Why is it difficult for the Royals to sign free agents?

After seeing Jurickson Profar re-sign with the Padres, it seems likely that the Royals will probably be done when it comes to signing any high or medium-profile free agents left on the free agent market. Of course, that may be disappointing to most Royals fans, especially after an off-season where the Royals signed two pretty high-profile players in Carlos Santana and Mike Minor. That being said, the Royals did seem to get pretty good discounts on both, as the Royals signed them on deals that had lower projected AAV numbers than what was being crowd sourced by Roster Resource. Furthermore, Santana and Minor both had close ties to the Royals organization in the past, as Minor revitalized his career in Kansas City in 2017 (after missing two full years due to injury), and Santana had close ties to Rene Francisco, the Royals Assistant General Manager of International Operations, as profiled in a piece by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis.

Furthermore, I was perusing Cot’s Contracts and did gander over the Royals’ free agent signing history from 1991-2020 just to get a sense of what the trends have been in the last few years when it comes to Dayton Moore acquiring free agents. Granted, this list is in major need of an update, but luckily, Roster Resource’s free agent tracker does span back to this season and last, and I was able to filter Royals free agent signings from 2020 and 2021.

And what did I learn? Well…for one, it’s been definitely a meager list for the Royals and Royals fans when it comes to acquiring not only big-name free agents, but relatively productive one as well.

Thus, what is the issue? Why do the Royals have a hard time attracting high-profile talent, both pitchers and hitters, to City of Fountains? Why can the Kansas City Chiefs have a Top-10 payroll, while the Royals had one that ranked 26th in baseball a year ago (though that number is currently 19th now, it is still below the league average).

Let’s take a look at five “reasons” that are commonly thrown out to explain why the Royals struggle when it comes to acquiring free agents, and dig into the validity of each claim. While I do not think one line of reasoning is “right” or “perfect”, I do think there are kernels of truth to each “reason”, which in turn explains the Royals’ troubles when it comes to signing free agents over the past decade.


1. MLB’s lack of a salary cap and financial structure

The biggest reason we hear that the Royals cannot sign big-name talent is due to MLB’s financial structure, which lacks a hard salary cap, unlike other major professional sports leagues (though the NBA’s cap is a bit more soft than NFL and NHL, it is more stringent than MLB’s structure). Of course, the lack of any kind of salary cap favors bigger market clubs like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Boston Red Sox, just to name a few. Thus, without a salary cap, other big market teams can routinely out-bid Kansas City for top-level free agents on the market on an annual basis.

Now, there is some truth to this. The lack of a salary cap probably does prevent them from signing “top level” free agents, such as Gerrit Cole in 2020 or JT Realmuto, who just recently re-signed in Philadelphia on a massive deal. But, it seems that when it comes to more mid-level free agents, the “small market teams can’t re-sign star players” adage has been challenged the past couple of years. The Reds made some huge strides in the free agent market a year ago, as they signed Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos to multi-year deals that had AAVs of $12 and $14 million per year, respectively, in 2020, according to Roster Resource. Furthermore, in 2020, the Milwaukee Brewers extended Christian Yelich to a massive nine-year $215-million deal. Cincinnati and Milwaukee, in comparison, are both smaller markets, TV-wise than Kansas City.

Granted, we will see what Cincinnati and Milwaukee do in the next couple of years, as the Reds have already begun the process of shedding payroll this off-season, and Milwaukee could do the same if they don’t take the next step as well. However, while the lack of a salary cap does hurt the small market teams like the Royals, I don’t think it’s a “death knell” as some may think. The Royals won’t be able to sign any high-profile free agent available, but Cincinnati and Milwaukee have showed that even small-market clubs can out-bid bigger market teams on multiple occasions.


2. Kansas City isn’t a consistent winner, yet

Another argument for why free agents are skipping out on Kansas City as a possible destination is that the Royals haven’t been that successful since they won the World Series in 2015. After winning the second World Series crown in franchise history, the Royals haven’t made it back to the postseason, and they have actually had four straight losing seasons since 2016, which has also included two 100-plus loss seasons in 2018 and 2019. Hence, considering the Royals have been closer to the basement than the top of the AL Central for nearly five years, it’s likely that many free agents may think that Kansas City isn’t “committed” to winning as an organization. In fact, if the Royals were winning (like the Chiefs for example), free agents would be more likely to sign in Kansas City, according to this logic.

I would be prone to believe this theory if Moore and the Royals signed more high-profile free agents during their successful stint between 2013 and 2016. However, if you look at the Cot’s Contracts list, it’s not all that impressive. Alexis Rios was a bigger-than-usual signing for the Royals, but he was on a career decline, and the Royals only inked him to a one-year deal (though it came at a high AAV of $11 million). Jason Vargas and Omar Infante were also nice signings who provided value, but they weren’t “high profile” by any means. In fact, the “biggest” deals during this successful stint were the Alex Gordon extension (many at the time felt Gordo took a “hometown” price and could’ve made more elsewhere) and the Ian Kennedy signing, who signed a five-year, $70 million deal prior to the start of the 2016 season. These were solid and expensive deals at the time by Royals standards. However, they were not exactly Cole or Bryce Harper-esque deals either.

And thus, I’m not necessarily convinced that if the Royals were winning that they would be in the hunt for more high-profile free agents, as they struggled to do so even when they were pretty successful recently.


