The most important moment for the 2017 Royals will happen soon. Key members of their leadership team will gather in a conference room on the fifth floor of Kauffman Stadium to push and pull over the future of a rejuvenated baseball franchise that once again finds itself at a critical crossroads.
Men who dedicate their lives to this sport, who obsess over the tiniest details of a stranger’s swing or pitching mechanics, will need to reconcile those evaluations with the budget allowed by their boss — a billionaire businessman stinging from what sources say will be a 2016 operating loss of at least $10 million.
Owner David Glass has put his Royals baseball operations department through this dance before, but there are indications he is serious about freezing or even cutting back from a franchise-record payroll that approached $140 million last season.
Even without signing free agents Kendrys Morales or Edinson Volquez, simply bringing back the rest of the team intact for 2017 would mean a $143 million payroll for the 25-man roster — and with performance bonuses and the rest of the 40-man roster, that number would approach or surpass $150 million.
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General manager Dayton Moore and the people who work for him have generally been able to persuade the boss, and by rule Moore sees this annual litigation as both appropriate and necessary for a healthy franchise.
The baseball men are working hard to prepare for the meeting with the businessman, marrying their deep-dive scouting reports with their best projections of what free agents and potential trade targets will cost in the volatile and billion-dollar world of big-league baseball.
Two years ago, this is the meeting in which they convinced the owner to supplement a pennant winner with free agents Morales and Volquez. That ended with a world championship.
A year ago, this is the meeting that began with Glass wanting to hold payroll steady but ended with him green-lighting what eventually became the two largest free-agent contracts in franchise history. That ended with disappointment.
So Moore will make a presentation, and he’ll argue his case for whatever he believes to be the best path for a franchise with just one year left with the core that rode in the parade.
But, really, it will all depend on Glass’ answer to this question:
How badly do you want to win, and how much are you willing to spend to make it happen?
Here, then, with apologies to the great Choose Your Own Adventure franchise, are four possible answers by Glass and four possible responses by Moore.
1. Glass: Dayton, we only have one more year with these guys, so let’s make the most of it.
Here, Moore and his assistants pump their fists and regain some swagger, buoyed by knowing their boss isn’t penalizing them for one disappointing season after dragging a blind franchise to a world championship two years ago.
Glass is more sensitive to criticism from media members and organizations than he likes to let on (at least from the places he respects), and he has to know this is the best way he will continue to be viewed as part of the solution.
Handcuffing a proven baseball operations department one year after a parade would be an awful look, particularly with just one more year before the scheduled free agency of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Danny Duffy and Alcides Escobar.
If Glass can be talked into extending payroll again — knowing last year’s loss is at least offset by the profits of the previous two years, not to mention an exponential rise in franchise value — the Royals can address their weaknesses with strength.
The market for starting pitching is being called one of the worst in recent history, so even with a blank check, the Royals aren’t going to get much value. Their most pressing need is to address an offense that finished 13th in the American League in runs — and will be likely losing Morales, who led them in OPS.
So the Royals can keep their pitching depth by retaining Dillon Gee through arbitration, relying on in-house pitching prospects and shopping for bats in free agency. The best hitter on the market will be Yoenis Cespedes, but there are some good options below him, too.
Edwin Encarnacion would instantly be the franchise’s most accomplished power hitter since Harmon Killebrew spent his last season in Kansas City. The downside is that he turns 34 in January, would mean the loss of another draft pick and would be a primary DH for a team that increasingly wants to use that spot to keep Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Sal Perez and others healthy and strong. Encarnacion would likely command a bigger contract than Gordon signed last year, so this is only an option if Glass is willing to spend.
The most intriguing possibility might be Josh Reddick. He’s just 29 and figures to be OK in right field for at least three or four more years, meaning the Royals could add a proven bat and maintain DH flexibility. He’s better than casual fans might think — hard to strike out, with good power — and a disappointing last few months with the Dodgers might keep his contract reasonable.
The biggest downside is that the Royals already have a crowded outfield, and this would mean Cain is again playing most of his games in center, further testing his health. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Reddick asked for a four-year, $56 million extension from the A’s last winter.
Other names the Royals will discuss if they can convince Glass to spend would include Jose Bautista (I know).
If the Royals were able to backload the deal, an offseason highlighted by the signing of Reddick or Encarnacion while retaining Gee and making smaller deals would push payroll past $160 million.
2. Glass: Dayton, I want to win, but we lost money last year and we have always been at our best when we spend as efficiently as possible. So let’s keep it within reason.
Here, Moore and his assistants swallow hard, but likely nod their heads, knowing this is what they signed up for in Kansas City.
