KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Priority No. 1 for Royals general manager Dayton Moore this offseason is to assure he can field the best rotation and pitching staff he can. Again.
And that will start with finding a replacement for ace James Shields, who seems likely to turn down the Royals’ qualifying offer of $15.3 million and thus test free agency.
But if Royals fans are looking for a glitzy free-agent signing to replace Shields, they will be disappointed. That will not be Moore’s approach.
"Do we need to make a big splash in free agency?" Moore asked rhetorically. "I don’t believe so. We’re going to continue to rely on our core of young players to get better each year."
While the Royals’ payroll is likely to increase slightly to near the $100 million range, Moore must allocate his financial resources to find a replacement for right fielder Nori Aoki as well as a possible replacement for designated hitter Billy Butler, though the club is interested in bringing Butler back for a more club-friendly price (two years, possibly in the $12-14 million range).
Moore also must save financial room for several arbitration raises forthcoming, including those for two-thirds of his vaunted Three-headed Monster — Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland. Wade Davis already is under contract for $7 million as the Royals exercised the club option on him.
Moore has maintained for weeks that he does not want to break up that bullpen trio, which has become one of the best weapons in baseball.
"Generally speaking, you don’t like to weaken a strength," Moore said during the playoffs.
All told, Moore will not have much flexibility to spend on a free-agent starting pitcher, unless the price is right.
"It’s going to be awfully difficult for us to win negotiations with top-line free-agent pitchers," Moore said. "That’s why we have to continue to stock our pipeline and continually try to graduate guys to the big-league level."
There are some curious free-agent options below Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and Shields, who are considered the top-line free-agent starters.
The Royals are expected to kick the tires on over-30 pitchers such as Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana and, yes, even Jake Peavy, who struggled against the Royals in the World Series but had an excellent second half for the Giants and is the type of fierce competitor Moore covets.
Liriano and Santana both have been extended qualifying offers, which could soften the Royals’ pursuit because the Royals’ organizational philosophy is to build through the draft and they would prefer to have two first-round picks (they’ll get one for Shields) next June.
The instant success of rookie Brandon Finnegan, last year’s top KC pick, has proven to the Royals that they can get quick returns on a first-round pick.
Liriano’s inconsistent past could drop his market value within reach of the Royals, though there also is talk that he may set a new trend and accept Pittsburgh’s qualifying offer (are you listening, James Shields?).
Santana was a likable addition to the Royals in 2013 and a clubhouse comedian. But the organization hasn’t forgotten how he faded in August and early September that season when the Royals were fighting to get back in the playoff chase. During a crucial seven-game stretch he posted a 4.76 ERA while opponents had an .855 OPS off him.
As much as Moore would love one of his young studs — Finnegan, Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, Sean Manaea — to emerge quickly, it doesn’t seem likely they can in time for early next season. Zimmer, who had shoulder surgery, won’t even be ready until June. And while Finnegan will get a shot at the rotation in spring training, he likely will start the season in the minors.
"(Finnegan) was obviously very good for us out of the bullpen, but we still feel he can be part of the rotation," Moore said. "When we go into spring training we try to stretch out 10 to 12 guys to be in the works for a rotation spot, and he will be in that mix.
"We just have to stay open-minded and see where our depth is. Whether he goes to the minors to start the season as a starter or breaks camp with us in the bullpen or as a starter, we have to be open-minded. We’re still learning about him."
The other option, of course, is for Moore to work a trade, as he did two years ago to acquire Santana.
"We have to keep all of our options open," Moore said. "But our strength has been pitching and we have to find a way to maintain that strength."