The group of friends who forever changed baseball in Kansas City has one more season together. We all understand that. The Royals’ front office, the coaches, the players, fans, media. All of us.
What hasn’t been as clear is that the success or failure of next season will largely depend on a talk between two men who wear dress shoes to games.
Earlier this month, general manager Dayton Moore put concern in the minds of many fans when he said the team’s payroll will likely “regress a bit” from a franchise record that approached $140 million in 2016. As is always the case when Moore talks about payroll, he was merely passing along directives from his boss.
But this week, in a conversation with The Star, owner David Glass said there are no set limits.
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“In the final analysis, I would make the decision,” Glass said. “But (Moore) is also a very persuasive kid.”
Those discussions will be held soon.
“Our job as a baseball operations department is to come up with the right plan that motivates Mr. Glass to support our efforts,” Moore said. “That’s our responsibility, and that’s what we’ll continue to try to do.”
The free-agent market will include some relievers, lots of bats, and virtually no starting pitchers. Moore’s plan is likely to focus Glass’ apparent openness to increasing the payroll, and this is worth noting. But so is the fact that Moore’s statement contradicts what officials have believed to be the mandate from ownership.
The disappointing encore to the Royals’ 2015 world championship ended with a .500 record. Glass said the final numbers aren’t in yet, but two club sources indicated the franchise lost $10 million or more in 2016.
“I don’t know where we’ll wind up,” Glass said of the 2017 payroll. “You mentioned in a recent article that what we talk about early in the offseason may not wind up being what we actually do. And what we actually do depends on what opportunities we have, and none of us, including our general manager, know right now what we can do.”
In the two weeks since the season’s final out, concern has grown and spread throughout Royals baseball operations that ownership would demand a cut in payroll.
Even without bringing back free agents Edinson Volquez or Kendrys Morales, keeping the current group together without restructuring contracts would likely mean a 2017 payroll of around $150 million. Playing next season with a smaller payroll than last season would likely mean trading someone like Wade Davis.
The payroll reduction talk is something of an annual dance with the Royals and teams throughout baseball. There is no upside in owners announcing plans for major salary increases, and every Royals season in recent memory has begun with a higher payroll than the first projection. But the feeling around the franchise has been different than in years past.
This was the first time since 2009 that the Royals’ win total went down. The disappointing season meant attendance came in lower than expected, and combined with a lack of playoff revenue, an owner who for the last decade has wanted to break even on yearly operating costs took a significant loss.
Whether Glass and his son Dan, the club president, have intended it this way, they’ve left many in baseball operations with the impression that one missed postseason would mean parts of the team’s core would need to be moved — that a year after winning the World Series, the Royals would need to get younger and less expensive.
That still may be the case, but if Glass is open to being persuaded by Moore, there could be a more palpable solution.
The difference here is crucial. Because if the payroll constraints are as much as some fear, then it probably means trading an important piece or two for the future — someone like Davis, Lorenzo Cain or Ian Kennedy.
But if Glass is genuinely open to persuasion — if this offseason is more like the past — then the Royals can manage their 2017 payroll with creativity.
One possibility would involve Danny Duffy, the homegrown and breakout star pitcher. Duffy is scheduled for free agency after next season, and the Royals have always planned on discussing an extension this winter. He is likely in line to make around $9 million through arbitration in 2017, but a long-term deal could be structured to pay him $5 million or so next year. Something similar could be done with Kelvin Herrera.
The context would be entirely different if Glass and the Royals had not signed what has long been considered one of the worst television contracts in baseball, if not major professional sports.
The team has three more seasons on a deal that is paying around $20 million per year, which is less than half the going rate. If the contract was merely bad, instead of horrendous, there would likely be no talk of a payroll reduction and we’d instead be wondering if the Royals could add a player through free agency.
The Royals haven’t begun renegotiation with Fox Sports, their current TV partner. If they follow the typical timeline, that would happen next year. The team has backloaded its long-term contracts with players, but Glass said the promise of more TV revenue in the future does not guide his decisions about the present.
So at least for now, the flexibility and perhaps success of the 2017 Royals will depend on Moore’s ability to talk his boss into once more spending beyond his initial comfort.
The good news: those two have as close of a relationship as any owner and general manager in baseball. Glass was previously dismissed as miserly and disengaged, but with Moore’s guidance Glass has spent record dollars on amateur talent, and taken the 25-man opening-day payroll on a steady climb from $38 million in 2011 to nearly $140 million in 2016.
Moore hasn’t always been right (Omar Infante), and he hasn’t always won the argument (Glass wouldn’t increase payroll for the 2015 trade-deadline deals, so the Royals had to give up more in prospects). But his savvy and Glass’ support have helped create a parade.
This could be Moore’s greatest challenge yet. Glass has the only vote that counts, and there is worry from the front office on down about what that might mean for next year’s team.
A year ago this month, Moore was presiding over the biggest accomplishment of his professional life. Now, his task is to protect as much of what’s left as possible.