Greg Holland stood in front of his locker Sunday afternoon in Chicago shortly after closing out the Royals’ best season in 24 years as teammates wished each other well and prepared to depart for all points.
“We’re all going to enjoy this and relax with our families,” he said. “But I think we’re going to be real excited coming into next spring. I think we learned a lot last year, and we learned the hard way.
“This team came out every game and expected to win every game regardless of what happened the night before. You’ve got to grind it out that way. That’s how you get in the playoffs.
“We came up short (this season) but, I think, going into next year, we’re going to be pretty happy about where we’re at.”
Holland’s view was typical; the Royals are already thinking about 2014.
“I think now we all know what we’re capable of doing,” veteran pitcher Bruce Chen said. “We know not only can we compete, but we have a good shot next year of making a big statement in our division.”
That begs one of many questions facing the Royals as they head into the offseason: Will Chen be back in 2014? He is one of four pending free agents on the club’s 40-man roster.
The most notable is pitcher Ervin Santana, who figures to attract considerable interest once the market opens. General manager Dayton Moore already indicated the Royals will tender a qualifying offer.
Qualifying offers are one-year deals pegged to the average of the top 125 salaries throughout the game. This year, that projects to be roughly $14 million (or a relatively modest raise from Santana’s $13 million salary).
The Royals can also negotiate a multi-year deal with Santana, but the qualifying offer means they will get a compensatory draft pick next June if he signs elsewhere.
While Santana consistently expressed a willingness to remain in Kansas City, he remained non-committal.
“I like it here,” he said. “So we’ll see. If I’m going to be here, I’m going to be here.”
Teammates privately say they believe Santana would stick around if the Royals tender a competitive offer. Industry insiders say the bidding is likely to push him beyond the Royals’ price range. Maybe far beyond.
“I don’t know where the market is going,” Moore said. “I think he likes it here. We certainly like him. It’s just a matter of working hard and trying to make it work.”
Moore’s first order of business is to resolve the uncertainty surrounding manager Ned Yost, whose contract expired when the season ended. An agreement could come quickly; both men appear keen for a new deal.
Assuming Yost remains, the coaching staff seems likely to return intact with one possible exception: Bench coach Chino Cadahia missed the last month because of a family matter that remains unresolved.
Beyond that, all internal discussions will focus on how much tweaking the Royals must do to a roster that finished 86-76 — a 14-game improvement over 2012 and the club’s best record since going 92-70 in 1989.
“We’re not abandoning what we’ve started,” Moore said. “As I’ve said before, I feel we’re in the beginning stages of a window where I think this team has a chance to win consistently for a period of time.
“You certainly try to add a player or two, but I think our offense has trended upward. I think it will continue to get better as we move forward.”
Yost said last week that he believed the Royals needed to add “a bat” to a lineup that finished the season ranked 11th among the 15 American League teams in scoring.
On reflection, Yost qualified his statement: “We probably do need a bat, but you can legitimately make an argument for everybody coming back and having better offensive years next year…
“There’s nobody who you’re looking at (on the current roster) who is declining.”
Tellingly, perhaps, the Royals’ attack perked up over the last two months, when it benefited from the acquisitions of outfielder Justin Maxwell from Houston and second baseman Emilio Bonifacio from Toronto.
After averaging 3.94 runs through July, the Royals scored at a 4.10 pace over the final 58 games. The Royals were also 43-27 after the All-Star break after going 43-49 beforehand.
That second-half surge validated a spring belief among club officials that the Royals would improve as the season unfolded.
That raises another issue:
Are the Royals as good as they played after the break and, if so, how much tweaking do they need to do over the winter? Their post-break record, after all, projects roughly to 100 victories over a full season.
“Since the break?” Yost said. “That’s our team. When we came back after the All-Star break, we were a different team. In those four days, I don’t know what happened. But something changed. We were different.
“You can break it down any way that you want to, but the thing that I always look at is we’ve made tremendous progress as an organization. We’ve taken a huge step forward.”
The question now...what’s the next step?Royals’ offseason breakdown: The rotation
There are questions here because Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen are pending free agents. Retaining Santana will be tough because he figures to be a much-sought free agent.
The Royals can likely keep Chen if they offer a similar deal to his last contract (two years, $9 million). If Santana departs, keeping Chen will heighten in importance.
