This week, the Royals made their second significant trade of the off-season (sorry, Peter O’Brien wasn’t a significant trade), acquiring pitcher Nathan Karns from the Mariners for outfielder Jarrod Dyson. The move came after acquiring outfielder Jorge Soler from the Cubs for elite reliever Wade Davis back in December.
In a vacuum, the Karns deal is a pretty good trade for the Royals. ZIPS projects Dyson to be 1.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) next year, with Karns at 0.9 WAR, but that’s with Karns only pitching 119 innings. If he is reasonably healthy next year (not a sure thing with his back problems last year and labrum surgery in 2010), he can close the gap a bit. In 2015, he was reasonably healthy and was a 2 WAR pitcher.
But it is the club control that entices the Royals. Karns is not eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season. He will get four shots to put up that 2 WAR season, which could likely give him more WAR in a Royals uniform than Dyson would get in his one season in Seattle. At age 29, the upside for Karns is not especially high, but he can be a solid #3 or #4 starter, and the Royals badly need cheap, mid-rotation starting pitchers.
But what they also need is a championship in 2017. The fact is, wins in 2017 are more important than wins in 2018. Much of the core of this team - Eric Hosmer, Danny Duffy, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas - could depart next winter. This could be their last real hope of contention for a few years. The window is closing.
The two trades and lack of activity in the free agent market make it pretty clear what the Royals’ strategy is this winter. Dayton Moore is looking to cut payroll and improve his Royals teams beyond 2017. Going into this off-season, the Royals only had five players under contract for 2018 - Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy (if he does not opt out after this year), Yordano Ventura, Salvador Perez, and Joakim Soria.
Here is a rough idea of what the 2018 Royals will look like:
|C Salvador Perez||SP Ian Kennedy|
|1B Ryan O'Hearn||SP Yordano Ventura|
|2B Whit Merrifield||SP Nate Karns|
|SS Raul Mondesi||SP Matt Strahm|
|3B Cheslor Cuthbert||SP Kyle Zimmer|
|LF Alex Gordon||RP Kelvin Herrera|
|CF Paulo Orlando||RP Joakim Soria|
|RF Hunter Dozier||RP Josh Staumont|
|DH Jorge Soler||RP Brian Flynn|
|Bench: C Drew Butera, IF Christian Colon, OF Billy Burns, OF Peter O'Brien||RP Scott Alexander|
|RP Andrew Edwards|
There are some other names that could be in the mix by then - Corey Toups, A.J. Puckett, Eric Skoglund, Bubba Starling? - but you get the idea. Does that seem like a team that is close to contention? Maybe! But probably not. If the Royals can re-sign a Danny Duffy that helps move the needle a bit, but that roster is still banking on a lot of "ifs." If Whit Merrifield can continue to hit. If Cheslor Cuthbert's defense improves. If Ryan O'Hearn hits for power in the big leagues. If Matt Strahm can start. If Kyle Zimmer can be healthy. There doesn't look like anyone in that lineup that can match the production of a Lorenzo Cain. Or the bat of Eric Hosmer. Or the upside of Mike Moustakas.
The 2017 roster is a bit more certain. Now they do project for just 79 wins, but the core of the team is there that won two pennants. I feel more confident about an All-Star season from Lorenzo Cain than, say Ryan O'Hearn. A few right moves this winter and they could project for 85 wins or so, which, combined with a bit of good luck, could put them right in contention, just as it did in 2014 and 2015.
But it is quite likely that the 2017 Royals would be better right now if Dayton Moore had not done a single thing this winter. His moves have likely made them worse in the short-term, at least as we look at the team right now. Sure, the players he acquired have upside, and maybe Jorge Soler hits 25 home runs and learns to play passable defense and Nate Karns is healthy and puts up a 2-3 WAR season. It is possible. But it is not as likely as Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson being 2-3 WAR players, more valuable than most players on the Royals roster.
Dayton Moore is tasked with looking at both the short-term and long-term for the organization, so perhaps he will eventually be validated for not leaving the organization devoid of talent in 2018. The Royals only have about $71 million in contract obligations for that year, so if they can continue to keep payroll close to competitive, they would have financial flexibility to add a few significant free agents. Moore's hands may also be tied by ownership who seems unwilling to spend more on this club to go "all in" for 2017.
But the ambiguous nature of their strategy leaves even more question marks for 2017 than before the off-season. Teams are usually moving either forward towards contention, or backwards towards rebuilding. The Royals seem to stuck in neutral, trying to go both directions at once. And it may cost them their last shot at a title with this group of players.