Lorenzo Cain is still a free agent, available to all 30 teams here at Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings. The Royals, however, have already planned for his imminent departure.
Facing a sizable hole in center field, Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Tuesday that the club would look internally first, seeking to utilize Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns and possibly Alex Gordon at the position in 2018. Former first-round pick Bubba Starling is positioned to make his major-league debut as well after an inconsistent rise through the system, though he will likely start the season in the minor leagues.
“We really believe in his ability,” Moore said of Starling. “We remain positive in his ability. He’ll start the year (at) Class AAA Omaha, but we wouldn’t hesitate if he gets off to a really good start. He’s an option as well.”
For years, the Royals have viewed center field as one of their most important positions while playing 81 games in spacious Kauffman Stadium. For years, Cain has been arguably their most valuable asset. Yet as they take the first steps in what could be a long rebuilding process, one focused on reloading the minor leagues, the club could pass on searching for center-field upgrades in the free-agent market.
That stance might soften later this winter, especially if the team is able to unload salary and create some flexibility within their budget. But any addition in center field would likely be a low-cost, short-term stopgap.
Could former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, also a free agent, fall into that category? For now, probably not, Moore said.
“It’s very clear to us where we’re in a position where we’re going to need to move some money if we’re going to add money,” Moore said, sitting inside his suite at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort.
For now, the Royals owe just more than $115 million in guaranteed contracts and potential arbitration cases in 2018. That number does not include pre-arbitration salaries (players making close to the league minimum.) This leaves little room for additions, Moore said, and it could offer opportunity for Orlando and Starling next season.
Orlando, 32, suffered through a disappointing year in 2017, battling ineffectiveness in April before fracturing his shin while fouling a ball off himself at Class AAA Omaha. Still, he batted .302 with a .329 on-base percentage in 128 games in 2016. The breakout performance was aided by some good fortune on balls hit in play, luck that is difficult to duplicate. Orlando, though, also offers some measure of value on defense.
Starling, meanwhile, is 25 now and still seeking traction at the plate six years after the Royals made him the No. 5 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He batted .248 with a .303 on-base percentage and 65 strikeouts in 80 games at Omaha in 2017. But hidden in the numbers was an atrocious start followed by one of the hottest stretches of his career. Then, of course, came a string of oblique injuries.
Moore said the Royals would not rush Starling to the big leagues in 2018, even if there was an opening. Yet on Tuesday, he sought to compare Starling to Minnesota center fielder Byron Buxton, a former top pick and elite defender who struggled mightily at the plate during his first seasons in the major leagues.
Buxton debuted with the Twins when he was 21, so the comparison is not quite apples to apples. The Royals, however, can certainly hope.
“We know he can really play center field,” Moore said. “We’ve seen other players, like Byron Buxton, who have come up and taken their lumps at the major-league level offensively, but have played terrific defense. And we’ve had our own players that have done that. He’s still a player that we see as part of our future.”
If Orlando and Starling flounder, the Royals could also seek to utilize Gordon in center field, a move that would be as much about the makeup of the roster and development as putting the best defense on the field. The club will enter the 2018 season with both Jorge Soler and Jorge Bonifacio needing at-bats. While one is likely to start in right field and the other could serve as the designated hitter, Kansas City could also shift Gordon to center field and allow Soler and Bonifacio to play in the field, Moore said.
Putting Gordon’s offensive issues aside, the defensive alignment would represent one of the Royals’ weakest in years. Moore offered a more subtle analysis.
“It’s not accustomed to what we’re looking at,” he said.
The Royals, of course, could shift course later this winter and find potential value still waiting for a major-league deal. Moore didn’t rule that out. But for now, as Kansas City attempts to adjust to life without Cain, it will rely on bodies already on the roster.
“It’s an important position, especially in our ballpark,” Moore said. “We’re always looking to build as much depth as we can at the center field position.”