For the last several years, it’s been sort of impossible to predict the which way the winds of free agency will blow. Will it be an all-out spending frenzy? Or will austerity rule the day? Given these Uncertain Economic Times, it’s probably a decent guess that we will see the latter.
The Royals, like every other major league operation, are approaching the offseason with caution. The first order of business for a club once the World Series is over and the free agent market is open, is to figure out who to tender contracts to ahead of the December 2 deadline. Generally, these are relatively straightforward decisions with maybe one or two surprises thrown in for good measure. This year, the Royals have nine players eligible for arbitration. That’s a high number, to be sure, but one that’s not necessarily out of line for a young, rebuilding team such as the Royals.
However, in this group, there are some decisions to be made. The club has already made a couple of those with the jettisoning of starter Mike Montgomery and reliever Kevin McCarthy. Those were early moves that were more about moving players off the 60-day IL and back to the 40-man roster. Certainly, cost was a factor in who the Royals decided to move off the roster as Montgomery was projected to earn around $3 million through the arbitration process while they penciled McCarthy in at around $800,000.
But as that December deadline looms, there are other considerations in play. General Manager Dayton Moore addressed those in a Zoom call with reporters on the eve of the Virtual GM Meetings. “Were still trying to manage through how arbitration is going to unfold, you know, what the formula is going to be. Are they going to pro-rate the numbers over 162, which to me, works in favor for some players, but for others it does not,” Moore said. “And so I think there’s probably a way to compromise and be more fair in that process, but they have yet to determine how it’s going to work. It will be interesting to see.”
Clubs are just as much in the dark as the analysts on the outside when it comes to the arbitration process. Even MLB Trade Rumors, the site that publishes arbitration estimates every year with a decent track record of success, took the approaches Moore was describing where they modeled on both a 60 game season and an extrapolated 162. According to Moore, Scott Sharp and Jin Wong are spearheading this effort for the Royals. Presumably they are planning for every scenario imaginable. What a nightmare.
While the team is operating in the dark (for now) about how arbitration will be handled, they do have to assemble a budget toward the 2021 season. The Royals have historically been transparent about how they plan to operate in a given offseason, although they have been less so in the last couple of years. Moore again wouldn’t discuss hard numbers when it came to how much money was available for a roster, but he did provide some insight as to how they will operate going forward.
“We’ve talked about the importance of a three year period, of what we think our projections will be,” Moore said. It’s notable that the Royals are looking at the larger picture when it comes to budget. I’m sure they’ve done this in the past, but it’s rarely been articulated by Moore. It just makes sense for any club to look forward this way.
However, he did seem to signal that there won’t be much spending this winter. Payroll is going to be low. “The product of the experience level of our players, where they are in their service time is naturally going to keep our payroll a little bit down. Which I’m more than fine with because we have to continue to give our young players opportunity if we’re going to get back to a championship level of play.”
For those of you who look to parallels to the past, this reminds me a little of the 2011 season. That was the year payroll was slashed almost in half by the removal of the Gil Meche, Jose Guillen and Zack Greinke contracts. With Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez in the final year of their extensions, there’s nothing quite that drastic ahead for 2021, but it’s possible the Royals could be inching even lower a year from now. As I pointed out at the time, it wasn’t that the Royals were cheap. It was simply a product of the economics of the game.
Moore insists he isn’t so focused on how much the Royals will spend. “I’m not really concerned about what the payroll is, I’m just more concerned about who the players are. Do they make sense for our team at this particular time? I’m confident if there was a player or two out there that fit with this group, with this timeline, we’ll be able to be aggressive and try and get them here in Kansas City.”
The key statement from above is “if there was a player or two.” There will presumably be plenty of options once the market is flooded with non-tenders the first week of December. And that’s with the usual healthy list of free agents already searching for clubs. Given all the options that will be available, we still don’t know how the new ownership group will operate in the free market. Moore indicates that John Sherman will be willing to pursue a player that fits the time and the culture. “The players that we look to bring in will be individuals that fit our style of play, blend in well with this young group and can help propel them to get even better,” Moore said.
But don’t look to them to sign players as building blocks. The Royals believe they already have those pieces in the system. As in their championship run five years ago, they’ll look to augment the talent present.
“Free agency has been proven time and time again… it’s a failed way to build your team. You build your team from the draft, internationally, player development, transitioning young players to the major leagues, allowing them to compete, perform and get better at the major league level… We’re in that process right now with some of our players, we’re going to continue with that process.”
Free agency isn’t the only avenue available to teams looking to add players. The trade market is an option as well. And with the Royals flush with prospects, they could be active players in some deals. But Moore indicated that market is completely on ice at the moment. “The trade market truthfully, from the discussions we’ve had, is there’s not as much discussion on that right now and I think it’s because of the incomplete season in 2020,” Moore said. “There’s always a level of insecurity that exists within an organization when you make a trade under the best of circumstances, and so I think some of that is more magnified because of the shortened season.”
With a frozen trade market, along with the insecurity Moore describes, that really just leaves free agency as the lone method to add any kind of roster impact. The top tier free agents will certainly get paid—which moves them out of the Royals pocketbook—the baseball middle class looks to be affordable to almost all teams. While Moore is correct in that free agency isn’t a way to build a team, it’s increasingly looking like there are going to be bargains to be found this winter. They could not only supplement their roster, but they could fill some holes that have plagued this team for years. But while the Royals have, in the past, jumped quickly in the winter, it looks like they are, along with the rest of baseball, determined to play the waiting game.
It’s looking like a long, cold winter in Kansas City.