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Non-tenders bring Royals 2020 roster both in and out of focus

Mejia and Arteaga getting their walking papers turns a joke into a very real fear.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez (1) celebrates his run with first baseman Whit Merrifield (15) in the seventh inning against Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel
Jun 16, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez (1) celebrates his run with first baseman Whit Merrifield (15) in the seventh inning against Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

After Monday’s non-tender deadline when the Royals chose not to offer contracts to Humberto Arteaga, Cheslor Cuthbert, Jesse Hahn and Erick Mejia, it brought some aspects of the 2020 roster into better focus and made some much less clear. The move to cut ties with Cuthbert was expected and even obvious. The move for Hahn was kind of a coin flip, but the fact that they cut loose Mejia and Arteaga is a little more surprising given the general idea about the 2020 roster and the fact that both were added to the 40-man just months ago during the 2019 season.

The Arteaga move is a little more common, even from a Dayton Moore-run team, but adding Mejia to the 40-man in September only to non-tender him just a couple months later makes me wonder if there’s someone non-tendered earlier in the day that he had his eye on. See, looking at the roster right now at this moment in time, there’s a pretty clear group of players who have locks on certain positions. Salvador Perez and Adalberto Mondesi are going to play catcher and shortstop respectively (once healthy). Jorge Soler is going to be the designated hitter. Whit Merrifield is going to play either outfield or second base. Nicky Lopez is going to be given every opportunity in the world to play second.

But without Mejia or Arteaga in the fold anymore, the Royals are now short a backup. Let’s, for the sake of this exercise, assume Perez and Mondesi are healthy to start the season. As of now, that means 10 spots of the 13 on the 26-man roster are decided. I think Nick Heath has a great chance to break camp with the big club, but if they re-sign Alex Gordon, that becomes less likely. So let’s do some assuming again and say that there are really 11 spots filled with either Gordon or Heath and a backup catcher. That leaves two spots available. The Royals liked what they saw out of Ryan McBroom, so maybe he and O’Hearn do some first base platooning and McBroom gets reps in the outfield like we saw in September. That leaves just one open roster spot. I think looking at it this way shows that they’d actually be better off roster-wise if Gordon doesn’t come back. Him on the roster just stretches the number of at bats way too thin for players the Royals truly need to evaluate in 2020.

With Lopez, the Royals have a backup shortstop already on their roster, so maybe they don’t worry about having another utility infielder since Merrifield could just come in from the outfield to play second and Lopez could move around if needed. But with one roster spot they have to fill (remember, the max number of pitchers is now 13), I expect Moore and Mike Matheny to prefer to have a utility infielder on the roster. That player currently doesn’t exist on the 40-man roster. Sure there’s some versatility with a guy like Kelvin Gutierrez, but they probably don’t want him sitting on the bench in the big leagues just waiting for Merrifield to move from right to second, Lopez from second to short and Dozier from third to right.

On the free agent market, guys like Adeiny Hechavarria, Jordy Mercer, Jose Iglesias and Eric Sogard were already out there, though a couple of them probably have a legitimate case to want to start somewhere and for a better team than the Royals. Yesterday, a very real fear came over me when I saw that the Reds had DFAed Jose Peraza. I even made a joke on Twitter about how we can go ahead and pencil him in for a bunch of plate appearances for the Royals. And then, when I started thinking about the roster, I realized it may not be a joke.

He’s actually everything the Royals often love in a player. In 2019, he played 441.1 innings at second, 226 at shortstop, 153.1 in the outfield, 25 at third base and even pitched an inning and a third. He’s just a year removed from hitting .288/.326/.416. He was a top-100 prospect prior to the 2016 season, so the pedigree is there as well. Defensively, he rated pretty well on the infield but struggled in the outfield, but he has wheels even though he doesn’t run the bases particularly well. I mean, if there’s a match made in heaven, it’s Peraza and Moore. I have a very real fear that maybe the player who got non-tendered that led to Mejia getting the heave-ho was actually Peraza and the more I think about my joke tweet, the more I think that yeah, I shouldn’t have put that in the universe.

(For what it’s worth, Charlie Culberson was also non-tendered by the Braves, so maybe he was the guy Dayton had his eye on. I’m not sure I’d like that much more given that he’s only really had one above average season with the bat. But outside of 2019, he’s at least really picked it at shortstop, so there’s that at least.)

Spring training doesn’t start for nearly two and a half months, so many of these roster questions will be answered between now and then. While I’m currently penciling in McBroom and O’Hearn on the active roster, maybe neither one ends up there or maybe just one does. Maybe the Royals send Lopez back to Omaha for a few weeks if Gordon comes back and Merrifield plays second base (of course, there’s an even bigger utility infielder need then).

As of right now, I have the Royals payroll hovering around the $75 million to $80 million mark. We don’t know what Soler is going to be paid and the pre-arb guys haven’t finalized their deals, so it’s hard to say exactly, but after opening at $96 million last year, according to Cots, and not wanting to make a huge payroll splash, I’d say they probably have somewhere between $15 million and $30 million to spend if they so choose. There are worse ways to spend it than to dive into the non-tender pool and come out with guys like Blake Treinen, Kevin Gausman, Taijuan Walker, Travis Shaw and maybe a Josh Phegley type behind the plate (because, yes, I think the Royals move Gallagher and go with a veteran behind Perez). One of those worse ways would be on Peraza, but I digress.

Oh, and there’ll be a bunch of relievers added. They’ll take one in the Rule 5 next week, maybe two. They’ll sign a handful to minor league deals. They’ll sign a couple to big league deals. But the moves the Royals made Monday when they made the decisions they did helped to somehow simultaneously make the 2020 roster a lot clearer and a lot cloudier. They’re good at that. Now we wait to find out what’s next and just hope it’s not a light-hitting utility infielder who will get way too many at bats.