The Hot Stove rumor mill swings into high gear this week as the general managers gather in Orlando, Fla., for their annual meetings — a session that generally serves as a precursor to the upcoming Winter Meetings.
For the Royals, the priorities are clear: They need to retain or replace Ervin Santana as the No. 2 starter between James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie in their rotation.
If Santana departs, as expected, signs point to the Royals targeting right-handers Tim Hudson, Phil Hughes and Josh Johnson as possible replacements.
The Royals also want to add some lineup punch, preferably in the outfield, and are sifting through possible upgrades at second base — a move that would shift Emilio Bonifacio to a reserve role.
And while general manager Dayton Moore is on record as saying he doesn’t expect the payroll to rise much beyond its current level, roughly $85 million, he acknowledges more is available.
“We’ve got flexibility,” he said. “Just because you have extra flexibility, what are you going to spend it on? I don’t know. I don’t envision the payroll going up that much”
It might not need to.
As expected, Santana rejected the Royals’ qualifying offer of one year for approximately $14.1 million prior to the 4 p.m. deadline on Monday in favor of seeking a bigger deal as a free agent.
All 13 players who received a qualifying offer chose to reject them.
Santana’s rejection does not prevent the Royals from continuing negotiations — and they would like to retain Santana — but not at his initial asking price, floated last week by his camp, of $100 million over five years.
Several Royals officials say that price must drop significantly to prevent them from looking elsewhere and accepting a draft pick in compensation when Santana signs with another club.
The Royals, like many clubs, are notoriously tight-lipped in discussing possible offseason targets for fear of weakening their negotiating position. Even so, Hudson, Hughes and Johnson draw consistent mention.
The Royals also remain interested in reacquiring outfielder Carlos Beltran, whom they had from 1999-2004, even though signing him would mean the loss of their first-round draft pick as a penalty.
Surrendering that selection, and the allocated money in the draft bonus pool, would be mitigated somewhat by gaining a pick between the first and second rounds in compensation if Santana signs elsewhere.
The bidding on Beltran, who says he will only play for a contender, figures to be fierce because the Yankees and Red Sox are among the clubs expressing interest.
That could quickly push the price beyond the Royals’ comfort zone.
The Royals appear willing to stick with Bonifacio as their second baseman, which positions Christian Colon, Pedro Ciriaco and possibly others in a spring battle for the utility job.
Sources cite one intriguing alternative: veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal, a free agent who missed the 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. A shift to second could ease his return.
The Royals showed interest in Furcal, who recently turned 36, after the 2008 season before he signed with the Dodgers. He began his career in the Atlanta organization.
Finding a bat is, however, a secondary priority.
“Let’s face it,” one club official said. “We haven’t got many bullets, and we’ve got to make them count. We want a bat, but in our meetings, the main thing we talk about is finding someone to put between Shields and Guthrie.”
Hudson, 38, appears to top the Royals’ wish list and would add another veteran presence to what remains, generally, a young staff. He is also already drawing heavy interest, particularly from Cleveland.
A broken right ankle ended Hudson’s season in late July, but he is expected to be fully recovered prior to spring training. He was 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 games for Atlanta prior to the injury.
Hudson is seeking a two- or three-year deal, which fits the Royals’ financial capabilities. Santana’s salary comes off this year; Shields is a free agent after next season; and Guthrie’s contract runs through 2015.
Hughes, 27, is a big bounce-back candidate after slipping to 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA last season with the Yankees. He won 16 games in 2012 and was an 18-game winner in 2010.
That 18-victory season came when Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland held that job with the Yankees.
The Royals believe Hughes would be a good fit at Kauffman Stadium because he was often victimized last season at Yankee Stadium by home runs to a very-reachable right field.
Minnesota is also showing interest in Hughes.
Johnson, 29, is coming off a disappointing and injury-filled year at Toronto — a 6.02 ERA in 16 starts — that climaxed with surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow.
Health has long been a concern with Johnson. While he was 56-37 with a 3.15 ERA over eight previous seasons with the Marlins, he has made 30 starts only twice in his career and reached 200 innings only in 2009.