The non-waiver trade deadline is over, with the Royals having moved three short-term pieces in Jon Jay, Kelvin Herrera, and Mike Moustakas for long-term prospects that can hopefully help the Royals enjoy better times than this year. Those prospects, combined with the college-heavy 2018 draft class, and some improvement from lower-level prospects like Seuly Matias and Khalil Lee provide improvement from a lowly-ranked farm system. However the upper ranks of the system are still quite barren, with little talent ready to step in and contribute next year.
The Royals have just under $70 million in contract commitments for 2019, and most of their arbitration cases will either be very cheap (Brian Flynn) or easy non-tender calls (Paulo Orlando, Brandon Maurer). So there should be some flexibility to acquire outside talent like free agents. Let’s look at what next year’s team might look like, and where the Royals may need to go outside the organization for help.
It’s Salvy. It will always be Salvy. There is just no chance the Royals trade their All-Star catcher, particularly after what is looking like a career-worst season offensively. Salvy still has three years on his contract after this season, and with the Royals looking to accelerate their rebuild, they probably see Salvy as the captain of the ship.
Drew Butera is a free agent, and after his career-best season in 2016, he has hit just .211/.278/.305. Cam Gallagher seems likely to be the backup next year, although it wouldn’t totally surprise me to see the Royals bring in some veteran to compete for the job like Jeff Mathis.
Lucas Duda is a free agent, and the Royals seem likely to part ways with him after just one year. Hunter Dozier has been largely a flop this year, and will turn 27 in a few weeks. Frank Schwindel hasn’t set the world on fire, but has consistently put up good numbers in AAA. He shows a good power bat, but is weak defensively, doesn’t walk much (his numbers did go up this year quite a bit) and is already 26. Ryan O’Hearn walks much more and is a year younger, but hasn’t hit for much power at all in Omaha.
If the Royals are looking to compete more next year, they may look for an external option. They have had interest in Matt Adams before, and the 29-year old is putting up career numbers, hitting .285/.360/.547 in 239 plate appearances. Other free agents include Logan Morrison, Joe Mauer, and Hanley Ramirez. The Royals have also reportedly shown interest in trading for Ryon Healy, and could target young, low-cost acquisitions like the 27-year Mariners first baseman with good pop but a low-walk rate.
Dayton Moore refused to trade Whit Merrifield at the July trade deadline, which probably means the speedster is here to stay for awhile. However the emergence of Nicky Lopez could begin to push Whit on the trading block. Lopez has hit .330/.422/.510 in 26 games since his promotion to Omaha and is considered a very good defender. Perhaps the Royals will leave themselves open to be blown away by a deal for Whit this winter, or maybe Whit transitions to a centerfielder, but it may not be too long before we see Lopez here.
Alcides Escobar. Kidding! Kind of.
The common sense thing to do would be to start Adalberto Mondesi here. The switch-hitter just tuned 23 and has long been considered to be the highest-upside talent in the organization. After some setbacks to begin the year, he has started to perform well at the big league level, hitting .281/.297/.449 in 26 games with the Royals, although with 24 strikeouts to just two walks.
But imagine a scenario where the Royals love Nicky Lopez (he embodies everything they love about baseball players - speed, defense, high-contact, grit, high baseball IQ) and decide they need Whit Merrifield long-term (in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them talk about a long-term deal with him). Mondesi still has major plate discipline issues (which may not be a problem to the Royals) and injury concerns (which is an issue they have voiced publicly). There have also been whispers about Mondesi’s attitude, particularly in response to his injuries.
Could they deal Mondesi to address needs elsewhere? I wouldn’t totally put it past them. Mondesi would still have some pretty good trade value due to his talents and youth, and he has shown some encouraging signs this year. Perhaps a change of scenery and a different organization would do him good. I’m not saying this will happen, but let’s not write his name in ink for next year, especially if Alcides Escobar is still available for next year.
