Baseball

It’s Time For the Royals to Strike in Free Agency…Cautiously

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Amidst the backdrop of a looming lockout by Major League Baseball owners against their own players, MLB has seen a free-agency frenzy unlike any seen in recent memory. Max Scherzer signed for $43 million per year. The Texas Rangers dropped half a billion dollars for a new middle infield (then $56 million more on a new ace). Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, and Eduardo Rodriguez each signed hefty five-year deals. The Mets picked up one-third of a new starting lineup. All of this occurred just since Thanksgiving.

Noticeably absent is a team that could be set to make a big step forward in 2022: the Kansas City Royals.

As of Monday evening, 45 players have inked new deals for 2022. The only one of those belonging to the Royals was a modest two-year extension for center fielder Michael A. Taylor, which was signed in the final weekend of the regular season.

At a time where many teams are in an arms race for 2022, the Royals are electing to stick to their guns with their in-house options. There is reason to believe that it may be enough, but there is no reason to believe that it should be enough.

It’s time for the Royals to act, but to do so in a responsible and sensible manner.

The Dangers of Making a Move Just to Make a Move

The free agent market is a tricky place to maneuver, especially when a team does not have a seemingly-unlimited budget to work with. The temptation to overpay in order to get your man is very real, and overpaying can hamstring a team for years to come.

There is also the case where a team decides to make a move not because they have a glaring need, but because they feel the need to do something, whether it be to boost morale, to give a jolt to the fanbase, or for a general manager to tell his owner that hey, we’re trying.

Following the 2015 World Series, the Royals were in a good place. The club had its starting lineup essentially set, and a decent amount of pitching coming back…but free agency was a disaster.

The Royals handed $70 million over five years to Ian Kennedy, then doled out a three-year, $24 million pact to set up a Joakim Soria reunion. Then came the big one: four years and $72 million to Alex Gordon, a deal that backfired from the moment it was signed.

In fairness to Dayton Moore, there were legitimate reasons for these deals: Gordon was a fan favorite coming off of five excellent seasons as one of the game’s top corner outfielders. The Royals had a hole in the rotation with Jeremy Guthrie gone and Jason Vargas on the shelf with Tommy John surgery, leading to Kennedy’s signing.

Soria came about because Greg Holland was on the shelf for the 2016 season (also due to Tommy John) and Ryan Madson walked. So again, there was some sense to these moves, but where Moore erred was that he elected to fill those holes with overpays.

Kennedy produced a fine 2016 (3.68 ERA and a team-best 4.2 WAR), but imploded after that, resulting in four mostly disappointing (and expensive years). Soria was alright in a set-up role for two years before being dealt, but he never was in the form seen earlier in his career. Gordon was of course an unmitigated disappointment. As a result, the Royals failed to even make the postseason in 2016, let alone defend their title, and plunged into a rebuild in 2018 still saddled with bad contracts.

Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but the Royals could have addressed the pitching needs with shorter, lower-risk deals, such as those signed by Rich Hill (1 year, $6 million), J.A. Happ (3 years, $36 million), John Lackey (2 years, $32 million), and a handful of others. Even in hindsight, there is no great obvious alternative answer to Gordon besides the trade market, an option which was probably unlikely given the state of the Royals farm system at that time. Regardless, though, the Royals could’ve had better results for a lot less years and money then what actually occurred.

Where the Royals Are Now

Obviously, the Royals are in a very different spot now than in 2015. However, in 2015 the Royals were fighting to keep the championship window from closing. In the meantime, the current-day Royals have a window that is coming open, though plugging a few holes could jar it open a little wider, a little faster.

On the pitching side, the Royals have a lot of intriguing young arms, but a lack of bullpen depth and a disappointing effort from most of the hurlers (young and old) leave much to be desired going into 2022 in that realm. A cheap flier like two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber (1 year, $8 million plus incentives to Tampa Bay) would’ve been a nice veteran pick-me-up. Signing one-time Royals draft pick Jon Gray (4 years, $56 million to Texas) would’ve been an intriguing and defensible move as well, as would’ve Anthony DeSclafani (3 years, $36 million to San Francisco).

Offensively, the Royals certainly have work to do. The DH spot was a disaster last season, while they also dealt with a major Hunter Dozier problem that isn’t going away soon. The arrival of Bobby Witt Jr. will probably shore up third base one way or another (whether it’s him or Adalberto Mondesi there), while MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto’s impending arrivals and the establishment of Kyle Isbel would likely help dramatically.

