Kansas City Royals (80-82), 3rd in AL Central
Free agents: Trevor Cahill, Lorenzo Cain, Melky Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Mike Minor, Mike Moustakas, Peter Moylan, Jason Vargas
As the Royals begin their 2017 offseason, they’re dealing with a rather unprecedented situation. They’re just two years removed from back-to-back World Series appearances (including a championship in 2015) but now face the possibility of losing a large chunk of the group who led them to that success all over the course of one winter.
Star catcher Salvador Perez is signed through 2021, and left fielder Alex Gordon—a key member of the championship core who has faded over the past two seasons—is locked up through 2019. But the four other position players who were most crucial to that success—first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and shortstop Alcides Escobar—are free agents this offseason, and due to the Royals’ spending restrictions as a small-market team, the frugal reputation of owner David Glass, and the cold-hearted reality that long-term free-agent contracts often don’t work out, it’s all but a foregone conclusion that the Royals will part ways with most if not all of their premium free agents.
That’s not even factoring in the several free agents who weren’t key players for the Royals’ World Series teams but made solid contributions to the 2017 club. Mike Minor was one of baseball’s most dominant lefty relievers in the first half (1.87 ERA, 0.97 WHIP over 43.1 innings) before a slump during late July and August left him with a still-impressive 2.55 ERA and 1.02 WHIP for the season. He turned down a $10 million option for 2018 and is likely to be one of the most highly-pursued relievers on the market this winter. Considering the Royals’ other priorities, it’s almost impossible that Kansas City will have the financial flexibility to bring him back.
Lefty Jason Vargas was another pitcher who excelled in the first half, posting a 2.62 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 17 starts on the way to his first All-Star appearance, before tanking after the break and posting a 6.38 ERA with a 1.60 WHIP. For what it’s worth, he also tied for the major-league lead in wins with 18. But particularly due to the fact that rookie Jakob Junis was the Royals’ most consistent starter down the stretch and earned himself a rotation spot for 2018, it’s a near certainty that Vargas will go elsewhere as a free agent.
With the oversaturation of the outfield market this offseason, Melky Cabrera might actually be an interesting guy for the Royals to consider bringing back, depending on whether they’re able to bring back any of Cain, Hosmer, or Moustakas. The 33-year-old was merely OK after being acquired by the Royals at the deadline, posting a .702 OPS with four homers over 238 plate appearances while playing less-than-stellar defense in right field. But Cabrera has generally been a very good contact hitter who racks up extra-base hits, and with his reputation as a great clubhouse guy, he’d be a particularly good fit for a Royals team that may be one of the youngest in the majors in 2018. His defense would still be an issue, but if Kansas City loses Hosmer in free agency, they could play Brandon Moss at first base and sign Cabrera to DH.
Ever since the subject of the Royals’ core hitting free agency together has become a hot topic, the consensus has generally been that Hosmer would have the greatest chance of remaining in a Royals uniform beyond 2017. At 28 years old, he’s the youngest among the group, and since his defense deteriorating over the length a long-term deal isn’t the same type of concern it’d be with Moustakas or Cain, he seems to be the safest long-term investment.
There are several reasons to think Hosmer won’t be as highly-coveted as most experts seem to think he’ll be this offseason. He doesn’t possess elite power; four free-agent first basemen hit more homers than he did (25) in 2017, and a fifth, Carlos Santana, is widely regarded as a better power hitter than Hosmer. Just like Cain and Moustakas, Hosmer was given a qualifying offer by the Royals, meaning teams will have to think twice before signing him and surrendering draft picks and/or international bonus pool money. Hosmer’s defense may also be of some concern to baseball’s analytically-minded front offices, despite the fact that he’s a four-time Gold Glove winner. With the exception of Miguel Cabrera, who has earned the right to play defense however he wants because he’s one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, all of the veteran first basemen who have earned long-term contracts over the past couple years have performed well in ultimate zone rating, a metric which has historically painted Hosmer in a poor light. Over the past three seasons, Hosmer has ranked 18th among 19 qualifying first basemen in UZR. Thus, the payout that Hosmer ultimately gets may be less than what’s currently being projected by many outlets.
