In 2016, 2017, and 2018, the Royals ranked 13th, 15th, and 14th, respectively, in 40-man payroll at the end of the year. For a definitively small market team like the Royals, it was nice to see the payroll balloon after playoff success, and it was nice to see ownership and general manager Dayton Moore go for it in trying to extend their competitive window.
But when 2018 ended in 104 losses and the farm system still in relative shambles, it was time to scale back—and scale back the Royals did. Kansas City shed about $25 million before 2019, and another $10 million or so to the pre-COVID 2020 payroll. As a result, the last few offseasons have been...less-than-interesting, shall we say.
Things are different this offseason. Between Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon, $20 million are coming off the books. Furthermore, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy’s nearly $30 million in combined salary come off the books at the end of 2021. All told, the Royals have only $3.5 million in guaranteed payroll—Whit Merrifield’s contract—past 2021. If that sounds low, it is; no other team in the American League has as much payroll flexibility past next season, and nearly every other AL team other than Oakland and Cleveland have tens of millions of more dollars committed in guaranteed contracts after 2021.
So, the Royals have some decisions to make. These are the three ways the Royals offseason could go.
Option 1: The “Twiddle My Thumbs” Approach
What is this approach? This option is characterized primarily by a reluctance to commit resources beyond the current season. This is a low-risk, low-reward holding pattern approach that helps to keep salaries off the long-term books and allows for young players to have as many reps as possible.
Why would the Royals take this approach? There are three primary reasons why the Royals would twiddle their thumbs, as it were. First, they are a bad team. While 2020 was a definite improvement over the previous two seasons, the team played at a 70-win level. Second, even if you think the team’s true talent level moving forward is 75 or so wins, the Royals have three major contributors who are set to be free agents at the end of this year: Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, and Jorge Soler. Third, the rest of the AL Central is really good.
What would this approach look like? Frankly, this approach looks a lot like the last two offseasons. Free agent acquisitions would mostly be limited to minor league deals (like Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal in 2020, for instance) and other one-year buy low/prove it deals (Alex Gordon, arguably). No major trades would occur, though player swapping (like the Brett Phillips/Lucius Fox deal) could happen to better fill holes.
Option 2: The “Incremental Improvements” Approach
What is this approach? This option is characterized by filling gaps in the lineup, bullpen, and rotation with short-to-medium length free agent acquisitions and mid-level trades to move the team towards respectability. This is a medium-risk, medium-reward approach, as the types of mid-level free agents and players available in trades are flawed—but diamonds in the rough are possible.
Why would the Royals take this approach? Moore is somewhat obsessed with image and respectability. It’s why Kansas City didn’t embrace tanking. This approach will not result in a significantly higher number in the win column, but it would make the team far more watchable, and this approach wouldn’t have many long-term implications. If an acquisition does extremely well, they can be leveraged for younger talent without the fan backlash that would happen if the Royals traded Whit Merrifield, for instance.
What would this approach look like? You cross from Option 1 to Option 2 here when you sign someone to a substantial contract for two or more years. For the Royals, that would be signing an outfielder to a three-year deal in the vein of a Jackie Bradley, Jr. or trading for a first baseman with multiple years of control, such as Dominic Smith, and giving up a guy like Jackson Kowar to do so.
Option 3: The “Go For It” Approach
What is this approach? This option is characterized by at least one major move that reverberates in the baseball world beyond Kansas City. This is a high-risk, high-reward option that is only really validated if the newly acquired players are both good and lead the team to a playoff berth. There are many ways for it to go wrong.
Why would the Royals take this approach? The last time the Royals went to the World Series was 2015, and it was the last time they made the playoffs at all, and it was also the last time they even had a winning record. Now, Moore could either be motivated to make a move to get back to relevance as soon as possible, or new owner John Sherman could pressure Moore to get his new shiny investment out of the dumpster. Either way, it’s an alluring thought after a few years of irrelevance. Kansas City does have a rather large amount of financial flexibility at the moment, too.
What would this approach look like? There are two ways to carry out this approach: a big free agent signing, on par with the Ian Kennedy or Alex Gordon deals, or a trade similar to the Wil Myers and Friends for James Shields and Wade Davis. George Springer or Marcell Ozuna are probably the most likely FA signings in this scenario, should Sherman open the pocketbooks. The potential trades are almost infinite, but a big trade would almost certainly require more than one of the Singer/Bubic/Lynch/Kowar/Lacy quintumvirant.
Which option is most likely?
I am not a magician or a soothsayer (I promise). Furthermore, Moore makes this more difficult because he has, at times, utilized all three approaches in his decade or so years of experience with a team in rebuilding mode (which is not a point in his favor, but is a discussion for another time).
That being said, I think Option 2 is the most likely. The Royals have a hell of a lot of holes, especially on offense. They have precisely one long-term position player in place—Adalberto Mondesi at shortstop. Jorge Soler, Maikel Franco, and Salvador Perez are free agents after next season. Nicky Lopez has been a replacement-level player since day one at second base. It seems clear that the team does not consider Ryans McBroom or O’Hearn as long-term options. And while Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier are above average players, they have significant positional flexibility. Combined with the aforementioned financial freedom, there are a lot of open doors.
Either way, this offseason should be more interesting than previous offseasons—even though it’s yet another offseason in a year that has been mostly offseason. It is what it is in that regard. I’ll take interesting wherever I can get it.