Five weeks into the offseason, the needs of the Kansas City Royals have not changed. They require a starting pitcher to replace rotation leader James Shields. Their lineup lacks both a right fielder and a designated hitter. These three openings will be at the forefront of the team’s maneuvers as the industry convenes in San Diego this week for the annual Winter Meetings.
The Royals are still interested in high-profile free agents like outfielder Melky Cabrera and starter Ervin Santana, but they remain cautious about over-extending themselves financially. After re-signing both Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, the team possesses a bullpen surplus. They could move either All-Star closer Greg Holland or lock-down set-up man Wade Davis if another club offers either an affordable starter or outfielder.
These intervening weeks have brought some clarity to the team’s situation. They know right fielder Nori Aoki could still return. They know DH Billy Butler will not. This week in Southern California should provide more answers.
The pitching market may be at the mercy of Jon Lester. Until Lester picks a team, the second-tier starters are more likely to wait and see how the jilted suitors react. A team who misses out on Lester may be inclined to up their offer for a player like Santana, Brandon McCarthy or Francisco Liriano.
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The Royals have had discussions with all three players, in addition to pitchers Brett Anderson and Jason Hammel. Santana still appears to be best fit, considering his success here in 2013 and his interest in again playing in front of one of baseball’s best defenses. But he desires a five-year deal and, as a rule, the Royals prefer to limit their pitching deals to three years. They showed flexibility on that front with a four-year contract for Jason Vargas, but the Royals and Santana have yet to achieve much momentum.
The market for free-agent hitters is thin and populated by questionable investments. With Torii Hunter opting for a reunion in Minnesota, the Royals have held discussions with the representatives for Cabrera, Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, according to people familiar with the situation.
Cabrera is the best hitter still available, according to rival evaluators. He is still something of an enigma. He is two years removed from an embarrassing suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. He is a year removed from a middling season in Toronto, when he played only 88 games, in part because of a benign tumor in his lower back.
Yet Cabrera only turned 30 in August. He piled up 16 homers, 35 doubles and an .808 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Blue Jays last season. He can play both outfield corners. Like Santana, he is said to be seeking a five-year contract, which currently exceeds the comfort level of the Royals, who would welcome a reunion with Cabrera, but would prefer a shorter pact, according to people familiar with the situation.
The other options are far from overwhelming. Rios, 33, is a purported slugger who hit four home runs in 2014. With his market disrupted by Seattle’s qualifying offer last winter, Morales, 31, did not sign until June and finished with a career-low .612 OPS. Morse, 32, combines tantalizing power with worrisome fragility: He hit 31 homers in 2011, his only full big-league season, and has averaged 107 games a year ever since.
Even so, replacing the production of Aoki and Butler is not an insurmountable challenge. Neither was even a league-average hitter in 2014, according to the advanced statistic OPS+. Butler came in last in OPS among the nine full-time DHs in the American League. His career-low .379 slugging percentage ranked 105th among the 146 players who qualified for the batting title.
Aoki rescued his season with a torrid September. Yet for five months he disappointed team officials with his curious outfield routes and tepid hitting. Aoki carried a .664 OPS into September, providing scant power from the corner outfield, a position that usually requires such a skill.