The Kansas City Royals were the hottest story in baseball in 2014, finishing a game behind the Tigers in the AL Central and blazing their way to the pennant. They were one Madison Bumgarner away from winning their first World Series title since 1985. This offseason marks new territory for the club, as they look to retool and make another playoff run in 2015.
1. He is still a free agent, but everything we have heard suggests that James Shields will don a new uniform in 2015. What have the Royals done, if anything, about replacing their ace so far? What do you expect them to do to replace Shields' production?
The Royals have been sniffing through the "mid-tier" free agent pitchers like Francisco Liriano, Brandon McCarthy, Jason Hammel, and Brett Anderson. The name they have been most linked to is a potential reunion with right-hander Ervin Santana, who pitched for the club in 2013. The feeling however, is that they can only afford one significant free agent, so they'll have to decide whether to spend that money on starting pitching, or on a right-fielder. If they pursue a significant free agent outfielder, they will likely have to skimp on a free agent pitcher and look in the bargain bin for a guy on a one-year deal and hope that Brandon Finnegan can become a polished starting pitcher by 2016.
2. The Royals may be the defending AL champions, but they still finished behind our Tigers in the AL Central race last season. Have they made any moves that, in your mind, closes the already slim gap between these teams?
In my mind, the Royals probably over-achieved a bit in the regular season (let alone their incredibly lucky post-season run) and benefited from a relatively weak American League. They'll have to improve the team quite a bit just to get back to where they were last year. The only moves they have made thus far have been to re-sign relievers Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar, and trade away disappointing reliever Aaron Crow. They are now investing $26 million in their bullpen, which suggests to me they will likely trade either Greg Holland or Wade Davis to fill a need either in the outfield or in the starting rotation.
3. Nori Aoki was a solid contributor at the top of the Royals' lineup in 2014, but looked to be the odd man out in the outfield at times. Will the Royals look to bring him back in 2015, or are they looking in a new direction?
The reports are that the Royals brass consider him a "fallback option" at this point. Their preference seems to be a right-handed bat with some pop, which is the exact opposite of Aoki. Still, Aoki hit .331 in the second-half last year, and the advanced stats show him being a pretty valuable player despite his awkward play and slow start. I've heard rumors that Aoki is not totally enamored with the Midwestern United States and would prefer to play on the coasts, but he had a smile on his face all last year and was by all accounts a great guy. The Royals could certainly do worse than to bring Nori back.
4. One area where the Royals have made a splash this offseason is in their already vaunted bullpen. Of the two big re-signings (Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar), which do you prefer?
I think the Frasor signing was fantastic. He was really an underrated pickup last year. When you have a guy with a 3.28 FIP and nearly a strikeout per inning as your fourth or fifth option out of the pen, that's a tremendous luxury. He is 37 years old, so he could fall apart at any second, but by mitigating the risk with a one-year deal, the Royals gambled wisely. Hochevar seemed like a bit of a misuse of funds unless they are dead-set on dealing Holland or Davis. Hochevar has only had one great season in the pen after years of being a failed starting pitcher, and he's coming off Tommy John surgery. I would be a bit uneasy handing $10 million to someone in that position.
5. Your bullpen is unfair. It already consists of, in no particular order, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Luke Hochevar, Jason Frasor, Brandon Finnegan, and Tim Collins, among others. Are the Royals planning on stretching out anyone for a starting role? Or is the plan to just have their starter go four innings and let that monstrosity take over?
There has been some rumblings about Hochevar going back to starting since his contract has some starting-pitcher-type incentives. But I'd be pretty surprised to see that happen. Most likely someone is getting dealt.
6. Do you anticipate the Royals making any big trades at this year's Winter Meetings? Or do they seem satisfied with the core players they already have? What are your expectations for next week's meetings?
Dayton has typically not made many big moves at the Winter Meetings, instead laying the framework for a trade a week or two later. My guess is he will try to retain the core as much as possible, and perhaps trade a reliever to get a cheap outfield bat, and perhaps spend money on one free agent starting pitcher.
Once again, a big thanks to Max and the rest of the Royals Review staff for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out Royals Review all winter long to keep tabs on the Tigers' AL Central rivals!