When the offseason began, the conventional wisdom in baseball circles had settled. Eric Hosmer, a free agent for the first time, was a strong fit in Boston. Mike Moustakas was likely headed to the Los Angeles Angels. And finally, there was Lorenzo Cain, a dynamic center fielder and former All-Star. The market was likely to be bullish.
The Royals, the wisdom suggested, would lack the financial means to compete for Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain. So they would transition to a rebuilding phase, paring down payroll and replenishing their farm system. In a best-case scenario, they would lose for three seasons, restocking the cupboard and focusing on development, arriving at the start of a new win cycle in 2021 or 2022.
So here is the disclaimer about the wisdom of predictions.
Two and a half months into the offseason, Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain are still free agents, their futures uncertain in a depressed and sluggish market. Boston appeared to pass on Hosmer. Same with the Angels and Moustakas. Cain, meanwhile, is one of dozens and dozens of free agents who remain without an employer.
Never miss a local story.
With all that in mind, and understanding that a majority of these prognostications will turn out to be quite wrong, here are 18 Royals predictions for 2018.
1. They will sign Eric Hosmer. Yep, starting big. The market for Hosmer hasn’t quite developed as expected. The Red Sox signed first baseman Mitch Moreland. The Yankees traded for outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and are comfortable with Greg Bird at first base. And, of course, many of the richest teams in baseball already have franchise first basemen in place, which has depressed the first base market all across baseball.
There’s also the rather public debate about the value of Hosmer.
For weeks, the Royals and San Diego Padres have emerged as the only public suitors, while other clubs, such as the Cardinals, have floated slightly below the surface, bandied about as possibilities. The Royals, for now, remain in strong position.
One month before spring training, the biggest threat to Hosmer’s return is likely a mystery team emerging late in the process. But if the Royals are willing to dole out around $140 million for Hosmer — and indications have been strong — it’s hard to envision a better scenario coming to fruition.
Yes, Hosmer would likely prefer to be in a situation in which he could compete and win. Neither San Diego or Kansas City can provide that now. But the Royals can offer two things that other teams cannot. Hosmer is comfortable here. He can also burnish his legacy.
This is no sure thing. Put another way: If we were assessing the chances for Hosmer’s return, we might still rank the possibility at close to 30 or 40 percent. But for now, that might make the Royals the favorite.
2. The Royals will re-sign a homegrown star, and it will not significantly change the club’s long-term plans. Perhaps this sounds counter-intuitive. What’s the point of spending $125 to $140 million on Hosmer when you are unlikely to be competitive for three seasons? This is a good question. And whether the Royals should sign Hosmer is a matter worth debating. But if the Royals finagle a way to re-sign their homegrown star, their focus will remain on the farm system and a rebuilding plan.
3. The trades have just begun, so buckle in. On Jan. 4, the Royals parted ways with relievers Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria, acquiring starting pitcher Trevor Oaks and infield prospect Erick Mejia. There will be more.
The club will seek more financial flexibility, which will mean dumping Jason Hammel’s salary and dealing reliever Kelvin Herrera. It will also mean some moves that will shock the fan base.
The Royals fielded interest on starting pitcher Danny Duffy at the winter meetings. They will continue to do so, and multiple teams are reportedly interested. Whit Merrifield could also be available at the right price.
The Royals have no reason to rush into a deal, of course, and Duffy remains under contract for another four seasons. But sooner or later, the rebuilding plan will necessitate some bold strokes. Expect some moves that will hurt.
4. Lorenzo Cain will not re-sign with the Royals. But he will make an All-Star Game in 2018 and be viewed as one of the steals of the offseason.
5. The 2018 Royals will lose more than 90 games for the first time in six years. In fact, they will likely lose more games than any team since Hosmer and Moustakas debuted in Kansas City in 2011. In Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections, released last week at FanGraphs.com, the Royals projected to have just three starting position players worth more than one win above replacement. Those players were Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield and Alex Gordon. Five projected every-day players, meanwhile, will be worth close to zero wins above replacement. Most projections have the Royals among the bottom three in baseball.