Despite the fact that he just broke a Royals record with 38 home runs in a season and has created plenty of lasting memories in Kansas City, Moustakas seems to be the free agent among the core group that has the longest odds of returning in 2018. He’s one of only a few starting-quality third basemen on the free-agent market, and with more than a few clubs in need of upgrades at the position—including both the Angels and the Giants in his home state of California—he stands to receive a bigger payday than the Royals can reasonably justify giving him. Parting ways may end up being the smartest decision for both sides, as Moustakas’ power should play better elsewhere than it does in a spacious ballpark like Kauffman Stadium. The Royals probably would prefer not to bet on a hitter with a .251 career average and .305 on-base percentage continuing to hit for power four or five years into the future, and with concerns that his mobility will eventually decline and force him to become a first baseman or DH, he’s a risky long-term investment for a team as conscious with its spending as Kansas City is.
Cain has the toughest situation to predict. Despite the fact that he’s 31 years old, he rated very favorably defensively at an age where most center fielders are already well into their decline stage. Even with his success, Cain may see his value drop because two center fielders over 30, Denard Span and Dexter Fowler, have signed big free-agent deals over the past couple years and promptly seen their defensive metrics fall off a cliff.
But even if he’s treated as a player who will eventually have to move to an outfield corner (which he’s done before, having played 157 games in right field), Cain should be very valuable. He’s coming off a season in which he posted a .300/.363/.440 slash line with 15 homers, and he’s a very good baserunner who stole 26 bases in 2017. With that said, there doesn’t appear to be a huge market for big-money outfielders this offseason, and particularly because there’s a qualifying offer attached to him, Cain may struggle to get the contract he wants. Teams like the Mets, Rangers, and Giants are looking for outfield upgrades, but the list of potential suitors for Cain could be short enough that the Royals might have a chance to retain him.
While Hosmer is the most likely of the three franchise players to return, it also seems likely that Escobar—who is often grouped in with Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain because of his contributions to the Royals’ World Series teams, but has seen his on-base percentage drop in each of the past four seasons—could be back in Kansas City in 2018, even if it’s in a diminished role. Obviously he’s dependable in the field, but considering that he doesn’t possess much power or patience at the plate—the two offensive skills that front offices seem to value most nowadays—he should come relatively cheap. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe reported earlier this year that the Royals were likely to re-sign Escobar, and the Royals’ talk of moving 22-year-old shortstop Raul Mondesi to center field, which MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan wrote about in September, would seem to go hand-in-hand with their desire to bring back the trusted veteran.
A Royals lineup without Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, or Escobar has been a frequent source of social media panic, but in a sense the Royals are lucky in that they’ve got players with extensive big-league experience waiting in the wings if the popular veterans depart. Brandon Moss, who was inconsistent in 2017 but still managed to hit 22 homers, could slot in at first base if Hosmer departs. That’d allow either Jorge Bonifacio, who was the Royals’ primary right fielder this past season, or Jorge Soler, who saw extensive action with the 2015-16 Cubs, to take over as the designated hitter.
Cheslor Cuthbert, who posted a .731 OPS and hit 12 homers over 510 at-bats while filling in after Moustakas tore his ACL in 2016, has a very good shot at taking over the starting job at third base if the veteran slugger departs. Paulo Orlando, who hit .302/.329/.405 while starting 115 games in 2016, could be a potential replacement for Cain, though this seems to be the spot that the Royals would be most likely to address elsewhere if the incumbent starter departs. And though Kansas City has discussed moving Mondesi to the outfield, he’s long been praised for his defense at shortstop and got his feet wet by starting 53 games at second base over the past two seasons, strengthening his case to take over for Escobar if necessary in 2018.
While Kansas City will obviously have to rebuild to some degree if they lose all three of Hosmer, Cain, and Moustakas, they’re likely to be at least somewhat active in the free-agent market no matter what happens. Two outside free agents who have already been connected to the Royals are outfielder Jarrod Dyson and first baseman/DH Logan Morrison. Dyson, who was drafted by Kansas City in 2006 and remained in the organization until being traded to the Mariners last winter, has repeatedly been mentioned as a possible stopgap solution in center field if the Royals lose Cain. Morrison, a Kansas City native who’s coming off a 38-homer season for the Rays, said on MLB Network Radio Thursday that it would be a “dream come true” to play for the Royals. While he’s very similar to current Royal Brandon Moss, Morrison could be an interesting option if the Royals can’t re-sign Hosmer.
Kansas City is also likely to look at cheap free-agent relievers, a practice that has been a trademark of the Dayton Moore era. Though he’ll be 39 next season, it’s very possible that they’ll try to bring back submariner Peter Moylan, who was filthy in 2017, allowing runs in just 13 of 79 appearances.