This off-season for the Royals has been a bit of a snoozefest. The team has signed pitchers Jordan Lyles, Ryan Yarbrough, and Aroldis Chapman, and traded outfielder Michael A. Taylor for two minor league pitchers, but these are moves at the periphery. On one hand, that’s a bit surprising considering that J.J. Picollo has free reign now and may want to make his mark on the club that lost 97 games last year. On the other hand, he seems willing to go with the young players he has had a hand in developing and acquiring in his time here.
But the Royals haven’t always been this boring in the off-season. What are some of the more exciting off-seasons they have had?
1989-1990 The Davis brothers
The 1989 Royals finished with the third-best record in baseball, but with no Wild Card at the time, that just left them at home in October having finished seven games back of Oakland. The A’s were known as a high-octane offensive team with the “Bash Brothers” - Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. The Royals sought to neutralize that with pitching. They already had reigning Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen along with Mark Gubicza and promising rookie Tom Gordon. They filled out their rotation by stealing Storm Davis from Oakland’s rotation with a three-year, $6 million deal, and adding former White Sox veteran Rich Dotson. That allowed them to trade away disappointing lefty Charlie Leibrandt to the Braves for All-Star first baseman Gerald Perry.
But the big move was yet to come. Padres closer Mark Davis was coming off a career season in which he led the league in saves. His availability sent teams into a frenzy, but the Royals bowed out of bidding early on when it seemed the price tag would be too high. But it became clear Davis was not interested in pitching for cellar-dwelling teams like the Phillies, Tigers, or Yankees (yes, the Yankees were awful at this time!) Davis shocked the baseball world by signing with the Royals on a four-year, $13 million deal that at the time made him the highest-paid player in baseball.
The move would fail to pan out however, as both Davis pitchers struggled in Kansas City, and the age of the team began to show. Storm would be demoted to the bullpen in the second year of his deal, then traded to Baltimore for year three. Mark would lose his closer’s job by Memorial Day, and was traded to the Braves just two years into the deal. The 1990 Royals would finish 75-86.
1992-1993 David Cone returns
The Ed Hearn-for-David Cone trade was slammed as the worst trade in club history after Cone went on to win 20 games and earn All-Star appearances with the Mets, while injuries kept Hearn from spending much time on the field. After winning a championship with the 1992 Blue Jays, Cone was a free agent and he looked to come home, to the city he grew up in and the team that traded him away way back when.
The 1992 Royals lost 90 games, their worst season in 22 years, and after a few middling seasons, owner Ewing Kauffman was willing to spend what it took to get back in contention, despite allegedly losing $11 million that season. The Royals courted top free agents, making a four-year offer to slugger Joe Carter, who made Kansas City his off-season home, and even meeting with ace pitcher Greg Maddux. But David Cone would be the Kansas City native the Royals landed, signing a three-year, $18 million deal to come home.
The Royals had a hole at shortstop they looked to fill by acquiring Tony Fernandez from the Padres for possibly catcher Brent Mayne or first baseman Jeff Conine, but Fernandez would end up on the Mets, while Conine was selected by the Marlins in the expansion draft. After free agent Ozzie Smith turned down a two-year offer, the Royals turned to free agent Greg Gagne, who signed a three-year, $10.6 million deal. To complete their infield defense upgrade, they acquired Gold Glove-winning second baseman Jose Lind from the Pirates.
2006-2007 The Royals land a big fish
Dayton Moore took over the Royals in June of 2006 and quickly got to work rebuilding an organization that was in disrepair. He made some trades over the summer, but that off-season was his first real chance to make wholesale changes. The biggest priority was improving an awful pitching staff, and he quickly acquired pitcher Brian Bannister from the Mets for erratic reliever Ambriorix Burgos. He tried to acquire Rodrigo Lopez from the Orioles for veteran outfielder Reggie Sanders, but the Orioles pulled out of the deal.
To take the job, Moore had received assurances the club would spend more to improve the club, so he looked to land a big free agent pitcher to stabilize his team. Miguel Batista rejected a three-year, $24 million deal, but Moore went big to land a young, oft-injured but talented righty from the Mariners organization named Gil Meche. The Royals gave him five years and $55 million, outbidding the Cubs and Blue Jays for the largest deal in club history.
Rounding out the off-season were free agent signings of relievers David Riske, Octavio Dotel and John Bale, and the acquisition of Joakim Soria, a savvy Rule 5 pickup. These moves weren’t enough to move the Royals up the standings much, but it did represent a new era for the team.
