On Monday afternoon, in the hours before another baseball game, Royals general manager Dayton Moore and his top lieutenants convened in an office on the fifth floor of Kauffman Stadium.
The non-waiver trade deadline loomed in seven days. The Royals sat at 48-49, six games out of the second American League wild card spot. The club’s braintrust sought to evaluate the landscape and sort through contingency plans, charting a course for the rest of the season.
By late Monday night, the future remained murky. As the calendar pushes toward August, and the deadline approaches, the Royals find themselves in a state of limbo, at once trying to improve their current team while listening to offers for a group of pending free agents. As Moore sat inside a Kauffman Stadium dugout on Monday afternoon, he made one thing clear: The Royals must be ready for any scenario, whether it’s buying, selling, or some combination of the two.
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“We got to be prepared,” Moore said. “It’s not different than 2014 or 2015; if somebody comes and wants a certain player off your major-league team, there’s a certain acquisition cost for that in our minds.
“We have to evaluate that and we also have to evaluate opportunities to get better.”
In a nearly 10-minute interview with reporters on Monday afternoon, Moore discussed the state of his team and its modus operandi before next week’s deadline. Reluctant to wave a white flag, he referenced other teams that have made second-half runs, including the 2014 Royals. In a nod to reality, he pointed to his club’s continual health issues and the possibility of selling.
“We’ll evaluate what a team is potentially offering,” Moore said. “We’re not going to just dismember our team because players are free agents.”
As Monday began, the Royals sat eight games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians and six games out of a playoff spot. There were nine teams in the American League with winning records. The Royals were not among them. In addition to its place in the standings, Kansas City faced other hurdles. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain remains on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is out for the season. Left fielder Alex Gordon was batting .204. And the club is still searching for a permanent fifth starter.
“I know we haven’t played our best baseball to date,” Moore said. “We’re capable of doing much better, and our players know that, our coaching staff knows that, our fans know that.
“We haven’t been as healthy as we’ve been in the past. That’s certainly a factor as you evaluate how you match up with other teams in the division. But we’re constantly evaluating the landscape — what players are out there, and what we can do to continue to improve our team.”
As the trade deadline approaches, the Royals have three valuable assets in right-hander Edinson Volquez, designated hitter/first baseman Kendrys Morales and reliever Luke Hochevar. All three players have mutual options after this season, meaning all three players likely will become free agents. In the next six days, all three could hear their names bandied about in trade rumors.
In addition to those three players, the Royals have reportedly listened to offers on closer Wade Davis, who is under club control through next season with a team option of $10 million. Yet the prospect of a Davis deal appears remote.
On early Monday afternoon, the Chicago Cubs made one of the first blockbuster moves of the month, acquiring closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees. In exchange for Chapman, the Cubs sent a four-player package to New York, including top shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres.
If the Royals were to consider trading Davis, the asking price could be even higher.
Earlier this month, the Washington Nationals were among teams that expressed interest in the All-Star closer. According to a report by Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, the Royals considered right-handed pitcher Lucas Giolito, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, as a starting point for a Davis deal.
On Monday, Moore would not discuss any specific players. But he made clear that the Royals would listen to offers for any player on their roster.
“I wouldn’t categorize any player as untouchable — never have,” Moore said. “We’ll always evaluate somebody’s level of interest and what their level of interest may mean to the improvement of our team, in terms of players that they would be willing to part with. That’s what you do. That’s what we continually do, especially this time of year.
“Whether we make a move or not, we are evaluating the landscape as I said, which is potentially putting us in a better position this offseason.”
Two years ago, the Royals stood at a similar crossroads at the trade deadline, treading water near .500. Moore elected to stand pat, declining to sell off starting pitcher James Shields, and the team surged back into contention before advancing all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Moore sees parallels in the situations, yet he also drew a key distinction. The competition in the American League Central — namely the Cleveland Indians — may be a tick better.
“The teams are constructed much different within our division,” Moore said. “You have to evaluate that and look at how you compare. But we just got to keep it in perspective. There’s a lot of baseball left. There’s been many a baseball team that has entered September several games out and ended up making the playoffs.”
As Royals officials evaluate the landscape and mull decisions, two other factors could come into play. Moore believes the Royals’ championship window extends through at least next season, meaning any deal — whether buying or selling — likely will be viewed through that prism. In addition, the Royals entered the 2016 season with a club-record $137.3 million payroll, leaving little wiggle room to add more dollars.
“I think right now financially, we are where we are,” Moore said. “There’s not much flexibility to add payroll. Nor did we expect that.”
Moments later, Moore added a caveat: If club officials felt they could acquire a player that would “make the absolute difference for this baseball team”, owner David Glass would likely sign off.
But as Moore sat inside a dugout, looking out toward the infield at Kauffman Stadium, that possibility also appeared unlikely. The Royals sat one game under .500 entering a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels. The trade deadline was seven days away. And their minor-league system remains considerably thinner after deadline deals for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in 2015.
One year later, Moore has a World Series ring stashed away and there is a championship flag flying above Kauffman Stadium. But as another deadline approaches, the Royals face a week of long meetings and hard decisions.
Inside a baseball front office, nobody wants to give up while in the midst of a title defense. But in the next week, the Royals may be forced to consider doing just that.
“The team that wins the World Series in 2016 is going to have flaws,” Moore said. “There’s no perfect team out there, there’s no perfect roster. Certainly, all of our players are capable of doing better.
“What you need is four or five of your guys to get hot at one time and the pitching and the defense and the situational hitting — [you need] all of those important statistics to line up at once and that’s how you get on a roll. And we’ve yet to have that occur. We’re hoping that will happen.”