But don’t the Royals often out-perform the projections? For years, they have. But two factors will translate into more losses. The first is the loss of talent. That is obvious. The second: Now firmly in rebuild mode, the club will be inclined to move more talented assets at the trade deadline if they perform. One player that could fit this category: Starting pitcher Ian Kennedy.
So, yes, the Royals haven’t lost more than 91 games since losing 95 in 2010. They will hover closer to 95 in 2018.
6. Mike Moustakas will receive a standing ovation the next time he returns to Kauffman Stadium. He won’t be wearing a Royals uniform. Moustakas, 29, is still on the market and his price could be dropping. In one scenario, he may be compelled to sign a one-year deal and return to the free-agent market next winter. But he wouldn’t want another free-agent walk year in the spacious confines of Kauffman Stadium. The Royals will not want to add money for a one-year deal. And even if Moustakas is still willing to sign a long-term deal, his future is unlikely to match up with the Royals’ next window to contend.
7. Alex Gordon will have his best season since signing his big contract. Ready for the Gordonaissance? Well, you may not see that. But after posting a .692 OPS in 2016 and a career-worst .608 OPS last season, Gordon, 33, will bounce back, pairing something close to a .725 OPS with strong defense. It won’t merit the $20 million he will make in 2019 and 2020. But it will not resemble the offensive train wreck of 2017.
8. Salvador Perez will turn 28 years old in May and appear in his sixth straight All-Star Game in July.
9. Kauffman Stadium will be sold out on opening day against the Chicago White Sox on March 29, but attendance will decline overall for a third straight year, coming up short of last year’s mark of 2,220,370. The franchise record mark of 2,708,549 was set in 2015.
10. Whit Merrifield will bat .286 with a .324 on-base percentage and an OPS of .760. Does that sound oddly specific? Well, those are Merrifield’s career averages after 226 games across two seasons. Add the production to his solid defense and spectacular base running and Merrifield will turn in another season that hovers around three wins above replacement.
11. The Royals will continue to target ground-ball pitchers. When the Royals acquired Trevor Oaks in early January, they did more than land a starting pitcher who could be in the rotation for years to come. They also targeted a right-hander with a strong sinker.
For years, the Kansas City front office went after fly-ball pitchers — Jason Vargas, Chris Young, Ian Kennedy, etc. — to take the mound in a home park that suppresses home runs. This offseason, Royals general manager Dayton Moore has acknowledged that this era of power may alter their philosophy.
12. Alcides Escobar will not start all 162 games at shortstop. Lost in the shuffle this offseason, Escobar remains a free agent, too. The Royals have not closed the book on a reunion. But we’re sure of one thing: For the first time since 2015, somebody other than Escobar will start a game at shortstop for the Royals.
13. Bubba Starling will make his major-league debut. We’re not sure how many games he will play. But this is the year that the Gardner native and first-round pick in 2011 makes it to the big leagues. Speaking of debuts, reliever Richard Lovelady and starting pitcher Josh Staumont will also appear in the major leagues for the first time.
14. Denny Matthews will call Royals games for his 50th straight season, further cementing his place in franchise lore.
15. Royals manager Ned Yost will win his 1,100th game as a major-league manager in May. Entering his 15th total season — and ninth in Kansas City — Yost has 629 victories with the Royals and needs 14 to hit another round number for his career.
16. Players will love the new schedule. Under the latest collective-bargaining agreement, this year’s schedule will feature more off days. This is why opening day is on March 29. And it’s why fans might notice more random nights without Royals baseball in the summer months.
17. Jakob Junis will build on his rookie season, posting an ERA in the low to mid 4s. He will start more than 25 games and reach 100 strikeouts for the first time.
18. Hosmer will hit 25 homers for a third straight year. But with less protection in the lineup, his overall numbers will come down a notch. He will get on base at a healthy clip, though. He’ll play a strong first base and lead in the clubhouse. And he’ll do all that in a Royals uniform.