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Questions for the Royals going into this off-season

Can this team improve?

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Dayton Moore general manager of the Kansas City Royals watches batting practice prior to a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Kauffman Stadium on June 12, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The post-season rolls on, but the off-season will be upon us before you know it. The Royals have been very quiet the last few off-seasons, but they could be a team that makes some noise this winter. The club is at a crossroads now where they have made some progress, but are still far from where they want to be in the standings. With that in mind, let’s look at the biggest questions the Royals face going into this off-season.

What will the outfield look like next year?

The Royals started Alex Gordon, Bubba Starling, and Whit Merrifield in the outfield on Opening Day this year, and there is a decent chance that the next Opening Day will have a completely different outfield. Gordon retired, Starling will likely be a reserve and may be a candidate to be dropped from the roster, and Merrifield could move to second base or be traded.

The Royals acquired young outfielders Edward Olivares and Franchy Cordero in separate trades from the Padres last year, and each showed flashes of potential in short stints this summer. Expect each of them to get more regular playing time this year, with a free agent potentially brought in as a placeholder until outfield prospects Kyle Isbel or Khalil Lee is ready.

Can the Royals add players that get on-base more?

Dayton Moore says the team needs “more on-base guys”, and for good reason. The Royals finished 12th out of 15 American League teams in on-base percentage last year, and have finished higher than eighth in in the category just three times in the last 20 years (2003, 2011, 2015).

Moore has previously said that on-base percentage hitters can be quite pricey on the free agent market, since everyone values them. Alec Lewis of The Athletic took a look at the affordable free agents with the best on-base percentages with Joc Pederson and Mallex Smith among the best of the bunch. Those may not be inspiring names, but any hitter that can help lift the club’s .309 on-base percentage last year would be an improvement.

Will Whit Merrifield be traded?

Trade rumors have swirled around Whit Merrifield the last two seasons, but the chances of him actually getting dealt seem to have faded a bit. His performance has dipped the last two seasons from his peak 2018 season, although he is still a very valuable player on a very club-friendly deal. With a crop of young pitchers coming up, the Royals will more likely be looking to add pieces to get back to contention after four straight losing seasons.

Still, Dayton Moore has never totally ruled out trading Merrifield. The asking price has been high, but more teams may be done rebuilding and looking to build their teams up this winter. And Merrifield’s low salary could make him quite attractive to several cost-conscious clubs. If the Royals see Nicky Lopez as the future at second base, and have a crop of young outfielders in Olivares, Cordero, Lee, and Isbel, perhaps Merrifield becomes more expendable, particularly if the Royals can get an impact prospect in return.

Will the Royals bring back their veteran relievers?

Dayton Moore played the minor league free agent market and hit twice on veteran relievers, getting solid seasons out of Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland. Rosenthal was flipped to the Padres for Olivares, but the Royals indicated they would like to bring him back as a free agent. Rosenthal was one of the top 15 most-valuable relievers this year by WAR, according to Fangraphs, and re-established his fastball with the fourth-fastest heater in baseball, so there could be quite a bidding war for his services.

Expect Greg Holland to also attract interest after he posted a 1.91 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 28 13 innings, including 13 scoreless outings to the end the year. Ian Kennedy could also be a candidate to return, although it will have to be on a much cheaper and shorter deal than his previous one. However, with Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer, Josh Staumont, Tyler Zuber, and Jesse Hahn looking so impressive last season, the Royals may not have to add very many veterans.

Will anyone be moved to the bullpen?

The Royals received solid rookie performances from Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, and Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Asa Lacy, and perhaps even more pitchers could break through and make their Major League debuts in the rotation next season. Brad Keller is a lock to stay in the rotation, but the pipeline of pitching prospects may force veteran starters like Mike Mongomery, Jakob Junis, and possibly even Danny Duffy into the bullpen.

Montgomery has experience in the pen before and missed nearly all of this season with injury, so if he is tendered a contract and brought back, he seems most likely to move to the pen. There have been whispers of Junis moving to the pen for a year, with the hopes that his stuff will play better and he will be less home run prone in short stints. And even Danny Duffy could be a candidate to become a reliever despite his big salary, and with his stuff he could prove to be a dominant late-inning reliever.

Will John Sherman spend money on this club?

Sherman and his ownership group bought into baseball at the worst possible time, just before a pandemic struck and kept fans away from ballparks. But having such a large ownership group may help absorb some of the financial losses from this year, putting the Royals in a better position than some other clubs.

Payroll obligations have been going down the last few seasons, and the Royals are committed to just $36 million in player contracts for next year. The club made some progress last year, but fans will likely want to see the team make moves to get closer to contention. That will mean making an attempt to sign free agents that can make an impact, not simply shopping in the bargain bin.

Sherman’s group has shown they are willing to invest long-term in paying for minor league salaries and fall instructional camps, so perhaps we could see them invest in players with long-term contracts. Adalberto Mondesi, Brad Keller, and Brady Singer are the most likely targets for some sort of long-term deal, although Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier could also be candidates despite their age. Sherman has said a lot of things to generate goodwill with the fanbase, but the real test will be whether he is back up his rhetoric with the resources Dayton Moore needs to restore this franchise to contention.