CINCINNATI -- As disappointing as the 2018 season has been for the Royals, the big picture has looked much brighter over the past month, thanks to the development of Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O'Hearn and several young candidates for the rotation. And the overall play has improved: Since Aug.
CINCINNATI -- As disappointing as the 2018 season has been for the Royals, the big picture has looked much brighter over the past month, thanks to the development of Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Ryan O'Hearn and several young candidates for the rotation. And the overall play has improved: Since Aug. 24, Kansas City is 16-11.
With that backdrop, let's do our final Inbox of the regular season.
This is the fun part heading into 2019. General manager Dayton Moore always has pointed out that a team needs at least eight or nine viable rotation candidates heading into a season to guard against injury and natural attrition. And the Royals will have that, with more depth heading into Spring Training than they've had in recent years.
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For argument's sake, let's say Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Jakob Junis and Ian Kennedy are the front four. The fifth spot would be a battle among Heath Fillmyer, Jorge Lopez, Eric Skoglund, Glenn Sparkman, Trevor Oaks and Scott Barlow. And that doesn't even include any veteran acquisitions or reclamation projects Moore and his scouting staff will add this offseason. Fillmyer, Lopez and Skoglund have proven they can pitch at this level.
There are no rumors of a payroll cut. It simply is fact due to expiring contracts. The Royals will have about $70 million of obligations for Alex Gordon, Duffy, Kennedy, Salvador Perez and Jorge Soler. But after that, most of the players coming back will be making near the Major League minimum or in their first year of arbitration. And Kansas City certainly will at least consider some non-tenders (Brandon Maurer and Nate Karns). The paring of payroll is part of the plan: bank those savings now for when the team is competitive again and then maybe sign a big free agent or two. That could come by 2020.
To me, that would have to the two players the Royals received for Mike Moustakas: center fielder Brett Phillips and right-hander Jorge Lopez. Phillips is Kansas City's type of player in all aspects. He is a terrific defender with a strong arm and he has speed. He's a very instinctual baserunner as well. The one question is whether Phillips can hit consistently at this level. If he can, the center-field job is his for years to come. Lopez has the talent to be a front-line starter. He became the first pitcher in Royals history to take a perfect game into the ninth inning earlier this month. It's a shame he got hurt recently.
There certainly would be some logic to trading Whit Merrifield. He has emerged as maybe the best super utility man in the game. Merrifield will win another stolen-base title this season, and he could end up leading the Majors in hits. But Moore made it pretty clear at the non-waiver Trade Deadline that he wasn't moving him. My guess is that Moore will take that stance again this offseason. The same reason Merrifield is attractive on the market is the same reason he's attractive to the Royals: He is a terrific offensive weapon who can play multiple positions well -- and he is cost-effective, playing for close to the Major League minimum.
First basemen are fairly easy to sneak through the Rule 5 Draft. The Royals didn't protect O'Hearn or Frank Schwindel last season, and I suspect they'll try to sneak Schwindel through again without putting him on the 40-man roster. The 40-man spots are precious, and a team will not use a spot for a player until it absolutely must. But Schwindel will get a long look in Spring Training.
I don't think the plan is to platoon O'Hearn moving forward. He hit lefties in the Minors, and though it's a big leap to do the same at the Major League level -- as he has found out by hitting .061 -- he'll probably get more of a shot against lefties next spring.
Karns spent almost the entire season in Arizona trying to rehab from elbow inflammation. The only hope is that enough rest will make him ready for Spring Training. But honestly, no one knows.
Yes, I do see them playing cards still. Maybe not as much as in previous years, but it still is a part of the clubhouse camaraderie.
Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB.