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Those fiscally aggressive Royals

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All they do is spend, spend, spend.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

The Royals are aggressive in free agency? What? The Royals? Normally when the Royals are being aggressive, it’s in a hit and run, sac bunt small ball kind of way. But now they’re being aggressive in a...fiscal way? Again…the Royals?

Well, they certainly have been in the first few weeks of the offseason. And to hear Dayton Moore tell it, that’s by design—a path decided well before the offseason began.

A week after adding center fielder Michael A. Taylor and starting pitcher Mike Minor, the Royals inked another free agent on Tuesday, adding first baseman—and noted Royal killer—Carlos Santana to the fold. The switch hitter inked a two-year deal worth an initial $17.5 million.

“He (Santana) was one of the primary targets for us,” Moore said on Tuesday afternoon. “We started talking mid to late-July of players who would potentially fit for us. Carlos Santana’s name was at the forefront of that, based on the opportunity we perceived would present itself for us.”

The 2020 season was just getting underway when the Royals were setting their sights on free agent targets. They obviously weren’t perturbed by Santana posting career lows in almost every key offensive stat including OBP (.349 against a career .366), slugging (an abysmal .350 versus a career rate of .446) and wRC+ (95, the first time in his career he finished below league average).

That dreadful 2020 season comes on the heels of what was arguably the best season of Santana’s career in 2019. That year he hit a tremendous .281/.397/.515 with a wRC+ of 135. Those numbers were all career highs outside of his abbreviated debut in 2010 where he played in 46 games. Yin and yang, indeed.

A couple things are clearly at play. First, the 2019 season should be seen as an outlier. He was just miles better than he had ever been. It is unrealistic to expect all of those statistics to be replicated at this stage of his career. Second, COVID-ball is going to give you some strange numbers.

Santana could be Exhibit A for how it can be impossible to evaluate the 2020 season for some players. Was there something that threw off his prep so he was never able to get on track? Santana is generally a slow starter—his splits for April and May are generally his worst months—so did that play into his overall performance, given that there were only two months of the season?

Whatever the reason, Moore is comfortable in trusting Santana to bounce back. “Obviously (it was) a shortened season, as we all know, but the on base skill was still very, very good. The hard hit was down a little bit but there was still enough data there for our research and development to feel comfortable going forward with the projections. Again, our scouting judgement was very strong on him. He was at the top of the list of the bats we were looking to acquire.”

Moore noted very early in this offseason that OBP was an area where the lineup needed to improve. We've heard those statements before and then seen moves that... didn’t make much sense. Bringing in Santana definitely helps the offense in that area. Even in a down year, his OBP was 27 points above the league average. On the 2020 Royals, his .349 OBP would’ve been second highest to... Salvador Perez. (See what I mean about some strange numbers in Covid-ball?)

But this is the Royals and as Moore will tell you, the constraints of market size play a large role in who they pursue. “It comes down to a financial evaluation as well,” Moore continued. “And that was the last piece of this puzzle. We tried to be as aggressive as possible.”

If there was a buzzword associated with Moore’s meeting with the media, it was aggressive.

It apparently starts at the top.

“John Sherman has made it very clear—he wants us to be aggressive,” Moore said. “Take advantage of the market if we can. Whatever we need to do to zig and zag when everybody is doing something a little different. We determined very early that it was going to be a slow market but we were convicted on who our targets were.”

This isn’t some sort of eureka moment. This type of strategy makes all sort of sense. The Royals have been one of the few teams who haven’t made some kind of misstep with finances during the pandemic. And now they’re translating that to the hot stove. Where it’s barely simmering for some teams, the Royals are over here cranking up the burners. At least as much as they can given their market size. If the majority of baseball is being cautious, tiptoeing around the middle class of free agents, a smart team would swim against that tide. They would be... well, aggressive.

Santana is now the 11th player the Royals have under contract for 2021. They are committed to roughly $67 million to those players.

Royals Estimated 2021 Payroll - Signed Players

Player 2021 2022
Player 2021 2022
Danny Duffy 15,500,000 FA
Salvador Perez 14,200,000 FA
Jorge Soler 8,005,000 FA
Carlos Santana 7,000,000 10,500,000
Mike Minor 7,000,000 10,000,000
Whit Merrifield 6,750,000 2,750,000
Hunter Dozier 2,720,000 Arb 2
Michael A Taylor 1,750,000 FA
Jesse Hahn 1,750,000 FA
Jake Junis 1,700,000 Arb 2
Franchy Cordero 800,000 Arb 2
TOTAL 67,175,000 23,250,000

Of course that doesn’t include Adalberto Mondesi or Brad Keller, both of whom were tendered contracts but have yet to reach an agreement. MLB Trade Rumors estimates Keller will make $4.3 million while Mondesi will pocket $3.8 million. If you include those two on the table above, it will look like this:

Royals 2021 Payroll - Signed Players and Arbitration Eligibles

Player 2021 2022
Player 2021 2022
Danny Duffy 15,500,000 FA
Salvador Perez 14,200,000 FA
Jorge Soler 8,005,000 FA
Carlos Santana 7,000,000 10,500,000
Mike Minor 7,000,000 10,000,000
Whit Merrifield 6,750,000 2,750,000
Brad Keller 4,300,000 Arb 2
Adalberto Mondesi 3,800,000 Arb 2
Hunter Dozier 2,720,000 Arb 2
Michael A Taylor 1,750,000 FA
Jesse Hahn 1,750,000 FA
Jake Junis 1,700,000 Arb 2
Franchy Cordero 800,000 Arb 2
Total 75,275,000 23,250,000

That leaves 13 spots to fill. Currently, those players would be those with less than three years of service time who will make close to the major league minimum of $570,500 next year. Some will make a little more, others will be very close to that mark. For this exercise, let’s give them all the minimum. That puts the Royals 2021 payroll a little north of $82 million.

For perspective, Opening Day payroll in 2019 was just over $96 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That was the first time in five years the payroll dropped under $100 million to open the season. Of course, there’s a new owner at the helm. It appears he wants to be… aggressive.

And the way Moore and the Royals have closed the deals on the three free agents they’ve already signed, they’re leaving space for more. “Financially we’re in a position to add a little bit more money, a little more flexibility in the payroll. And certainly beyond that there’s a little more flexibility as well. These deals were backloaded a little bit to give us a little more flexibility in 2021.”

How flexible they can be is anyone’s guess. The aggressiveness is great, but there has to be a limit. And with the pandemic the unknowns of what 2021 holds, it figures they’re approaching that limit rather quickly. But they talk of relationships so it wouldn’t be out of the question to see them pursue familiar faces such as Trevor Rosenthal or Greg Holland. The bullpen can always use some arms.

When the Royals entered the offseason they wanted to accomplish several things. They wanted to add a veteran starting pitcher to their rotation. They wanted to add a defensive-first center fielder. And they wanted to add a bopper with high OBP-ability to the the middle of the order. They’ve accomplished all those and we’re only halfway through the Winter Meetings and there’s flexibility in the current payroll.

We will have wait until they play the games to see how this all pans out. Right now it feels like the lineup is improved and to be able to say that so early in December feels promising. These Royals... They’re aggressive.