The only certainties for next year are James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie, but Danny Duffy probably has to pitch his way out of the unit in spring training. The same goes for Wade Davis, who ended the year in the bullpen.
Yordano Ventura (who got three late-season starts) and Kyle Zimmer will get long looks in spring training. Chris Dwyer also raised some eyebrows late in the season.
The Royals could also make a splashy short-term acquisition. That failed miserably two years ago in obtaining Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants, but clicked wonderfully last year in getting Santana from the Angels.
If necessary, Luke Hochevar and/or Will Smith could shift from the bullpen back to the rotation. Felipe Paulino and Luis Mendoza are also still around … for now.The bullpen
The Royals, by virtually any measurement, had the American League’s best bullpen, and there’s no reason to expect much of a drop-off. Greg Holland might be the league’s best closer in the post-Rivera era.
What is interesting is how manager Ned Yost adjusted roles over the closing weeks. Ineffectiveness put Aaron Crow and Tim Collins on the shelf for long stretches in favor of Hochevar and Will Smith.
And Kelvin Herrera never got his job back as the primary setup man after some early struggles. Louis Coleman grabbed higher-leverage innings, and that could continue in 2014.
Lefties Francisley Bueno and Donnie Joseph should also come to camp with legit shots to make the club. At this point, Holland enters next spring as the closer, and every other role is up for grabs.Catcher
Salvy Perez is an All-Star who is under club control through 2019. George Kottaras, who should be affordable through arbitration, is a solid backup also capable of delivering professional at-bats as a pinch-hitter.
No reason to change anything.Infield
First baseman Eric Hosmer re-established himself as a rising star after a tepid first six weeks. No issues there. Elsewhere, it’s far murkier.
Shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas each struggled through disappointing offensive seasons, although it’s hard to see either one not getting all of next season to turn things around.
Second base is interesting. Emilio Bonifacio proved a nice fit after arriving Aug. 14 from Toronto and, in doing so, diminished the need for the Royals to find a full-time answer to what had been a gaping hole.
Everything suggests the Royals will still look this winter to find a bankable second baseman with the accompanying idea of shifting Bonifacio to a utility role.
But Bonifacio’s performance means club officials can be far more selective and discriminating in that search. If they don’t find the fit they want, Bonifacio stays at second and the search shifts to a utilityman.
Whatever happens, it’s hard to see how either Chris Getz or Johnny Giavotella fit going forward. Both have limited utility value, particularly if one requirement is the ability to serve as a backup shortstop.Outfield
Left fielder Alex Gordon is a good bet, deservedly, to win a third straight Gold Glove for defensive excellence, and he is coming off a season in which he was picked, for the first time, to the All-Star team.
For all that, Gordon slumped badly over the season’s final four months, batting just .229 from May 30 through the end of the year. If he returns to his form of the previous 2 1/2 years, the offense gets a major boost.
Either way, Gordon is the outfield’s one certainty, although the questions surrounding Lorenzo Cain primarily concern his ability to stay healthy. If yes, his defensive skills make him a sure starter either in center or right.
What happens elsewhere will depend on whether the Royals succeed in adding an impact bat either through a trade or free agency — and what other skills/shortcomings accompany that bat.
Jarrod Dyson’s roster spot seems secure simply because of his game-changing speed — as a pinch-runner, if nothing else. The Royals also believe his skill set offers the potential to be a viable everyday player.
David Lough and Justin Maxwell could, if the Royals stand pat, provide a solid platoon option in right field. Either or both could be at risk if the Royals find a full-time fit in either center or right.DH/Bench
DH Billy Butler’s power numbers dropped off considerably from his 2012 Silver Slugger campaign, although he still led the Royals in RBIs and on-base percentage.
The 2013 Butler was a solid contributor, but the Royals need the 2012 version (along with a resurgent Gordon) to goose their attack for a postseason push — especially if they don’t make any impact additions.
A projected four-man bench should consist of a backup catcher (Kottaras), two of the five outfielders and a to-be-determined utility infielder (Bonifacio, if the Royals get a new second baseman).
If Bonifacio retains the job at second, the utility role could fall to Pedro Ciriaco or Irving Falu.