This is a story about a ticking clock and a window for championships and the question of whether the Royals can re-sign a homegrown nucleus that resurrected a franchise from the dead. But before we get to that, manager Ned Yost has a story about his son.
A few weeks ago, as Yost prepped for another season, his son, Andrew, called looking for some fatherly advice. Andrew Yost lives in Utah. He works a job he loves in a beautiful mountain town. But, as Ned Yost said, another employer called with a job offer. The offer, Yost said, included a healthy raise and more prestige, but it also came with some uncertainty.
Would a new job be worth risking happiness?
“I’m like, ‘Dude. Are you happy where you’re at?’ ” Yost says. “… Stay where you’re at. You can take this job. You don’t know if you’re going to like it, if you’re gonna love it, if you’re just going to be lukewarm with it. You know right now that you’re making decent money and you’re as happy as you’ve ever been in your life.”
The story came on a Saturday morning at spring training, as the Royals prepare to defend their World Series title, as a group of homegrown stars move ever nearer to the untold millions of free agency.
For the next two seasons, these Royals appear primed to compete for division titles and championship rings. But when the 2017 season is over, a sizable chunk of the Royals’ core is set to hit free agency, including first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar and closer Wade Davis. The same year, left-handed pitcher Danny Duffy and outfielder Jarrod Dyson will also be free agents for the first time. In a small market with limited resources, the club could face a complex financial calculus.
In the last three months, the Royals have pushed back against the narrative of a limited, two-year window. They re-signed left fielder Alex Gordon to a four-year, $72 million deal and locked up catcher Salvador Perez through the 2021 season with a five-year, $52.5 million extension. Yost signed a contract extension through the 2018 season, saying that general manager Dayton Moore had a “plan” for the future.
“You find ways to make it work,” Yost said.
As the 2016 season approaches, the Royals’ payroll will likely surpass $130 million, the highest in club history. Record attendance and television ratings could lead to larger revenue streams as well, with the team’s local television contract set to expire in 2019. Club officials are bullish on their ability to churn out more stars from their minor-league system.
But as the franchise aims for a third straight American League pennant, as Moore attempts to turn the franchise into a perennial force, the questions still loom: Can the Royals re-sign the right pieces from their core? How many runs does this group have left?
“We’ve said from day one, we want homegrown players,” Moore says. “We want to grow our own, and once they produce, we want to keep them here long-term. Kansas City is a special place, a special city. They want to be able to connect with their players.”
On a late morning last Tuesday, as club officials prepared a news conference to announce a contract extension for All-Star catcher Perez, Hosmer sat in front of his locker on the near side of the Royals clubhouse. Hosmer is 26, a Gold Glove first baseman entering his prime. In nearly nine years of professional baseball, he has known only one organization.
He arrived in Kansas City at the tail end of the lean years, and when he looks around the clubhouse, he sees faces he has known for almost a third of his life.
“There’s definitely a comfort level for a lot of us,” Hosmer says.
In two years, Hosmer is poised to enter free agency at age 28. He is represented by Scott Boras, one of the most dogged negotiators in the game. Given Hosmer’s age and skill set, his value could surpass nine figures on the open market. But as the Royals announced the extension for Perez, Hosmer said he, too, is open to discussing an extension.
“You listen,” Hosmer said. “You definitely listen. At the same time, you have to make whatever decision is best for you. Obviously, I have a commitment to this team. I have a commitment to these guys. But at the same time, you have a commitment for the players’ association and the league. You want to do something that’s fair. You want to do something that’s fair for both sides.”
Moustakas and Cain echoed the sentiment. Both expressed a willingness to sign a long-term extension in Kansas City. But each player said his focus was elsewhere with two years remaining on their current contracts.
“It’s something you want to be a part of,” Cain said. “I know it’s going to be tough to lock up everybody.”
Moustakas is also represented by Boras, who prefers to let his players reach the open market. Both players said the decision for a possible extension would rest with them.
“At the end of the day,” Moustakas said, “all Scott wants is what’s best for his players.”
Moore likes to say that every player is different, every contract negotiation is unique. Moustakas, who is coming off a career year, will be 29 at the end of the 2017 season. Cain, an All-Star pillar in center field, will be 31 in 2017.
The Royals rose to power in the American League behind a young and athletic roster. In the post-steroid era, baseball is poised to be dominated by young talent. As their core players age, the Royals must weigh the risks of committing millions to players entering their early 30s versus the costs of letting a key player walk.
“When you look up in here, you see guys that are performing and doing their jobs,” Dyson said.
“You know they’re going to get paid. They’ve raised the market up, and it’s kind of hard to afford guys when they’re like that.”
On the day of the Royals’ championship parade, Gordon’s mother, Leslie, found Yost in the mass of people in downtown Kansas City. She was in tears.
Leslie Gordon wished to tell Yost how thankful her family was for what the Royals had done for her son. The conversation caught Yost off guard. Until that moment, Yost says, he always thought that Gordon would test the free agent waters and then re-sign with the Royals. He couldn’t imagine Gordon wearing another jersey. But there was something about the way Leslie Gordon was talking, Yost said. He suddenly felt a tinge of doubt.
“You just never know,” Yost said. “You never know. You grow up in an organization and you go from being absolutely terrible to winning a world championship. And then they start throwing money at you, right? And for me, and it’s stupid, but what’s the difference between $90 million and $70 million? But some guys, that makes a big difference for them.”
Gordon would sign for $72 million to remain in Kansas City. But at 32 years old, he has now dealt with looming questions of free agency twice. Before the 2012 season, Gordon signed a four-year, $37.5 million deal, delaying his first trip to the free-agent market. Last offseason, he declined to use a player option and entered the market for the first time.
“It’s different with every person, I think,” Gordon said. “If you’re with an organization that you love and you want to be part of, it’s not hard to not want to go to free agency. To be able to sign that contract and be where you’re comfortable and where you want to be, who cares about free agency?”
Gordon is signed through the 2019 season, two years after much of the Royals’ core is slated to reach free agency. But he is not the only piece in place beyond 2017. Perez is signed through 2021, and right-handed starter Yordano Ventura is under club control through the same year. Relievers Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria are under club control through 2018. Starter Ian Kennedy is signed through 2020 — unless he triggers an opt-out clause after 2017, the second season of a five-year, $70 million deal.
“Dayton is putting us in a good situation to continue to compete,” Yost said. “There was no window in Atlanta. They won 12 straight years when I was there.”
As the Royals look to the future, Yost believes the culture established inside the organization will make it easier to retain their homegrown stars. When the decision is between comfort and a few more millions, between familiarity and the prestige of a big market, Yost believes the Royals’ way will be a powerful selling tool.
“I remember when I first got here, it was definitely tougher to get free agents to sign here,” Hosmer said. “But now you look at it: Guys are hoping to sign here and wanting to sign here — especially the homegrown guys.”