This seemed like a deep position in spring training, but with Mike Moustakas now in Milwaukee, Hunter Dozier playing first base and not hitting, and Cheslor Cuthbert out much of the year with injury, the position now looks very thin. Rosell Herrera will likely get a look at third, as will Cuthbert if he returns this year. Cuthbert is arbitration-eligible this winter, and with his lack of progress since 2016, he could be a non-tender candidate this winter just after his 26th birthday.
Perhaps this is where Whit Merrifield ends up once Lopez is ready for the big leagues. But with no real third baseman of the future in the system (what, do you think there’s a third baseman tree?) the Royals could go outside of the organization. There is a deep market for free agent third basemen this winter, including a familiar name that goes by “Mike Moustakas.”
The Royals have Alex Gordon under contract for one more season, but will he still be a starter that year? It seemed like Gordon might be turning his career around, but he has regressed again, hitting just .187/.286/.276 over his last 37 games. With his defense, he has still been an above replacement-level player, but barely. Gordo will be 35 by the next Opening Day, and the Royals may be better off giving more playing time to a younger player.
With Brian Goodwin, Brett Phillips, and Jorge Bonifacio, the Royals have three potential outfielders under the age of 28 (Goodwin turns 28 in November). Bonifacio seems like a good bet to start, and the Royals will probably want a good long look at Phillips next season. Goodwin may be more of a part-time player, but the Royals may want to see if he can put up the numbers he posted in Washington - .251/.313/.498 with 13 home runs in 278 plate appearances last year - in a full-time role. Donnie Dewees could eventually push his way into the conversation, but it is looking less likely that Bubba Starling has much of a future with this club after his latest setback.
Jorge Soler has shown flashes of brilliance this year, but has been unable to shake the injury bug this year. He will almost certainly be the regular designated hitter next year, provided he can stay healthy, in which case the Royals will probably rotate the position again.
It seems unlikely the Royals will deal Danny Duffy considering their accelerated rebuild timeline and his inconsistent season. Ian Kennedy still has two years left on a deal that will pay him $33 million, making him immovable, but it is not inconceivable to think he gets pushed out of a rotation spot. Jakob Junis will certainly be in the rotation, despite some inconsistencies and issues with home runs. Brad Keller has made enough progress to give him a strong inside track on next year’s rotation.
The fifth spot will likely be an open competition with familiar names like Eric Skoglund, Heath Fillmyer, Trevor Oaks, and potential returns from injured pitchers like Jesse Hahn and Nate Karns. Jorge Lopez, acquired from the Brewers for Moustakas, could be a candidate as well, although his stuff may play better in the pen. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Royals try to bring in an older veteran to compete for a rotation spot as well. Brady Singer, their 2019 first-round pick, could be a candidate to make his debut some time next year as well. It is a low-upside rotation - no one other than Singer looks like a future All-Star or ace - but the 2019 Royals won’t be throwing Eduardo Villacis out there or anything.
Dayton Moore has been noted for his ability to assemble a bullpen on the cheap, well now he gets his chance. The bullpen is pretty much a blank slate after a disastrous performance so far in 2018. Brian Flynn and Kevin McCarthy look like serviceable middle relievers, but they lack the strikeouts to be late innings guys. Jason Adam could be a late inning closer, and the Royals have a $3 million club option on Wily Peralta if they think he can evolve into that role. Current minor leaguers like Richard Lovelady, Jake Kalish, and Josh Staumont could be in the mix as well.
Completely too-early guess at the 2019 Opening Day starting lineup
2B Whit Merrifield
DH Jorge Soler
C Salvador Perez
1B Ryon Healy
LF Jorge Bonifacio
CF Brian Goodwin
3B Cheslor Cuthbert
RF Brett Phillips
SS Adalberto Mondesi
Bench: C Cam Gallagher, IF Ramon Torres, IF Rosell Herrera, OF Alex Gordon
SP Danny Duffy
SP Ian Kennedy
SP Jakob Junis
SP Brad Keller
SP Eric Skoglund
Bullpen: Jason Adam, Brian Flynn, Jorge Lopez, Richard Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy, Wily Peralta, Burch Smith