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The top questions facing the Royals in 2017

Will 2017 be gnar or not gnar?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It is a new year, and a new chance for the Royals to get back to the post-season. It has been a quiet off-season, and things could change quickly in a new year. It was after the first of the year that the Royals handed out the two biggest contracts in franchise history last winter, re-signing Alex Gordon and signing Ian Kennedy to $70 million deals.

It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see a similar signing this year, but here are some questions we will see answered from the Royals in 2017.

Are the Royals really cutting payroll?

The Royals immediately announced after the season that they would have to cut payroll. Last year, the team spent a franchise record $144 million, only to finish at .500 and 2017 shows they have a lot in financial commitments. Dayton Moore says the team has been living beyond their means, and the Wade Davis trade may have been the first indication he plans on austerity measures.

The Royals have been almost completely inactive this off-season other than the Davis trade, although Dayton Moore insists he is still working to build a contender in 2017. The Royals still face holes in the starting rotation, at designated hitter, possibly at second base, and they could use more bullpen depth. Will the Royals fill those moves by adding to payroll or will they go cheap and paper over those holes?

With the core of the team together for one more year, it would seem this is a foolish time to get frugal on payroll. And if the team does want to cut payroll, a complete firesale and rebuild would maximize the ability to build the next great Royals team. Trying to thread the needle seems to be the worst of both worlds.

Are the Royals really going to do the rotating designated hitter idea?

The Royals have been touting a “rotating designated hitter” for several years now, but still signed Kendrys Morales two years ago. Now, their financial situation may force them to fully commit to the idea. The idea would be that since Cheslor Cuthbert is out of a position with Mike Moustakas returning to third base, and Cuthbert out of options next year, he would hit at DH a few times a week, with Salvador Perez hitting there on his days off from catching, and other players like Alex Gordon or Lorenzo Cain could even DH to rest their legs.

Rotating the position seems like a fairly bad idea however. The average American League designated hitter last year hit .254/.328/.452, a better OPS than anyone on the Royals - except Kendrys Morales, their departing designated hitter. The Royals could get a bit more value on the bases as Morales was one of the slowest and least valuable baserunners in baseball last year, but Cuthbert was pretty slow himself and his bat does not come close to making up the difference.

With so many potential designated hitters on the free agent market, it seems like a buyer’s market. The Royals could potentially find a slugger like Chris Carter, Pedro Alvarez, or Brandon Moss for a reasonable contract. But if they are strict about payroll limitations, they may have no choice but to rotate the position.

Will Danny Duffy sign a contract extension?

The Royals have reportedly had talks with Duffy on a contract extension this winter, although recently on Fescoe on the Morning on 610 KCSP, General Manager Dayton Moore said there had been no news on that front. Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger thinks a deal will “probably” happen “during spring training.”

Duffy has publicly indicated several times his willingness to stay in Kansas City, and with the organization so thin in starting pitching it would make sense to commit to Duffy. However he has an inconsistent track record and a history of Tommy John surgery. It would probably take a 4-5 year deal worth around $10-12 million per season to get a deal done.

The Royals also have Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jarrod Dyson eligible for free agency at the end of the season, but extensions for those players seem much less likely. Perhaps the Royals will surprise us with another big extension for a core player.

Is Mike Moustakas’ knee healthy?

The Royals suffered a major blow last May when Mike Moustakas collided with Alex Gordon on a foul ball in Chicago that tore Moustakas’ ACL, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. Rookie Cheslor Cuthbert held his own, but his bat was a far cry from the improved offensive performance Moustakas had shown in 2015 and the first month of 2016. The Royals also badly missed Moose’s terrific defense at third, with Cuthbert being a significant downgrade.

Moustakas returns after nearly a year off, but questions still remain whether he will be the same kind of player who hit .277/.340/.475 with 29 home runs in 174 games over 2015-2016. Moustakas injured his right knee, on his lead leg when hitting, not his rear, or plant leg that would bear the brunt of his weight as he cocks into his swing. A study of 26 players by the Arthroscopy Association of North America found that while players who injured the ACL on their rear leg suffered a decline in batting average, those that injured the ACL in their lead leg actually increased in batting average (as for how it affected power, the study did not say).

Tigers slugger Victor Martinez missed the entire 2012 season with an ACL injury and returned to hit .301/.355/.430 in 2013, then finished top five in MVP voting in 2014. Pitchers Marcus Stroman, Yovani Gallardo, and Mariano Rivera all bounced back from ACL injuries, and Wilson Ramos and Kyle Schwarber will be in the same boat as Moustakas this upcoming year, although Schwarber has already tested his knee in game action in last year’s World Series.

