Kansas City’s championship window is closing. The cash-strapped Royals set a franchise record with a $131.5 million payroll in 2016, but team owner David Glass instructed general manager Dayton Moore to scale back for 2017. The Royals aren’t in fire-sale mode, but shipping impending free-agent closer Wade Davis to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler, who is under club control through 2020, clearly was a cost-cutting move.
With the bulk of its two-time American League championship core — center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and shortstop Alcides Escobar — set for free agency next offseason, the edict to trim spending handcuffed Moore from making a free-agent splash like he did last offseason, when he signed Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy to the richest contracts in franchise history. Still, the Royals, who slipped back to .500 last season, hope for one final run before the expected dismantling.
Unfortunately, Kansas City also will be playing this season with a heavy heart, following the unexpected and tragic death of pitcher Yordano Ventura. The 25-year-old enigmatic fireballer was killed in a car crash on Jan. 22 in the Dominican Republic, his home country.
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The Royals ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.67 ERA from the starting rotation. Duffy, a 28-year-old lefthander, emerged as the club’s ace, finishing 12–3 with a 3.51 ERA in 26 starts after beginning 2016 as a reliever. He signed a five-year, $65 million contract extension in January and his continued development as a front-of-the-rotation star will be critical. Kennedy — who is entering the second season of a five-year, $70 million deal — also is locked into the rotation, along with veteran lefthander Jason Vargas. Kennedy pitched to expectations in a solid Kansas City debut, while Vargas has been limited to 12 games during the last two seasons after Tommy John surgery in August 2015. When healthy, he’s been solid for the Royals, going 16–12 with a 3.68 ERA as a 2014 free-agent signing. Vargas’ return fills Edinson Volquez’s hole in the rotation after he signed with the Marlins, but the bigger question is how the team replaces Ventura. A pair of former Cubs, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, were each signed to two-year deals prior to the start of spring training. Hammel won a career-high 15 games last season, but was left off of the World Series champions’ postseason roster and boasts a career ERA of 4.42 over 11 seasons. Wood will get a chance to start after serving as a bullpen jack-of-all-trades for Cubs manager Joe Maddon last season. Veteran righthander Chris Young and lefthander Matt Strahm, who posted a 1.23 ERA in 21 relief appearances after a late-July call-up, also will battle for those open rotation spots, with lefthander Mike Minor as a dark horse.
The Royals’ relief corps was the backbone of back-to-back pennants, but the glory days of HDH — when a relay from Kelvin Herrera to Davis to Greg Holland dominated the final three innings — are a fleeting memory. Holland sat out 2016 after Tommy John surgery, and Davis, who was set to make $10 million this season, was traded away. The Royals also cut ties with former No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar among other bullpen losses. Herrera — who owns a 182 ERA+ the last three seasons, including a 2.75 ERA with 86 strikeouts against 12 walks and 57 hits in 72 innings last season — is the new closer, a role he’s expected to flourish in after saving a career-high 12 games last season with Davis sidelined. Unless he wins a rotation spot, Strahm and veteran righthander Joakim Soria project as the club’s setup men. Soria — a 2016 free agent who signed a three-year, $25 million deal — was a disappointment in his return to Kansas City, going 5–8 with a 4.05 ERA.
For the second time in three seasons, Escobar started all 162 games at shortstop for the Royals in 2016. He set modest career highs with seven home runs and 55 RBIs last season, but he also had the fourth-lowest OPS among qualified batters (.642). The 30-year-old shortstop has slashed .259/.293/.335 the last two seasons, but he remains a solid defensive player at a premium position. Kansas City is hopeful Raul Mondesi can emerge as the everyday second baseman. He’s a slick-fielding speedster and the heir apparent at shortstop, but he’ll only find a regular spot if his bat comes around. If not, Whit Merrifield gets the nod at second base after a solid rookie season.
Moustakas and Hosmer served as linchpins for the Royals’ title-winning youth movement, but there’s no chance both will remain in Kansas City beyond next season. Moustakas hit well last season, including a career-best .500 slugging percentage, in 27 games before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee May 22 after a collision with Gordon. The Royals hope he can recapture the All-Star form he first flashed in 2015 when he slashed .284/.348/.470 with 34 doubles, 22 home runs and 82 RBIs. Hosmer, who isn’t an elite fielder despite a Gold Glove reputation, also regressed last season at the plate despite obliterating his career highs with 25 home runs and 104 RBIs.
The Royals’ outfield defense is stout with Gordon, Cain and Paulo Orlando from left to right field. Cain had emerged as a star in recent years, posting a 118 OPS+ with a .304/.351/.447 slash line in 2014-15. He averaged 47 extra-base hits and 28 steals during that span and also plays sparkling defense at a premium position. However, Cain missed time with hamstring and wrist injuries last season, which tamped down his production. Injuries also derailed Gordon the last two seasons, including lengthy absences due to groin and wrist injuries. The Royals need Gordon to revert to the player who slashed .281/.359/.450 from 2011-15 after he was a shockingly bad .220/.312/.380 last season. The newly acquired Soler could poach time in right field from Orlando, if first base coach Rusty Kuntz can work a miracle with Soler’s sub-par defense.
Behind the plate, the Royals have a four-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner in Salvador Perez, who added his first career Silver Slugger last season. Perez struck out far too much in 2016 and has slashed .256/.286/.421 the last three seasons, but he remains an elite catch-and-throw guy. Drew Butera is Perez’s backup.
Soler projects as the primary DH, but regulars with an injury history — think Perez, Moustakas, Gordon and Cain — could occasionally DH to save wear and tear without sacrificing lineup punch. Utility outfielder Jarrod Dyson was rumored to be on the offseason trade block. Cheslor Cuthbert can play anywhere on the infield except shortstop and proved valuable in extended action as Moustakas’ replacement. Veteran Brandon Moss also will get the opportunity to carve out a role, as his left-handed power (28 home runs in 413 AB with St. Louis last season) could be an asset off the bench or at DH.
Manager Ned Yost, who at 549–550 owns the franchise’s most managerial wins and losses, has shown a steady hand well suited for Moore’s roster, but his decision-making will be tested in 2017 with less certainty in the bullpen. Yost’s unflinching loyalty doesn’t play well with fans when it comes off as stubbornness, as was the case when Soria floundered last season. More flexibility might be required moving forward.
There’s a looming fire sale if Kansas City falls from contention with changes to the collective bargaining agreement that restrict compensation for players lost in free agency. Don’t expect Moore to be as aggressive as 2015 at the trade deadline with a depleted farm system. Health and player development will be keys to squeezing out a playoff push from a roster that’s already demonstrated its championship mettle, and one that also will be dedicating this season to the memory of a beloved teammate.