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What should be the biggest priority for the Royals this winter?

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Hitting? Pitching? Grit?

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Kansas City Royals John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals enter a crucial off-season where they must try to capitalize on one more season with their core group that won two pennants and a championship. It is still unclear whether the team will cut payroll from last year's franchise-record $144 million payroll, or whether they will increase payroll to make on more run. Either way, the team does not have unlimited resources and will have to prioritize the areas they want to address.

There are some positions that are set. Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer are cornerstones in the lineup. Alcides Escobar has been awful offensively, but the club likes his defense enough to keep him around. Mike Moustakas is expected to return at third base after a knee injury. That still leaves many other areas on the field as question marks. Which should be addressed the most?

Second Base

The Royals were able to win two pennants and a championship without much production from second base, although they did make a mid-season trade to acquire Ben Zobrist for their run in 2015. Omar Infante is out of the picture now, and Whit Merrifield was an improvement, even despite a slump that got him demoted. Whit hit .307 in September after his return, and provides much improved defense and baserunning from the position. The Royals consider him a candidate for a "wide open" competition for second base next year.

Worst OPS from the second base position, 2015-2016

PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Braves 1386 20 .243 .312 .349 .661
White Sox 1254 24 .235 .282 .356 .638
Angels 1232 16 .242 .285 .348 .633
Athletics 1319 12 .240 .295 .319 .614
Royals 1289 10 .236 .279 .336 .614

Another option is Raul Mondesi, who made spectacular plays defensively, but seemed overwhelmed with the bat. Christian Colon has hit well in limited action, but had a poor 2016 season and has been unimpressive defensively. Cheslor Cuthbert is attempting to transition to second base in the Instructional League, but it seems unlikely he will be able to make that move. If the Royals look to external options, Neil Walker is the only free agent that would look to be a significant upgrade for the Royals, unless Chase Utley has anything left in the tank at age 38.

Outfield

The Royals had the best defensive outfield in baseball, by Defensive Runs Saved, but only five teams had a lower OPS from their outfield than Kansas City’s line of .271/.327/.395. The club was hurt by injuries to Lorenzo Cain and a disastrous season from Alex Gordon. While Paulo Orlando surprised many with his offensive performance, he only ranked 52nd out of 70 outfielders with 400 plate appearances in OPS. Jarrod Dyson actually led Royals position players in WAR, but the club seems reluctant to see him as a full-time player and with the acquisition of Billy Burns, he could be on the way out.

Royals WAR leaders rWAR fWAR avgWAR
Jarrod Dyson 3.1 3.1 3.1
Lorenzo Cain 2.9 2.4 2.7
Salvador Perez 2.8 2.2 2.5
Paulo Orlando 2.3 1.6 2.0
Whit Merrifield 1.6 1.7 1.7
Alex Gordon 0.8 1.2 1.0
Kendrys Morales 0.9 0.7 0.8
Eric Hosmer 1.0 -0.2 0.4
Alcides Escobar 0.3 0.4 0.4
Cheslor Cuthbert -0.2 0.2 0.0

The Royals could decide they want to go in a different direction and go for power over speed. Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Colby Rasmus, Michael Saunders, and Matt Holliday are free agents who could all provide added pop. The Royals could also look for an outfielder to provide depth as a hedge against Lorenzo Cain’s injuries, Alex Gordon’s age, Paulo Orlando’s unsustainably high BABIP, and Jarrod Dyson’s weaknesses against lefties. Franklin Gutierrez, Rajai Davis, Gregor Blanco, Austin Jackson, Matt Joyce, and Seth Smith could be free agent possibilities in a reserve role. The Royals also have top prospect Hunter Dozier as an internal option as well as minor league outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, who hit 19 home runs for Omaha last year.

Designated Hitter

The Royals are unlikely to make a Qualifying Offer to Kendrys Morales, but they can still bring him back on a multi-year deal. Morales overcame a disastrous start to the season with a red-hot June and became the first Royals hitter since 2000 to hit 30 home runs. However his numbers are still mediocre for a designated hitter, he will turn 34 next year, and there are many options on the free agent market for designated hitters including Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Carlos Beltran, Pedro Alvarez, and Mike Napoli.

