Sam Mellinger

Home from the honeymoon, Royals are slow-playing their way around their familiar issues

The lasting memory for Royals fans may be watching Alex Gordon and his family in the team’s World Series victory parade.
The lasting memory for Royals fans may be watching Alex Gordon and his family in the team’s World Series victory parade. kmyers@kcstar.com

The honeymoon is bliss. The stress of the wedding is over, and there is nothing but laughter and attraction and possibility. You and the person you’ve chosen to be with the rest of your life are on some beach somewhere, staying up late, sleeping in late, breakfast in bed or maybe on the beach.

Catch the right — wrong? — person and you might hear the honeymoon is the best reason to get married in the first place. Because after the honeymoon, you go back to your life, your job, your commute, your alarm clock, your bills and, well, your issues.

Championship parades are great. The stress of the season is over, and there is nothing but confetti and cheers and accomplishment. You and the fans who’ve been with you are at Union Station, loving each other, the happiest day in so many lives.

You see where this analogy is going. Because after the parade, the Royals have gone back to their lives, their budgets, their limitations, and their place as one of the small-money teams in an increasingly big-money sport — back to their issues.

This is a weird thing for Royals fans. Their team just won the World Series. Many of them are wrapping championship sweatshirts or hats or posters for gifts and hoping to open the same. This is, by definition, the best it will ever be.

But it’s also true that the world moves fast, particularly the sports world, and that one of the cruel truths of being an athlete or fan is that the anguish of losing lasts a lot longer than the thrill of winning.

And so it is that the Royals are the world champions but now face the same difficult challenges as when they were still losing.

Outfielder Jonny Gomes wasn't on the Royals' postseason roster, but he delivered the most memorable speech at the team's rally at Union Station following their downtown parade Tuesday in Kansas City.

Around town, as conversation starters, “Did you go to the parade?” has been replaced with, “You think we can keep Alex Gordon?”

The answer is the same as it’s always been (probably not), and now that the offseason has included the Tigers signing Jordan Zimmermann and the White Sox trading for Todd Frazier, some fans are concerned about how the Royals are following up their championship.

The truth is the Royals deserve patience and the benefit of the doubt here, and not just because of their success the last two years.

Gordon, if we’re being honest, is not a good long-term investment for the Royals. If it will take five years and an average salary approaching $20 million to get it done, the Royals will make the difficult but prudent decision to let the defining player of their rise go.

All other things equal, it’s probably best for both sides if Gordon gets the kind of offer the Royals are incapable of matching. Sentimentality never won a championship.

After years of heavy escalation in payrolls, the Royals’ projected break-even point may be flattening. Using 2011 as the starting point, the Royals’ opening-day payroll has jumped by roughly $26 million, $18 million, $10 million and $11 million the last four years.

It’s worth mentioning that opening-day payrolls and year-end payrolls are almost always very different, and that the Royals’ year-end payroll in 2015 was likely $125 million or more with performance bonuses and other additional costs.

The Royals almost certainly have the flexibility to begin the season with a payroll of $120 million or more, but even after another playoff run and record attendance they remain a team that requires efficient spending. Anything less than that after a championship will be a tough sell on fans, but every serious examination of the team’s financials has found appropriate spending for nearly 10 years now.

No matter what, they will enter their title defense in a relatively strong position. Six of the spots in the regular batting order return, and of those six only Kendrys Morales will be older than 29 on opening day. Particularly if you consider last year’s uncertainty of Greg Holland’s elbow, Chris Young’s durability, and Ryan Madson’s ability, the pitching staff will be better.

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The Royals have two obvious spots where they can improve — a corner outfielder and a starting pitcher.

It is generally easier to add offense as the season goes on. There are more hitters than starting pitchers, and internally the Royals have more hitting prospects who could be ready in 2016 than pitchers. Adding a starting pitcher would allow the Royals to move Danny Duffy to the bullpen, and in the unlikely event they find themselves with a surplus (Jason Vargas is due back from elbow surgery sometime over the summer), you can always make a trade.

They have been somewhat discouraged by the rising costs and opening demands for free agents, and they seem to be responding with patience. General manager Dayton Moore has compared the offseason to a game of musical chairs, and there are some around the sport who believe there are more players than chairs.

If that’s the way it turns out, the Royals will be in position to improve their team and minimize their payroll hike. That’s largely the philosophy they used to build their success.

Beyond re-signing Young and (sort of re-)signing Joakim Soria, much of the Royals’ action this offseason has been on lower-profile moves like signing pitchers Dillon Gee and John Lannan to minor-league contracts.

If there is a big move on the way, it is likely to be later in the offseason, if the laws of supply and demand work in the Royals’ favor.

Because winning the World Series forever changed the Royals’ history, but it has not changed their place in the pecking order of a big-money business.

They are good enough to be among the favorites for next year’s championship. But if they’re going to earn another parade, they’ll have to do it the same way they did the first — with patience, prudence and the production of the players already here.

George Brett, a Hall of Fame third baseman and a member of the Royals' last World Series championship team, explained what he was feeling as the 2015 Royals claimed the title with a 7-2 win in 12 innings over the New York Mets early Monday morning

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