It’s certainly been one of the more exciting off-seasons in a while for Royals fans. Furthermore, it’s only December 2nd, and Winter Meetings have not even begun yet, which should give Royals fans more hope that more “Hot Stove” excitement is on the way.
On Sunday, the Royals came to terms with pitcher Mike Minor, which should help solidify the rotation. Early Monday, the club signed former National Michael A. Taylor to a one-year, $1.75 million deal in order to boost their outfield defense, which was a bit lacking in 2019 and 2020.
And on Tuesday, with the MLB non-tender deadline being at 7 PM CST, the Royals front office made a flurry of moves, which was listed in full in a press release on Royals social media:
The decision to non-tender infielder Jeison Guzman, utility player Erick Mejia, and outfielder and former first round pick Bubba Starling were eye-raising, but not surprising moves. Guzman, added to the 40-man roster a year ago to be protected from the Rule 5 draft in 2019, ultimately seems like a defensive-specialist at best at the Major League level, as a lost Minor League season hurt his development. Mejia can play multiple positions, but his bat has failed to transition to the Major League level. And while Starling has shown some promise at times after being nearly left for dead as a prospect in 2018, he has accumulated a -0.9 WAR in 91 games with the Royals the past two seasons, according to Fangraphs. Hence, it was unlikely that any of these three were bound to contribute in any major way to the Royals in 2021, and it is logical that Moore would open up their spots on the roster.
As for pitcher Foster Griffin and Carlos Sanabria? Sanabria is the more surprising DFA move, especially since the Royals just recently claimed him on waivers. One has to wonder if Dayton Moore and the Royals front office saw something about Sanabria they didn’t like after they acquired him, or if they are confident he’ll pass through waivers. Whatever the decision, it is definitely head scratching, as he did still have Minor League options available, and had the potential to be a sleeper out of the bullpen. As for Griffin, it’s likely he’ll find his way back to the Royals system, and most likely will spend some time developing in Omaha after he fully recovers from Tommy John surgery. Considering he is going to miss most (if not all) of 2021, it is unlikely that any club will put a waiver claim on Griffin.
So of the six “cuts” from the roster, five really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to Royals fans. However, the one that does come as a slight (though not totally unexpected) surprise is Moore’s decision to non-tender Maikel Franco, who is actually coming off a productive season and seemed to be a clubhouse favorite in his short 60-game stint in Kansas City.
However, Franco’s non-tender could open up some interesting possibilities for the Royals, especially after the plethora of non-tender decisions made across the league over the past couple of days.
When it came to tending contracts to key arbitration-eligible players, for the most part, it seemed like the Royals played it safe. The only surprise was that position players earned less than I expected, while pitchers earned a little more than I projected. Here are the moves the Royals made over the past couple of days, and how their salaries compare to what I predicted in a post over the weekend.
- Jorge Soler (Actual: 1-year, $8.05 million; Predicted: 1-year, $9 million)
- Hunter Dozier (Actual: 1-year, $2.75 million; Predicted: 3-years, $9 million, $3 million AAV)
- Franchy Cordero (Actual: 1-year, $800,000; Predicted: 1-year, $950,000)
- Jakob Junis (Actual: 1-year, $1.7 million; Predicted: 1-year, $1.3 million)
- Jesse Hahn (Actual: 1-year, $1.75 million; Predicted: 1-year, $1.5 million)
Adalberto Mondesi and Brad Keller were also arbitration eligible, but no announcements were made in regard to what their offers were. Even though teams have to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players by today’s deadline, players did not have to sign by the 7 PM CST mark. And thus, it is likely that Mondesi and Keller probably have received offers, but are still figuring out the details.
As Royals fans can see above, all of those players listed above were expected to contribute to the Royals in 2021 in a regular fashion, and it was expected that Franco would join that group early in the off-season, especially after he posted a 106 wRC+ last year, a 36 point improvement from 2019 in Philadelphia, according to Fangraphs. However, Franco was projected to earn around $8 million in arbitration, and this comment from Royals MLB.com writer Jeffrey Flanagan yesterday made it seem that Moore and Franco’s team were unable to come to a mutual agreement:
While Franco certainly surpassed expectations in 2020, Moore letting the former Phillie go was probably a wise decision in the long-run. First off, 2020 was only a 60-game season, and while Franco did produce in the limited sample, one has to wonder what Franco’s line would have looked like had baseball not been affected by COVID. Sure, he probably would have hit 20-plus home runs and provided a lot of RBI production. But the “better than expected” defense? The .278 average? It’s hard to believe that those metrics would have maintained over another 102 games.
