The internal mandate is ambitious, but professional sports is no place for the shy, so here it comes: The Royals will be better on opening day 2015 than on the first day of the 2014 season, which ended with them in the World Series.
That’s the directive of the front office, and there are a few points of context that make this a wishful goal. Most obviously, someone other than James Shields will start opening day next season, and someone other than Billy Butler will be the designated hitter.
That’s a lot to lose and still improve. The Better Than 2014 mandate isn’t just about replacing Shields and Butler — the internal math will include the belief that players like Eric Hosmer will be better than their year-ago selves — but that will be the biggest part.
This is one more critical point in a dramatic franchise rise, and now more than perhaps any other time since Dayton Moore arrived in 2006, the Royals are looking for certainty.
In large part, that is pushing them to some familiar faces to chase the Better Than 2014 goal.
Namely, they are turning to Ervin Santana to replace Shields, and a group of outfielders that includes Melky Cabrera.
The Royals traded the baseball equivalent of a ham sandwich for Santana two offseasons ago, and were rewarded with 211 innings of 3.24 ERA across 32 starts in 2013. Along with money, the biggest reason they let him walk was a question about how long his elbow would stay intact.
But after pitching 196 more innings for Atlanta last year, there is a feeling that Santana has adapted and that his medical risk — relative to any man who makes his living throwing fastballs and sliders — was overblown.
Big-money free-agent contracts to starting pitchers in their 30s are almost always terrible ideas. But there is a mutual attraction between the Royals and Santana, one borne mostly from their year together.
The Royals remember a good-natured, well-liked, competitive teammate. Santana remembers a big ballpark and terrific outfield defense that made his numbers look better.
He is, in other words, exactly the kind of player for whom the Royals’ risk would be diminished. Advanced metrics that attempt to eliminate the “noise” of luck and defense indicate Santana actually pitched better for the Braves in 2014 than he did for the Royals in 2013, even though the more traditional measurement of ERA was worse.
Santana, then, would seem to represent the lowest risk for the Royals. Better than the alternatives, at least, like Francisco Liriano (poor control, and unreliable), Brandon McCarthy (long injury history) and Brett Anderson (more injury history).
The other major hole to fill is in right field. The Royals seem to view Nori Aoki — who began the season terribly but finished strong — as a fallback option. They’d like to add power, most significantly, and do it with a right-handed bat if possible.
Internally, the Royals have long had something like a crush on Torii Hunter, the permanently smiling free-agent outfielder. They came close to signing him as a free agent seven years ago and lost out on him again Tuesday night when he agreed to a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Twins.
Melky Cabrera is another familiar face and he is still available. Cabrera hit 44 doubles and 18 home runs for the Royals in 2011. He doesn’t have the personality or charisma of someone like Hunter (or Shields), but he was a well-liked teammate, particularly among other Latin Americans.
Cabrera served a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2012, and a year later had a benign tumor removed from his back. The Royals could point out that Cabrera is far from the only man in baseball to turn to PEDs, and that he’s paid consequences financially and with his reputation already.
They could also point to a solid 2014 season — he hit .301 with a .351 on-base and .458 slugging percentages — through what were assuredly repeated drug tests. Cabrera is only 30 years old, a switch hitter, and better defensively than either Hunter or Aoki.
There are other players the Royals will and are looking into. Alex Rios, for whom they tried to trade for in July, is an athletic right-handed power hitter who would probably be good for 40 doubles in Kauffman Stadium. Colby Rasmus is an interesting possibility the Royals have quietly considered. The club has always liked Nick Markakis — he fits what the Royals are about on several levels — but he reportedly agreed to a four-year deal with Atlanta on Wednesday night.
But the common thread in all of the Royals’ top targets — Santana, Cabrera and Rios — is a level of comfort that the club would be buying something reliable in relative baseball terms.
The Royals need money to make this happen, of course. All of these players are likely to earn eight-figure salaries, though Rios and perhaps Rasmus could be available on one- or two-year contracts.
And here we get to a point that hasn’t been talked about much. The Royals, for the first time in recent memory, are knee-deep in an offseason with very little indication of how high they can stretch their payroll.
In past years, there has typically been at least a known range. This year, not even an indirect leak.
Last year, the Royals were in the bottom four in revenue and 19th in major-league payroll at $92 million.
As long as David Glass continues to put a representative amount of money into the team — and the Royals netted an unplanned eight-figure profit from the playoffs, plus what should be increased attendance with increased ticket prices next year — the balance in free-agent signings should be more about the talent than the money.
Anything less than a $100 million payroll in 2015 will get Glass and the Royals fairly crushed. Something closer to $110 million is reasonable. The bill for arbitration raises for a big part of the Royals’ core is coming this offseason, so the payroll will have to increase just to maintain the status quo.
The Royals will always be the kind of franchise that can’t afford stars like Shields when they hit free-agency. But after pushing to the World Series, they have to be the kind of team that fills holes with proven commodities even when the price is a little out of their comfort zone.
That, as much as anything, is what this offseason is about for the Royals. Things have been quiet. Very quiet. But they’re about to heat up, perhaps even in the next few days.
We will soon see — in clear, literal terms — how much the goal of being better for 2015 than 2014 is worth.