The other day, Dayton Moore used an interesting word to describe his Royals. They’ve been through so much, of course. He was hired halfway through what turned out to be a third consecutive 100-loss season, and now he’s talking as the general manager of the American League champions.
Moore could describe his Royals in any number of ways. Ascending. Winners. Fast. Small-market. Courteous drivers. Whatever.
Moore used the word “fearless.”
He was describing the Royals at an organizational level, about the approach he and his assistants take in considering trades and signings and draft picks. Fearless. This has always been important to Moore, something put into his head when he started working in baseball 20 years ago.
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The surest way to fail in this game is to stop taking chances, which is part of why over the years the Royals have signed José Guillen and traded for Mike Jacobs and hired Trey Hillman, but will still fly an American League champions flag next year.
So, fearless. That’s what Moore feels around the Royals’ front office, and that’s the way he wants his team of assistants, scouts and analysts to go into an offseason loaded with organizational momentum and — barring a failure from ownership — a significantly beefed-up payroll.
The Royals made somewhere between $10 million and $14 million from playing host to eight playoff games, money that was not in the team’s budget before the season and does not include additional revenue the club can reasonably plan on making from its team store, concessions and ticket sales next year.
The Royals ended up with a payroll around $94 million this year, and turned a profit largely by seeing attendance grow about 12 percent, to 1,956,482. It’s reasonable to expect a similar jump for next year, pushing attendance over 2 million for the first time since 1991.
Owner David Glass has been consistent in saying that profits are put back into the team, which is generally run at a break-even point year-to-year. Despite lingering fan sentiment from his first six years in charge, industry insiders back his claim over the last eight.
That means the Royals should be able to play next year with a payroll over $100 million for the first time in franchise history. Across baseball, distribution of growing national TV revenue is giving all teams more money, but a $105 million payroll is almost exactly halfway between the 15th and 16th biggest payrolls from 2014.
The Royals will lose James Shields to free agency and decline a $12.5 million option for Billy Butler, but even with those salaries potentially coming off the books they will see most of that money go to raises in arbitration to key pieces such as Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Greg Holland, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, and Kelvin Herrera.
Using history and team priorities as a guide, it’s worth remembering that Moore and his assistants could have made a splashy trade at the July 31 deadline. They knew that Jon Lester and David Price were available, and had enough talks with representatives of the Red Sox and Rays to know they had the talent necessary to make a trade. But the Royals were intent on, in Moore’s words, “keeping our strengths strong,” so they would not deal a core piece.
So the Royals enter an offseason where they want to maintain their strengths (namely defense and pitching) while addressing their weaknesses (namely power hitting).
The last month has increased the chance that Butler could return at a reduced salary. But other factors — the Royals would need to be convinced Butler’s power will return, and that he’d be productive and happy not playing every day so that other players could DH — make it a matter of negotiation.
Nori Aoki will be a free agent, and there is a genuine appreciation within the front office about how he fits their roster, but right field is a spot where a team in need of power can go find power.
The Royals looked into Nelson Cruz last offseason, and could again, but would have to weigh his power potential against a fading second half of 2014, below-average defense and a history that includes a drug suspension.
Speaking of past drug suspensions, Melky Cabrera is a free agent. He was great for the Royals in 2011, but besides his own drug suspension in 2012, he too would bring below-average defense.
Torii Hunter could be had on a one-year deal, potentially, and nearly signed with this front office seven years ago before the Angels went over the top with a $90 million contract. At 39 years old, Hunter’s defense is nowhere close to what it used to be, but his .765 on-base-plus-slugging percentage last year would’ve ranked second on the Royals.
Michael Morse, the Giants slugger the Royals saw up close in the World Series, is another possibility (and another subpar defender). Nick Markakis could be an interesting fit, if he leaves Baltimore after the Orioles paid $2 million to decline a $17.5 million option. He will be expensive, but he hit 14 home runs with a .729 OPS last year, is better than average in right field, and fits a more general profile of what the Royals often target.
The other major hole the Royals need to fill is in their rotation. With Shields almost certainly gone — he’ll likely get a contract for $15 million to $20 million per season over four or five years — the Royals will need some depth.
They only had 11 starts not taken by their regular rotation, a remarkably low number that’s a credit to hard work by the training staff and pitchers, but also more luck than is smart to count on again. Brandon Finnegan could be ready to join the rotation at some point next year, and the Royals have others, such as Christian Binford, Miguel Almonte and Sean Manaea, who may be on the come. But they’ll also be looking to add a starting pitcher they know they can rely on right away.
Other than that, the decisions are mostly second-level. Luke Hochevar, who was fabulous in relief in 2013 before missing all of 2014 because of Tommy John surgery, is a free agent, but the Royals will try to re-sign him.
If that happens, they could listen to what are sure to be trade offers for Greg Holland, which would save money and maintain a strong back end of the bullpen. Or, and this is what might make more sense after the last month, they could sign Hochevar and “strengthen a strength,” to paraphrase Moore. That would give them more bullpen depth, cushioning against injury, overuse of a particular reliever, and a less reliable rotation without Shields.
Whether it’s Erik Kratz or someone else, the Royals need a backup catcher who manager Ned Yost is willing to start 20-40 times so that Salvador Perez (.765 OPS before the All-Star break, .579 after, including the playoffs) does not wear down.
Including the playoffs, Perez had a historic workload for a catcher. The Royals can’t make a habit of that if they want his best. As much as they can, the Royals should discourage Perez and Alcides Escobar (who made every start, regular season and playoffs, at shortstop) from playing their customary positions in winter ball.
The need to make sure Perez and Escobar protect their bodies highlights the fact that, like all Royals offseasons, success and failure will be determined much more by the guys coming back than the guys coming in.
Lorenzo Cain finally stayed healthy and took a star turn in the playoffs. There is growing industry opinion that he will continue to improve from here. Mike Moustakas hit five home runs in the playoffs, a franchise record, with mostly spectacular defense ... but he also hit just .231 in the postseason with a .259 on-base percentage. Eric Hosmer had an inconsistent regular season and played like a star during the playoffs. Omar Infante had a terrible regular season but was more productive and appeared to play with more energy in the ALCS and World Series, when he was taking pills to help him with pain in his shoulder.
The Royals’ front office will work hard to fill holes on the roster, most obviously in right field and the starting rotation. Moore’s directive to be “fearless” will be important in shaping the franchise’s encore to a rejuvenating ride that will put the Royals in the national spotlight from the first day of spring training.
Their decisions made with potential free-agent signings and trades will receive the most attention, but the Royals need to get the other two parts right, too.
Ownership needs to use the profits of a remarkable run to game seven of the World Series to give Moore and his assistants the best environment to make those choices.
And the bulk of the 2015 team — which is the bulk of the 2014 team — has to see its recent success as fuel instead of dessert.
The part about playoff success that nobody talks about is that it restricts the time you have to focus on improving for the next season. It’s a trade every team wants to make, of course, but one that’s new to the Royals. How they handle it will largely determine how much of 2014 can grow into 2015.
The Royals go into this with a lot of advantages, and a much bigger following, than they’ve had in the past.