Can the farm system improve?

The end of the road draws near for this Royals core that has brought home two pennants and a championship, and beyond that is a lot of question marks. The Royals will retain some players past 2017 - Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, and Yordano Ventura are all still under club control. However they will need some help from the farm system if the Royals hope to avoid falling back to last place.

The Royals farm system has been called one of the worst in baseball as it stands, depleted by graduations (Raul Mondesi), trades (Sean Manaea), injuries (Kyle Zimmer), and poor drafts (Bubba Starling). There are still a few players with upside who could contribute. Matt Strahm should be strongly considered for the rotation. Josh Staumont could be a darkhorse to make the Major League pen this spring. First baseman Ryan O’Hearn could replace Eric Hosmer in a year. But there is not much to be excited for after that.

The Royals will benefit from having the fourteenth pick in next year’s draft - higher than they have selected since 2013 - and four of the top 90 picks. Perhaps a few prospects could rise quickly - Khalil Lee, Chase Vallot, Meibrys Viloria, and Seuly Matias all have high upsides. But the scouting department will have its work cut out for it when the Royals begin their rebuild in earnest.

Can the Royals get back to the post-season?

The Royals made a valiant run last year, but they fell far short of reaching the post-season for a third consecutive season. Injuries took their toll, and they’ll get players like Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Jason Vargas back healthy this year, but the loss of Wade Davis is a major blow, and even losing Kendrys Morales and Edinson Volquez leaves the team very thin.

The team currently has some championship pieces, but with glaring holes, ZIPS currently projects them as a 79-83 team, far back of the defending pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. The Central Division is a bit in flux with the Twins and White Sox in rebuild mode, while the Tigers seem to be in a weird holding pattern. The opportunity to at least contend would seem to be there, but if the Royals don’t have the pieces, they could find themselves far back by mid-summer. Which leads us to....

Will the Royals have a firesale this summer?

With so many players eligible for free agency next winter, and with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement making it a bit less certain what the draft pick compensation will be, the Royals will likely look to trade off many veterans in July if they find themselves out of contention. But how far out of contention do the Royals need to be?

Dayton Moore stubbornly stuck to his guns in 2014 as many called for the Royals to trade veterans like James Shields when the team was 48-50 and 4.5 games out of a playoff spot on July 21. The team rewarded his faith by winning 24 of their next 30 to erase an eight game lead in the division and take over first place, eventually taking the Wild Card. In 2016, the team again stood pat, despite being 49-55 on July 31, 8.5 games out of a playoff spot. But a hot August got them to within two games of a playoff spot in late August before they faded.

That history and Dayton Moore’s strong belief in his team may prevent him from trading off his core players this summer, even if the Royals find themselves with little hope of contention. At least that would still leave them with draft pick compensation in many cases, although they may be forgoing more attractive trade packages for more polished prospects.

Will Ian Kennedy opt-out at the end of the year?

Ian Kennedy surprised most of baseball when he signed a $70 million deal with the Royals. But what was also surprising was that he received an opt-out clause, typically reserved for superstar mega-deal contracts. Kennedy has the option to become a free agent after the 2017 season, but he would be forgoing $49 million over three years. While next year’s starting pitching free agent class is better than this year’s putrid class, it is not a great one. If Kennedy continues to pitch well, he may look to join Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, and Marco Estrada, among others, as free agents on the open market.

However, if Kennedy suffers a poor season or gets hurt, he may decide to opt into his deal, putting the Royals on the hook for his remaining three years. If his value is diminished, it will also be much more difficult to trade him with so much money owed. The Royals took a great risk in giving Kennedy the opt-out while giving him the freedom to leave if the grass is greener on the other side.

Are Dayton Moore and Ned Yost going to ride off into the sunset?

Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have contracts through 2018, but Yost has hinted he may not want to go through another rebuild and may retire after the 2017 season. His departure would leave a void in the dugout, although there may be several in-house candidates to keep things running on an even keel.

A bigger potential loss would be if Dayton Moore decided he did not want to go through a rebuild in Kansas City. There have been hints at a clash between ownership and management over payroll that could hasten Moore’s departure. Moore may have critics among Royals fans, but the chances of the Glass family hiring some cutting-edge, hotshot analytics General Manager candidate as his replacement seems unlikely. Perhaps Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo could take over without missing a beat. However, the loss of the man who led the Royals to a championship could not only leave a huge void in the organization, but it could also signal to others around baseball that the Royals are back to being a frugal, backwards-looking organization.