As the Royals march into summer, they will arrive at a crossroads in July, having to decide if they are really in contention enough to hold onto their core, or if they should become sellers and deal off veterans for prospects. One consideration that looms over every transaction by a smaller market club is future payroll. What will the Royals be facing in 2018 as things stand now?
The Royals voiced concerns over money last fall, with Dayton Moore saying that payroll was going to "regress." However, following the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, the team plunged into the free agent market and signed Brandon Moss, Jason Hammel,and Travis Wood, bringing the Opening Day payroll to a franchise record-high $145 million.
Many of the core players making up that payroll could be gone next year, as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jason Vargas all reach free agency this winter. If they depart, that could save the Royals millions. However the team still has many big deals left on the payroll.The free agents they signed this year had significantly backloaded deals, and since they haven't worked out so far, the Royals could have a lot of dead weight on the payroll next year. Here is what the Royals have in commitments for 2018, according to Cot's Contracts.
That is nearly $100 million committed to just ten players, many of which have been downright awful this year. The Royals will also still owe $4.7 million in declined options to Chris Young, Mike Minor, and yes, Omar Infante. Still!
There is $6.45 million owed to Yordano Ventura, although that salary remains in legal limbo. The Royals will have at least two players eligible for arbitration in Kelvin Herrera and Nate Karns. Herrera, in his last year of arbitration, could earn $8-10 million depending on his performance. Karns, who would be eligible for the first time, should expect $3-4 million.
When you add in the 13 other roster spots at a near league-minimum salary, that adds up to a payroll that is pushing up close to $130 million. If the Royals actually do reduce payroll next year, which I would expect them to do as attendance declines, that leaves very little room for the team to go out and pursue any free agents.
The Royals could try to move expensive players this July. Reportedly they tried to get teams to take on Ian Kennedy's deal last summer (and no, I don't think he opts out this winter), but this strategy seems foolish. What the Royals need most is young, cheap talent with high upside. Asking teams to take on bad contracts reduces the quality of young talent they can get in return. And by moving the salary, that only opens up payroll for the team to sign a free agent - one who is likely past their prime. So you have sacrificed young talent for old talent, not the direction the Royals need to go.
Perhaps we should not be so quick to assume payroll will go down, since it has continued to go up every year since the Royals began contending, and a new television deal promises new revenues. But this team will have major holes to fill, even if only a few free agents depart.
If the Royals decide they want to contend this summer and not be sellers, they will at least have draft pick compensation to fall back on. But those draft picks won't pan out for several years. The 2018 Royals could have little money to work with, and little in trade assets to acquire talent. Because of that, the Royals may have to decide to be sellers this summer, even if they climb back to respectability.