This is a huge year for the Royals, no doubt about it. But don't make the mistake of thinking that they are betting their future on what could be James Shields' last season in Kansas City.
General manager Dayton Moore traded an impact bat in Wil Myers to get Shields from the Rays, and so far he hasn't gotten the return he hoped for -- unless you only count what happened after a disappointing first two months last season. The goal is to end a 28-season playoff drought, and while the 63-44 finish in the 2013 season was impressive, it was wasted by the stumbling start that preceded it.
Manager Ned Yost sees a deeper confidence this year that the Royals didn't have when they left Spring Training last season, even though they had been the toast of Arizona. Shields has played a large role in building that confidence, no doubt, and he could be one of the most attractive -- that is, pricey -- free agents in next fall's class. But Kansas City really isn't as all-in as it might seem on the surface.
Led by Moore and scouting director Lonnie Goldberg, the Royals have become one of the organizations that are doing the best job with the new Draft rules, and their 2014 Draft fortunes just became a lot better with Ervin Santana signing a one-year deal with the Braves.
Kansas City will get the 28th overall pick from Atlanta, to go with the three high picks the Royals already held -- their first-rounder (17th overall), their pick in the competitive-balance round (40th overall) and their second-round pick (57th overall).
I can't wait to see what they do with such a surplus.
The Royals had three of the first 46 picks last year, and they used that supply to land one of the best pitchers in the Draft, along with two good position players. Sean Manaea, the left-hander from Indiana State who was in consideration to go No. 1 overall before suffering a hip injury last March, could join 2012 first-rounder Kyle Zimmer (fifth overall pick) in a post-Shields rotation as soon as 2015.
Down the road, Manaea and Zimmer, who rank No. 6 and No. 1, respectively, among the Royals' Top 20 Prospects, could become the kind of 1-2 combination that has helped the Tigers dominate the American League Central during the Justin Verlander era.
It's a lot to drop a Verlander on any pitcher, and that's not what I mean to do with Zimmer and Manaea. The pitchers like Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale come along only every now and then. But Zimmer and Manaea are equipped with the tools to be special.
Goldberg was always convinced that Manaea was the goods, but he never thought Manaea would slide to the eighth overall pick, where Kansas City could claim him. But Manaea hurt his hip at some point in a March 15 start at the Metrodome and never reclaimed the high-90s fastball he'd used to set up a wipeout slider in the Cape Cod League.
Manaea went into a freefall in the first round of the Draft, with teams worrying he might choose to return for his senior season -- as Mark Appel had done when he dropped to eighth overall in the 2012 Draft -- and the Royals gambled they could get him with the 34th pick. They took Stephen F. Austin shortstop Hunter Dozier (who has since moved to third base) with their first-round pick and waited on Manaea. When Manaea was there, they invested $3.55 million to sign him, which they could do because they got Dozier for $1 million below slot.
That strategy looks brilliant this spring, with Manaea fully recovered from hip surgery and throwing 93-94 mph in Minor Lague games. He could start his pro career at Advanced Class A and move through the system as quickly as Zimmer, who is receiving some big league consideration this spring despite having logged only 148 pro innings.
Adding the Santana pick puts Kansas City in an even better position to maneuver its way to an impactful Draft this year. Adding the 28th pick gives Moore and Goldberg another $1.8 million or so in the Royals' Draft pool, and that could allow them to grab another top-five talent should one drop.
In part because they've done well with Latin American signings like Sal Perez, Yordano Ventura, Jorge Bonifacio and Raul Mondesi Jr., the Royals have had a highly regarded farm system for years. But they maximized their position in last year's Draft and are in position to do that again in June. Moore has a lot invested in the success of this year's team, for sure, but he has built a strong organization that should be competitive even if Shields leaves after this season.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.