Designated Hitters, at least 250 plate appearances

Player PA HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
David Ortiz 626 38 .315 .401 .620 1.021 162
Nelson Cruz 667 43 .287 .360 .555 .915 147
Ed Encarnacion 702 42 .263 .357 .529 .886 133
Evan Gattis 499 32 .251 .319 .508 .826 124
Victor Martinez 610 27 .289 .351 .476 .826 123
Carlos Beltran 593 29 .295 .337 .513 .850 122
Carlos Santana 688 34 .259 .366 .498 .865 121
Pedro Alvarez 376 22 .249 .322 .504 .826 115
Albert Pujols 650 31 .268 .323 .457 .780 114
Kendrys Morales 618 30 .263 .327 .468 .795 108
Billy Butler 274 5 .284 .336 .416 .752 108
Avisail Garcia 453 12 .245 .307 .385 .692 91
Prince Fielder 370 8 .212 .292 .334 .626 65

The Royals have discussed the possibility of having a revolving door at designated hitter to allow veterans to rest and capitalize on matchups. The Royals could bring in a lower-cost player to be part of that rotation at designated hitter, such as Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison, or Danny Valencia.

Starting Pitching

The Royals knew starting pitching was a weakness going into the season, but even they were surprised by just how awful the rotation was early on. The league-wide home run spike hurt the Royals badly, particularly fly-ball prone pitchers like Ian Kennedy and Chris Young. They rebounded with a nice August, posting a 3.27 ERA as a staff that month, but still finished with one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, with only the Reds posting a higher FIP this season.

Danny Duffy excelled with a career-best season and will join Ian Kennedy and Yordano Ventura in next year’s rotation. Jason Vargas returned from Tommy John surgery for a few starts in 2016 and if healthy, will start next season. Edinson Volquez has possibly pitched his way out of next year’s plans with a 6.92 ERA over his last 13 starts. Options for the fifth starter’s job include Chris Young, Mike Minor, Matt Strahm, and Dillon Gee.

Royals Starting Pitching

ERA FIP ERA- FIP- IP/GS K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2015 4.34 4.32 105 108 5.63 6.49 2.94 1.06
2016 4.67 4.82 108 115 5.56 7.78 3.29 1.51

The free agent starting pitching market is awful for next season, leaving few options for the Royals if they do want to upgrade. A short-term deal for a good pitcher like Rich Hill might make sense if they can increase the payroll. Otherwise they may have to be creative, trading a young player to get back a starting pitcher, preferably a young one that can help beyond 2017.

Relief Pitching

It seems odd to say that the Royals, the team that patented the dominant bullpen as a secret of success, would need to upgrade the bullpen. But the vaunted relief staff did regress a bit in 2016, and bullpen-building has become an arms race in Major League Baseball, with each team needing to add to the stable of flamethrowers ready to come in late in the game.

The main culprit was Joakim Soria, a big free agent who largely busted in 2016 and was the reason why the Royals record lost 11 games when leading after six innings. Soria is a decent bet to bounce back a bit in 2017, but the Royals may want to hedge their bets and provide more depth. They are also likely to decline the $7 million option on Luke Hochevar, and will have to make a decision whether or not to bring him back after he had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery. Trade rumors have already circled around closer Wade Davis, who could be dealt as a way to reduce payroll and gain prospects for the future.

Royals Relief Pitching

ERA FIP ERA- FIP- K/9 BB/9 HR/9 After 6
2015 2.72 3.56 66 89 8.38 3.19 0.80 73-6
2016 3.45 3.75 80 89 8.49 3.14 0.92 58-11

With all the post-season bullpen implosions, look for the market for relievers to be even more insane this winter. The Royals are likely going to be priced out of the top relief free agents, and will have to look for a decent reclamation project. Even former All-Star Greg Holland will likely be fairly pricey to bring back to Kansas City, so Dayton Moore may need to find a few more gems in the rough as he did with Ryan Madson and Peter Moylan.