Royals looking to fill gaps after bolstering pitching
Rotation given boost with Santana, Guthrie; second, center areas of uncertainty
KANSAS CITY -- Oddly enough, the 2012-13 offseason has begun very much like last year for the Royals.
A year ago, they traded for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and then re-signed their own free-agent starter, Bruce Chen. This time around they've also gone rotation shopping, dealing for Ervin Santana and bringing back Jeremy Guthrie.
In 2011, an aggressive general manager Dayton Moore also had signed reliever Jonathan Broxton by this time. The thing was, all that activity led up to a no-news Winter Meetings for the Royals at Dallas.
So with the Sanchez-Guthrie package already under the tree, will the Royals leave next week's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn., with no new gifts for their fans?
"It's hard to say. We'll see. Certainly we'll look for ways to improve," Moore said. "We'd like to continue to look for ways to improve our rotation. We like our position players, we feel good about the quality we have there but there are still opportunities for us to improve."
The only Winter Meetings deal the Royals made last year was a minor trade, sending infielder Yamaico Navarro to the Pirates for two Minor Leaguers. Not much happened after that either. Infielder Yuniesky Betancourt and reliever Jose Mijares were signed as free agents before Christmas but that was about it.
The Royals already have taken big strides in filling their most urgent need, starting pitching. Moore wants to do more in that area but he dashed cold water on printed speculation that he was "shopping" his regular position players for rotation help.
"We're not shopping anybody," Moore said. "It's no different than 29 other teams. We have conversations with other teams and talk about specific players but we're not looking to move anybody. That's what we do -- we explore opportunities, we explore possible deals."
There's been no similar signing to Broxton this year but that could come in the form of Joakim Soria, the Royals' long-time closer who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is a free agent. Soria isn't expected to be ready for the Majors until June but by then he might work his way back in a setup role for current closer Greg Holland. However, Moore indicated there's been no recent movement in Soria talks.
Adding 2013 obligations of $12 million for Santana and $5 million for Guthrie, the Royals' projected payroll is getting into the $70 million area and Moore said that Royals are not likely to go much higher. So they're likely to shop the free-agent bargain bin or trade prospects for lower-salaried younger starting pitchers.
"I think it's pretty safe to assume if we add another starter or another player, we'd probably be trading somebody else to make room salary-wise," Moore said. "We've got Guthrie, Santana, [Luke] Hochevar, Chen, [Luis] Mendoza and we've got [Will] Smith, [Jake] Odorizzi and [Mike] Montgomery so if we add another starter, it's pretty safe to assume that somebody is going to be going but I don't know yet who that'll be or if that'll be."
Other than Guthrie and Santana, the highest-paid starting pitcher is Chen at $4.5 million although Hochevar is likely to get into that area via arbitration.
Whittling payroll by trading a position player is a limited possibility. Right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who slipped at the plate after a big bounceback season in 2011, has become the usual suspect in this regard. He's got a $6.75 million contract for 2013 and outfielder Wil Myers, the club's No. 1 prospect according to MLB.com, is considered to be on the doorstep.
Beyond Francoeur, offensive leaders Alex Gordon ($9 million) and Billy Butler ($8.5 million) have the heftiest salaries but are not likely to be moved.
Obviously, a rotation upgrade was needed. As a group in 2012, the Royals' starters ranked 11th among the 14 American League teams in ERA (5.01) and second-to-last in victories (47) and innings pitched (890). The Twins were worst in all three categories.
Barring trades, the only unsettled spots in the everyday lineup are second base, where Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella are contenders with Tony Abreu and Irving Falu behind them, and possibly center field, where uncertainty hangs over injury-haunted Lorenzo Cain. Options there include Jarrod Dyson and David Lough.
"There's competition [at second base] and all the players bring a little something different but we feel comfortable with our second-base options," Moore said. "In our outfield, if we could possibly add some depth there I don't see us doing it at the Major League level. It'd be at the Minor League level."
Moore added the Royals, if possible, could add a right-handed-hitting corner infielder to back up first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, both left-handed batters.
Unlike the rotation, the bullpen isn't in urgent need of resuscitation because the youthful mix of Holland, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins and others has been very solid. Last season, the Royals' bullpen ranked fourth in AL ERA (3.17). They were first in number of innings pitched (561 1/3), a dubious distinction because it just means the starters weren't going deep.
Now, with Santana and Guthrie, Moore feels he's got a couple of innings-eaters in the house. Not that he wouldn't take on another.
"We feel encouraged about where our rotation is right now but we expect there to be more opportunities to improve our team and specifically our rotation," Moore said. "So we're going to continue to stay open-minded and look to improve."