Merrifield contract signals that payroll flexibility will be critical for Royals’ future

Royals GM Dayton Moore looking to build a balanced team for Kauffman Stadium

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore expects the team to win in multiple ways, not just with power. The team Moore envisions for Kauffman Stadium will also have speed and the ability to get on base.
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Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore expects the team to win in multiple ways, not just with power. The team Moore envisions for Kauffman Stadium will also have speed and the ability to get on base.

Flexibility will remain the biggest asset for the Royals as they try to figure out which pieces of their current roster will be part of the puzzle for the coming years and how to make that it all fit together financially.

That’s clearly the biggest takeaway from this week’s transactions as spring training report dates continue to creep closer.

The day after having signed infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield to a four-year contract (with a club option for a fifth) that bought out his arbitration-eligible years, the Royals announced they’d agreed to terms with 12 pre-arbitration eligible players.

Merrifield’s deal and the status of the young players on the Royals roster are certainly intertwined. Merrifield’s new contract means just nine players on the 40-man roster will make $1 million or more in base salary this coming season. The rest of the contracts will hover around the league minimum of $555,000 (pitchers Brian Flynn and Jesse Hahn will each make $800,000).

“It just makes sense for a lot of reasons,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Merrifield’s deal on Monday. “One, he gets security and we get cost certainty. As I’ve said before, I think it’s important for our environment to take care of players like Whit at this stage of their career because he’s earned it.”

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The “cost certainty” proves critical for a team like the Royals, who rely on their player development system to produce major-league options that will remain under club control for multiple years.

The pre-arbitration eligible players who reached agreements were third baseman/first baseman Hunter Dozier, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn and catcher Meibrys Viloria as well as pitchers Scott Barlow, Scott Blewett, Chris Ellis, Arnaldo Hernandez, Brad Keller, Kevin McCarthy, Sam McWilliams, Jake Newberry and Eric Skoglund. The Royals acquired Ellis and McWilliams via the Rule 5 Draft in December.

The Royals must make decisions and evaluations on each of them going forward, and those decisions will then affect free-agency decisions as they attempt to build toward becoming a contending team.

Meanwhile, the Royals must also navigate around veterans with big contracts such as Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon (slated to make $20 million in base salary in 2019), pitchers Ian Kennedy ($16.5 million) and Danny Duffy ($15.25 million) as well as Gold Glove catcher Salvador Perez ($10 million).

“We’re still trying to do some things with the bullpen, but we don’t have a lot of flexibility financially,” Moore said on Monday when asked about possibly making more additions. The Royals start spring training workouts in Surprise, Ariz. in two weeks.

The team’s financial obligations begin to loosen in coming seasons and they can become less top-heavy.

Gordon’s $23 million option for 2020 can be bought out for $4 million. That will leave the Royals with just Duffy ($15.5 million), Perez ($13 million) and Merrifield ($6.75 million) on current contracts going into 2021 and only Merrifield’s deal extending into 2022.

Merrifield’s contract pays him more during the first three years of his deal and drops to $2.75 million in 2022, which will potentially give the Royals even more options.

“I felt like with us moving forward, while (the contract) was beneficial to me, it would also help Kansas City as far as flexibility with money forward to spend on other needs,” Merrifield said on Monday “So, I felt like it was good for both sides.”

Going into 2022, the Royals could still have shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Brett Philips, catcher Cameron Gallagher, Dozier and pitchers Jake Junis, Ben Lively, Jorge Lopez, Kevin McCarthy, Eric Skoglund and Kyle Zimmer all under team control and 30 years old or younger.

All will have been into their arbitration-eligible years and potentially in line for larger salaries, but the Royals will also have been able to free up payroll by that point.

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.