The forever cliche is that hope springs eternal, even as your hometown club embarks on another rebuilding plan, even as the memories of champagne and parades fade into the past, even as the sport itself is racked by uncertainty, strife and a looming labor battle.
Baseball is baseball, and spring is spring, on a Tuesday morning in Arizona, pitchers and catchers will report to Royals camp in the desert sunshine.
So why does this feel so different? Maybe it is the uncertainty surrounding Eric Hosmer, who remains unemployed in the final days before camp. Maybe it is the abundance of familiar faces that have departed, from Wade Davis (last year) to Lorenzo Cain (last month) to Mike Moustakas (not yet). Maybe it is the sluggish offseason free-agent market that has sapped the heat from the hot stove and ground the game to a halt.
Yet here we are, not yet three years removed from a World Series championship and headed into a new era in Kansas City, one of rebuilding and development and re-stocking the farm system. For the first time in at least four seasons, the postseason expectations are gone. The measurements for success are different.
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The 25 players who will take the field at Kauffman Stadium on March 29 will not view it this way, of course, because baseball is baseball and hope still springs. But as camp opens next week, the challenges will be greater, the question marks bigger, the talent pool thinner. The Royals are poised to enter a great transition, bridging the gap from one era to the next, and there is no telling what happens now. But on the eve of another spring, here are five stories that could shape the 2018 season.
1. So, who is on first?
Eric Hosmer is still a free agent. Still. Three months after he officially hit the open market for the first time. He reportedly has nine-figure offers from both the Royals and San Diego Padres. The offer to remain in Kansas City is believed to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million.
To this point, however, those offers have not been sufficient. It’s unclear whether other teams have entered or been involved in the process at this late date. But Hosmer is reportedly still seeking a deal longer than seven years, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan. Royals general manager Dayton Moore confirmed this week that the club has been in contact with Hosmer’s agent, Scott Boras. Moore declined to address those conversations or put a timeline on a potential deal.
“I’ve been fairly transparent throughout this process,” Moore said. “At this point, we just have to let it play out.”
The Royals remain focused on retaining Hosmer as they put the pieces in place for a rebuild. They also have few internal options at first base should Hosmer land elsewhere. This adds a wrinkle to negotiations. Kansas City is unlikely to contend whether Hosmer returns or not, but finding even a warm body to fill the spot becomes an interesting exercise.
The only first baseman on the 40-man roster is Samir Duenez, a 21-year-old who posted a .705 OPS at Class AA Northwest Arkansas last season. Two other nonroster invitees have had success in the high minors. Frank Schwindel, 25, hit .329 with 23 homers at Class AAA Omaha last season, while Ryan O’Hearn, 24, hit .253 with a .330 on-base percentage and 22 homers while splitting time between Omaha and Northwest Arkansas.
The club could also look to utilize third basemen Hunter Dozier, a former first-round pick, or Cheslor Cuthbert. They could also look to add a modestly-priced free agent. But for now, that search will be delayed until Hosmer makes a decision.
2. What — and where — is the future of shortstop Raul Mondesi?
Once the most promising prospect in the system, Mondesi made his major-league debut in the World Series, struggled in 2016, surprisingly won a job in spring training last season, and then shuttled back to the minors after a horrendous start at the plate. With shortstop Alcides Escobar a free agent, Mondesi appeared poised to start at the position in 2017. But the Royals retained Escobar on a cheap one-year deal — an insurance policy of sorts on Mondesi — and it is Escobar who appears positioned to start the season at shortstop.
Mondesi could be headed back to Class AAA Omaha. Whit Merrifield appears locked in at second base. But for how long? The Royals have been willing to listen to trade offers for Merrifield, who turned 29 this offseason and whose years of cheap club control increase his value.
For now, it will likely be Escobar and Merrifield up the middle. But if Mondesi answers durability questions and produces at the plate, how long can the Royals delay his development at the major-league level?
3. The next act of Danny Duffy
When the Royals signed Duffy to a five-year, $65 million contract last winter, it was a significant coup. In Duffy, club officials believed they had a top-of-the-rotation talent to pair — and push — Yordano Ventura, who was also signed to a long-term deal. Together, they could headline the rotation and offer a foundation moving forward. But just days later, Ventura was lost in a car crash in the Dominican Republic, and one year later, Duffy is back on a team maneuvering through change. He will anchor a rotation that will feature Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Nate Karns (if healthy) and some competition at the back end. The newly acquired Jesse Hahn and Trevor Oaks will compete with Jakob Junis. Others involved include Sam Gaviglio, Eric Skoglund and Wily Peralta.
Duffy will seek to stay healthy while working with new pitching coach Cal Eldred, who replaced Dave Eiland this winter. He may also have to weather potential trade rumors should he have a great first half. The Royals fielded interest from rival clubs this winter on Duffy, who is under contract for four more seasons. Those calls could increase if the Royals are out of contention and teams are looking for a difference-making rotation piece at the deadline.
4. The Big Sort
While it’s easy to pronounce the Royals as a “rebuilding” club in 2018 — the definition is fairly loose — it’s more difficult to picture what the club will look like when it is ready to win again. Players such as outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler, and third basemen Cuthbert and Dozier are certainly part of the puzzle this season. But what about in two to three years? So for now, the Royals will be afforded the opportunity to see which young players may be part of the future — and which holes will need to be filled by a gathering wave still in the low minor leagues or not yet in the system.
Other young players could see opportunity, too. Center fielder Bubba Starling, a Gardner native and former first-round pick, may finally debut in the big leagues, while promising pitchers Foster Griffin, Josh Staumont and Scott Blewett are moving toward the major leagues. Others, like rising shortstop prospect Nicky Lopez, are getting closer, too. For years, the Royals have been locked into “win-now” mode at the major-league level. This year, though, could offer more evaluation and development in Kansas City.
In addition, one of the most important weeks of this season will fall in June, when the annual MLB Draft offers an opportunity to jolt its farm system with a talent infusion. The club holds the No. 18 overall pick in the first round, and it could have as many as five picks in the top 50. For now, the club has a competitive-balance round selection that will fall in the mid 30s and a compensation pick around the same time netted from Lorenzo Cain signing in Milwaukee. The other two top-50 selections would come if Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas sign elsewhere for more than $50 million. If they sign for less than $50 million, the club would still receive a comp pick, but it would come later in the early rounds.
In the years leading up to their two World Series appearances, the Royals too often missed on their first-round picks, a fact that has contributed to a somewhat barren farm system. The club appears to have righted the ship across the last two drafts, and intriguing young prospects such as first baseman Nick Pratto (first round, 2017) and outfielders Khalil Lee (third round, 2016) and Seuly Matias (signed out of the Dominican Republic) offer a nice triumvirate in the low minors. A successful draft in 2018 could speed up the rebuilding process even more.
5. Can Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon bounce back?
The Royals owe Gordon, their incumbent left fielder, $40 million across the next two seasons and a $4 million buyout in 2020. Kennedy, meanwhile, will make $49 million through 2020. Gordon has batted .214 with a ghastly .649 OPS the last two years. Kennedy posted a 5.38 ERA last season. One of the most obvious statements of this offseason: The Royals need better performance from both.