While Franco’s tenure in Kansas City isn’t officially over just yet (he could re-negotiate a lesser deal), Franco most likely will sign somewhere else and probably start for another club in 2021. If anything, his 2020 showed that he still has something left in the tank in terms of being a starting MLB third baseman. However, it was unlikely that Franco was going to be a long-term option in Kansas City at the hot corner, especially after Bobby Witt, Jr. showed so much promise at Summer Camp and at the alternate site last season. While the third base position is a little fuzzier for 2021 with Franco’s absence, the Royals have a lot of intriguing possibilities when it comes to filling in his spot in the lineup this off-season, especially after many quality players were non-tendered due to financial concerns in the wake of COVID.
The Royals currently have 36 spots filled on their 40-man roster, which leaves four open spots for Moore and the Royals front office to fill this off-season. In all likelihood, one to two of those spots will be filled by one of the Royals three top pitching prospects: Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, or Asa Lacy. While that doesn’t necessarily mean they will start the year in the Royals rotation, it would mean that Moore believes that they are ready to contribute, which seems to be in line with what Royals fans have been hearing since Instructional Camp ended in the Fall. At this point, it seems like Lynch is the most likely candidate to be added to the 40-man this Winter, and it is possible that he could challenge for a rotation spot should he have a strong Spring in Surprise or if the Royals decide to move Danny Duffy to the bullpen.
In addition to adding a top pitching prospect or two to the 40-man, it is also likely that Moore may fill in the remaining 40-man spots with at least a couple of free agents. Financial losses from lost revenue at the gate in 2020 caused many teams to be more frugal with payroll this off-season, and the list of non-tendered players is quite an impressive list that seems longer than in seasons past:
The list of available players above should be enticing to Moore, who just a couple of days ago was adamant about upgrading the current lineup, especially in the “middle of the order”.
If Royals fans had to guess, it is likely that Moore will make some effort in pursuing outfielders Kyle Schwarber and David Dahl, with perhaps Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall being “stretch” targets (i.e. unlikely, but possible). Schwarber has been on the radar for the Royals for a couple of years now, as there were many rumors of a possible Schwarber for Whit deal. Thus, Schwarber coming to Kansas City without costing Whit could be a dream come true for Moore and the Royals, and his bat would provide some much needed production in the 5th-6th part of the order. Furthermore, even though Schwarber has limited defensive ability in the outfield, he could be a fit at first base, which would allow Dozier to move to third, where Dozier has more experience (though Dozier’s defense at third has been mixed).
Dahl, a former All Star in 2019, has struggled to stay healthy, especially in 2020, as he only played in 24 games in his final season in Colorado and posted a paltry 19 OPS+. However, Dahl has been a productive hitter in his four-year career with the Rockies, and he is known for being a solid two-way outfielder when healthy. While his pop may regress a bit in the move from Coors Field to Kauffman Stadium, Dahl would be a solid fit in left or right field in Kansas City, which could push Whit either back to second or even third base, should they want to explore what Whit’s true defensive versatility may be. That being said, Dahl, much like Schwarber, Rosario, and Duvall, will probably be pursued heavily by many teams, as suggested by Alec Lewis of The Athletic:
Right now, it is still early in the MLB Hot Stove season, so Royals fans should not expect Moore to make moves quickly. Even with the listed outfield candidates above, Royals fans need to pay attention to what develops in the coming days, for their teams could still bring them back, albeit on cheaper, more team-friendly contracts. However, if they do become free agents, it will be interesting to see who Moore will pursue, and who he will avoid in the negotiation process this Winter.
Whatever Moore does, this much is certain: the Royals have flexibility, and should be willing to use that positional and financial flexibility this off-season. The Royals have suffered through four-straight losing seasons since 2017, and even though Moore has stressed patience and rebuilding the farm system the past three seasons, it does seem like he and the Royals fan base are ready to make the next step in terms of competitiveness in 2021. The Royals are not going to be the Orioles or Pirates or Rangers next season. This franchise is looking to win, especially as teams like Cleveland and Minnesota shed payroll, which could open up things a little bit in the AL Central standings in 2021 and beyond.
Moore has a lot of moves left in him this Winter…
It will be interesting to see what this Royals roster will look like once we hit the new year in less than a month.