On Monday afternoon, the separation became official. James Shields rejected a one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer from the Royals and entered the open waters of free agency. His former club has concentrated the early portion of their winter toward finding his replacement.
“We’ve got to do this thing with starting pitching,” general manager Dayton Moore said on the first day of the GM Meetings. “Quality starting pitching, it puts the game in a rhythm and it provides you stability. That’s the way we need to do it.”
The club has cast a wide net, but one of their top targets revived his career in Kansas City just a year ago. The Royals were expected to meet with the representative for free-agent starter Ervin Santana this week at the Arizona Biltmore, according to people familiar with the situation. They also have interest in a collection of middle-tier pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson.
Even with their eyes peeled for pitching, the lineup still features a pair of holes at designated hitter and in right field. Both Billy Butler and Nori Aoki are free agents. To fill part of that void, a stalwart of the American League Central resides at the top of Kansas City’s list.
The Royals have expressed interest in 39-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter, according to people familiar with the situation. The club considers Hunter both a potential offensive upgrade over Aoki and a positive influence on their still-youthful clubhouse.
Moore declined to directly discuss the team’s interest in any specific player. “It does not help or benefit the Kansas City Royals for me to announce what we’re going to do,” he said.
But they do appear to be busy. Hunter may fit Kansas City better than the other options on the market. The Royals are expected to stay in touch with both Aoki and with former Royal Melky Cabrera. But Cabrera likely seeks riches outside the team’s range, especially given their zeal for finding another starting pitcher.
As Moore has said on repeated occasions, the club does not possess an unlimited budget. Their payroll could surpass $100 million next season for the first time, but a good chunk of the money is earmarked for players already on the roster who will earn raises through arbitration.
Moore expects the team’s offensive upgrades next season to come from within. The Royals harbor hope Eric Hosmer can put together a full season to mirror his postseason production. The same can be said for Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. The team also seeks added days of rest for Salvador Perez. His bat disappeared in the second half.
“I think you’ve got to continue to remake some areas,” Moore said. “You want to deal from strengths, but it’s important that you maintain those strengths as well. The strength of our team has been our bullpen. It’s been our defense and our athleticism. And, our potential.”
One solution for the Perez situation? Finding a more flexible rotation as designated hitter, and allowing him to rest there once or twice a week. The Royals must weigh that desire with their interest in re-signing Billy Butler. The club does not want to offer Butler a deal longer than two seasons, according to people familiar with the situation.
With American League clubs like Oakland, Seattle and Texas all said to be in the market for right-handed hitters, Butler may receive more interest than initially expected. He is coming off his worst offensive season in the majors. The Royals declined his $12.5 million option for 2014.
Hunter just completed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Tigers. He still may make the most fiscal sense, in addition to his value on the field. He posted a .783 on-base plus slugging percentage during the past two seasons in Detroit. His production dipped slightly in 2014, but Hunter still hit 17 homers. Alex Gordon led the Royals with 19.
For Hunter, any deal longer than two seasons looks unlikely. So the Royals would not be required to make a lengthy commitment to him. The situation may be slightly different with Aoki, who is looking to cash in after a strong finish in Kansas City.
Aoki was a disappointment during his first few months with the Royals. He struggled against right-handers and managed a mere .650 OPS in the first half. A sterling September, complete with a .432 on-base percentage, rescued his final numbers. He is seeking a three-year contract, according to CBS Sports.
Moore stressed that little has actually been decided on the construction of next year’s club. The team is still gathering information on the desires of potential free agents and the interest of potential trading partners.
“We’re in the early stages of stuff,” Moore said. “I don’t anticipate us jumping out real quick unless something makes perfect sense.” He added, “We’ve reached out to a lot of people. We’ll see what happens.”