Royals general manager Dayton Moore likes to say the job is never done. There is no finish line for a baseball front office. There is always the next move, the next challenge, the next opportunity to upgrade a roster. This is reality for a general manager, of course. But Moore can exhibit a special kind of tunnel vision.
And so, in the moments after the Royals had introduced veteran Brandon Moss in an afternoon news conference on Wednesday, Moore was already focused on the next domino, a move he did not know would be necessary just weeks ago.
The Royals possess a considerable void in their starting rotation, the result of the tragic death of pitcher Yordano Ventura earlier this month in the Dominican Republic. As the start of spring training looms in less than two weeks, the Royals appear determined to fill the hole.
“We’ll do something,” Moore said. “I think we’ll do something. I got a feeling. I don’t know what, but certainly before spring training.”
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For the Royals, the grieving process continues. There is no script after the death of a teammate and a friend. The feeling of loss will linger all season and beyond.
But the season will continue, the calendar will press on, and from a baseball perspective, the unexpected death of Ventura altered the calculus of the final weeks of the offseason. The Royals expected to spend the final weeks of spring training looking for help for their bullpen and perhaps depth for their starting rotation. Now the need is even more pressing.
The Royals will open the spring training with three locks in their rotation. Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy sit atop the staff, while left-hander Jason Vargas is poised for his first full season since returning from Tommy John surgery last September. The club also possesses right-hander Nathan Karns, acquired from Seattle in a trade for outfielder Jarrod Dyson. When the deal was executed, the Royals expected Karns to compete for the club’s final spot in the rotation. But now the club faces the reality of two vacant slots. Karns remains likely to slot somewhere at the back end of the rotation. But the fifth spot remains a question mark.
Moore has expressed confidence that veteran right-hander Chris Young will rebound after a disastrous 2016. The club could also lean on a young group of homegrown pitchers, including left-hander Matt Strahm, 25, injury-prone right-hander Kyle Zimmer, 25, and rising prospect Josh Staumont, 23.
Club officials believe Strahm in particular could project as a strong option for the rotation. Yet he also proved his value in the bullpen last season, and the Royals need help there, too. Zimmer’s value will likely hinge on his health — and club officials are quietly hoping for a breakthrough. Staumont, a second-round pick in 2015, will likely require more seasoning in the minors, though his 100-mph fastball could wreak havoc in a relief role.
As options for depth, the collection of young arms would likely suffice. As an answer for an unoccupied rotation spot, the picture is murkier. So for the moment, the Royals appear inclined to target another starter, or, at the least, more help for the bullpen.
“We’ve got a hole in the rotation,” Moore said. “That’s an obvious question. We didn’t anticipate that. But we’ve got to look for solutions. We feel like we do have some internal options. But we feel like there may be a trade opportunity or two.”
The path to a trade could be difficult, Moore said, especially at this time of the year. With the start of spring training just weeks away, other clubs likely will be motivated to evaluate the depth of their pitching staff during spring training, which could delay a possible deal to the end of camp.
“Historically, most teams are going to wait until they get through spring training and assess the general health of their pitchers before they start moving pitchers,” Moore said. “But they’ll be some opportunities, perhaps, at the end of spring training.”
The Royals could also mine the remnants of the free-agent market for starters, Moore said. But that path will likely be dictated by cost and how the Royals view the arms that remain available.
Right-hander Jason Hammel leads a small cadre of unsigned starting pitchers. The group also includes veteran right-handers Doug Fister, Colby Lewis and Jered Weaver and left-handed swingman Travis Wood.
Hammel, 34, is coming off a season in which he posted a 3.83 ERA and recorded 144 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings for the Chicago Cubs. Since 2014, he has exceeded 500 innings pitched while posting a 3.68 ERA. Hammel would likely project as the best option for replacing Ventura, which would also mean he would be the priciest.
Fister, meanwhile, spent the 2016 season with the Houston Astros, putting up a 4.64 ERA in 180 1/3 innings. Weaver and Lewis — and others — all come with significant red flags.
“There are still some free agents out there,” Moore said. “Whether it works to our advantage right now, I don’t know.”
When the offseason began, the Royals appeared unwilling to make a splash in free-agency, citing the need to control cost. In an effort to do that and chart a course for the future, they dealt closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler, saving close to $7 million in 2017 salary. They shaved off another $2 million or so by exchanging Dyson for Karns.
For now, the Royals owe close to $128 million for 18 players, according to Star projections, a number that includes $8 million owed to second baseman Omar Infante and $3.25 million for Ventura. The Royals may receive some relief on Ventura’s contract through an insurance policy, though the contract status may take months to sort out, according to club officials. In addition, the Royals were on the hook this offseason for $6 million in buyouts for Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez, Kris Medlen and Luke Hochevar.
On Wednesday, Moore stressed that the Royals were close to a deal with Moss before the Ventura news rocked the organization. But now, as the club approaches spring training, another roster hole remains.
The Royals will enter the 2017 season armed with a retooled roster and the remains of a championship core. And club officials believe they possess the talent to improve on an 81-81 finish and return to the postseason for the third time in four years. But with a hole in the rotation, another starting pitcher could fortify that belief.
“We’re highly motivated,” Moore said, “to make sure that we do what we can to make sure the starting pitching and the bullpen is as quality as it can be.”