The last of three teams that finished with the same record, the Kansas City Royals (71-91) finished in 4th place in the AL Central division – a familiar place for the Royals, who have finished in 4th or 5th place 14 of the last 16 seasons, and have only had a winning record once in the same span. But, as dismal as that seems – the Royals are a team that looks to be on the verge of having some very good years, due in large part to some excellent developments in their farm system. With a large number of prospects listed near the top of their position, and with many making the jump to the big leagues late in 2011, 2012 looks like a promising year for Kansas City fans.
It seems as though Kansas City has finally figured out how to put together a competitive team while residing in the third smallest market in all of baseball. When you can’t pay the big-time free agents, you have to rely on developing young players to come up and be effective while you can still afford to pay them. All that being said, I’m not convinced that ANY major league team has to have a payroll as puny as Kansas City’s was – just over $36 million in 2011. Based on the average ticket price and average attendance at their games, the Royals would have made this up in ticket sales alone – nevermind all of the revenue from concessions, memorabilia sales, and the revenue shared with them by teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. The last three years have been $58, $70, and $71 million respectively. So, I see no reason for not spending more money than they are – IF it means putting a competitive team on the field. Let’s go into this discussion assuming that Kansas City can afford a $60-70 million payroll in 2012. What might that team look like?
Keyword = YOUNG. The 2011 Royals only had 3 players on their 25-man roster over the age of 30. And, none of those have contracts guaranteed for 2012. Technically, nearly all of the Royals roster doesn’t have guaranteed contracts for 2012, as they only have $9.75 million spoken for. However, there are several that are pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible, plus a few that have team options that could be picked up. And, the vast majority of their young players are worthy of offering multi-year contracts. Of the options that are available for 2012, picking up Joakim Soria for his $6 million option makes sense, as does the $4 million option for Jeff Francoeur (though Francoeur’s is a mutual option, which he might feel is a little below what he’s worth – if that’s the case, KC should be willing to pay him as much as $6-8 million per year over a 3-year contract).
Offense is not a problem in Kansas City. They ranked 10th in runs scored in all of baseball, and 7th in team OPS – ahead of playoff teams Arizona, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. In spite of not having one guy that is likely to hit 35-40 home runs, they do have at least 4 (possibly 6) that will hit 20+ in any given season, and will have high OPS’s. The concern for Royals fans is keeping this group together. It hasn’t been done in the past, but this is a young group that could be coming into its prime all at the same time. It would be a shame not to keep it together. The best-case scenario would be for the Royals to keep the starting 9 of: Hosmer (1B), Getz (2B), Escobar (SS), Moustakas (3B), Perez (C), Gordon (LF), Cabrera (CF), Francouer (RF), and Butler (DH). Of these, once Francouer’s contract is taken care of, Melky Cabrera, Alex Gordon, and Chris Getz are all eligible for arbitration, while the others are younger and are pre-arbitration eligible, which means they will make near-league-minimums until KC offers them multi-year contracts or they become arbitration eligible. Getz won’t command more than $500k-$1 million in arbitration, so that’s a definite go for the Royals. Cabrera and Gordon, however, both ranked in the top 30 in the AL in OPS, ahead of Francoeur. It may be in Kansas City’s best interests to go ahead and give their entire outfield (Francoeur, Gordon & Cabrera) 3-4 year deals. This would secure the three until they are about 32 years old. For a solid core group of 3 like that, it would be worth $20-25 million per year. And, by the time their contracts run out, it will be time to give multi-year deals to your infielders like Hosmer, Moustakas, and Perez, assuming they continue to develop, and have young outfield prospects to replace the guys that want bigger money. All told, the starting lineup and bench should only cost KC around $40 million, if they go ahead and secure their veterans with contracts as high as $8 million/year (or less, if they give them something like a 4-year/$30 million deal that starts at about $5.5-6 million the first season).
As great as the offense was in 2011 – the pitching was the polar opposite. So, it’s a good thing for KC that they have such young and talented position players, because they desperately need to spend some serious money on pitching. The Royals have some very good starting pitching prospects (a LOT of which are LHP’s – watch out for them!), but they all seem to be about another year or two away from making the jump to the big leagues. So, it certainly won’t hurt KC to spend around $30 million on their pitching staff for 2012. Soria accounts for $6 million of that, and that’s about right for a very good closer, who had an out-of-the-ordinary year in 2011. Bruce Chen was their most valuable pitcher in 2011, since he went 12-8 with a 3.77 ERA. But, he should be your #3 starter, not your #1. Luke Hochevar (the second-best starter in 2011) looks to be improving each year, but you can’t rely on him to necessarily be your #2. The good thing about Chen & Hochevar, though, is that they won’t command big contracts in 2012 – probably no more than $2 million each, which is very reasonable for possible #3 & #4 starters. Jeff Francis has to be let go, as does Kyle Davies. Even bringing up a youngster to fill the #5 spot would be better than paying those two what they might want. Though, Felipe Paulino might do well in that position.
So, the money needs to be spent getting your top two spots in the rotation filled. Due the small market of KC, I don’t see them going out and spending $10+ million/year on a guy like C.J. Wilson. So, what KC needs to do is look at the lesser-known names in the free agent market that are still very good starters. Fortunately for Kansas City, that’s what we mostly have this off-season in the starting pitching market. Names like Paul Maholm, and Hiroki Kuroda would definitely be at the top of the list, with salaries in the $8 million range. Then you might consider guys like Joel Piniero or Aaron Harang, who should be a little cheaper. Spending $15-20 million on your top two spots in the pitching rotation would be wise for a team in KC’s position. After Soria, your bullpen had a few bright spots in 2011. Aaron Crow was an all-star, and finished with a 2.76 ERA. Greg Holland had an excellent year with a minuscule 1.80 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. And, while he didn’t fair too well in his two appearances in the majors, Kelvin Herrera looks to be a top-notch reliever, as he had a 1.60 ERA and 0.84 WHIP at three stops in the minors in 2011. The bad news is all of these, including Soria, are RHP’s. The best left-handed bullpen help came from Tim Colllins, who had a 3.63 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 67 innings – not terrible, but you need that one guy that can come in and shut down left-handed bats. Which is why KC should go after Javier Lopez as hard as they can. He’ll only cost $3-3.5 million, and he’s a very solid left-handed reliever that will compliment the rest of the staff well. All in all, it looks like the Royals could have a starting staff of Maholm/Kuroda, Piniero/Harang, Chen, Hochevar, and Paulino (or a rookie), backed up by a bullpen of Soria, Crow, Holland, Herrera, Collins and Lopez. This should cost around $30 million, making the 2012 roster about $70 million.
This makes for what should be a very nice offense with a much more reliable pitching staff. Your thoughts?