Realistically, the Royals may decide that they like the lineup pieces they have and roll with it as-is. If the Royals young talent pans out and no one else suffers an inexplicable drop-off, then the Royals could very well half one of the better lineups in the American League already in-house. But, that does not mean the Royals should not try to do better.

Targets That Might Make Sense

Even with the spending spree resulting in many high-end and mid-tier players finding homes for 2022 and beyond, there are still plenty of proven options out there.

Pitching wise, a Danny Duffy reunion should not be ruled out, provided he can prove that he is healthy again. Alex Wood owns a career 3.50 ERA and is only 31 years old, but with health concerns of his own. Zach Davies is only 28 and has a solid track record who could come cheap after a rocky 2021. If the Royals really want to get frisky, maybe they can try to convince Zack Greinke to finish his career where it began (doubtful, but we can dream) on a shorter deal.

In the bullpen, Scott Barlow and Josh Staumont were excellent, while Jake Brentz was very solid as well. After that, there are many question marks, but many solid options are out there. Nebraska native Jake Diekman spent much of 2019 in KC and could return to his home region. Andrew Chafin is an under-the-radar veteran arm who was lights-out in 2021. Brad Hand would be worth a flier at a couple million a year.

Bullpen arms are aplenty, and fortunately for the Royals, that means that they could realistically grab two or three on short deals at a bargain rate. With the question marks in the rotation, having as much help as they can get behind them would be beneficial.

Offensively, as I mentioned above, the Royals are in theory pretty well set, but again, that does not mean they should not be looking for options to get better.

One notable weak link in the lineup is in center field, where Michael A. Taylor was extended, but his offensive ceiling is that of a fourth outfielder. With only $9 million due over the next two seasons, though, his salary isn’t much higher than that of one either. Taylor slashed .244/.297/.356 in 2021 with a 76 OPS+ that was 24% below league average. All those figures were strikingly similar to his career figures with his saving grace being Gold Glove-level defense.

There are few good free agent options for everyday center fielders, unless the Royals want to pony up for 31-year-old Chris Taylor, who is expected to earn a three-or-four year deal. A more realistic option would be Joc Pederson, an established power bat who is still only 29, can handle all three outfield positions, and with his career .610 OPS against left-handers could be used in a platoon with Taylor.

The Royals could instead try to use Isbel in center field, or as a fourth outfielder and instead look to more plentiful options in the corners. 30-year-old Eddie Rosario enjoyed a tremendous postseason with Atlanta. He’s spent nearly his entire career in the AL Central, so the Royals are familiar with him. Tommy Pham will be 34 next year, but has power and a patient approach that could benefit an otherwise aggressive lineup.

A dark horse could be Michael Conforto, who’s only 28 and has posted solid MLB numbers before dipping this season. Similar to Pham, he combines power and patience, but at his age, he will be much pricier. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to get a one-year deal in the $20 million range, perhaps to see if he can bounce back and earn a much larger multi-year deal. They also list the Royals as a potential match. If Kansas City wants to pull the trigger, they should have the cash to do it.

Synopsis

In his two seasons as owner, John Sherman has shown that he’s willing to spend money, green-lighting smaller eight-figure deals for Mike Minor and Carlos Santana, taking on more payroll by trading for Andrew Benintendi, and signing Salvador Perez to a four-year, $82 million extension, the largest contract in Royals history.

Currently, the Royals 2022 payroll is estimated to land in the neighborhood of last year’s final total of $86 million. If the Royals elect to (and are able to) move Minor and/or Santana after disappointing campaigns, they could free up close to a quarter of that total.

Of course, a huge question is the effect of the impending (and likely) player lockout, which likely will begin on Thursday, December 2. Any lockout would completely freeze all player movement and will only be resolved with the ratification of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners. No one knows how long that will take or if the 2022 season will be affected by it.

Sherman faced a bad break in purchasing the Royals before the truncated 2020 season that took place in empty stadiums and couldn’t welcome full crowds to Kauffman Stadium until May 31 of this season. It’s hard to say how much more economic bad luck his bottom line can take, and that may depend on how the labor fight between the players and owners is resolved, and how quick it is resolved.

Should the fight be resolved with minimal interruption to business, it’s entirely possible that Sherman may approve a payroll hike into nine figures.

Regardless of what Sherman signs off on, though, the message to Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo should be clear: the time is right to get something done, so do it.


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