They gathered under a cloudless blue sky nearly halfway through spring training. Every player in the Royals organization was in attendance.
The minor-leaguers sat in folding chairs with the major-leaguers standing behind them as general manager Dayton Moore spoke. It was the annual minor-league awards ceremony, and optimism was as abundant as the sunshine.
Moore briefly addressed the future of the organization and how well the farm system would feed the Royals’ needs.
“The publications say one thing,” Moore told them. “The Royals staff says another.”
The once-vaunted Royals minor-league system is ranked 25th in Major League Baseball by Fox Sports, 26th by ESPN’s Keith Law and 26th by Baseball America. The Just a few years after they had the top farm system in baseball, the Royals don’t have a single player on MLB.com’s Top 100 prospect list.
As the Royals enter a transition year, trying for a third postseason appearance in four years, they are also aware of the need to prepare for a future that may not include their core players.
First baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar and left-handed pitcher Jason Vargas will all be free agents at the conclusion of this season.
What might the Royals look like if those five leave?
According to Cot’s Contracts, the Royals already have $108 million on the payroll for 2018 (including $3.45 million for the late Yordano Ventura). So this projection will look at a starting lineup and pitching staff for the Royals if none of the five return and the team makes no other moves.
Salvador Perez: One of the Royals’ bedrocks, Perez is signed through the 2021 season, at which point he might be making his ninth straight All-Star Game appearance and winning a ninth Gold Glove.
Brandon Moss: While the metrics aren’t kind to Hosmer’s defense, Moss’ numbers are worse. But that’s because he shares time in the field at his natural position in the outfield. But Moss would give the Royals a power bat if he moved here full-time in 2018. If Ryan O’Hearn can continue his ascent through the minors, he could end up at first, but 2018 seems a little early.
Whit Merrifield/Christian Colon: Royals manager Ned Yost has said this spring that the second base job could be a rotation based on matchups in 2017. Well, that could be the case next season as well. Colon is out of options, so it’s also possible that a roster crunch means he’s not with the franchise in the near future.
Raul Mondesi: The Royals have long viewed Mondesi as their future starting shortstop, and that day should come no later than Opening Day 2018. Mondesi’s strong showing this spring has earned him the starting job at second base this season, but he’s their long-term solution at shortstop.
Hunter Dozier: In 2016, Dozier had the best offensive showing in his four minor-league seasons, hitting 23 homers and collecting 75 RBIs with an .899 on-base-plus slugging percentage, mostly at Class AAA Omaha. Dozier won the Royals’ top minor-league hitting award and had a very good spring. Cheslor Cuthbert would then be a utility infielder.
Alex Gordon: The 2018 season will be Year Three of the contract that Gordon signed not long after the Royals won the World Series. He struggled mightily last year. A rebound in 2017 would not only help the cause this summer but would also make everyone feel better about where things stand going into 2018.
Paulo Orlando: On Opening Day 2018, Orlando will be 32. That’s not old by any means, but it’s hard to see him as a long-term solution here. Orlando has great speed, though, and if he can build on a promising 2016 season, he would be a natural to become the center fielder if the Royals don’t make another move. But if they do sign someone, center field seems like it would be a priority.
Jorge Soler: When the Royals traded All-Star closer Wade Davis to the Cubs, they knew Soler would be someone who’d be in the lineup for at least the next four seasons. The Royals will be depending on Soler to be a key contributor in 2018.
Jorge Bonifacio: This spring, Yost said Bonifacio is a guy who could play in the majors right now. But Bonifacio is currently blocked at the major-league level because he’s an outfielder, and the Royals have plenty of those. If there’s a free-agent exodus out of KC, Bonifacio would make sense as the team’s designated hitter in 2018. Should Peter O’Brien carries over his power numbers from spring training to Class AAA Omaha this season, he’s another DH candidate.
Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, Nate Karns: When the Royals break camp, Wood and/or Karns will be headed to the bullpen; they are in the running to be the fifth starter this year with Chris Young. But it’s likely that both will be in the 2018 rotation. All five of these pitchers are under contract next season, but Kennedy has an opt-out clause, so he could leave after this year. The guess here is that doesn’t happen.
Kelvin Herrera, Matt Strahm, Kyle Zimmer, Joakim Soria, Josh Staumont, Scott Alexander, Brian Flynn: The hope for the Royals is that Zimmer can make it to the big-league club this summer. If that happens, there’s a good chance he would be in the bullpen out of camp in 2018 and eventually move to a starter’s role if needed. Ditto for Staumont, who has an electric arm. And Strahm could end up in the rotation eventually, too.