The first day of the rest of the Royals season looks a lot like the disappointing stretch that got us here. Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline passed and the Royals were never particularly close to making a deal. None of us should be surprised.
Two of the Royals’ most tradeable players have been put on the disabled list in the last week, and the Royals are run by the most loyal and optimistic front office in baseball.
They don’t have the record or the organizational depth to be buyers. They don’t have the cold-blooded calculus to be sellers.
“We just felt that we trust our players,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “They’ve done an outstanding job getting us to a point where we’ve won, and we want to give them a chance to dig back out of this mess that we’re in.”
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That’s incredibly unlikely, and Moore knows it. The 50-55 Royals would likely have to finish 40-17 or better for a wild-card spot. They had a chance to join the playoff race in July, and instead ended the month with just seven wins.
So it would’ve been insanity to spend what little the Royals have left to chase a lottery ticket this year, and unless blown away with an offer, Moore was never going to depart with a major piece.
When viewed from the outside, that’s a mistake, for a lot of reasons, including the existence of what many around baseball called one of the most extreme sellers markets in years.
If the Royals were more open to trading, it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have received some help for the future for Edinson Volquez — who, even in a disappointing season has a 3.58 ERA over his last six starts and brings value as an experienced innings eater. There are contenders who could use a hitter as proven as Kendrys Morales, too.
But even those of us who think the Royals missed an opportunity to get better in the future should recognize that this holds true to a bigger organizational philosophy that helped shatter so many doubts over the last few years.
The other takeaway is that the Royals still see value in Volquez, even while falling back in the standings, and even as Volquez hasn’t been as efficient as a year ago.
That value comes in different forms. First, and most obvious, is that the Royals still have 57 games to play. And even if you discount their chances of getting back in the race, that’s 57 times they need a starting pitcher. Trade Volquez, and Brian Flynn or Chris Young is back in what is already one of the American League’s weakest rotations.
The most important part of Volquez’s value comes in the future. His contract includes a mutual option for next year that in reality is an accounting trick to push some of his salary to next year’s payroll.
Once he opts out of that, the Royals will likely make a so-called qualifying offer. ESPN’s Buster Olney reports the qualifying offer will be around $16.7 million for a one-year contract.
“We’ll see,” Moore said Monday when asked if holding onto Volquez was a sign the Royals planned on making a qualifying offer. “Obviously we have to evaluate that, but that’s certainly a part of our thinking.”
It would make sense for the Royals. If Volquez turns them down, they receive a compensation pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. If he accepts, they fill a spot in their rotation with a man who has pitched more than all but 20 others over the last three years and — according to adjusted ERA — has been 10 percent better than league average.
Among those he’s outperformed according to both versions of Wins Above Replacement: Trevor Bauer, Drew Smyly and Wade Miley.
There is an old saying among baseball executives that there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract, and even in a down year he is projected to be worth $17.4 million according to FanGraphs.
The math is further tilted by an incredibly weak class of free agent pitchers — Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Cashner, Jeremy Hellickson, Scott Feldman and Jake Peavy are among the biggest names.
So the Royals may need Volquez next year, hoping he bounces back during the season he turns 34.
With or without Volquez, the Royals are going to have a hard time filling holes. Costs are always rising. The Royals are obligated to pay $14 million in dead money from buyouts and Omar Infante's contract, plus about $26 million in raises to a core that includes Sal Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Wade Davis, Ian Kennedy and others.
Even if they don’t bring Volquez back on a qualifying offer, those raises will outpace the money coming off the books from free agents — and doesn’t include significant raises through arbitration for Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy and Kelvin Herrera.
Another good year of attendance will help, but they are still working with an antiquated TV contract and without the boost of playoff revenue from the last two years. That will make adding starting pitching and at least one hitter difficult.
The Royals, then, are likely to play the last season of this championship window largely depending on players already on the payroll to bounce back from a collective disappointment.
Their roster will be full of talent, and championship experience. That’s true now, though, too. And like Moore said, they’re in a mess.