Opinion

Ask Rustin: On the outfield depth, upcoming free agents, Luke Hochevar’s recovery

Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain hugged Chino Cadahia, Senior Coordinator of Player Development, during Wednesday’s spring training workout in Surprise, Ariz.
Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain hugged Chino Cadahia, Senior Coordinator of Player Development, during Wednesday’s spring training workout in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Day five in Arizona, and it’s far too early to say this Royals camp has a certain vibe. There are new faces, of course. There are the usual veterans and reclamation projects. There are the usual rhythms of spring training.

But oftentimes, this Royals camp can feel like a bunch of college friends getting together seven or eight years after graduation. The analogy is not perfect. It’s not meant to be. But this Royals team has grown up together. There’s a comfort level. The players understand each other. Even in an environment where professional athletes are competing against each other for very lucrative salaries, there is very little tension in the room. And one other thing: Like a 20-something graduate who realizes he/she is not young anymore, this team ... well, it is not young anymore.

Here is one scene from Thursday: After a morning workout, center fielder Lorenzo Cain brings his two young children into the clubhouse, including Cameron Loe, who was born during the Royals’ run to the 2014 World Series. Moments later, Mike Moustakas emerges from the kitchen and places a plate of hot food on a chair before turning his attention to something else. In a moment, Cameron Loe has shuffled to the chair, grabbed the fork and is ready to dig before his startled father notices what’s up and runs to grab him.

Everybody in the room laughs. Cain picks up his son and walks out of the room. And then spring training continued.

Yes, these Royals are a lot older now.

Let’s get onto the first mailbag of the spring. But first, the music pick of the week is the The Menzingers’ new album, "After the Party". Onto the questions:

As a baseball man once said, my crystal ball is broken. I cannot predict the future. But looking at the roster, I’m not sure why trading an outfielder would be necessary. The Royals will begin the season with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jorge Soler starting and Paulo Orlando as the club’s fourth outfielder. Brandon Moss can also play a corner spot, though will likely DH often. And then there is Whit Merrifield, who can also play outfield but will likely occupy second base or a utility role on the roster.

The Royals often carry five outfielders, so you could see Billy Burns or Terrance Gore filling that last spot on a limited basis. Speed in the late innings would be of value after the trade of Jarrod Dyson. But Burns and Gore can also be sent to the minor leagues.

There is solid depth at the position. But players like Hunter Dozier and Jorge Bonifacio (and Peter O’Brien if you count him as an outfielder) are likely ticketed for Omaha.

Again, the crystal ball … it does not work. Here’s the thing about this question. So much about this depends on the performance of the aforementioned players in 2017 and how that affects their markets this offseason.

But here are two things to consider:

▪ Lorenzo Cain will turn 31 in April, which means he will turn 32 at the beginning of his next contract. The Royals already have committed big money to one outfielder aging into his mid 30s. Would they be interested in a long-term deal with Cain? Probably not. Maybe something shorter? We’ll see. But Cain will likely covet the certainty of a long-term guaranteed contract.

▪ The Royals have always been more bullish about their ability to retain members of their core than, say, outsiders across the industry. And Dayton Moore has a sterling track record of extending homegrown stars: Salvador Perez (twice), Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon (twice), Billy Butler, Zack Greinke.

This, of course, will be different. Most of those deals were done while the player was still years away from free-agency. The Royals have really only had one star-type player reach free-agency during the Moore era. That was Gordon. He eventually returned to Kansas City, but even then, plenty of people were surprised that worked out.

It seems the Royals could have the money and motivation to make a run at Hosmer and/or Moustakas. The classic cop-out answer: I don’t know. Next winter will be interesting.

Formerly an intriguing prospect, Almonte’s stock has dipped a bit. In 2016, he posted a 5.92 ERA and issued 46 walks in 76 innings. Royals officials said Almonte had issues repeating his delivery, especially during long outings. He was transitioned to the bullpen, and that may be where his future resides.

I guess you could say it’s an important camp for Almonte. But that’s true of all prospects to some degree. For now, though, he needs to prove he can repeat his delivery and fill up the strike zone.

Every day.

Hochevar underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last summer and he’s been slow to return from that. Once he can throw for prospective teams, he will be able to prove he’s healthy again. Until then, it seems unlikely a team will take a chance on more than a minor-league deal. Even then, teams might want proof that his arm is functional. But for now, that timetable remains elusive. So we’ll see.

The Royals’ front office and coaching staff have a terrific relationship with Hochevar, and that’s not going to change. A possible reunion would probably hinge on his health — and the organization’s needs later this summer.

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