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Danny Duffy signs contract extension with Royals, who are still a problem in the AL Central

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The Royals have quietly worked themselves into good position to compete while retaining the flexibility to rebuild.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Rumors of the Kansas City Royals’ demise appear to have been exaggerated. Due to the difficulty of acquiring prospects for veteran players these days, an offseason that started out looking like a major sell-off has instead taken on the color of a canny retooling effort instead. A major piece of the puzzle was locked up for the long run on Monday, as the Royals inked lefthander Danny Duffy to a five year, $65 million extension.

Putting aside Kansas City’s aggravating ability to convince their players to leave money on the table in exchange for security, the move has little immediate bearing on the 2017 season. Duffy was already asking for $8 million in arbitration talks for the coming season. The Royals had countered with $7.25 million. By back-loading Duffy’s new contract, the Royals will pay Duffy just $5 million instead.

Duffy isn’t an ace, but has shown flashes of excellence before. In 2016, his age 27 season, Duffy finally appeared to take a step toward becoming a frontline starter. He posted 2.8 fWAR over 179 23 innings of work. His 3.83 FIP ranked him 13th in the American League in 2016. While home runs continue to be a bit of an issue, Duffy’s 20 percent K-BB% was more than double his previous best. He is forecasted by Steamer to be worth 3.1 fWAR with a 3.90 FIP in 2017.

Paired with Yordano Ventura, sustained success from Duffy would give the Royals a pretty solid one-two punch atop their rotation. The addition of Nathan Karns for Jarrod Dyson, and return of lefthander Jason Vargas from injury also gives the Royals rotation depth that they sorely lacked in 2016.

Duffy’s $5 million salary in 2017, coupled with the departures of Jarrod Dyson and Wade Davis, have saved about $10 million off the Royals’ 2016 payroll. This leaves them in position to perhaps make a better offer to former closer Greg Holland. They could also jump into the market for a backup center fielder to provide defensive support for both Lorenzo Cain and right fielder Jorge Soler.

More importantly, the extension signals the Royals’ belief that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the AL Central, while retaining the flexibility to rethink that belief at season’s end.

The Royals finished 81-81 in 2016. But that win total can be deceiving. The Royals missed Mike Moustakas, who missed most of the season with injury. They also ran Chris Young out in their rotation to compile a 6.68 FIP across 13 starts. A sell-off seemed likely as the offseason began because several of their cornerstone players — including Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas — will hit free agency after the 2017 season. The fact that none have been traded speaks to both a difficult market, and the hope of one final run for the 2015 World Series champions.

In trading away both Davis and Dyson, the Royals have turned a pair of specialists into a cost-controlled pairing of Jorge Soler and Nathan Karns. Soler gives the Royals a potential impact bat in a corner outfield spot for the long-term. There’s risk there, but certainly upside remains for the former Cubs outfielder. Should Cain and Alex Gordon improve a little on their 2016 efforts, the Royals will have a quality outfield. Karns and Vargas improve their rotation depth. While the bullpen of doom is no more, overall the team has the potential to be very dangerous.

A sell-off at the deadline is still a likely possibility for the Royals should the team reach late July in poor playoff position. But the long-term control of Duffy means that the Royals’ rotation should be stable, if underwhelming, for the next few years. It also gives the Royals the option to maximize a trade return on Duffy in the future should he continue to pitch like he did in 2016. The likelihood of either Hosmer, Moustakas, or Cain being traded at the deadline could also speed the Royals’ transition into the franchise’s next chapter.

Signing Duffy to this deal doesn’t make the Royals better. However it does shine a light on just how good this team could potentially still be. It also opens up a host of options for Royals general manager Dayton Moore. He has managed to acquire some younger talent for minor, though high quality, pieces. He may have freed up a little money to spend as the Royals take another shot at the playoffs in 2017. The moves they have made this offseason leave them looking like a competitive team in a weak division.

As for the moves they haven’t made? The Royals have retained the flexibility to retool the franchise at the next waypoint without having to wait for the wheels to come off entirely.