In the days after the regular season, Royals general manager Dayton Moore sunk into a chair on the bottom level of Kauffman Stadium and delivered a sober analysis of the offseason to come.
The Royals would not have the financial wherewithal to increase payroll, he said. They would not be active on the free-agent market. If the club sought to find upgrades and additions, they would likely have to find those through trades.
In that moment, of course, it was easy to wonder if the message was simply posturing. In the end, maybe ownership would green slight a significant signing. Maybe Moore was playing coy, lying in the weeds before aggressively pursuing a collection of mid-level free agents.
But as the Royals enter the final leg of the offseason, the words have proved largely prophetic. The club’s two biggest moves of the winter have been trades — Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler then Jarrod Dyson to Seattle for right-hander Nathan Karns — and Moore and his staff have spent much of the last month in the same familiar posture: Patiently waiting out the free-agent market.
“When the music stops, there’s always going to be a few guys without chairs,” Moore said in an interview this week. “And unfortunately, for those players, the options dwindle. For the clubs that stay aggressive and keep their pulse on everything, you can get some potential deals.”
This is not the first offseason Moore has used a musical chairs analogy to break down the market, nor is it the first time the Royals have opted to stand pat and wait for the market to calm. But as the start of spring training hangs in the distance, just more than five weeks away, the Royals’ general philosophy of restraint has shifted into a explicit strategy.
The Royals’ front office entered the offseason knowing it could not add significant payroll to a balance sheet that is slated to show close to $140 million in salaries in 2017. The reality led to an offseason of difficult choices.
In an effort to control costs — and acquire assets for the future — the club moved Davis and Dyson. The deals saved closed to $10 million in 2017. The rest of the offseason has been, well, quiet.
The Royals signed backup catcher Drew Butera to a two-year, $3.8 million deal on Nov. 18. They have made a handful of minor-league signings, including a reunion with left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who flamed out during an abysmal stint with the club in 2012. And earlier this week, they took a flier on minor-league slugger Peter O’Brien, sending minor-league pitcher Sam Lewis to Arizona in the deal. The Royals are buying low on a former prospect with elite power. In this offseason, the trade qualified as a minor splash.
The Royals rarely target the premium free agents on the market. Moore maintains that free agency is a flawed way to build a team, believing that signing should be supplementary pieces to a talented homegrown core.
Moore and his staff also had little wiggle room when owner David Glass requested that spending remain flat after the club boasted a record payroll in 2017.
“We knew that we weren’t going to jump out quickly and be a major player on some of the top free agents,” Moore said. “So we’re again just continuing to monitor everything. So we’ll see. We’ll see what the next couple months hold as we get ready for spring training.”
Even after acquiring Karns, the Royals could still be in need of depth in the starting rotation. Veterans such as Doug Fister and Jason Hammel remain available, but the price will likely dictate the Royals’ interest in any free agent. This is at least one reason why Karns, who is under club control for the next four seasons, was so attractive.
In recent weeks, the Royals have also been linked to first baseman Pedro Alvarez, a left-handed hitter who could project as a valuable piece in a rotation at designated hitter. For now, the level of interest is unclear. But if the club was able to add salary, the savings from the Davis and Dyson trades could help land another bat for the lineup.
The Royals, Moore says, feel confident in their current roster, and it remains likely that any forthcoming additions will come closer to the start of spring training — or even after.
The strategy contrasts, in part, with the last two offseasons, when the Royals aggressively targeted free agents to bolster a home-grown core that was poised to contend. Before the 2015 season, the Royals signed right-hander Edinson Volquez, outfielder Alex Rios and designated hitter Kendrys Morales to free-agent contracts in December. A second straight World Series appearance — and a championship — followed the next October. A year ago, the club kept the roster largely intact and ponied up more than $175 million to re-sign Alex Gordon and Chris Young and land free agents Ian Kennedy and Joakim Soria. But in the months after an 81-81 finish in 2016, with a free agent exodus looming after 2017, the Royals have opted to fill holes via trades and bet on a nucleus that should be healthier this season.
The decision, the Royals say, is partly a reality of their market size and resources. With a collection of key pieces in their final seasons of arbitration, the club will field either the highest or second-highest payroll in club history. But just 15 months removed from a world championship, the franchise doesn’t appear willing to add any significant payroll to the books.
As the Royals wait out the market, their chief rival in the American League Central — the Cleveland Indians — guaranteed three years and $60 million to Edwin Encarnacion, adding one of the American League’s most potent bats to a roster that was one victory away from winning the World Series in 2016. The situations, of course, are not perfect analogs. Even after signing Encarnacion, the Indians are projected to have a lower payroll than the Royals.
The Royals, meanwhile, appear committed to patience, at least as free agents are concerned, preparing to troll for valuable assets in the final weeks before spring training. Moore pointed to March 1 as an important cutoff date, a reminder that the Royals once landed right Chris Young on a bargain deal after camp started in 2015.
That season, Young was solid as a reliever and starter before holding down a spot in the postseason rotation. And that, perhaps, is the best-case scenario. Based on necessity, the Royals will likely try to replicate the formula once more.
“It’s no different than any other year,” Moore said. “This time of year, the market tends to stabilize. And some players, who for whatever reason are still on the market, become a little more realistic.”