This is where the criticism of Glass picks up a bit, though he can cloak himself in a defense of past support. And this is probably the best Moore can hope for anyway.
Moore can get creative, too. Danny Duffy would likely make around $9 million through arbitration next year, his last before scheduled free agency. Duffy has been more outspoken about his love for the Royals than any player in recent memory. If he’s open to a contract extension, the Royals could structure it in a way to give him $5 million or so in 2017 and bigger raises after that.
They could do something similar with Kelvin Herrera, saving a total of around $6 million off next year’s payroll.
The Royals could also try to slow-play the free-agent market, after being among the earliest movers in recent offseasons. That means their eventual targets will be dictated more by outside forces instead of their own scouting convictions, which makes the outcome less predictable.
But here, they could look into Neil Walker (second baseman with pop), Colby Rasmus (right fielder with a productive past on a bounceback contract) or even circle back to Morales.
Either option maintains DH flexibility. Signing Walker means throwing more money at second base when two cheap and in-house candidates exist: Whit Merrifield may be adequate and Raul Mondesi remains an intriguing talent. And just like with Reddick, signing Rasmus means crowding out Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson, and increasing the risk of more injuries to Cain in center. Mike Napoli would be another name worth considering, though that would mean again employing a primary DH.
By restructuring the contracts of Duffy or Herrera, or both, the Royals could sign one mid-level free agent and take care of other housekeeping like retaining Gee while keeping the payroll around $150 million or less.
3. Glass: Dayton, a year ago you talked me into $170 million in free-agent contracts and I’d like to think we could’ve lost 81 games without that. Also, why am I still paying Omar Infante? You’re at your budget limit now; do what you can.
Here, Moore and his assistants begin to think of all the warnings they heard about Glass’ spending, and wonder if they have just become this decade’s Marlins — win a title, then disassemble.
The criticism would come down hard and justified, too, because even those of us who believe the Royals can and have lost money some years won’t have patience for an owner overreacting to one disappointing season after so much progress.
If this is what Glass chooses, Moore will be forced to cut down to the bone in some places.
Even if Duffy and Herrera are willing to restructure knowing the roster is going to be picked apart, the Royals would likely need to trade a major piece to keep the payroll under last year’s total.
The two that make the most sense would be Davis and Moustakas. Each has a logical replacement (Herrera for Davis, Cheslor Cuthbert for Moose) and would presumably bring back some young talent in return.
The downsides are probably obvious, but they’re worth going over here anyway. Each player’s trade value is diminished after last year’s injuries — and, in Davis’ case, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman will be viewed as better players available without having to trade young talent.
Davis is the anchor of a bullpen that as much as anything has become the Royals’ greatest strength. Moustakas, perhaps more than any other player, represents and generates the stubborn resilience that has become the team’s identity.
The clubhouse and front office believe completely in all of it, and weakening the bullpen or removing such a dominant personality would be a major blow to the collective psyche of a group of players whose successes and failures have tended to follow the direction of that psyche.
There could be a compromise in here somewhere. Royals officials believe they have more and better arms in the minor leagues than the general perception of the baseball world. If they’re right about that, they could trade Davis and still have a strong bullpen with Herrera, Joakim Soria (assuming a bounceback, obviously), and some combination of Matt Strahm, Mike Minor and a stable of young power arms headlined by Josh Staumont.
They could then still add an impact free agent while keeping the payroll increase to a minimum. The payroll would likely be a little over $140 million if they did that, or stay frozen between $135 million and $140 million if they didn’t.
4. Glass: Dayton, we already had our parade, and with the way things look I just don’t think it’s smart to chase this thing. We all knew this would end sometime. Let’s do what we can now to make the next rebuild quicker.
Here, Moore and his assistants drop their heads, curse and wonder if they should see who else is hiring. The ones who drink might pour a glass of their favorite, and toast the good times.
The criticism will be loud and relentless, and deserved, because it would mean an owner needed just one disappointing season (in which they still went .500, and had the second-biggest attendance in franchise history) to put a world championship roster through the shredder.
At this point, you’re trading anyone who will bring back value. Davis, Moustakas, Cain, Eric Hosmer, Ian Kennedy. Maybe even Gordon, though the Royals would likely have to cover some of the remaining money on his contract.
The Royals could get their payroll below $100 million, and actually, if you’re going to rebuild, the Cubs and Astros have shown there is value in bottoming out at the big-league level. You get better draft picks, more money to spend in free agency and more opportunities to develop young players in the majors.
The Royals’ front office has generally viewed this as an inferior and perhaps self-defeating strategy for their market, where fans are understandably skeptical of rebuilds and even now have only seen three winning seasons out of the last 13.
But, hey. The lines at the concession stand would be shorter.