They met three days after the last out of their season, which is actually later than a year ago, but it would’ve been awkward not to at least wait for the parade.
The men trusted with constructing the Royals’ first World Series championship defense in 30 years met at Kauffman Stadium, in a conference room on the fifth floor. All the top scouts and executives gathered to sift through every trade and free-agent possibility of another offseason.
Not once did anyone reference what they had just accomplished, one of the great achievements in modern professional sports — a championship for a small-money franchise that not too long ago had been one of the worst in baseball.
The championship was last season, and it’s in the past, and now the focus is on doing it again. This is the cruel, tempestuous nature of the highest levels of competitive sports: Losing hurts so much more than winning lifts.
And now, as the Royals go knee deep into the offseason, they are being slapped with the undeniable truth that for all that championship did — rewrote a franchise’s sorry history, united a city, changed the way a generation thinks of baseball — it could not change baseball’s economics or the Royals’ place in the world.
Ben Zobrist signs with the Cubs, Alex Gordon is next in line for a contract that will secure his family for generations, and the Royals are likely to again be trying to do more with less.
A year after they sold more tickets at higher prices than ever before, not to mention another postseason of unbudgeted profits, the Royals should be able to fund another significant jump in payroll.
But it appears the Royals — and it’s worth mentioning here that the players’ association and independent reviewers have thought owner David Glass has generally spent responsibly since 2006 — will stick close to last season’s opening-day payroll of around $115 million.
That’s partly because they don’t see the right investments on the free-agent market and partly because they prioritize the financial flexibility to offer core players Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer contracts beyond 2017.
There is one more gravitational pull keeping the Royals from splashing big — hope.
Internally, there remains a desire to avoid large commitments until Gordon, their face of the franchise, signs. They should get an answer on that fairly soon, now that Jason Heyward has set the market with an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Cubs.
In the last two offseasons, the Royals have backed off negotiations with departing free agents James Shields and Ervin Santana based on initial contract demands, only to see both players settle for much less. Shields’ eventual four-year, $75 million contract with the Padres was still higher than the Royals would’ve likely been comfortable with — and he wanted to be in California anyway — but Santana signed with the Braves for one year and $14.1 million.
If a similar scenario happened with Gordon, and the Royals were unable to take advantage because of a midlevel commitment to a lesser player, they would curse themselves and receive justified criticism from the outside.
But they would need the price to drop for that to happen.
For years and years, the Royals’ front office has privately talked about how it would operate if and when they started winning. Their philosophy has always been to prioritize a sustainable product over a one-shot winner. They were comfortable enough with the prospects they gave up to make two major deadline trades last season but want to keep the long-term in focus even while in a window of winning with homegrown stars.
To that end, Gordon presents something of a litmus test. He is undoubtedly worth the largest contract in franchise history (five years and $55 million), but it will take more than that to keep him in Kansas City. He turns 32 in February, and some scouts worry about how his body will hold up. He dealt with two different injuries last year — a wrist in the spring, and a groin in the summer — and has shown diminishing speed and quickness.
Gordon is a terrific player, in most ways the personification of what the Royals want their personality to be, and provides real value beyond his production. But he already signed one long-term contract extension, gave them what figure to be the best years of his career, and for a team whose astonishingly rotten television contract is still four years from expiration, it makes more sense to allocate limited funds to younger players who haven’t received that first big payday yet.
Gordon wanted to enter free-agency, and there is no tangible reason to believe his price will drop into the Royals’ comfort zone. But the Royals do want to wait to find out. They believe that supply and demand is on their side, and will reward patience, if not with Gordon than with others. It worked last year with Ryan Madson and Chris Young.
No matter what happens with Gordon, the Royals remain in very good position — and not just because of the championship rings that are being designed.
Even with Zobrist gone, and Gordon likely gone, the Royals return six of their nine starting position players and eight of the 11 pitchers who appeared in the World Series. Madson is replaced by Joakim Soria, and the Royals are searching for a starting pitcher to replace Johnny Cueto.
Internally, the Royals think Escobar, Hosmer, and Salvador Perez can have better offensive years in 2016, that Moustakas and Cain are in the peaks of their careers and hope that Omar Infante can be better with sustained health.
This is the Royals’ place in the baseball world, even as world champions. It’s not perfect, and it can be frustrating that after conquering the sport, the top tiers of free-agent talent remain over budget.
But, all things considered, it’s a pretty good starting point for a team that was the best in baseball last season.