As a pivotal offseason continues in earnest, the Royals have designs on upgrading their bullpen, filling out the starting rotation and perhaps finding answers in right field and second base.
Yet the decision this week to let designated hitter Kendrys Morales walk into free agency without a qualifying offer added another bullet point to the list of priorities and shone the spotlight on one of the team’s chief areas of need: fortifying an offense that ranked 13th in the American League in runs scored.
So as Royals general manager Dayton Moore met with reporters Tuesday at the annual GM meetings at the Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa, he emphasized the need to replace the production in the lineup.
“Kendrys was crucial for us,” Moore said. “The switch-hit (ability), the leadership. He was a highly productive player for us. We’ll definitely have some ground to make up there, if he’s not with us.”
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On Tuesday, Moore outlined two possible paths to reinforce the offense. The Royals remain interested in a reunion with Morales, Moore confirmed, despite being reluctant to commit $17.2 million to him via a possible qualifying offer.
They are also open to a rotation at the designated hitter spot that would create opportunity for Cheslor Cuthbert — who is poised to be supplanted at third base by a healthy Mike Moustakas — and provide more rest for the Royals’ core, including Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain.
It is also possible, given the team’s stated interest in Morales, that they would be interested in a cost-friendly replacement at designated hitter or in right field. But as Moore spoke on Tuesday, he cautioned against expecting the club to be aggressive in free agency, repeating the line, delivered last month, that the franchise is not positioned to add significant payroll after spending a club-record $140 million in 2016.
“I don’t look for us to be real aggressive with free agents,” Moore said. “Just because we’re not going to be in position to add significant payroll — if any, at all, at this point.”
While the stance could turn out to be November posturing, the financial constraints could also define the offseason. The Royals are in position to make one final run with a core that won a World Series in 2015. But with most of that core headed for free agency following the season, they must act prudently this winter, with an eye on the future.
As a result, Moore is emphasizing the need to locate internal solutions in right field and in the bullpen. In right field, Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando will return, offering a safety net, while Moore said the club will “look hard” at prospects Jorge Bonifacio and Hunter Dozier.
In the bullpen, Royals officials mention names like left-hander Matt Strahm, right-hander Josh Staumont and right-hander Kevin McCarthy. Strahm, 24, remains a candidate for the starting rotation, while Staumont, 22, one of the top arms in the system, could be a candidate to bolster the rotation or bullpen at midseason. McCarthy, 24, debuted in the bullpen last year.
“Our market is going to present some limitations at times,” Moore said. “And we want to make astute baseball decisions based on the future performance of the player and also where the economics (fit) with regard to the payroll.
“We’re not going to be in a position to significantly add payroll. I can say that with all certainty.”
Moore paused for a second, before adding a disclaimer.
“At this point in time,” he said.
Moments later, Moore likened the situation to 2015, when the Royals entered the season hoping for improvements from their core players and then added payroll at the trade deadline by acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist.
“We’ll be prepared to do that, if necessary,” Moore said. “Hopefully you stay healthy. I wouldn’t get so narrowly focused on what our team is going to look like in spring training or when we leave spring training.”
For now, like most teams, the Royals are in research mode. The annual GM meetings mark the unofficial start of the offseason — and the beginning of the rumor mill.
Among the developments on Thursday: If the Royals are still interested in Morales, they could have competition from the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. All have inquired about Morales, according to a report from Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
The Royals, meanwhile, could find themselves in the middle of myriad hot-stove chatter as the offseason progresses. In early October, at his postseason press conference, Moore said the Royals recognized the need to “mix it up” a little after finishing 81-81.
The comment no doubt perked up ears throughout baseball. With Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Alcides Escobar all set to reach free agency after next season, Moore appeared open to considering a major trade this offseason.
For now, the Royals expect to field plenty of calls on Davis, who will make $10 million next season. Yet there remains urgency to maintain and upgrade the bullpen. On Tuesday, Moore conceded that difficult decisions await this offseason. But he also clarified his stance on possible trades, saying it was incumbent “to listen to opportunities that are presented to us for the future of our organization.”
“You’re going to hear a lot of that this offseason,” Moore said, referencing trade rumors surrounding the Royals. “It’s natural for interested clubs or contending clubs to naturally look at our team and say, ‘Certain players are going to free agents in a year. I wonder if the Royals would be interested in making a deal.’
“That’s going to be commonplace. And we will continue to listen. That’s what we do. But we’re not in a hurry to break this team up. But we also understand that every day there is a strong urgency to get better.”