On the day after the season, Royals general manager Dayton Moore boarded a flight for Arizona. The itinerary for the week consisted of internal meetings, phone calls and some baseball in the form of the fall instructional league. When you don’t make the playoffs, as his team did not for a second straight season, this is what October looks like.
This is how Moore began his club’s most pivotal offseason since the last one, a winter that could define the future of baseball in Kansas City, a stretch that could chart a course for the next five to 10 years. The only certainty is uncertainty, Moore says, and for once this sounds less like a cliche about baseball’s offseason and more like reality.
In less than a month, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas will officially become free agents. The club will embark on its latest rebuilding process. The only question: The size and scale of the youth movement.
“We can go one of two ways,” Moore said plainly. “We can decide to just gut the team the best we can and save as much money as possible and play for draft picks, and maybe that’s ultimately what we could end up doing. It’s too early to predict that right now.
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“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”
For now, Moore says, the club will continue to weigh various options and scenarios as it prepares for the offseason. Club officials remain confident in their ability to re-sign and extend homegrown talent, and Moore can point to a list of successes in that area, from Billy Butler to Salvador Perez to Yordano Ventura to Danny Duffy. Yet the free agency of Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain will present an unprecedented challenge. All three are expected to receive qualifying offers from the club in November, which would ensure some level of draft compensation if they depart. (Vargas and Escobar will not.) All three will be among the more coveted players on the market.
The Royals are expected to prioritize Hosmer, a soon-to-be 28-year-old first baseman coming off the best offensive season of his career. And he will likely command a nine-figure deal that would blow away Gordon’s four-year, $72 million contract as the richest in club history.
Royals manager Ned Yost has talked about going younger and moving back into developent mode at the major-league level. Yet to retain Hosmer would reduce the scale of a potential rebuild and open up other scenarios. When asked this week if he was still encouraged by his club’s position in the upcoming free agent market, Moore answered: “Within reason, of course.”
“It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen,” he continued. “It’s hard to predict what the competition is going to be like. That’ll all be assessed at the appropriate time, when teams are able to make offers to major-league free agents. It’s pretty apparent, though, when you look at supply and demand with position players, there’s going to be a lot of guys out there.
“The players that have a realistic view of their value will probably get signed rather quickly. Those that are shooting extremely high oftentimes get left standing when the music stops. I’m not saying that’s going to happen with our guys.”
From a financial standpoint, the Royals sit in a precarious spot heading into the offseason. They owe more than $90 million to nine players in 2018, including $54 million to Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria and Jason Hammel. When factoring in buyouts and potential arbitration cases for pitchers Nathan Karns, Kelvin Herrera and Brandon Maurer, their financial obligations would tip past $100 million.
The club opened the 2017 season with its payroll just below $146 million, which represented a franchise record for a fifth consecutive year. Yet with a group of core players headed to free agency, the team will see significant money come off the books. If the club maintained spending at current levels, it would perhaps have something close to $30 to $35 million to work with. Some of those dollars could be earmarked for the pursuit of one or more of the club’s top free agents. But Moore expects a payroll decrease in 2018, in part because of an infusion of younger, cheaper players; in part because of the failures of the last two seasons.
“When you look at our payroll in ’16 and ’17, it was at an all-time high,” Moore said. “We were 81-81 and 80-82.”
Like many teams in baseball, the Royals will look for creative ways to free up payroll. That could include unloading some less favorable contracts. Yet it could also be part of a larger plan to get younger and more athletic. Moore has often said that the offseason after the Royals won the World Series in 2015 would have represented the ideal time to flip some of their stars for maximum value in return. The idea, though, hardly seemed palatable in the afterglow of a championship. And the Royals believed the window for more championships remained open.
The club also listened to trade offers last offseason, pondering moves that would have kickstarted a rebuilding phase. But Moore ultimately decided to give his championship core one more chance to make a run in 2017 — even supplementing the roster with additions before the trade deadline.
“I made it very clear after the 2016 season,” Moore said. “If we would have had proposals in place that would have been extremely impactful for our future, we may have made a decision at that point in time to begin to get a little younger and move forward in a more progressive way. That didn’t occur.”
For now, so much remains unknown, not least of all the future of Moore, who remains linked to the general manager’s vacancy in Atlanta. Moore has declined to comment on the matter, stressing that he is focused on his job with the Royals. Yet the rumors will continue until the position is filled or Moore publicly states he is not a candidate.
For now, the Royals will continue to move forward, waiting on the free-agent market, discussing options and scenarios. The market is uncertain, of course. But club officials understand they are moving into a new chapter. Third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert and shortstop Raul Mondesi offer internal replacements on the infield, while outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler will be part of the plan moving forward.
The Royals are not closing the book on retaining one or more of their free agents, Moore says. But they are focused on one thing:
“We do believe it’s very clear to us that we need to get younger and more athletic,” Moore said. “We’re going to continue with that mindset as we go forward into the future.”