The Royals have possibly extended their window a bit by locking up players like Danny Duffy and Alex Gordon and trading for young players like Jorge Soler, but they still face a number of potential key free agents next winter. They have had negotiations with Eric Hosmer, but with talks breaking down, there is some doubt they can lock up the All-Star first baseman. They are not currently engaged in talks with other potential free agents Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, or Mike Moustakas, but they are reportedly optimistic they can sign one or two players.
If any of these core players do end up leaving Kansas City, are there internal options to replace them? Let’s take a look at the candidates.
It may be difficult to replace, as agent Scott Boras says, "one of the game’s true winning players", but the Royals could give an opportunity to one the organization’s top power hitters in Ryan O’Hearn. The left-handed hitter has smacked 49 home runs over the last two seasons, and should be ready for the big leagues by 2018 if he continues at his current pace. O’Hearn can draw some walks, but also whiffs a lot, with a career strikeout rate over 25%.
O’Hearn did not have much of a platoon split last year, but has had a pronounced split in the past. If the Royals feel he is vulnerable against lefties, they could try to platoon him with Peter O’Brien. The power-hitting right-hander has impressed in spring training with five home runs, and has smashed 50 home runs over his last two minor league seasons. O’Brien has limited experience at first base, playing just 48 games there in the minors. He also has a high strikeout rate, but without walking much at all. Brandon Moss could also be an option at first base for next year, although the defensive metrics rate him well below-average defensively, albeit in a limited sample size. But if the Royals wanted to go cheap with an O’Hearn/O’Brien platoon, it could provide plenty of O’Ffense.
This should be the easiest position to replace, as Alcides Escobar has been one of the worst hitters in baseball over the past few seasons with declining defensive metrics. There is a decent chance top prospect Raúl Mondesí could outproduce Escobar this year, but the Royals will roll with Escobar for one more season with Mondesí possibly playing some second base this year until he slides over to shortstop in 2018.
Mondesí could very well outperform Escobar defensively, while producing much more power at the plate. He has drawn comparisons to Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, and could be the best offensive shortstop for the Royals since Jay Bell’s brief stint in Kansas City. Mondesí also brings plus speed the Royals could use since trading Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners. On the downside, Mondesí has shown very little plate discipline in the minor leagues, and has put up underwhelming numbers. He also looked completely overmatched in a stint with the Royals last season. He has the tools to be a star, but the Royals will need him to produce, even if the bar is set low in replacing Escobar.
The Royals received a taste of life without Mike Moustakas last summer when they lost him for four months due to a knee injury. Cheslor Cuthbert held his own at the big league level, hitting .274./318/.413 with 12 home runs in 510 plate appearances. He slumped late in the year, hitting .248 with just three home runs over the final two months. Cuthbert also had mixed results defensively, showing a strong arm and quick reflexes, but also limited range and erratic throws that led to poor defensive metrics. Still, Cuthbert is only 24 years old and has time to improve.
The Royals have another option in top minor league hitter Hunter Dozier. The former first-round pick had a disastrous 2015 season, but bounced back with a sensational 2016, hitting .296/.366/.533 with 23 home runs across AA and AAA. Dozier has more athleticism than Cuthbert, which is why he has spent some time in the outfield in an effort to find a spot for him to get regular playing time. With Cuthbert being out of options, he could be trade bait this spring with Dozier left as the heir apparent at third.
When the Royals won their championship in 2015, Lorenzo Cain finished third in MVP voting, putting together a sensational season. That kind of production will be difficult, if not impossible to replace internally. The Royals have no obvious replacement here, although there are a few intriguing options. Paulo Orlando has become the odd man out in the outfield after a career year, but could slide back into a starting role in center next year. In 42 career Major League games in centerfield he has fared well defensively, and certainly has the speed to make it work. The Royals have expressed concern that his .302 average last year may not be sustainable and Orlando does not walk enough or hit for enough power to make him a very valuable offensive player if his average is not high.
The Royals brought in Billy Burns last summer as another speedy option for centerfield. Better known for taking care of the "Rally Mantis" last year, Burns put together a solid season for Oakland in 2015, hitting .294/.334/.392 with 26 steals. He is 27-years old and a switch hitter, but also has the highest "soft contact" rates in baseball. Despite being a very fast player, Burns' defense and baserunning is merely average, although the Royals hope that the tutelage of Rusty Kuntz can improve that.
The Royals would love nothing more than to see Bubba Starling have a big year and put himself back on the radar. The former first round pick is said to be Major League-ready defensively, but hit just .183 in AA and AAA last year, striking out 33% of the time. He is still just 24 years old, but he may be running out of chances. Terrance Gore is another intriguing option because of his speed, but there are doubts he can hit enough to stick on a Major League roster, let alone be a starter.