The Royals were always going to have to make some choices with a crop of talent set to hit free agency after 2017, but the performance in 2016 has actually presented general manager Dayton Moore with an even tougher conundrum as we eye the trade deadline (Aug. 1, 4 p.m. ET).
Coming off a World Series championship with a similar team in 2016, injuries and rotation issues have mostly been culprits in a 49-51 record. The Royals entered Thursday 8 1/2 games out in the AL Central and 6 1/2 games out of the second wild card with five teams to jump over.
Basically, they have the look of a non-contender. Then the harsh reality of having a relatively cheap owner in a small market sets in, especially when viewed through the lens of the roster makeup heading into 2017.
What do I mean? Well ...
What does 2017 have to do with 2016?
The following Royals players could play a key role next season, but also will be free agents after 2017 (brace yourself if you didn't already know this, Royals fans):
- First baseman Eric Hosmer
- Shortstop Alcides Escobar
- Third baseman Mike Moustakas
- Center fielder Lorenzo Cain
- Outfielder Jarrod Dyson
- Designated hitter Kendrys Morales
- Starting pitcher Jason Vargas (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
- Starting pitcher Danny Duffy
- Starting pitcher Edinson Volquez
- Closer Wade Davis
Not to rub salt in the wound, but Hosmer and Moustakas are Scott Boras clients, so forget an extension there -- it's either let them walk or win them back in a bidding war.
Not all of these guys are 100 percent signed through 2017. The big names with options are Davis ($10 million team option), Volquez ($10 million team option) and Morales ($11 million mutual option). Medlen and Hochevar also have mutual options.
Should the Royals start selling now?
Moore would seem to be weighing between two drastically different agendas: a complete sell in order to make sure the franchise is in order beyond 2017, or simply shaping the roster for one last title run before needing to rebuild. Does he choose a machete or a scalpel?
Pick that scalpel, even if one of the pieces really hurts to carve away.
If every option is declined (which includes Davis), the Royals already figure to have around $100 million committed to payroll for next season. They are around $135 million this season, so that leaves some -- but not a lot of -- wiggle room with what is shaping up to be an underwhelming free agent class.
Moore could backload some deals, given what we already discussed with the possible purge after 2017, but, again, the class is pretty underwhelming. Keeping and exercising the options on Volquez and Morales are feasible decisions, too.
As noted earlier, it's a conundrum. Moore can't exactly go nuts in free agency in the offseason and expect to fix the problem areas of his roster. Trades and internal help will have to carry the day here.
So that's where the Aug. 1 trade deadline comes in. Dealing Davis, Volquez and Morales could land the Royals some pieces for next year while helping to provide financial flexibility heading into the offseason. This would be the proactive move.
Being proactive doesn't mean sell everyone. That would be outrageous. We've heard the whispers on all three of those players. Given the price on relievers in the trade market, moving Davis now would be a great route to help build up the roster for next year. Kelvin Herrera can certainly close, so the focus would be on shoring up the bridge to the ninth as they move into 2017.
Plus, if there's better fortune with injuries, and if players like Alex Gordon, Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy play better, the Royals definitely have a chance to get back to the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, anything can happen. You take your chances there. Another World Series would be a distinct possibility.
The downside, of course, is that the only nucleus pieces signed long term are Gordon, Ventura, Kennedy and Salvador Perez (Herrera is a free agent after 2018). Going for broke in 2017 could well carry the risk with a near-total rebuild after 2017.
So, how much does 2018 matter?
Which leads me back to simply going for another championship in 2017 and then sorting everything out afterward. It might sound reckless, but the Royals hadn't been to the playoffs since 1985 and now have back-to-back AL pennants along with a World Series win. If they somehow got another, it would be worth the miserable 2018 season (and probably at least 2019 as well).
Plus, there's time to work out an extension with players like Cain and Duffy in the meantime.
It's an uncomfortable discussion for die-hard Royals fans, I'm sure, but it's one that Moore and his fellow front office people have surely been having for weeks. It seems like the best choice is to do everything possible to shape the roster for another deep playoff run next season.
If that means trading Davis (red flags and all), Volquez and Morales, so be it -- but you need players who will help in 2017 and you definitely don't touch the Hosmer/Cain/Moustakas nucleus.
World Series flags fly forever. These Royals already have one. If they can add another next season, they can deal with a rebuilding effort in the aftermath. In terms of the 2016 deadline, selling Davis, Morales and Volquez could help.
Going past that would be giving up on next year, and that should not be entertained.