2010-2011 Zack is traded
The Royals helped Zack Greinke overcome social anxiety to become the 2009 Cy Young winner. But the losing got to him, and after the 2010 season he requested a trade to a contender. This gave the Royals a chance to acquire some high profile prospects to join their top-ranked farm system, and rumors abounded as to who would land the young hurler. The Nationals, Rangers, Blue Jays, and Brewers were reported to be among the most interested, with top prospects like Jurickson Profar, Kyle Drabek, and Travis Snider at play.
The Royals had a deal with Washington to acquire infielder Danny Espinosa and pitchers Jordan Zimmerman and Drew Storen, but Greinke blocked a trade because the Nationals had been at the bottom of the standings. That led them to the Brewers, who offered shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and minor league pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. Dayton Moore was able to convince Greinke that the Brewers would be a good team for him and the deal was completed.
The Royals also made a couple of low-risk, high-reward free agent signings bringing in outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera. Both were once promising players that had seen their careers dip and were non-tendered, but each would enjoy a career renaissance in Kansas City.
2012-2013 The Royals go all-in for Big Game James
By 2012 it was clear the Royals had a nice stable of young hitters, but the starting pitching was not coming along as nicely. Dayton Moore made a shrewd trade to acquire pitcher Ervin Santana from the Angels, then re-signed veteran Jeremy Guthrie. But the big rumor was that the Royals were trying to land a true ace to front the rotation. They pursued some high-dollar pitchers like Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez, and Kyle Lohse, but were also willing to dip into their top-ranked farm system to engineer a big trade if needed. There were rumors they were in on Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester and Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey, with young Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers offered as trade bait.
Ultimately, the Royals swung a blockbuster deal with the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis, offering Myers, Odorizzi, pitcher Mike Montgomery, and outfielder Patrick Leonard. It was the biggest acquisition the Royals had made in years, and Shields would provide the leadership the Royals needed to win a pennant in 2014.
2013-2014 Building a pennant winner
The surprise late-season run at a Wild Card spot gave Royals fans hopes that the team was not far from being a serious contender, hopes that would prove to be well-founded. The Royals raised hopes by making a “major announcement”, and fans were a bit disappointed when it turned out to be a four-year, $32 million deal with free agent Jason Vargas. But he turned out to be a shrewd pickup and a solid rotation piece.
There were trade rumors the Royals could deal Billy Butler or Greg Holland to fill other needs and gain some payroll flexibility, but ultimately they hung onto those players who ended up helping the Royals to the pennant. The Royals sought a reunion with veteran Carlos Beltrán to be the bat they needed, but he would sign with the Yankees. Instead, the Royals made a quiet trade to acquire Nori Aoki from the Brewers to fill right field, then outbid the Yankees to sign free agent second baseman Omar Infante to a four-year, $30 million deal.
2014-2015 Getting over the hump
Fresh off their surprising post-season run, the Royals had to fill some holes while adding enough pieces to get them back to the World Series. Free agents Aoki, Butler, and Shields would all depart, and there were trade rumors the Royals would have to deal one of their talented relievers - Greg Holland, Wade Davis, or Kelvin Herrera - to fill those needs. Phillies lefty Cole Hamels and Diamondbacks pitcher Ian Kennedy were among the pitchers the Royals were said to be targeting.
They turned to the free agent starting pitching market and almost landed lefty Francisco Liriano, while also pursuing Brandon McCarthy, Ervin Santana, and Brett Anderson. They even made a pitch to top free agent Jon Lester, who ultimately signed with the Cubs. The Royals would wait out the market and take a gamble on Edinson Volquez with a two-year deal, a move that would prove to be huge the next October.
Dayton Moore also looked to add some bats to fill holes in right field and DH, coveting free agent Torii Hunter, who opted to return to Minnesota. Instead, the Royals landed Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales on short-term deals with both playing large roles for the championship-winning club.
2015-2016 Gordo is back
Once the championship celebration had concluded, the speculation immediately turned to whether the Royals would bring back Gold Glove-winning left fielder Alex Gordon. The former first-round pick was a free agent for the first time after the World Series, and there were rumors the rival White Sox were interested in adding his glove to their outfield.
The Royals explored some backup plans in case Gordo departed, checking on Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and free agents Denard Span, Nick Markakis and Gerardo Parra. They looked at possibly bringing back Ben Zobrist, but were priced out when he signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Cubs.
Gordo would end up staying in Kansas City, signing a four-year, $72 million deal, the largest deal in club history. But the Royals weren’t done. They needed a pitcher after losing Johnny Cueto to the Giants, and after pursuing free agents Clay Buchholz, Yovan Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, and Scott Kazmir, they landed Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal a few weeks after re-siging Gordon. The Royals also reunited with reliever Joakim Soria on a three-year, $25 million deal. The team was willing to spend money to go back to the post-season, but a late-season swoon would prevent them from defending their title.