KANSAS CITY -- The Royals have been in this aisle of the free-agent market before, the one marked "starting pitchers." Just last year, in fact. Thing is, the aisle gets so crowded that the shopping carts start colliding. It shouldn't be any different this offseason.
"I think that we and 28 or 29 other clubs are all focused on the same thing," general manager Dayton Moore said. "You want to look to improve your team in any way possible -- and pitching is always going to be an area of focus for us."
The Kansas City front office believes it has a pretty decent lineup of position players and a strong bullpen, but the Royals need a couple of strong starting pitchers to provide the type of rotation that could make them a contender.
In the American League last season, the Royals' starting pitchers finished 11th in ERA (5.01) -- only the Red Sox, Indians and Twins were worse. That was far behind the Rays' leading 3.34 and the Tigers' 3.76.
In addition, the Royals' starters were 13th among the 14 teams in wins (47) and innings pitched (880) -- with only the Twins worse in each category. The Rangers' starters led with 72 victories, followed by the Yankees' 71.
Last year, the Royals re-signed reliable left-hander Bruce Chen, and he led them in victories for the third straight season. But he was their only starter plucked from free agency. They traded for left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who tanked.
Around Kansas City, a popular fantasy is that the Royals could bring back old favorite Zack Greinke. However, those dreamers should remember that:
Greinke wanted out of Kansas City because the team wasn't a contender.
His snub of a five-year contract for more than $100 million from the Brewers got him traded to the Angels.
So Greinke is looking for a proven contender and plenty of gold -- more than the Royals are likely to haul out of the mine.
More realistic free-agent targets might include the likes of the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse, the Tigers' Anibal Sanchez and James Shields, if the Rays don't excercise their club option on him.
Meanwhile, the Royals and Jeremy Guthrie got real cozy during his 14-start stay after being obtained from the Rockies for Sanchez. The Royals won 10 of Guthrie's last 11 starts, and he was 5-0 with a 2.17 ERA over that span.
"We'll evaluate him and compare him to the other pitchers that are potentially available to us," Moore said. "But we have a comfort level with Jeremy, and we appreciate and respect who he is and everything he did here in his short time in Kansas City."
Guthrie, 33, earned $8.2 million last year, so he won't be found in the bargain bin of the market. The Royals have exclusive negotiating rights with him until 11 p.m. CT on Friday, when players can start signing with other clubs.
The Royals' other potential free agent is longtime closer Joakim Soria, who underwent Tommy John surgery on April 3. The club has an option $8 million option -- with a $750,000 buyout -- and a decision must be made within three days.
Indications are that the Royals will buy out the option and attempt to renegotiate a contract heavy on performance incentives that could be achieved after his return.
"He's not going to be able to pitch in the Major Leagues, probably, until June at some point. But we're comfortable with where he is -- but we'll just have to wait and see how that unfolds," Moore said. "But I know there's a desire [by] both parties to try to work something out, and a comfort level that exists between us and him. ... We love him, so hopefully we can come to some type of agreement that works for everybody."
The Royals are also exploring more cost-effective methods. They've already plucked right-handed starter Chris Volstad off the waiver wire from the Cubs. He made $2.655 million last year and is arbitration-eligible.
The Royals' offense, which finished 12th in runs scored in the AL, could use a boost. But Moore is confident that will come from within.
"I have complete confidence in all of our position players that they will continue to get better -- and I expect more production out of our group as we move forward," Moore said.
While the Royals hoped that Luke Hochevar would emerge as a solid rotation leader last season, that didn't happen. But the club's disappointment is not likely so severe that he'd be cut loose at contract tender time on Nov. 30.
"We're looking to add as much pitching as we can, and Luke's had a measure of success in the Major Leagues," Moore said. "He hasn't been as consistent as I know he would like, but we believe there are better days ahead for Luke."
Spending in the free-agent market, of course, will mean an increase in the Royals' payroll, which was about $64 million in 2012. Moore expects to get the go-ahead for additional spending from owner David Glass and club president Dan Glass.
"There's an understanding we have as a baseball operations department that we have the flexibility to do what's necessary to improve our team, within certain parameters," Moore said. "I've never felt any restrictions on our ability to add payroll, but it's important that we understand that the evaluation and the dollars need to balance out -- they need to correlate. We want to pay for production."
Free agents: Guthrie, Soria (if club option not exercised)
Eligible for arbitration: 2B Chris Getz, Hochevar, RHP Felipe Paulino, C Brayan Pena, Volstad, RHP Blake Wood (likely Super Two player)
Player option: None
Club option: Soria
Non-tender possibilities: None
Areas of need
Starting pitching: The Royals haven't had a bona fide rotation leader since Greinke was traded after the 2010 season. The biggest one-season winner in the last 19 years was Paul Byrd, with 17 victories in '02. Too often last season, the starters couldn't deliver enough innings -- with the result that a young and talented bullpen was overworked.
Offense: Needing more bang, the Royals might look for a second baseman with a proven, productive bat. Their current choices are Johnny Giavotella, whose hitting has yet to match his Minor League promise, and Getz, who is defensively skilled and speedy, but without much pop. They might also consider alternatives for oft-injured center fielder Lorenzo Cain and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who had an off-year -- although top prospect Wil Myers is in the wings.
This will undoubtedly climb from the approximate $64 million in 2012 -- but how much, of course, depends on acquisitions through free agency or trades. Let's guess that $75 million, which was the club's all-time high in '10, is the upper limit next year. The Royals already have about $33 million committed to six players, and will probably spend $12 million or so on six arbitration-eligible players. Other players with less service time might require another $10 million. If that plays out, they'd have in the vicinity of $20 million for free-agency spending.