Royals’ Dayton Moore: Payroll will ‘regress a little bit’ in 2017

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore

For Royals general manager Dayton Moore, the architect of a World Series championship and two straight American League pennants, the 2016 season offered a reality check. Not all baseball seasons end with bubbling champagne. Not all free agent signings hit. Not all years enjoy the luxury of good health.

Moore knows this, of course, knows it better than just about anyone after a decade of running a baseball franchise in Kansas City. But if the 2016 season reinforced the cruel nature of his sport, Moore spent close to 30 minutes on Monday morning peddling another reality check, one stemming from the club’s market size and financial means.

The Royals have a list of offseason priorities, Moore says, a list that will come more into focus as club officials convene in Arizona this week for the start of organizational meetings. But as he met with reporters on Monday morning, one day after the Royals finished with an 81-81 record, Moore cautioned that the club could face financial restrictions that could shape its offseason strategy.

To be specific: Moore said the club had been living above its means in payroll and that the team’s 2017 spending would likely “regress a little bit” after a record high in 2016.

The comments came during a morning news conference at Kauffman Stadium, as Moore and manager Ned Yost addressed a series of wide-ranging issues one day after the regular season ended. Yet the Royals’ financial picture stood out. One year after winning the 2015 World Series, the Royals opened 2016 with a payroll that topped $135 million, the largest in club history. Early projections for 2017 suggest that the Royals could approach that number after handing out raises for arbitration-eligible players and covering other rising salaries. As he met reporters Monday, Moore indicated that the Royals’ payroll was unlikely to continue rising.

“This payroll was put together with going deep in the postseason (in mind),” Moore said. “That didn’t happen. Again, I’m accountable for that. It’s not going to look very good on the spreadsheet when the bill comes due.

“Last year’s payroll, it was built to go deep in the postseason; that worked out. This year, it didn’t. So we’ll have to re-evaluate that, probably reorganize, take some steps back.”

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On the field, the Royals finished with the first .500 record in club history, failing to make the postseason for the first time since 2013. As the offseason looms, the club will seek to address the back end of its bullpen and upgrade an offense that finished 13th in the American League in runs scored. But as Moore looked forward, he indicated that the majority of the team’s offseason upgrades would likely have to come from internal options and trades.

“We’re going to have to look internally and (in) trades,” Moore said. “We won’t be adding money. That’s for darn sure.”

The stance followed a familiar theme. For years, Moore has called free agency a “flawed” way to build a baseball team, and he repeated that statement Monday. Likewise, he said the club would seek to be “creative” in finding possible answers in the trade market, a gambit would likely alleviate some stress on the payroll while addressing potential flaws.

“It’s very early, obviously, with the offseason, and there will be opportunities that are available to us that we’re not even aware of yet,” Moore said. “Once we begin to unpack what other teams are looking to do, we’ll have a better idea of how we can mix and match and line up with trades and hopefully make some quality acquisitions.”

The Royals, of course, have taken a similar posture on payroll limitations before. Last season, in the weeks after a World Series championship, Moore indicated that the club would not raise payroll. Yet by the end of the offseason, the Royals re-signed left fielder Alex Gordon to a four-year, $72 million contract and lured free-agent starter Ian Kennedy with a five-year, $70 million deal — the two largest signings in club history. The payroll jumped above $130 million for the first time.

This time, however, the budget could be stretched even thinner. For now, the Royals have more than $82 million committed to a list of 10 players signed for next season, including Gordon ($16 million), Kennedy ($13.5 million), Lorenzo Cain ($11 million), Mike Moustakas ($8.7 million), Joakim Soria ($8 million) and Jason Vargas ($8 million). The list doesn’t include team options for Wade Davis ($10 million) and Alcides Escobar ($6.5 million). It also doesn’t include pending raises for a list of arbitration eligible players — including Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, Kelvin Herrera and Jarrod Dyson — a dollar number that could push $30 million.

This is one reason why club officials believe any major upgrades to the bullpen will likely come from internal sources. For example: team officials have already wondered how Mike Minor, a former starter in Atlanta, might look in the bullpen.

“We’ve got guys with power arms from the right side and the left side,” Moore said. “They just haven’t pitched in the major leagues yet. We’ll bring them into spring training and give them a hard look and continue to develop them.”

The financial picture is also why, when asked about upgrading the offense, Moore mentioned the returns of Moustakas and Cain and the expected improvements of Hosmer and Gordon.

“I feel that all of our players are capable of having better years,” Moore said. “(Hosmer) had a really good year, but I think he’s just scratching the surface, truthfully. I think he can be a .300 hitter with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. He’s capable of putting up that type of production.

“(Gordon) is going to have a better year. … So I think once we get those guys back together, our offense will certainly lengthen out.”

And finally, this is why the Royals could have trouble retaining designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who owns a mutual option in his current contract. Morales will likely trigger his side of the opt-out and become a free agent. The Royals could counter by proffering a “qualifying offer” — essentially a one-year deal worth $16.7 million. The decision does not have to be made until early November. For now, Moore is not tipping his hand.

“We’ll just keep all of our options open,” Moore said. “But he’s a player that we’re very proud of. He’s a big part of our success. We would love to have him back. I just don’t know if it will work at this point in time.”

The same, of course, goes for the rest of the offseason. As the Royals lay the groundwork for another run in 2017, another reality looms. When the 2017 season is over, Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Davis, Duffy and Escobar are all set to become free agents.

The club could attempt to negotiate long-term deals with one or more this offseason, but on Monday, Moore mentioned the rare nature of players signing long-term deals with just one year remaining on their contract. For now then, the future appears murky. But that could change in the coming weeks and months.

“We’ll be as aggressive as we can (this offseason),” Moore said. “You can only take advantage of players that are available to you. We’ve got a great foundation with which to start. We have a lot of All-Star caliber players that we think can get back to their accustomed level.

“We’ll count on that. But we also recognize the need to maybe mix it up a little bit. But again, that’s always going to be predicated on what’s available. I can’t make another team trade with us if we don’t match up. But we always look internally first, then we’ll look to the trade market.”

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