Royals should leave young nucleus alone

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – What’s next?

The Royals and general manager Dayton Moore further beefed up their ailing starting rotation on Tuesday by re-signing free-agent Jeremy Guthrie to a three-year, $25 million deal.

That move, which was anything but a certainty considering at least two other teams were in the hunt for Guthrie, dovetails the recent trade for Angels right-hander Ervin Santana and gives the Royals something they haven’t had in awhile: Two workhorse starters with a proven record of serving up 200-plus innings a season.

In fact, one could now argue that Moore already has – no matter what other three candidates fill out the rotation – his best rotation since he had Gil Meche and Zack Greinke in 2009.

But is there anything else a small-market GM can do to further bolster the rotation?

Sure, but don’t count on another major pitching acquisition.

On Tuesday, Moore would not rule out the possibility of the Royals dipping into the free-agent market again, but cautioned that to do so, the Royals would have to subsequently unload payroll somewhere else to make room.

Don’t bet on that.

The other option is to make a trade, of course. And there already has been talk of the Royals moving one of their young players – such as Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas – to land a young starter with a bright future, such as Tampa Bay’s Jeremy Hellickson or Matt Moore.

Don’t bet on that, either.

Yet another option is to trade an established player – such as Billy Butler or Alex Gordon or Jeff Francoeur – to land another rotation candidate.

Unlikely, too.

The problem with going all-in on landing another stud pitcher is that the Royals’ pipeline, while promising, isn’t quite yet equipped to replace any of the young players you’d need to move to acquire a quality arm.

There’s talk that the Seattle Mariners would have interest in Butler, and the Mariners certainly have a young arm or two more advanced than any in the Royals’ system.

But as one Royals official told me, “If you move Billy Butler, the very next thing you’re doing is trying to find a Billy Butler to replace him. We don’t have that. He’s a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy and we don’t have any other guys like that.”

Trading Hosmer or Moustakas? Not likely, either, because there is not exactly great depth behind either.

There is no one at third base within a year of two of reaching the big leagues behind Moustakas. And sure, Butler could take over at first if you moved Hosmer, but that would be a huge defensive drop. And Clint Robinson, the power-hitting first baseman at Triple-A Omaha, has not convinced club officials he’s ready for the next step.

Francoeur has virtually no trade value, and moving Gordon is risky because there aren’t any prospects with his Gold Glove potential who can hit .300 in the system.

Trade Gordon, you say, and bring up Wil Myers? Sorry, Myers isn’t ready yet.

While the fan base has become enamored with Myers’ numbers in the minors (37 homers, .314 average last season), a scout who watched him in Omaha told me he is at least a half-season away from reaching the bigs.

“Still baffled by the curve ball,” the scout said. “And (Myers) – a lot of those homers were in the band-box stadiums.”

The bottom line? It seems unlikely that Moore will tinker with his young corps of position players, mainly because the pipeline isn’t strong enough yet to replace any of them.

And besides, the Royals’ struggling offense can’t afford further depletion. While it is easy (and justified) to point to the Royals’ starting rotation as the culprit last season, the Royals’ offense was abysmal and cost the team numerous victories. Remember, this was an offense that was 12th in the league in runs scored and dead last in home runs.

Of course, the flip side to all of this is that any type of trade is possible when you have a franchise that hasn’t seen the .500 mark since 2003. There can’t exactly be untouchables on a team that has lost 90-plus games four straight seasons.

But the feeling here is that Moore would have to be handed an absolutely mind-boggling, no-brainer of an offer to break up his young nucleus to acquire another proven starting pitcher.

The risk is too high. What if you give up a Hosmer or a Moustakas, both with limitless potential, for a pitcher that blows out his arm one week into spring training?

You get the sense that Moore – and I agree with him – would like to see some of these young position players reach fruition. He drafted them and developed them, and they are the centerpieces of his argument that the only way to compete as a small market is to build this team through the draft. He would like to see just how good they all can be – and not while wearing someone else’s uniform.

So, that brings us back to the rotation.

As it is now, Santana and Guthrie would occupy the top two spots.

The final three spots would be open for competition among Luke Hochevar, Luis Mendoza, Will Smith, Bruce Chen, Jake Odorizzi, Chris Volstad, prospect John Lamb, and a present bullpen arm such as Aaron Crow.

I could live with that, especially if Odorizzi can make the leap – and, yes, it’s a BIG leap – to become a No. 3 starter. But he has the stuff and the mental disposition to do so.

That would allow the Royals to really force Hochevar and Chen to fight for a spot in the rotation (that would bring out the best in them), especially if you can assume Mendoza is ready from the get-go to become a viable fourth or fifth starter.

In that scenario, the Royals would have perhaps not a great rotation, but certainly a competitive one capable of taking a notiecable step toward contending.

I asked Moore if he was, in fact, willing to move up his time line, which calls for the Royals to truly compete for the division in 2014. While no one in the Royals’ organization is going to start hollering “This is Our Time” again soon, Moore did seem to suggest with the additions of Guthrie and Santana that the Royals could make a move in 2013.

I agree, and it won’t take blowing up the youth movement to do so.