3. Free agents don’t want to play in Kansas City itself

Once I heard that Profar was still getting interest from San Diego, I just had a feeling that Profar would eventually go that way. After all, would you rather have a home in great weather and have access to nice beaches and Southern California nightlife (although, with COVID, that isn’t as accessible)? Or would you rather be in a place that has a pretty tame social culture and can have frigid winters and tornado warnings as well? Also, I do wonder if Kansas City being situated on two states is a disadvantage, especially from a tax perspective? Professional athletes often go to play for teams in states without state income tax (like Florida for example). Does the possibility of having to pay double state income tax deter potential free agents, in addition to the non-baseball aspects of the area?

It’s hard to say for sure if this is true or not. There are times, like this Profar situation, where I feel positive that the conditions of San Diego (i.e sunny and no snow) helped the Padres in the negotiation process (after all, Profar played in Dallas and Oakland before he arrived in San Diego). But, I also can’t say that “the allure of a city or area” wins out every time either in baseball free agency. If that was the case, Paul Goldschmidt wouldn’t sign in St. Louis, which has a similar “two-state” situation and is pretty comparable as a metro to KC.

Thus, while I think the geographic perks of Kansas City pale in comparison to bigger markets on the coasts, I am not sure if automatically rules out Kansas City from potentially attracting free agents. Other similarly-sized Midwestern markets (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, etc.) have been able to procure big-name free agents in the past three to five off-seasons, despite sharing akin conditions to Kansas City.


4. Free agents don’t want to play for Dayton Moore

I know Moore can get some heat from Royals fans for being a pretty outspoken Christian, and his “anti-porn” beliefs have been definitely polarizing among the Royals blogging community. While the message isn’t necessarily a bad one and has good intentions, there are a good number of Royals fans that believe he should be worrying more about “baseball issues,” and not imposing his religious beliefs on opposing players. Thus, there are some fans out there that may think that free agents may not want to play for a front office or in an organization that is so conservative when it comes to personal beliefs.

That being said, I have a hard time believing this one, and I think after this last off-season, I am not sure if there is any mustard behind it either. While Moore certainly doesn’t shy away from his religious beliefs, nobody cares more about his players or the Kansas City community than Moore. In this day and age of treating players solely as “assets”, Moore truly looks out for players, both at the Major and Minor League level, as I have written on this blog before. Furthermore, if anything, Moore and the Royals have probably “overpaid” for players in free agency, as I doubt anyone was giving Michael A. Taylor or Maikel Franco the deals the Royals gave them this Winter and last, respectively.

Moore certainly is a polarizing figure in baseball, and I know he has his fair share of detractors both here in Kansas City as well s beyond. However, I highly doubt high-profile free agents would turn away from a playing with the Royals solely because of Moore.


5. The ownership won’t pony up the cash for free agents

Ever since the death of Ewing Kauffman, the Royals have gotten the reputation of being a “cheap” organization. And in some cases, that reputation wasn’t wrong. Though the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation guaranteed the Royals to stay in Kansas City after the death of Kauffman, the board structure of the organization made it difficult to make any serious transactions, especially in regard to free agency. Furthermore, even when David Glass bought the Royals outright in 2000, the Royals continued to be a frugal organization under his watch, initially. According to Cot’s Contracts information, from 2000-2009, the highest the Royals ranked in payroll was 21st. The Royals did crack the Top 20 in payroll in 2010 (19th), but they quickly went back to 30th the following year, and didn’t crack the Top 20 again until 2015, a year after they won the AL Pennant in 2014 (though the spending paid off, as they won a World Series in 2015).

After ranking 17th in payroll in 2015, they ranked 15th for two consecutive seasons in 2016 and 2017. In addition, despite Glass’ reputation for being overly frugal when it came to spending on players, he spent considerably more on the club during the successful years in free agency, and there was a rumor that the Royals offered a seven-year $147 million deal to Eric Hosmer to convince him to stay in Kansas City. Thus, while Glass started out as a hard-line, frugal owner, he seemed to be more prone to open up his pocket book in his later years as owner.

As of now, it seems like new owner John Sherman is open to spending money, as evidenced by the Minor and Santana deals, as well as the ownership’s willingness to keep paying Minor Leaguers during the pandemic. Granted, with the free agent market quickly drying up (Tommy La Stella came off the market today, apparently), the Royals payroll may not be much higher (on a prorated basis anyways) than 2020.

That being said, in the next couple of years, if the right players comes along, it would not be surprising to see Sherman and the Royals ownership make an aggressive offer to a free agent. Sherman is an experienced owner (he had a minority stake with the Indians before he bought the Royals), and it is certainly possible that he and Moore are biding their time until the right free agent comes along.

And in this scenario, it would not be surprising to see him sign with the Royals this time around…

Let’s hope that day comes sooner for Royals fans than expected.

3 thoughts on “Why is it difficult for the Royals to sign free agents?

  1. […] This off-season, Moore kept things pretty close to the chest all Winter, especially after making early moves for Michael A. Taylor, Mike Minor, and Carlos Santana. For many dreary days in January and February, Moore made it seem to the Kansas City sports media like the Royals were done adding players, especially after a slew of possible free agent fits signed elsewhere. […]

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