The quiet has persisted for weeks, the Royals’ offseason defined by the usual secrecy and general inertia.
For the moment, it might not change, either. The waiting will continue as the organization’s brain trust prepares for its annual trip to baseball’s Winter Meetings, which begin on Sunday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.
In the two months since the Royals finished the 2016 season at 81-81, the club has re-signed backup catcher Drew Butera to a two-year contract, let designated hitter Kendrys Morales walk into free agency without a qualifying offer, and said goodbye to starting pitcher Edinson Volquez after a disappointing second season.
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In an interview with The Star this week, Royals general manager Dayton Moore repeated his public stance that the Royals are not positioned to raise payroll after exceeding a club-record $140 million in 2016. So as the heart of the offseason approaches, that leaves the club in an onerous position.
For now, the Royals’ opening-day payroll is expected to surpass $140 million — with close to $130 million committed to 17 players under contract or arbitration eligible, including much of the championship nucleus. Another $8 million is earmarked for second baseman Omar Infante, who was jettisoned last season; and another $4 million to $5 million will be budgeted for filling out the roster.
As a result, Moore has all but dismissed the idea of a significant free-agent addition. At the moment, he said, the club is focused on exploring opportunities in the trade market.
“We’re in a position where our payroll is going to have to certainly not exceed where it is,” Moore said. “We understand the challenges and the economics of the game. We don’t make excuses for our market. We don’t make excuses for our television deal. It’s our job to win with the players we have. We have great confidence in them to do so and to perform.”
Assuming that the financial constraints from ownership do not loosen, the Royals face the reality of balancing any major acquisition — either via free agency or trade — with a corresponding reduction in salary. Which means the Royals will be in position to do plenty of listening as baseball’s 30 teams descend on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.
As the the league and players union signed off on a new collective-bargaining agreement, and the gears and levers of the offseason began to turn, Moore expressed confidence in the makeup of his team. The core of the 2015 World Series champions remains, even if some of the luster has faded following a .500 season. The battle-tested cohort that won two straight pennants remains.
“I’m not frustrated with where we are today,” Moore said, seeking to soothe concerns about the club’s financial limitations. “I like our team. I think our team is going to be very hungry. I think they’re going to be very relentless. I think they’re going to be healthy. And they’re going to be excited to play.”
And yet, the path forward remains somewhat hazy. As the Royals prepare for a week at the Winter Meetings, plenty of questions remain. So let’s attempt to answer a few of them.
What have the Royals done this offseason?
To this point, not a lot. They signed Butera to a two-year, $3.8 million contract, securing a solid insurance policy for starting catcher Salvador Perez. They have also pushed the idea of using third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert as the focal point of a rotating designated hitter platoon.
They tweaked the outer edges of their 40-man roster, protecting a collection of young players from the Rule 5 draft, and traded right-hander Brooks Pounders to the Los Angeles Angels for minor-league pitcher Jared Ruxer. They also spent much of November in fact-finding mode, exploring trade possibilities in the weeks before the new collective-bargaining agreement was completed.
What are their remaining priorities?
If the club moves away from the idea of a rotating designated hitter, they could look to replace Morales with a more traditional DH. Former Royal Carlos Beltran was on the free-agent market before reportedly agreeing to a one-year, $16 million deal with the Houston Astros on Saturday. In addition, the DH market is flooded with such names as Mike Napoli, who spent last year in Cleveland, former Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday and cheaper options such as Pedro Alvarez.
For now, these sort of options appear unlikely, with cost being one considerable factor and the future of Cuthbert being another. Cuthbert is out of options, which means he can’t be stashed in the minor leagues. Club officials state the importance of holding onto a cheap, controllable talent.
The other apparent needs appear less pressing. The club has a former All-Star set to start at every position other than second base, right field and DH. (Yes, some of the production has not been at All-Star level.) The team appears comfortable with some sort of combination of Raul Mondesi, Whit Merrifield and Christian Colon at second base. Club officials tout the defensive pedigree and production of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in right field.
The team could also look to add a cheap bounce-back candidate to offer depth to the starting rotation — think this year’s version of Chris Young or Dillon Gee. But Moore said such a signing would likely wait until closer to spring training, giving the team an opportunity to gauge the market and mine for overlooked assets.
“We’re going into spring training with Salvador Perez, who is a four-time Gold Glove winner and an All-Star,” Moore said. “We’re going in with Eric Hosmer, who was the MVP of the All-Star Game. We’ve got a Gold Glover and a past All-Star at shortstop (Alcides Escobar). We’ve got a past All-Star in left field (Alex Gordon). And Lorenzo Cain has been an All-Star and an MVP of the American League Championship Series.
“We feel pretty good about the team.”
What about a trade? Couldn’t that help fill a need without adding salary?
Yes. Moore has indicated that the Royals will be open to listening to offers for most anyone on their roster. In fact, that process has already started. While declining to discuss which players have received the most interest from other teams, closer Wade Davis is sure to receive plenty of attention at the Winter Meetings. Davis is set to make $10 million in 2017, his final season before free agency.
With the value of relievers bolstered by the recent postseason performances of Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and, yes, Davis, the Royals could use a Davis deal to net a package that could help them win in 2017, or to replenish a farm system and cut salary, allowing them to sign another free agent or add salary via another trade.
The Royals have also received multiple calls on outfielder Dyson, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. Dyson is projected to make close to $2.5 million in arbitration before becoming a free agent after next season. Dyson remains cheap and valuable — he led the Royals in WAR in 2016, according to the Fangraphs version of the stat. But the Royals have depth in the outfield, and Dyson received interest last offseason as well.
“We’re not shopping our players,” Moore said. “We’re not looking to move anybody. But that’s what you do. You have all kinds of discussions.”
Whether those discussions turn into anything next week, Moore stated the Royals would be active in the trade market in December.
“We’ll look at trade opportunities and different things that make sense for us as we go forward,” Moore said. “And even if we don’t do any deals, they’ll certainly be several conversations and fact-finding exercises that put us in a good spot going into spring training.”
But who exactly is available?
That could come more into focus over the next week. For now, the rumors are flying. The Mets have reportedly shown an inclination to listen to offers for outfielders Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson, according to Newsday. Both players will be free agents after next season and will make $13 million and $15 million, respectively, which could limit interest from the Royals.
In addition, the rebuilding Diamondbacks are suddenly teeming with young pitchers after acquiring Taijuan Walker from the Seattle Mariners. Which could make them open to listening to offers from other teams.
Those are just possibilities — hypothetical ideas — the likes of which will materialize over four days in suburban Maryland.
For now, the Royals are poised to listen.