Over the past year the debuts of young talented Royals like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Aaron Crow brought an increased level of recognition to their minor league system. The player development of Kansas City is just one component of the sturdy foundation the team has been laying in the hopes of changing their fortunes.
While the Royals don’t have the resources to hand 100 million dollar contracts to free agents, they have been making smart and thriftier decisions that have slowly been transforming the franchise. These key areas are not necessarily headline grabbers, but are integral to successful small market teams.
Trades/Free Agency: It has been quite some time since the Royals signed a major free agent or were involved in a blockbuster trade. Nonetheless, they are active bargain shoppers, and their moves have increasingly added depth and potential for the future.
Center fielder Melky Cabrera, signed in 2011 as a free agent for $1.25 million dollars. His .305 batting average, 18 home runs, 87 RBI, and 201 base hits were an absolute bargain, and his production shocked even the most optimistic fans. After the season GM Dayton Moore decided to cash in on Cabrera’s spike in value and flipped him for another asset, which resulted in last month’s trade to the San Francisco Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor league pitcher Ryan Verdugo.
The key to the move was obtaining Sanchez, a perfectly average major league starting pitcher, with good strikeout ability. His value will be providing stability to the previously shaky rotation. Sanchez is arbitration eligible, but coming off an injury riddled 2011, he won’t break the bank for the Royals.
Verdugo is a power lefty who has never pitched above Double-A, and has bounced between starting and relieving, while experiencing some injury issues. Although not an elite prospect, he is an intriguing add-on in the deal, and may eventually fit into the Royals’ bullpen.
Moore’s most recent move was signing free agent reliever Jonathan Broxton this past week to a one year deal for 4 million dollars, plus incentives. Although he is coming off minor elbow surgery, Moore is banking on Broxton regaining his All Star abilities. The signing gives the Royals the flexibility to use Broxton as closer, set-up man, or trade bait to a contender looking for a proven bullpen arm. This signing is another great example of a high reward, low risk move that could pay off for the team in a variety of ways.
Player Development: Talent evaluators believe that the Royals’s system have as much depth as any franchise in baseball, with an impressive collection of pitching and hitting prospects. Hosmer, Moustakas, and pitcher Danny Duffy were the most prominent prospects to log significant time in Kansas City last year, and every indication is that they will be followed by a steady stream of other players.
The system is not only loaded, but the talent is spread evenly up and down the levels. From outfielder Wil Myers, who may debut in 2012, to 2011 first round draft pick Bubba Starling, the team has put itself in the enviable position of establishing a sustainable player development system that shows no signs of slowing down.
The draft rules established in the new CBA will also assist the Royals in maintaining a stockpile of young talent. With drafted players no longer able to sign major league contracts, and more regimented signing bonus rules, the Royals will have more footing to pursue higher profile prospects who otherwise might have been passed over because of perceived salary demands.
Bullpen: Hitters and starting pitchers are more glamorous, but a strong bullpen is the backbone of most successful teams. With the recent signing of Broxton, the Royals’ only enhanced one of the strongest bullpens, from top to bottom, in all of baseball.
Crow, Broxton and incumbent closer Joakim Soria all have the stuff to close, with the latter two having made All Star teams in the past. It looks like Crow may be headed to the starting rotation in 2012, but he could always return to the bullpen if starting doesn’t work out. Other returning relievers include Blake Wood, Tim Collins, Greg Holland, and Louis Coleman; all cheap, effective, and versatile.
The bullpen’s depth and price tag give the Royals a myriad of options. Without a strong starting rotation, having an effective bullpen is a must. However, the bullpen’s depth gives the team the ability to explore possible trades, to bring back pieces to fill other needs.
The recent progress of the Royals has been incremental. Their win totals since 2009 have been 65, 67, and 71. Now that they have started establishing solid building blocks, look for the Royals to make a more noticeable push in 2012. It is clear from their shrewd moves and strategies that they are hoping to field one of the most young and exciting teams in baseball sooner rather than later.