Heading into this winter, the Royals were one year removed from a World Series parade and one year away from a presumed parade of free agent departures. This particular situation — having a majority of the franchise’s recognizable faces heading into walk years — portended a busy offseason.
Whether the chosen route was rebuilding, retooling or the less likely resigning spree, Dayton Moore and company were about to do some things. The club flipped a year of Wade Davis for four years of Jorge Soler. Then, one of the minor free-agents-to-be, Jarrod Dyson, was dealt to the Mariners for Nathan Karns, a move swept up in a wave of Jerry Dipoto takes. Credit the Royals for prioritizing control and upside in the moves, but we didn’t really learn much about their plans.
Even after the dispatching of Davis and Dyson, the their list of pending free agents was long. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar — four of the first six hitters in the club’s World Series lineup — plus 2016 breakout starter Danny Duffy were set to walk after 2017.
Today, though, the Royals started showing their hand. They signed the 28-year-old Duffy to a five-year, $65-million extension, sending signals that there is some sound reasoning happening in the front office. In Duffy, they have a left-handed starter who throws very hard and who ranked among the game’s best at creating swings and misses in 2016 — a promising peripheral that could foretell an ace-level future.
Keeping this core together was never a realistic option. So the options in Kansas City were to sell it all and fully restock a less-than-thrilling farm system or attempt to place bets on the proper pieces and sell others for ready-or-close talent.
We can’t know if the choices they’ve made thus far were the plan all along or if they were products of circumstance (Hosmer and Moustakas are Boras clients; Davis and Dyson’s services fit league-wide demands), but we can assess them based on what we do know. And at the moment, they appear eminently sensible.
How so? Well, it is always tempting for championship-winning teams to court goodwill by keeping the band together. But it is more prudent, especially for small-market clubs, to put cold calculations ahead of sentiment. Hosmer, the public face of the franchise and the youngest of this bunch, seems likely to demand the biggest deal. Teams have made tougher choices than letting Hosmer walk, but committing to another player is nonetheless the first sign that the Royals aren’t saving their financial might for an ill-advised charge at a first baseman whose production shouldn’t excite anyone.
Even if you discard defensive metrics that believe him to be atrocious in the field, Hosmer just doesn’t appear to be a star. His wRC+ ranks 56th of 101 players who have logged 2,000+ plate appearances since 2013. His numbers are actually spookily similar to Ian Kinsler over that time — a very good player, no doubt, but not the kind of hitter you are dying to have at a non-premium defensive position. Furthermore, the main narrative of Hosmer’s career has been inconsistency, without any discernible progress toward brighter days. Someone may pay him $100 million, but the Royals are better off if it isn’t them.
Duffy, on the other hand, is at precisely the right point on his career arc to be an extension candidate. I have already expressed my optimism that Duffy’s breakout is both real and perhaps not even fully realized. Regardless of whether you see bigger things ahead, the presence of upside and absence of track record combine to make Duffy a solid bet for the club at about $15 million a year.
It also probably leaves them room to act if another opportunity arises to fortify future clubs — clubs that could theoretically compete in a division that is uncertain outside of the Indians.
Moustakas or Cain could return impressive hauls if things break right at the deadline, but it is at least worth considering whether Moustakas might also be an extension candidate. Despite his prospect sheen and name recognition, his time as an above-average hitter is short and injury-marred. If they believe his 2015 improvements are likely to carry on, it could be worth pressing to see if he would break with Boras-client convention. The Royals seem unlikely to pony up for a more productive player at the hot corner next season.
Either way, the Duffy extension creates a best-case scenario — in concert with the Soler and Karns deals — where another competitive window opens in short order. More importantly, it shows the front office is thinking about the many faces that could be part of its next good team, and giving itself the flexibility to pounce on pieces it can afford.
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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.