Inside the Royals clubhouse, the clock ticks. A collection of cornerstone players are set to become free agents after the 2017 season. Royals manager Ned Yost has two years remaining on his contract, and at age 61, will not be here indefinitely. All around the room, there are reminders of a franchise in transition.
But in a locker stall near the entrance is another, less conspicuous clock. It hangs over the head of outfielder Terrance Gore, perhaps the fastest man in baseball, and it is counting down as the 2017 season approaches. Gore, 25, is a dynamic, game-changing weapon with a possible expiration date.
Here is the quandary: For parts of three seasons, Gore has moonlighted in Kansas City as a pinch-running specialist. He lit up the postseason with his speed in both 2014 and 2015. He boosted the Royals’ bench during two stretches in 2016. At his best, he is one of the most-feared base-stealers in baseball, a 5-foot-7 jet who drives opposing pitchers batty with his legs.
But Gore cannot be a one-tool specialist forever. The Royals are set to use up his final option in 2017. Beginning next year, he will have to clear waivers — and be exposed to other teams — in order to be stashed in the minor leagues. That positions 2017 as a critical season for Gore. To be a part of the Royals’ future, he will likely have to prove he can hold down a role as a fourth or fifth outfielder. For now, the Royals see little value in mulling Gore’s future publicly.
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“Terrance keeps getting better,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “He keeps getting more well-rounded as a player. And he keeps improving. You don’t make advanced decisions. You make decisions at the appropriate time.”
Gore, of course, is not the only Royals player running low on options — the roster mechanism that allows the team to send players to the minor leagues without going through waivers. The story is hardly unique in a baseball clubhouse. But as a player, Gore is something akin to a baseball unicorn. As a result, his future is worth pondering.
After debuting as a pinch-running specialist in September 2014, Gore has appeared in 37 regular-season games and eight in the postseason, exclusively as a pinch-runner. He has never started a game in the outfield. In nine big-league plate appearances, he has reached base just twice, thanks to being hit two times. In the minors, he’s batted .242 with a .341 on-base percentage across six seasons. He’s never hit a minor-league home run.
He has made strides as an all-around player in recent years, improving his hitting and his defense. But for the moment, he remains an option for the big-league roster only because of his legs.
“For a guy that’s as small as he is, there’s very few clubs that have that type of weapon,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
The Royals have not decided how they will fill out their roster. With the departure of outfielder Jarrod Dyson, they lack a premium base-stealer on the bench. They could elect to fill that hole by including Gore or outfielder Billy Burns as a fifth outfielder — at least for stretches. But Yost has given no indication that additional speed on the bench is a necessity, citing the hope of more run production from a deeper lineup. From that perspective, the club views a piece such as Gore or Burns as a luxury.
For now, though, Gore sees opportunity. In the offseason, he returned home to Florida and spent five days a week in a batting cage. In 2015, he displayed progress at the plate, batting .283 with a .367 on-base percentage at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. Last season, he took a step back, batting just .233 in 88 games while repeating Northwest Arkansas. As the offseason began, he sought to find more comfort at the plate.
“They always say the best coach is yourself,” Gore said. “So a lot of times I’d go in the cage; I’d be by myself, just sitting there … whatever felt good. I finally think I found something that actually feels good to me, and I’m just going with that.”
Gore says his new stance is more upright. He ditched an extreme crouch in the process. For now, it feels more athletic, he said.
“It’s finally paying off,” Gore said. “My (batting practice) has been really good. None of the hitting coaches have said nothing to me. But I think deep down they know (it’s been) kind of impressive. There were a couple of guys thinking I’m on steroids … like, ‘Where’d you get this from?’ I said: ‘It’s daddy strength.’ ”
Yes, Gore is a father now. He spent much of his offseason chasing after his son, Zane. In his free time, he cleared his head with fishing trips. But on most days, his focus turned to baseball.
For three seasons, he has existed as a novelty, baseball’s answer to Usain Bolt, a specialist with a World Series ring and 19 major-league stolen bases in 21 attempts. But Gore still hopeful for more. For now, he still has a ways to go.
“He’s worked really hard on all phases of his game,” Yost said. “And he’s made great strides. Last year in spring training, he got a hit. And he came close to getting a hit in the big leagues a couple times last year. But he’s really improved defensively. He has gotten stronger. He’s a weapon.”