They will gather together officially for the first time in the next week on ballfields under the desert sun, finally ending the Royals’ most difficult offseason in years, if not ever.
They are still grieving the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, a loved and talented teammate, and any challenge beyond that is a light breeze in comparison. But even in the narrow and relatively irrelevant scope of baseball this has been a challenging few months for the Royals:
Unexpectedly replace your No. 3 starting pitcher after most of the deals are done, and improve an 81-81 team in both the immediate and long-term without adding payroll.
Nothing is certain except the fact that baseball is unpredictable, but as the Royals enter what is likely their final season with most of their championship core together, it’s hard to see how they could’ve done much better this offseason.
“I feel better about this group of players than I did going into the 2014 season,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “More trusted performers, more experience, and players that know how to win and appreciate what’s at stake.”
You do not need to be reminded that the 2014 season went all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, the breakthrough on the Royals’ path from trash to trophies.
Moore and the men who work for him made four specific moves this winter to bolster confidence, each balancing on the small-money club’s tightrope of (largely self-imposed and self-limiting) financial limitations.
Trading Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson for Jorge Soler and Nate Karns prioritized long-term club control and payroll flexibility. The money saved was spent on Brandon Moss, who could hit 25 or so home runs as the primary designated hitter, and Jason Hammel, a dependable if unspectacular competitor to fill a rotation spot.
The Karns and Soler trades were rarities: the Royals traded two pending free agents for players they’ll control for four years, and each deal had the approval of both the team’s scouts and analytical staff.
The Hammel contract — he’ll make $5 million this season, $9 million in 2018, with a $2 million buyout on a $12 million mutual option in 2019 — was a direct reaction to Ventura’s death. But even after adding Hammel, the Royals’ opening day payroll should be around $142 million, not far from owner David Glass’ goal of staying at or below last year’s total of about $140 million.
The team essentially used its last bit of flexibility on Hammel. They still may get relief on all or some of Ventura’s $3.25 million salary. That process could take months, and the outcome could help determine whether the Royals can add talent at the trade deadline.
Comparisons to past teams are natural, but this one will look different. Three spots in the lineup, plus at least three in the rotation, and virtually the entire bullpen are changed from the 2015 World Series champions.
They’ll have to win differently, too. That 2015 team was sixth among 15 American League clubs in runs, its success coming largely on putting the ball in play and making profit on the bases. This group will strike out more and hit more home runs.
This group will be good defensively, but not jaw-droppingly so. Kelvin Herrera should be one of the game’s better closers, but the bullpen likely won’t be the same weapon.
Internally, the Royals believe they have enough power arms — Matt Strahm, Josh Staumont, Eric Skoglund and Kevin McCarthy among them — to fill the bullpen, particularly if Joakim Soria rebounds from an awful 2016.
The rotation appears solid, but could use more depth, even after the Hammel signing. Maybe that’s Strahm. Maybe Kyle Zimmer can stay intact, finally. Or, maybe they have to trade for someone.
On the surface, this looks like an organizational shift in philosophy but it’s actually quite consistent. One of the overlooked reasons the Royals built so heavily on speed and bullpen is those were generally undervalued assets around baseball. The sport has shifted, which makes acquiring top athletes and relief pitching more expensive, but brought down the cost of Moss’ power and Hammel’s consistency.
But, even with Moore’s comment about feeling better now than in 2014, the 2017 team faces new challenges. This team is older in most spots, so staying healthy and energetic could be more difficult. Also, the league and particularly the American League Central is more difficult — the Indians should be strong again after 94 wins and the pennant, and the Tigers may have one more run in them.
In 2014, the Royals played with an inherent and constant desperation — from the calls for Moore and manager Ned Yost to be fired, to the thought by some they should’ve sold pieces at the deadline, through that magical run in August, September and eventually October.
This group is more experienced, and accomplished, and individually many will be in contract years. But that productive desperation of 2014 (or the overwhelmingly productive anger of 2015) is unique and will have to replaced by something else.
One way they will be the same as the 2014 team, and every other version of the Royals this century, is that they will succeed or fail based on the core — primarily Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Alcides Escobar.
We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the periphery — and we should, because that’s where the year-to-year action is — but the Royals have always been centered around that hand-picked group in the middle.
In that way, the 2017 Royals are well-positioned. Moustakas missed all but 27 games. Gordon was injured, and terrible. Cain missed nearly one-third of the season. Hosmer should be in line for the best season of his career. That’s a lot of production to add.
This group still needs good fortune, even beyond the usual disclaimer of health. Prioritizing power while playing half the time at Kauffman Stadium is risky. Guys on the up-slope of their careers in 2014 may by now have peaked. Counting on bounce-back seasons often sounds much better in February than August. The rotation could slip.
But all teams have holes. All teams have worries. The Royals have set high degree of difficulty for themselves, not just in trying to win as a small-money club, but by attempting to do it without extending payroll or sacrificing their future.
But with the offseason all but over, you have to say they’ve pursued this goal as well as anyone could’ve expected under brutal circumstances.