The Royals are searching for one — just one — starting pitcher this winter because they believe their development pipeline is finally poised to deliver a series of high-impact arms for future rotations.
Call it progress. A year ago, they added (or retained in the case of then-free agent Jeremy Guthrie) four starters. This year, club officials only see the need to retain or replace free-agent Ervin Santana.
“I don’t think (we need more than one),” general manager Dayton Moore said. “I like our internal options a great deal. (Danny) Duffy is going to be a lot better. (Yordano) Ventura has a chance to be dynamic. (Kyle) Zimmer is close.
“Hoch (Luke Hochevar), Wade Davis and Will Smith can all start and, I think, will have better years going forward in the rotation. We also know those guys can perform very well in the bullpen, too. So I think we have enough depth.
“To say we need to go out and get two guys if it happens, great. But it’s not a necessity for us. We’d like to get one, but we want to get the right one for the right type of contract.”
Moore said the Royals remain in contact with Santana’s representatives but acknowledged the club’s financial limitations. The Royals are unlikely to offer more than three years to any free agent, while Santana is seeking a five-year deal for $112 million.
“I’m aware of (the package floated by Santana’s representatives),” Moore said, “but I haven’t studied it. Erv was a terrific pitcher for us, and we’re going to stay engaged. He’s agreed to stay engaged with us. We’ll see how it works. I hope he gets a great deal.”
Club officials also remain in contact with veteran free-agent lefty Bruce Chen, but they view him as a swingman option. To replace Santana, the Royals are aiming for free agents Phil Hughes, Tim Hudson and Josh Johnson as possible replacements.
Or they might just stay in house.
Right now, the only certainties for next season’s rotation are veteran right-handers James Shields and Guthrie. Santana slotted between them last season, but Moore said any addition doesn’t necessarily need to be a No. 2 guy.
“I’m not as concerned on the evaluation of whether he’s a one or a two or three,” Moore said. “We just need innings out of our rotation. I just want to acquire guys who are going to compete, give us innings and throw strikes.
“Whoever we bring in, I don’t know where they’ll slot. Ned (Yost) and Dave (Eiland) will, ultimately, make that decision. Luke Hochevar has No. 1-quality stuff. Maybe he’s a guy who can step up. We’ll see.”
The Royals want at least one of their young arms — Duffy, Ventura or Zimmer — to open next season in the rotation. They’re hoping all three can contribute next season at some point and Moore isn’t opposed to starting the season with all three on the club.
“I’m not going to put limitations on them,” he said. “Certainly, I think the way we’re set up, and what we’re trying to do, not only for 2014 but going forward, it’s important that one of them separates himself and puts us in a position to make him a part of the rotation.
“But I’m not opposed to having multiple young guys (in the rotation). The one commonality for all three of those guys is they’re very good competitors, and they’re very strong-minded guys. I don’t think it would faze them one bit.
“They’ll have the basic (problems) that any young pitcher has to get through, but they’ll get through it a lot better than a lot of guys.”
Even so, the Royals prefer to add a veteran arm if Santana departs.
Hughes and Johnson are viewed as prime bounce-back candidates after disappointing years. Johnson is also recovering from surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, while Hudson’s season ended in late July because of an ankle injury.
“We’ve seen medicals on all of the guys,” Moore said. “The medical evaluation is very important to the process. We’re still trying to determine what pitchers out there will give us the least amount of risk.
“Look, we’re going to continue with what we’ve always tried to do. That is to acquire pitchers, and try to develop pitchers, who are going to throw strikes, pitch to contact and take advantage of our defense. Guys who have the mind-set of a top-of-the-rotation starter in the way they compete and the way they prepare.”
Hughes, Hudson and Johnson have each been All-Stars and have averaged 3.0 or fewer walks per nine innings over the course of their careers. The Royals averaged 2.9 walks per nine innings last season as a staff.
“We want guys who are going to give us innings, give us durability and compete,” Moore said. “There are guys out there who can do that, for sure. It’s just a matter of how many years you’re willing to go and what the financial commitment is going to be.”
Heard and repeated
The Hot Stove rumor mill cranked up this week when the general managers convened in Orlando, Fla., for their annual meetings. Two rumors concerning the Royals continue to make the rounds:
Designated hitter Billy Butler is being shopped, and the Royals are trying to get second baseman Brandon Phillips from Cincinnati. Neither is implausible, but club officials suggest neither appears likely.
Phillips, 32, is owed a guaranteed $50 million through 2017. While an All-Star in three of the last four years, his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and WAR (wins about replacement) each declined sharply over the last two years.
Also, Moore said earlier this week: “Second base is not a huge priority for us.”
Butler, 27, is coming off a disappointing season after setting numerous career highs in 2012, when he was an All-Star and a Silver Slugger recipient. He is also owed $20.5 million over the next two years (assuming the Royals exercise their 2015 club option).
One club official said: “Do the math. We’re looking to add offense. If we trade Butler, we’d have to add a lot of offense. It would have to be a series of moves to do that, and that’s hard to do. Plus, there’s just not that much available offense out there.”
That official probably meant available and affordable, but point noted.
Guthrie to China
Guthrie is heading next month to China to promote the game as an ambassador under the Major League Baseball International program. He will visit Beijing, Changzhou and Shanghai fro Dec. 6-9 to conduct training sessions for young players.
Major League Baseball has development centers in Wuxi and Changzhou, which seek to provide world-class facilities for athletes in grades seven through 12.
Each center’s program incorporates “an innovative teaching model that combines mainstream school curriculum with baseball skills development.”