Are the Royals tapped out financially after signing free-agent pitcher Jason Vargas on Thursday to a four-year deal for $32 million?
Their next decision seemed to send that message.
On Friday, the club cleared space for Vargas on its 40-man roster by designating backup catcher George Kottaras for assignment.
It seemed an odd choice because Kottaras provided a reliable bat off the bench last season by compiling a .349 on-base percentage in addition to his limited stand-in duties for All-Star catcher Salvy Perez.
Plus, scouts generally grade Kottaras as a better backup option to the two other catchers on the club’s 40-man roster: Brett Hayes and just-signed Francisco Pena.
So why Kottaras?
One top club official responded by rubbing his thumb over the tips of his first two fingers.
If so, that sends a chilling message as the Royals work their way through the remainder of an offseason in which all clubs are expected to reap an additional $25 million apiece from the new national broadcast contracts.
Kottaras made $1 million last season, with a projected increase, as an arbitration-eligible player, to $1.2 million for 2014.
That suggests the Royals cut Kottaras to save a projected $300,000 over Hayes, who is also eligible for arbitration, or $700,000 over Pena, who is signed and would make the major-league minimum of $500,000.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise.
General manager Dayton Moore said the Vargas signing pushed the club’s projected payroll to a record $87 million after previously saying, repeatedly, that he didn’t expect the payroll to rise much above the $85 million spent throughout 2013.
Moore also said any further payroll additions will require corresponding reductions but didn’t rule out doing so — particularly in solving the club’s next offseason priority: finding some additional pop at the plate.
“We’re going to continue to evaluate opportunities to get better,” he said, “whether it be through trades or free agents. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to improve our offense.”
One possibility that continues to draw speculation is a trade involving designated hitter Billy Butler to help clear payroll.
It would do that: Butler will make $8 million in 2014, and the Royals hold a $12.5 million option for 2015 (with a $1.5 million buyout).
But club officials say trading Butler would diminish an attack they are looking to improve. They also suggest speculation regarding Butler’s availability is exaggerated.
“I can tell you this,” one top club official said. “We have had no talks with any club about trading Billy Butler.”
It’s also possible, of course, that owner David Glass simply underwrites a larger payroll if the right opportunity beckons. That happened a year ago, when the Royals entered the offseason with a projected $70 million payroll as a break-even point.
They were at nearly $82 million when the season opened in large part because of their big December trade with Tampa Bay. The swap netted pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis for four minor-league players, including eventual American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, but heaped roughly $13 million on the payroll.
For now, though, the Kottaras decision suggests dollars are tight.