Kansas City Royals, (80-82)
Additions: Cody Asche, Scott Barlow, Blaine Boyer, Clay Buchholz, Tyler Collins, Lucas Duda, Ryan Goins, Justin Grimm, Jesse Hahn, Jon Jay, Brad Keller, Ricky Nolasco, Trevor Oaks, Wily Peralta, Michael Saunders, Burch Smith
Subtractions: Scott Alexander, Ryan Buchter, Melky Cabrera, Trevor Cahill, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Minor, Mike Morin, Brandon Moss, Peter Moylan, Joakim Soria, Jason Vargas
With the possible exception of the Marlins, who were faced with trading as many players as they saw fit in order to cut costs, the Royals had more at stake than any other major-league club heading into this offseason. And though they ended up losing two of their best hitters, a pitcher who tied for the major-league lead in wins, and several key members of their bullpen, they somehow remain exciting heading into 2018.
Rumors of a reunion with longtime shortstop Alcides Escobar had been going around dating back to last season, so it wasn’t a surprise when the Royals brought back the 31-year-old in late January. But many considered it unlikely that the Royals would re-sign any other members of the “core four” group of free-agent position players: first baseman Eric Hosmer, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, and third baseman Mike Moustakas. Cain — who remains productive but is undisputedly risky going forward as a center fielder heading into his age-32 season — always seemed to be the least likely member of the group to return, and indeed he was the first member of the group to come off the board, signing a five-year deal with the Brewers in January. Judging by both media reports and GM Dayton Moore’s comments this spring, Hosmer was the player who they pursued most heavily this offseason. They made several cost-cutting moves — dealing DH Brandon Moss and relievers Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander while receiving little in return — presumably to create payroll space for a Hosmer deal, but their efforts went for naught when he decided to sign with the Padres in mid-February. After Hosmer opted to go elsewhere, it certainly seemed possible, if not likely, that the Royals would tear down and rebuild from the ground up, with starter Danny Duffy, second baseman Whit Merrifield, and catcher Salvador Perez being trade chips that they could potentially flip for prospects.
Due to a stagnant free-agent market that played significantly in favor of teams rather than players, though, it’s arguable that the Royals’ roster could be just as good as it was last year. If there was any doubt that Moore was genuinely dedicated to putting the best possible team on the field all the time (that doubt probably should have been eliminated when he decided not to trade any of his pending free agents last summer), it was totally destroyed when Moore took advantage of baseball’s slow-moving free-agent market and added seven big-league veterans — four on major-league deals, three on minor-league pacts — after spring training began.
That group included Moustakas, who was unable to cash out on the market and ended up returning to Kansas City on an extremely club-friendly one-year deal that will pay him $6.5 million plus incentives and includes a mutual option for 2019. It also included first baseman Lucas Duda, who hit five more homers than Hosmer last season and has a 120 OPS+ that is nine points higher than that of the player he’s replacing. Two former Cubs — Jon Jay, who lacks Cain’s power or defensive ability but posted a higher OBP (.374) than his predecessor last year, and Justin Grimm, a right-handed reliever who could give Kansas City’s bullpen a boost if he can rediscover his mechanics — rounded out the big-league bargain-bin additions. Though none of Ricky Nolasco, Clay Buchholz, or Michael Saunders — the three players who signed minor-league deals after camp started — figure to start the season with the big-league club, all three have experienced significant big-league success in the not-too-distant past and have the potential to make an impact at some point this year.
As crazy as it would have been to imagine in mid-January, when their projected lineup featured several career minor-leaguers and they had almost no experienced relievers, the Royals are a rather deep club heading into the regular season. They could use more reliable relievers — and after they failed to re-sign Hosmer and brought back Moustakas on the cheap, their decision to trade Alexander mainly so they could dump Soria’s salary looks like a bad one — but for the most part, there are no needs that they totally failed to address this offseason. Even after losing Cain, they actually have pretty impressive outfield depth, and young infielders like Frank Schwindel, Ryan O’Hearn, Ramon Torres, Adalberto Mondesi, Cheslor Cuthbert, and Hunter Dozier will be chomping at the bit for an opportunity if any of the Royals’ starting infielders go down.
As always seems to be the case, they’re counting on a bunch of wild cards in the rotation and the bullpen. They won the 2015 World Series while getting surprising performances out of pitchers like Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Kris Medlen, Franklin Morales, and Ryan Madson, though. Having Wade Davis at that point was a huge boost, no doubt, but it’d be foolish to assert that they can’t compete just because their pitching staff is comprised primarily of B-list names.
The Royals lost two of their best three hitters from a year ago in Hosmer and Cain, one of their most durable starters in Vargas, and perhaps most significantly, their four most productive relievers in Alexander, Soria, Mike Minor, and Peter Moylan. Duda and Jay probably won’t match the production of Cain and Hosmer, but they’re solid replacements, and it’s very possible that Junis will be more effective than Vargas as he takes over his rotation role. We know the Royals can quickly piece together an effective bullpen; last spring, after all, Alexander was an unheralded 27-year-old with just 21 big-league appearances, Soria was coming off a 2016 season in which he posted a 4.05 ERA and 4.36 WHIP, Minor hadn’t pitched in a big-league game in over two years, and Moylan was a non-roster invitee fighting for a job.
The Royals are playing in a top-heavy AL Central, but since they get to play a combined 38 games against the tanking White Sox and Tigers this season, they figure to be better than most thought they’d be a few months ago — and if they catch a few lucky breaks, they might even be sneaky wild-card contenders.