You probably don’t need a refresher course on the list of Royals who will be free agents after the 2017 season. Dayton Moore certainly doesn’t.
Eric Hosmer is on the list. So is Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy and Jarrod Dyson. And so on.
Moore, the Royals’ general manager, has essentially spent months thinking about this, he says, long conversations and organizational meetings, planning, strategy and contingency options.
“For three years now,” Moore says.
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In the winter of 2017, a significant chunk of a championship core will be set to walk into the open market of free agency. For the Royals, the reality sets up an intriguing challenge this winter, which could be among the most transformative offseasons of Moore’s tenure — well, at least until the next one.
On paper, Royals officials believe they possess the talent and resources to return to the postseason and take another run at a World Series championship in 2017. There is hope that the healthy return of Moustakas and Cain will bolster a below-average offense. There is belief that franchise pillar Alex Gordon will stabilize after a disappointing 2016. There are plans to rework a bullpen that became all too penetrable.
Yet there is also an organization stance, offered earlier this week, that the club may have to shed dollars from its 2016 payroll, which hovered around $140 million. Initial projections for 2017 suggest the Royals could owe close to $125 million for 16 players, including players under contract and players set to receive team options and arbitration raises. At the least, Moore says, the Royals will likely find themselves unable to add significant money to the payroll.
The financial specifics could change, of course. A year ago, the Royals offered a similar position before signing Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy and upping the payroll to a record high. Still, the situation offers the following scenario, one that has Royals officials balancing two competing truths: The Royals have a roster that could compete for a second World Series title in three years. They also have an aging group of players, a list of pending free agents and the desire to cut some money.
So yes, you can begin to understand the challenge.
“We have a lot of All-Star caliber players that we think can get back to their accustomed level,” Moore says. “We’ll count on that. But we also recognize the need to maybe mix it up a little bit.”
As the offseason begins, Moore indicates that the Royals will be active and creative in searching for ways to upgrade their roster via possible trades, which leads to the following question: Would the Royals be ready to trade a piece of their core as a way to both shed money and stretch their window for contending?
For now, the Royals have shown little inclination to trade one of their core position players, a group that would include Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain. But in the days after an 81-81 finish, Moore vowed to be imaginative this offseason.
“Last year, we pretty much stood pat,” he says. “We didn’t make a lot of changes to our team. And that didn’t work too well for us.”
The Royals still maintain confidence in their ability to sign their homegrown stars, including Hosmer and Moustakas. And under Moore, the club has a solid track record in this area, from long-term extensions for Gordon and Salvador Perez, to shorter extensions for Billy Butler and Zack Greinke. Yet as Moore says, “We won’t be able to sign them all.”
The club is also sensitive to the idea of offering a nucleus that brought a championship to Kansas City another opportunity to collect a ring. If the purpose of the front office is to build a team that can compete for a title, well, the Royals believe they have that. So any potential offseason trade would have to not interfere with that goal.
“This game is so unpredictable and it changes minute to minute,” Moore says. “And we’re going to focus on putting the best team we can in 2017, and get back to playing in October.”
In some ways, of course, it always comes back to this: To trade an important piece is to invite another possible question mark. And these sorts of trades are never easy. Want proof? Inspect the list.
Start with Cain, who will make $11 million in 2017 and turn 31 years old next April. Unlike Hosmer or Moustakas, his age and injury history could preclude the Royals from working out a long-term contract. Yet he is also the club’s best overall player, a former All-Star who finished third in the American League Most Valuable Player voting in 2015 and whose value was clear during two injuries this past season.
Move to Davis, who is 31 and one of the best relievers in baseball, set to make $10 million on a team option in 2017. Even in an injury-plagued “down” year, he posted a 1.87 ERA and 27 saves in 2016. Relievers are volatile, of course, and Davis could net substantial value in a possible deal. Yet the Royals saw the importance of maintaining a shutdown bullpen this past season. And Davis and All-Star setup man Kelvin Herrera remain the steely backbone of the back end of the pen.
Then there is starter Ian Kennedy, a 31-year-old entering the second season of a five-year, $70 million contract. Kennedy will make $13.5 million next season and his contract contains an opt-out clause following 2017 (he can become a free agent or lock into a three-year, $49 million deal for 2018-20).
He was also the Royals’ second most valuable starter in 2016, posting a 3.68 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, which translated to an ERA-plus that was 19 percent better than league average. To trade Kennedy would free up $13.5 million in salary and leave a sizable hole in the middle of the rotation.
For Moore and the Royals, the coming offseason will offer a litany of hard choices and trade-offs, of weighing the present against the future, and trying to improve both. The club is expected to let starter Edinson Volquez walk, and it will consider giving a qualifying offer — worth an estimated $16.8 million — to designated hitter Kendrys Morales. But the financial cost will be weighed heavily. For now, as playoffs push on and the Royals remain at home, the club has the luxury of time.
“We have to continue to evaluate other opportunities out there to improve our team for 2017 and beyond,” Moore says. “We’ve got to look to be creative. It’s very early, obviously, with the offseason, and there will be opportunities that are available to us that we’re not even aware of yet.
“Once we begin to unpack what other teams are looking to do, we’ll have a better idea of how we can mix and match and line up with trades and hopefully make some quality acquisitions.”