The Kansas City Royals came in to this offseason at a crossroads. The 2015 World Series champions went 81-81 in 2016, and following 2017, many of their core players will become free agents. Do they take a step back and rebuild this winter, or go for it this coming season?
The answer is, well, both. General manager Dayton Moore traded two of his impending free agents, Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson, for players with several years of control (Jorge Soler and Nathan Karns). Also, Danny Duffy, another impending free agent, was given a five-year contract extension worth $65 million.
Moore and the Royals made moves designed to improve the future while helping keep the club competitive in 2017. It's admirable. Lots of teams rush to tear things down and rebuild from scratch these days. It would have been easy for the Royals to do that this offseason, but Moore came up with an alternative.
Along the way, Moore has changed the look of Kansas City's offense. When they won consecutive AL pennants in 2014 and 2015, the offense was built on contact and speed. The club's 16.1 percent strikeout rate was far and away the lowest in baseball those two years. The Athletics had the second lowest rate at 17.9 percent.
At the same time, the Royals also had the second lowest home run total from 2014-15. They swatted 234 home runs those years, only a handful more than the rebuilding Braves (223). The 2015 Blue Jays hit nearly as many home runs (232) as those 2014-15 Royals combined. Power was not Kansas City's thing.
That has very clearly changed this offseason. Moore's three big offseason pickups on the position player side are all power hitters known to strike out. Look at their 2014-16 numbers:
* O'Brien's stats are from his time in Triple-A. He has only 79 career MLB plate appearances, and in those 79 plate appearances, he has six home runs and 32 strikeouts (40.5 percent).
Those three players would look very out of place on the 2014-15 Royals. That team won by putting the ball in play and running like hell. Moss and Soler, and also O'Brien if he's in the big leagues, are going to swing and miss a bunch, but boy, when they connect, the ball is going to go a long way.
The additions of Moss, Soler, and O'Brien represent a drastic change for the Royals. Not only offensively either. The club has been renowned for their superlative defense in recent years. Those three fellows are no great shakes in the field. The Royals are trading contract, speed, and defense for pure power.
Moss signed a two-year contract and is not necessarily a long-term piece at age 33. Soler is still only 24, however, and he's under team control through 2020. Moore traded Davis, his ace closer, for Soler hoping he would become their long-term right fielder and a legitimate middle of the order bat.
Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar can all become free agents after the 2017 season and it's extremely unlikely the Royals will be able to retain all of them. They might not even be able to retain one of them. Their offensive core going forward will be built around Soler, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Cheslor Cuthbert.
Moore has gone out and added some sorely needed power to his team's lineup this offseason, and now he's faced with the prospect of building their rotation going forward. Those efforts were dealt a tragic blow last month, when young Yordano Ventura was killed in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. Along with Duffy, the 25-year-old Ventura was going to anchor the rotation for the foreseeable future.
It's uncomfortable to think about Ventura's death in baseball terms, but it is something Moore and his staff must consider. He was a cornerstone player and his death affects the club's short and long-term decision making dramatically. As it stands, Kansas City's rotation lines up like so:
- Danny Duffy
- Ian Kennedy
- Jason Vargas
- Nathan Karns
- Chris Young
The Royals also have the option of putting young Matt Strahm, who was electric out of the bullpen last season, in the rotation in place of Young, who had a 6.19 ERA and allowed 28 home runs in 88 2/3 innings in 2016. Youngsters Alec Mills and Miguel Almonte are also rotation candidates. Veteran Mike Minor is on the mend from shoulder surgery and could be an option at some point as well.
Point is, there's a clear void in the rotation following Ventura's death, both now and in the future. The easy solution would be throwing money at Jason Hammel, who remains unsigned as a free agent, though he isn't without his warts. Elbow tightness ended his season in September and he has a history of fading n the second half. Hammel is the best, albeit imperfect, option.
It's worth noting the Royals signed Ventura to a long-term contract in April 2015, a contract that would have paid him $19.25 million from 2017-19. The team can't automatically redirect that money to other players, however. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports has the details:
The deal would remain fully guaranteed if Ventura's death was determined to be accidental. The money would go to his estate, while the Royals -- who had insurance on Ventura's contract -- would be reimbursed for an amount that is not yet clear, sources said.
However, guaranteed contracts include exceptions that relate to player conduct, and Ventura's deal includes a provision that will nullify payment for failure to perform due to injury or death resulting from driving a motorized vehicle while intoxicated, sources said.
The toxicology report is expected to take several weeks, and Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star recently reported the Royals have already started to look through pitching options. He says a low cost deal this spring, a la Young two years ago, was on the agenda already.
Ventura's tragic death increases the urgency to find another starter before the season, simply to help carry the innings and make sure youngsters like Strahm and Almonte are not pushed too far. Long-term, the Royals are now without a very high-ceiling young starter, someone who had the potential to be the unquestioned staff ace.
Moore & Co. will have to scramble a bit to replace Ventura in the short-term, in 2017. Spring training is less than two weeks away, and a free agent class that was thin to start with has already been picked clean. Replacing Ventura long-term will take more creativity, on top of the creativity the Royals are going to need to replace guys like Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain.