What to expect from Royals at Winter Meetings

December 5th, 2019

KANSAS CITY -- It has been a whirlwind offseason for the rebuilding Royals: New owner, new manager, coaching-staff changes, front-office changes, a pending new TV deal.

But there hasn’t been a ton of roster movement, and there probably won’t be. The Royals did avoid arbitration with left-hander , signing him to a one-year, $3.1 million deal earlier this week.

And the Royals are waiting on perennial Gold Glove winner , who officially is a free agent, as he contemplates returning for one more season.

Still, as the Royals prepare to embark for the Winter Meetings starting Monday in San Diego, they will have some under-the-radar work to do as they try to shore up a pitching staff that was the primary culprit in dragging them to 103 losses in 2019.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead for the Royals:

Club needs

Priority No. 1 will be finding some cost-efficient bullpen help. The Royals had some interest in bringing back left-hander Jake Diekman, whom they signed last offseason before dealing him to Oakland at the Trade Deadline. But Diekman landed a two-year deal with the A's this week. Expect general manager Dayton Moore to scour the market for bargains, not only for the bullpen, but perhaps for the rotation, which right now has four set starters in , , and Montgomery. Moore and his staff have a knack for finding reclamation projects -- last year’s was -- and expect that approach to be their focus again this offseason, starting at the Winter Meetings. Moore feels comfortable with his position players, so that area is not a huge need.

Whom might they trade?

Expect all kinds of trade rumors involving , Duffy and . Merrifield is an affordable option for any team ($14.5 million over the next three years), and while the Royals will listen to offers on anyone, it remains unlikely they trade him unless overwhelmed. And the same goes for Duffy, who is owed just under $31 million over the next two seasons. The Royals wouldn’t mind that money coming off the books, but as with Merrifield, a trade could be a notable public-relations hit. Kennedy has one year left at $16.5 million, and the Royals would have to eat much of that salary to move him now -- they might have a better chance at the Trade Deadline.

Prospects to know

While Bobby Witt Jr. is the Royals’ No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, all eyes are on the club's wave of pitching prospects, starting with right-handers Brady Singer (No. 2) and Jackson Kowar (No. 5), and left-handers Daniel Lynch (No. 3) and Kris Bubic (No. 6). The Royals won’t be dealing any of them, and they'll be hoping to stockpile even more pitching prospects, if possible, over the next year. It seems plausible that some of those pitching prospects get promoted to the big leagues this season.

Rule 5 Draft

With the No. 4 pick in the Rule 5 Draft, the Royals will be active next Thursday. They have cleared up four roster spots, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they grabbed at least two Rule 5 picks, hoping to land another Keller like they did two years ago. The Royals did not protect power-hitting prospect Seuly Matias from the Rule 5 Draft, but it seems unlikely he gets taken, as he has been injured the last two seasons and hasn’t risen above Class A.

Payroll summary

Including ’s potential arbitration case (or more likely, long-term deal), the Royals’ payroll for 2020 would sit around $75-80 million. The budget under new owner John Sherman hasn’t been finalized, but all signs point to him not making a big free-agent splash this offseason -- that wouldn’t make sense for a rebuilding team at least a season or two from being competitive. The Royals also need to plan on $4-6 million for Gordon if he returns. What this means is that the Royals will be searching for starting pitching or relievers who come in under $4 million. The Royals are waiting on finalization of a new TV deal, which MLB.com has reported could bring in about $48-52 million per year, up about $25 million from 2019. But that money can’t be counted on until the deal is complete.

One question

When will the Royals be good again? Best guess is they could be able to compete for the playoffs in 2022. This season will be a struggle, simply because they won’t have the horses on the pitching staff to win consistently. The Royals are content with their positional lineup that features Soler, Merrifield, , , and , whose return from Tommy John surgery will be like adding a big-time free agent. But until the wave of pitching prospects makes an impact at the big league level, the Royals will not be able to compete for the American League Central title. Those prospects will begin to elevate to the Majors this season, and even more so in 2021.