Here’s the primary offseason task confronting Royals general manager Dayton Moore now that a new two-year contract is in place with manager Ned Yost:
Find a way to retain free-agent pitchers Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen, or find suitable replacements, while operating on a payroll budget that Moore, at the moment, expects to remain “about the same” at roughly $82 million.
“It’s more about who the players are than the actual payroll itself,” Moore answered. “I’ve never felt restricted in a way that we couldn’t make a decision, make a trade, acquire a player that made sense for us.”
The Royals’ 2013 payroll was a club record, but maintaining current spending levels will be a tough sell, even after an encouraging season, to a fan base that hasn’t experienced postseason since 1985.
The new national TV contracts, which kick in next season, represent more than double the previous rights fees and are expected to generate more than $25 million in new annual revenue for each club.
That additional cash is likely to goose free-agent spending to record levels. That should particularly benefit Santana, who projects as one of the market’s top free-agent starting pitchers.
“I have no idea where negotiations will end up with players,” Moore admitted. “I have no idea what the market will bring and how salaries will escalate. It usually doesn’t get cheaper to sign players.
“We’re going to look internally first. Then we’re going to look for trades, and then we’ll focus on the free-agent market. We’re not an organization that is going to be excited to go real long term with older players.”
Losing Santana and Chen would clear payroll, of course, but the Royals are facing contract increases totaling nearly $13 million for James Shields, Alex Gordon, Jeremy Guthrie, Wade Davis and Salvy Perez.
The Royals also have 12 arbitration-eligible players, including Luke Hochevar, coming off a breakthrough season, first-time eligible Greg Holland and projected Super-2 qualifier Eric Hosmer.
Moore previously indicated the Royals will make a qualifying offer to Santana, which is mandated to be a one-year contract for the average value of the top 125 salaries throughout the game — estimated at $14 million.
Such an offer does not preclude the Royals from negotiating a multiyear deal with Santana but means they will get a compensatory draft pick next June if he signs elsewhere.
Moore also makes it clear that he hopes to retain Santana and Chen.
“They’ll evaluate what situations work best for them,” Moore said. “We’ll certainly keep a strong open mind in trying to acquire both of them back.”
While Moore acknowledges a need for more offensive punch, he prioritizes the maintenance of a strong rotation after watching his club lead the American League in earned-run average for the first time since 1986.
The likeliest course, if Santana and/or Chen depart, would be to seek another trade for a bounce-back candidate, preferably one entering a contract year to avoid a long-term commitment.
The Royals tried that two years ago, and failed miserably, in acquiring Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants (although they later flipped Sanchez for Guthrie). They clicked last year in getting Santana from the Angels.
“When we made a deal for Ervin Santana last year, there weren’t a lot of people excited about it except us,” Moore observed. “That’s the truth. It worked out.
“There are going to be more opportunities for us to make wise, astute baseball decisions and acquire talent and turn it over to (pitching coach) Dave Eiland and Ned and the rest of our coaching staff.”
If that fails, the Royals have a number of intriguing internal options.
Danny Duffy made an encouraging late-season return from Tommy John surgery. Yordano Ventura displayed promise in three late-season starts, and Kyle Zimmer is in line for a long look in spring training.
“We do (have talented prospects), but we’d like to add (or retain, a veteran starter),” Moore said. “I think it’s a lot to ask to have a lot of young pitchers in your rotation, even though they’re talented.
“That being said, it’s not out of the question that happens. The bullpen was used very wisely this year. If our bullpen has to be used a little bit more next year in the first part of the season, so be it. They’re ready for it.”