding decades of non-competitive malaise.
“There are two different scenarios if you want to get a good player,” Moore summarized. “If he’s a free agent, you’re overpaying him. If it’s a trade, you’re overpaying for him. Why? Because there’s competition.”
In short, the Royals aren’t the only team interested in Shields or Lester or Dickey.
“I don’t know if we can get any of the top guys,” Moore said, “but you’ve got to try. That’s what you do.”
It is also why the Royals continue to sift through free-agent possibilities, although any major signing will require either a corresponding payroll-clearing move or Glass’ approval to exceed the club’s soft $70 million break-even cap.
Glass had pledged to do just that – for someone Moore believes can be a difference-maker.
“If Dayton came to me,” Glass said, “and was absolutely convicted that by trading one of cornerstone players for something else would make us better for this year and following years, then I would have to support him.
“And if he came to me, in the right circumstances, and said, `Look, if we do this, this year, we can be competitive in our division,’ I would support that.”
The Royals showed early interest in free-agents Anibal Sánchez and Kyle Lohse before the market pushed the price for each beyond the club’s comfort zone in both years and dollars.
They took a run a Ryan Dempster by offering $26 million over two years but backed away at a three-year commitment. They also pursued Scott Feldman before he signed with the Cubs.
Remaining possibilities include Shaun Marcum, Brandon McCarthy, Joe Blanton, Dan Haren, Joe Saunders, Carlos Villaneuva, Francisco Liriano and – after recent non-tender decisions – Jair Jurrjens, Jeff Karstens, Mike Pelfrey, John Lannan and Manny Parra.
The question comes down to this: How much are the Royals willing to pay for a guy who, while an upgrade, isn’t a front-of-the-rotation horse?
“I like most of those guys,” one club official said, “but you’re talking about average guys who are experienced. They’re fours and fives (in a five-man rotation). Do they make us better? Probably. And for that reason I’d love to have one.
“But are you willing to spend (up to) $8 million or more a year on an average guy? Maybe $8 million or more (a year) for two years? I don’t know.”
As another club official said: “Those guys all have hickeys.”
The Royals are also reluctant to tie down rotation spots for multiple years to those experienced “fours and fives” because they believe they are a year away – maybe less – from having a slew of potentially superior internal options.
Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino are on target to return in the closing months next season from Tommy John surgery. Odorizzi and Smith could make a strong spring push but figure to be more polished in another year.
And by 2014, the homegrown candidates could include Yordano Ventura, John Lamb, Kyle Zimmer, Mike Montgomery and others.
“We need to get a guy who improves us and is an upgrade over what we have,” Moore said. “We’re not going to deny one of our young pitchers an opportunity just to add another guy.”