Royals could learn from past champions
By now, I think, the parade traffic has cleared from downtown Kansas City. Though considering the sheer size and scope of that event, perhaps that is a bold assumption on my part.
What is not bold to assume is that general manager Dayton Moore and the other members of the Royals' front office did not take long to turn the page and start thinking about 2016, because this sport's increasingly year-round rigors demand it. The Royals are facing an obvious hurdle in their bid to repeat as World Series champions (nobody's done so since the 1998-2000 Yankees), but this is a team that has already shown an unmistakable ability to sustain success.
With that latter point in mind, Kansas City really doesn't need any advice on how to get back to the October stage. Regardless, here are three lessons from recent champions of one sort or another that might apply to the Royals in their bid to be a Fall Classic fixture.
1. The benefits of the bargain bin can be fleeting
Kansas City's 2015 run was not totally dissimilar from Boston's '13 run in one respect: Both teams did well on an inordinate number of low-profile bargain buys -- the Red Sox with Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara and David Ross, and the Royals with Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Chris Young, Kris Medlen and Franklin Morales.
The exact contributions of all these guys varied, of course, but on the whole, you could safely say they were all worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, if the Red Sox are any indication, the Royals might want to brace themselves for some regression from that group.
One can only hope Kendrys Morales' health and production doesn't take a Victorino-like turn for the worse, and we'll see how Volquez's arm responds to its first foray into 200-inning (and well beyond) terrain. Neither of those guys has what you'd consider an ordinary career arc by any means, so predicting what the future holds for them is a fool's errand. Kansas City deserves a ton of credit (and a diamond-encrusted ring) for trusting that Morales could and would return to past production levels, and that Volquez's 2014 turnaround in Pittsburgh was no fluke. Now we'll see what depth determinations are made to keep the lineup and rotation in order in the event that either of theses guys has a 2016 falloff.
The Red Sox, by and large, trusted their in-house options in 2014, and it came back to bite them. The Royals might want to dive back into the bargain bin in an effort to fortify their roster.
One caveat here: If any of Kansas City's bargain beauties is a candidate for improvement in 2016, it's Medlen, as a sheer function of his continued progression from his second Tommy John surgery. The Royals could still reap the biggest benefits of the two-year, $8.5 million commitment they made to Medlen if the can impact their rotation in a meaningful way in '16.
2. Loyalty has its price
The San Francisco Giants have had two tried-and-true patterns this decade: Even-year championships, and loyalty toward many of those who help win them. As evidenced by the retention of Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross after winning the World Series in 2010, or the multiyear contracts doled out to Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro after winning it again in '12, such loyalty isn't always rewarded (and remember, the Giants were ready and willing after their '14 Series title to give Pablo Sandoval a deal similar to the one currently deemed a disaster in Boston).
Obviously, the Giants have made it work regardless, but they also have a bigger budget -- and, ergo, more wiggle room -- to work with than do the Royals
Johnny Cueto, we know, is a goner, and it's something of an industry expectation that they won't be able to retain Ben Zobrist if the big-market clubs get involved for his services. But how far they're willing to go with one of their franchise faces in Alex Gordon, who is a tremendous two-way player but on the wrong side of 30, will be fascinating. Some rival clubs with more financial flexibility will view Gordon as a cost-effective alternative to the Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton markets, and that's how bidding wars get started.
The Royals already made the prudent decision not to get caught up in a few key late-season and October hits by declining Rios' $12.5 million option. They'll also have to decide whether to re-up with Young, who will undoubtedly be more of a hot commodity than he was last winter, when he lingered on the open market into Spring Training. Same goes for Ryan Madson, who is now in line for a multiyear commitment after posting a 2.13 ERA and 0.963 WHIP in 63 1/3 innings in his first injury-free big league season since 2011. It is a certainty that the next Young and Madson contracts -- even if those guys are successful -- won't provide as much bang for the buck as Kansas City received in 2015. So, how far do the Royals go in their efforts to retain them?
There's something to be said for getting the band back together, in theory. But it can be a costly venture, and sometimes magic proves difficult to repeat.
3. Protect the 'pen
The best lessons are borne out of personal experience.
To get back to the World Series in 2015, the Royals had to drown out a lot of external noise and go all-in not only on retaining their bullish bullpen, but building upon it. Kansas City could have entertained offers for Greg Holland or maybe even Wade Davis, with those guys scheduled to make more than $15 million combined (a lavish expense for a small-market club), but the Royals held onto them and re-upped with Luke Hochevar and Jason Frasor, and they signed Franklin Morales and Madson. They left absolutely nothing to chance.
Holland, of course, blew out his elbow before year's end, in the midst of a horrendous second half. But his first half (2.70 ERA, .547 OPS against) was solid, generally speaking, and his presence allowed Davis to continue to work his wonders in many high-leverage situations in a setup role. Frasor's control problems earned him a midseason release, but Hochevar slowly and steadily progressed from Tommy John surgery to become a vital October bridge. Morales was a worthwhile low-cost investment, and Madson was one of the great comeback stories in the game.
The Royals didn't rest on their relief laurels from 2014 but, rather, doubled down on them. And given the mountainous innings log taken on by Davis over the past two years (and the money that will be saved in non-tendering Holland), it makes sense for them to go heavy on 'pen help once again this offseason.