Kansas City Royals

Royals chasing Hunter

Outfielder Torii Hunter had 17 home runs for the Detroit Tigers last season.
Outfielder Torii Hunter had 17 home runs for the Detroit Tigers last season. Kansas City Star

At the dawn of the offseason, the Royals have concentrated their efforts on acquiring a starting pitcher capable of replacing James Shields. But their lineup still features a pair of holes at designated hitter and in right field. To fill the void, a stalwart of the American League Central appears to be one of their top targets.

The Royals have expressed interest in 39-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter, according to people familiar with the situation. The club considers Hunter both a potential offensive upgrade over Nori Aoki and a positive influence on their still-youthful clubhouse.

Hunter may fit Kansas City better than the other options on the market. The Royals are expected to stay in touch with both Aoki and with former Royal Melky Cabrera. But Cabrera likely seeks riches outside the team’s range, especially given their zeal for finding another starting pitcher.

On Monday afternoon, Shields is expected to reject his one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer and enter free agency. A pair of potential replacements should also do the same: Atlanta righty Ervin Santana and Pittsburgh southpaw Francisco Liriano. Santana enjoyed his time as a Royal in 2013, and the club could have more financial flexibility to meet his price this winter.

As general manager Dayton Moore has said on repeated occasions, the club does not possess an unlimited budget. Their payroll could surpass $100 million next season for the first time, but a good chunk of the money is earmarked for players already on the roster who will earn raises through arbitration. If the team makes one major expenditure in free agency, a pitcher will be the most likely recipient.

Moore expects the team’s offensive upgrades next season to come from within. The Royals harbor hope that Eric Hosmer can put together a full season to mirror his postseason production. The same can be said for Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. The team also seeks added days of rest for Salvador Perez. His bat disappeared in the second half.

One solution for the Perez situation? Finding a more flexible rotation at designated hitter and allowing him to rest there once or twice a week. The Royals must weigh that desire with their interest in re-signing Billy Butler. The club does not want to offer Butler a deal longer than two seasons, according to people familiar with the situation.

With American League clubs like Oakland, Seattle and Texas all said to be in the market for right-handed hitters, Butler may receive more interest than initially expected. He is coming off his worst offensive season in the majors. The Royals declined his $12.5 million option for 2014.

Hunter is coming off a two-year, $26 million deal with the Tigers. He still may make the most fiscal sense, in addition to his value on the field. He posted a .783 on-base plus slugging percentage during the past two seasons in Detroit. His production dipped slightly in 2014, but Hunter still hit 17 homers. Alex Gordon led the Royals with 19.

For Hunter, any deal longer than two seasons looks unlikely. So the Royals would not be required to make a lengthy commitment to him. The situation may be slightly different with Aoki, who is looking to cash in after a strong finish in Kansas City.

Aoki was a disappointment during his first few months with the Royals. He struggled against right-handers and managed a mere .650 OPS in the first half. A sterling September, complete with a .432 on-base percentage, rescued his final numbers. He is seeking a three-year contract, according to CBS Sports.

TOP 10 MLB FREE AGENTS

The Kansas City Star’s Andy McCullough ranks his top 10 free agents this offseason:

1. Max Scherzer, SP: The Mizzou product gambled on himself when he turned down a six-year, $144 million deal from Detroit in the spring. He didn’t match his AL Cy Young campaign from the previous year, but he remains a right-handed force ready to command a nine-figure deal.

2. Jon Lester, SP: He appeared bound for an extension in Boston before talks broke down in the spring. He followed up with one of his best years as a professional, with a career-low 2.46 ERA in a career-high 219 2/3 innings.

3. James Shields, SP: Shields lived up to his end of the bargain during his two seasons as a Royal. Now he must face questions about his age (33 in 2015) and his rough postseason in free agency. He still figures to make plenty.

4. Victor Martinez, DH: At a time when hitting is so hard to find, Martinez is an asset, even as a limited fielder who turns 36 in December. He led the American League with a .409 OBP and a .974 OPS in 2014.

5. Hanley Ramirez, SS/3B: He may be the biggest enigma in this class. He resembled a superstar during an abbreviated season in 2013. But injuries slowed him again this past season. He’s averaged only 116 games a year since 2011.

6. Yasmany Tomas, OF: He could be the next great Cuban slugger. He is only 24 and possesses tremendous power. His contract could exceed the deals doled out to countrymen Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.

7. Russell Martin, C: Martin had already earned raves for his ability as a defender and a game-caller. But his resurgence at the plate in 2014, with a .402 OBP, should only increase his value.

8. Nelson Cruz, OF: Handcuffed by both a drug suspension and a qualifying offer last winter, Cruz managed only a one-year deal with the Orioles. He responded by bashing 40 homers. He’ll get a multi-year pact this time around.

9. Melky Cabrera, OF: Like Cruz, Cabrera carries the Biogenesis stigma. Also like Cruz, Cabrera bounced back with a strong campaign in 2014. He’s a solid defender and a versatile hitter. The Royals have interest, but his price may be too high.

10. Ervin Santana, SP: He may be the most reliable pitcher on the market outside of the leading trio. The Royals are interested in a reunion with Santana, who shined at Kauffman Stadium in 2013.

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