Sam Mellinger

Alex Rios a fine consolation prize, but Royals’ chances still hinge on core players

Alex Rios would give the Royals a right-handed power bat in right field.
Alex Rios would give the Royals a right-handed power bat in right field. The Associated Press

Alex Rios is headed here to play right field, and like a lot of things in life, this is about money.

Specifically for the Royals, completing a deal with Rios is about filling a need with a player on a one-year contract who won’t kill the payroll. This is an $11 million consolation prize.

The Royals have always liked Rios. They tried to trade for him this past season, but needed to clear Billy Butler’s salary off the books and couldn’t find any takers.

Such is the fast changing world of baseball, where Butler is now with Oakland on a three-year, $30 million contract that would probably not exist if not for a misread of the market that led the Royals to decline a $12.5 million option for next season.

The Royals already filled Butler’s DH spot with Kendrys Morales, who is basically a slightly cheaper, slightly more powerful, and slightly older switch-hitting version of Butler.

The road to Rios, then, is winding, and with many layers. It leads the Royals to a one-year, $11 million contract with a player who has to be seen as a consolation prize — a talented, right-handed right fielder who fills a need but is also soon to turn 34 and hit all of four homers last year playing in one of the game’s great home run parks in Texas.

This is not how the Royals envisioned their offseason going, in other words, but it is a good fit for both sides in the way that two people turned down at the dance might find it in their best interests to end up with each other.

Rios knows that his days of enormous contracts — he once signed a $69.8 million deal with Toronto — are over. He is a useful player, but no longer a star or full of potential, and those are the kinds of players who must take what they can get.

For the Royals, the idea of plugging a hole with a one-year contract on a veteran with whom they can be relatively comfortable is an attractive back-up plan to the Plan-A pursuits of Melky Cabrera and Torii Hunter.

Rios’ contract brings the Royals’ payroll to around $98 million. That’s already a rise over the $90 million or so spent in 2014, and there are indications the Royals could go to $105 million or perhaps $110 million depending on the player. At this point, the only glaring need is a starting pitcher to replace James Shields, a free agent who is all but certain to sign somewhere else.

The Royals pursued bigger names than Rios. Not just Cabrera, who signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the White Sox. The Royals were also among the first teams to meet with Yasmany Tomas, the Cuban slugger who signed a six-year, $68.5 million contract with Diamondbacks, and were heavily interested in starting pitcher Ervin Santana, who signed a four-year, $55 million contract with a vesting option with the Twins.

The Royals ultimately backed out or lost the negotiations for each of those players, the price going out of their comfort zone.

The immediate fan reaction will be to call owner David Glass cheap, but if the Royals end up boosting payroll by 15 percent or so the truth is a bit more complicated.

Barring a payroll hike of 25 percent or so, the Royals are in many ways limited by the need to keep their own players in Kansas City. They have a lot of bills coming due.

Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Luke Hochevar and Morales will make around $8.5 million more in 2016 than 2015. That doesn’t include significant raises in arbitration for Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Kelvin Herrera — all together, that’s at least $20 million or so in raises.

That makes long-term and big-money deals with free agents such as Santana or Cabrera more complicated, particularly if those players are hesitant to backload contracts.

The Royals are, then, still — even after making it all the way to game seven of the World Series, and even bumping payroll by 15 percent or so — running against the wind a bit.

It is the place of small-money teams — and even with a boost in attendance at higher ticket prices, the Royals will be in the bottom third in revenue — to find their place in the margins.

That means the Royals are hurt more than most teams by bad contracts, like the three years and $25.25 million still owed to Omar Infante. They are also helped more than most teams by good contracts, like having Salvador Perez locked up through 2019 for $18.5 million. This is the Royals’ place, and everyone understands that.

Their payroll ranked 19th in baseball last year and, though predicting these things is foolish, should be there or higher with a $105 million payroll next year.

The offseason is closer to complete now. They will have a talented consolation prize playing right field next year, and, probably, will sign another talented consolation prize for the starting rotation.

They will play next season with so many changes. A flag will fly above the Hall of Fame building in left field, the constant and visible reminder that they are the American League champions. Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas will play with the confidence of being postseason stars. Morales will be the new DH, Rios the new right fielder, and chances are a free agent will be a new piece in the starting rotation. They will have, by a wide margin, the largest payroll in franchise history.

But this offseason will almost certainly end without a top-tier free-agent coming to Kansas City. That will be partly to blame on the Royals’ misreading of market tendencies, and the rising costs of their own homegrown stars.

Their chances as the defending pennant winner, then, will depend on the success and failure of the guys they already have. A few new pieces should help, but ultimately this will be about Hosmer and Duffy and Gordon and Cain.

Not much different than other years, then.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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