As the whirlwind final hours of baseball’s Winter Meetings ticked away Thursday, the Royals at last collected a piece to complement their roster. The team has found a replacement for designated hitter Billy Butler, as they are closing in on a two-year, $17 million contract for Kendrys Morales, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Morales, 31, is an affordable, enigmatic switch-hitter. He stumbled through a confounding season in 2014 and was one of the worst every-day hitters in baseball. The Royals are wagering Morales can return to his level of production from the previous two seasons. His deal also includes up to $750,000 in performance bonuses based on plate appearances.
General manager Dayton Moore declined to specifically address any impending signings, but as he departed the Manchester Grand Hyatt for a flight back to Kansas City, he reiterated his contention that the Royals made progress toward improving their club. The team still seeks a starting pitcher and a right fielder.
The pitcher will not be Ervin Santana. He was finalizing a four-year, $54 million deal with Minnesota, according to Yahoo Sports. Justin Masterson and Brandon McCarthy are also off the market, too.
The Royals have maintained discussions with outfielder Melky Cabrera, but their budget has constraints that could preclude a reunion there. The team could opt for less pricey players such as Nori Aoki, Colby Rasmus or Alex Rios, all of whom have been discussed this week, according to people familiar with the situation.
When Butler departed for Oakland for three years and $30 million, Royals officials floated the concept of using the designated hitter spot as a rest area for their fielders. The addition of Morales scotches that suggestion. His only other position is first base, which remains the home of Gold Glover Eric Hosmer.
Morales underwent a trying campaign in 2014. A qualifying offer from Seattle reduced the level of interest from other clubs in free agency last winter. Guided by agent Scott Boras, Morales opted to wait to sign until June, when team would no longer be forced to sacrifice a draft pick to acquire him.
Minnesota picked up Morales with the hopes he would boost their offense. He lasted six weeks there. Without the benefit of spring training, Morales saw his offensive output crater. A trade back to Seattle in July did little to aid his cause. He finished the season with eight homers and a .612 on-base plus slugging percentage in 98 games. His OPS ranked 201st among the 209 players with at least 400 plate appearances.
Yet the Royals believe this season was an anomaly. In 2012 and 2013, playing in inhospitable home parks in Anaheim and Seattle, Morales averaged 22 homers, 30 doubles and a .786 OPS. During those same two seasons, Butler also punched up 22 homers and 30 doubles with an .836 OPS.
Of course, Butler showed evidence of decline in 2014. The Royals considered it an easy decision to decline Butler’s $12.5 million option for next season. A foray into the free-agent market revealed to the front office both the dearth of available hitters and the excessive prices being sought.
Morales emerged as an MVP candidate for the Angels in 2009. In the midst of another succession season the next year, he snapped his tibia in a freak accident celebrating a walkoff home run. The injury sidelined him for all of 2011.
On Thursday he became the first acquisition made by the Royals here in San Diego. He was not the only one. The team also traded cash for hard-throwing right-hander Jandel Gustave, who Boston chose from Houston’s roster in the Rule 5 draft. Gustave, 22, struck out 82 batters in 79 innings but finished the season with a 5.01 ERA for Class A Quad Cities.
Thus Moore and his cohorts will not return home empty-handed. But the flurry of activity in their division was striking here. The White Sox garnered the headlines earlier in the week. With Adam LaRoche already on board, Chicago doled out $46 million for former Yankees closer David Robertson and built a package to acquire starter Jeff Samardzija. Cleveland nabbed All-Star first baseman Brandon Moss from Oakland.
As Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, the industry erupted with activity. The Dodgers demolished their roster and the Red Sox rebuilt their rotation. Detroit flipped starter Rick Porcello for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
The American League Central suddenly looms as one of baseball’s best. The Royals managed to keep up with the arrival of Morales. But their work is far from over.