Sometimes Ned Yost has the same questions you have. The same concerns. The same curiosities.
So it was, that on an afternoon in April, Yost, the Royals’ manager, called a collection of players into his office. The Royals were mired in a miserable opening month. They would lose nine straight games. Their offense would languish through one of the worst stretches in club history. The Royals’ manager wanted to talk about it.
Specifically, he wondered whether the impending free agency of a group of core Royals was weighing heavily on the minds of those players. Were they pressing? Were they worried about the future, about a potential fire sale in the summer months?
“It is human nature,” Yost conceded, “to look at things, at times, outside and wonder.”
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So Yost had the conversations. He asked the questions. And the Royals’ manager came away convinced. Whatever was ailing his team, whatever was causing the early struggles, had nothing to do with the future.
“The answer, to a man, was no,” Yost said. “The reason they’re frustrated — ‘It’s not the fact that we’re going to be free agents next year. It’s the fact that we’re not producing at a level like we think we can to help this team win.’ ”
For now, Yost remains sincere in his belief that any anxiety about the club’s uncertain future has not contributed to the Royals’ middling start. But as the club prepares to open a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians on Friday, the reverse could soon be true: If the Royals (22-30) maintain their current trajectory — last place in the American League Central, worst run differential in the league — the next six weeks could be dominated by that uncertainty, by trade speculation and talk of a potential fire sale.
For now, the speculation constitutes smoke with little substantive fire. Even after an injury to starting pitcher Danny Duffy, general manager Dayton Moore has preached patience. In most years, the deadline trade market does not produce deals until after the All-Star break in July. The Royals, Moore says, have the time to let the season play out.
Yet across the league, teams in contention have already started circling, sending scouts to inspect the Royals in person, looking for possible fits before the trade deadline on July 31.
The interest is not unexpected. The Royals’ list of prospective free agents is deep and varied, ranging from franchise linchpins such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, to intriguing arms like Jason Vargas and Mike Minor, to declining former All-Stars like shortstop Alcides Escobar. The pure quantity, if not unprecedented, has compelled opposing clubs to view the Royals with a combination of curiosity and empathy.
“What you didn’t think was going to be the issue — the offense — turned out to be the issue,” one rival talent evaluator said. “They have good players. They just haven’t been playing good.
“Hosmer would make anybody better. Moustakas would make anybody better. Cain would make anybody better.”
The Royals, anticipating multiple personnel departures in the offseason, could use the expiring assets to replenish the club’s farm system while still attempting re-sign players such as Hosmer, Moustakas or Cain in the offseason. But the club’s position, rival club officials say, has been muddied slightly by a new collective-bargaining agreement adopted by Major League Baseball and the players’ association last offseason.
Under the old rules, the Royals could have held onto a prospective free agent, delivered a ‘qualifying offer’ following the World Series and recouped a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round. The new collective-bargaining agreement tweaked those rules. To receive a compensation pick at the end of the first round, the Royals must give a qualifying offer — which in 2017 was a one-year, $17.2 million deal — and then have that player sign elsewhere for more than $50 million.
If the player signs for less than $50 million, the compensation pick comes after the second round. The change could offer incentive for teams to trade a certain kind of pending free agent: One who might be motivated to turn down a qualifying offer but not certain to sign for more than $50 million on the open market.
In the industry, opinions on how much the new system could hurt the Royals are varied and mixed. So, too, are the projections on the value of the club’s pending free agents. In most ways, the trade market will be dictated by the needs of the teams in contention. Yet there are factors that cannot be predicted, such as injuries or surprise teams that find themselves with a small window to compete and motivated to add talent before the deadline.
“You just don’t know what the climate is going to be like in the game,” Moore said earlier this month.
Players such as Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain — proven talents with playoff experience — would likely be coveted by teams with needs at their respective positions. The Washington Nationals could be positioned to target outfield help after a season-ending knee injury to Adam Eaton. The Boston Red Sox, stacked at most positions, could be in need of a third baseman.
The Royals, however, would be motivated to add premium talent to their system in return — something more valuable than could be secured with a compensation pick after the first or second round. And should they opt to sell, their most valuable asset may not be one of their pending free agents at all, but rather reliever Kelvin Herrera, who is making $5.325 million this season and has one more season of salary arbitration before he would become a free agent after the 2018 season.
The market for relievers has spiked in recent years, after the postseason success of the Royals in 2014 and 2015 and the dominating performance of Cleveland’s Andrew Miller last October. Herrera could be the most attractive reliever on the market, his track record of postseason success, his extra year of control and the demand for his services inflating his value before the deadline. Likewise, opposing scouts see Minor, a former starter who has developed into a reliable reliever, as an intriguing potential target. After San Diego’s Brad Hand, Minor could be among the best left-handed relief options on the market. Vargas, meanwhile, could be attractive for a club that needs a reinforcement near the back end of their starting rotation.
For now, nearly two months before the deadline, the Royals’ clubhouse has been void of speculation. Across the last three seasons, only one blockbuster deadline deal was executed before even the All-Star break. That came on July 4, 2014, when the Chicago Cubs sent pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for a package that included shortstop Addison Russell. That was a rare early deal. That anniversary of that date is still more than a month away. So on most days, there is little need to think about the future.
“These talks have kind of been brewing the last couple years,” Hosmer said, during the early days of spring training. “It’s something we don’t pay attention to.”
The philosophy remains unchanged. But reality does not. As the month of June begins, the Royals charge forward into an uncertain future. They remain just six games out of first place, on the cusp of contention, yet sitting in a precarious position. Less than two years after claiming a franchise’s second World Series championship, a collection of friends and teammates could be split apart.
“It’s our entire core, for the most part,” Yost said. “It is a unique situation. You just don’t worry about it. You don’t think about it. I’m sure they do at at times. But I don’t think it’s anything that’s affected them.”