The mandate was to make the Royals better on opening day of 2015 than they were on opening day of 2014, and this is the kind of subjective and completely impossible to prove comparison that make sports so great, but, well, darned if the Royals didn’t at least make it close.
The perennial losers clawed and screamed and walk-offed their way to baseball’s grandest stage, but they are still the Royals and still play in Kansas City and still have one of the game’s worst television contracts, so they were always going to have to play in the second and third tier of the transaction season.
Out of that, after the all-but-official signing of veteran starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, the Royals have preserved enough support to again give their homegrown core a chance to make history.
There is a lot to like from the Royals’ offseason, and not just because it comes after making it all the way to the World Series.
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The offseason began with five important goals, and in no order: sign a starting pitcher, a right-handed hitting right fielder with power, somehow replace Billy Butler’s bat, maintain the team’s strengths in defense and relief pitching, and along the way see David Glass spend some of that playoff money.
In signing Volquez to a two-year, $20 million contract, the Royals filled their last glaring hole from last year’s team and pushed next year’s estimated opening day payroll to around $110 million — by far the largest in club history, and a 20 percent increase from last year.
We can quibble about specifics — I believe a market misread led to Kendrys Morales replacing Butler as the DH, and Melky Cabrera would’ve been a terrific fit in right field — but overall the Royals did exactly what they had to do.
Internally, the Royals believe Alex Rios played much of last season hurt and can hit 40 doubles at Kauffman Stadium. They believe Morales will be closer to the player he was from 2009-13 than in 2014, and they believe Volquez can eat innings with the upside of some scouting reports around the league that he was the Pirates’ best starting pitcher in a season that ended in the National League Wild Card game.
After a push to the World Series, the front office has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt.
The most important part of the team’s offseason, when taken in the big picture, is that they filled their biggest holes while maintaining long-term flexibility with short-term contracts.
It’s worth pointing out that his wasn’t always the plan. The Royals were willing to give long-term contracts to Yasmany Tomas and Cabrera, for instance, but did not win those negotiations. They also were aggressive with Ervin Santana, meeting with his team within a few days of the World Series, but did not want to match a four-year, $55 million contract that includes a fifth-year vesting option.
So the offseason did not go exactly how general manager Dayton Moore and his assistants dreamed, but for a real world solution, this is pretty good: their three biggest holes filled with veterans, none of them signed for more than two years.
The Royals now reside in that vast space between penny-pinchers like the Astros and budget-less teams like the Dodgers. Payroll should be around the middle of baseball next year, again outpacing revenues even in a year where the Royals will have increased attendance at increased ticket prices.
But even as the caricature of Glass as this miserly Uncle Scrooge is even more outdated than a year ago, there is a budget, and playing in baseball’s third-smallest market does have limitations.
And so it is especially important to understand that just as core players such as Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Kelvin Herrera will make about $13 million more in 2015 than 2014, that group is either contractually guaranteed or highly likely through arbitration to get collective raises of $15 million or more next offseason.
That means that a chunk of the money from both the 2014 playoffs and cheaper replacements for Butler and Shields is going toward keeping together the friends and teammates who ended the longest playoff drought in North American sports.
All of which, then, made it especially important for the Royals to avoid long-term contracts, if possible.
The Royals will begin their encore to the 2014 American League pennant with flaws, just like they began their quest for the 2014 World Series with flaws.
Most notably, there is no defined No. 1 starting pitcher, the offense still lacks power, and there is still a lot riding on guys like Hosmer and Moustakas playing a full season close to their potential.
But it’s also true that whoever wins the 2015 World Series will have flaws, just like the 2014 Giants had flaws. And toward that end it’s important to note that the Royals figure to still have baseball’s best outfield defense and bullpen, a balanced lineup with plenty of speed, and the confidence of having pushed a previously sorry franchise onto baseball’s biggest stage.
The Royals didn’t sign any stars this offseason. They signed character actors, to fill supporting roles. They’ll win or lose in 2015 based on the stars they already have. That’s how they have to be.
That’s how they were in 2014.