As the Kansas City Royals maneuver their way through a period of transition, the 2018 team is slowly starting to take shape with spring training only weeks away.
After going three months with little-to-no news about any of the five coveted Kansas City Royals free agents, two fan favorites have signed along the bottom line, just days apart.
While Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Jason Vargas still remained unsigned, the signing of Lorenzo Cain in Milwaukee, WI, and Alcides Escobar in Kansas City offers a glimpse into the state of the organization and what the moves mean for 2018.
Out of the five free agents, Cain was always the most likely to leave Kansas City, for a number of reasons. The outfielder will be an aging 32 years old for most of the 2018 season, the Royals already invested $72 million in another outfielder, Alex Gordon, and the team has more young depth in the outfield than in any other position.
As far as filling his role in 2018, Gordon showed the ability to play center field in 2017 and 2011 top pick Bubba Starling is entering his 25-year-old season. Many scouts say Starling is already a gold-glove caliber defender but his bat has yet to consistently produce at even the minor league level.
The defensive drop-off from Cain to Gordon or Starling in centerfield could be very minimal but the Royals will take the biggest hit in the middle of the order.
Cain is coming off a season in which he hit for a .300 average, with 15 home runs, 26 steals, 49 RBI’s and 100 strikeouts. Gordon has hit sub .220 for two seasons and Starling is an unknown, both likely to fall short of Cain’s standard.
Cain's former outfield partners are set to change as well, with Gordon, Starling, Jorge Bonifacio, Jorge Soler, Paulo Orlando, Whit Merrifield and Billy Burns all set to get a chance at playing time in the three outfield spots. With Gordon’s decline, Cain was the only everyday staple. How general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost administer playing time will be a key factor to watch, as the team balances being competitive and rebuilding.
After Cain signed a deal of more than $50 million, the Royals will earn a compensatory sandwich pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Not signing Cain to such a deal also still leaves the door open for a return of Hosmer or Moustakas.
It’s unclear how much Moore really has to spend, or if signing Cain was ever a possibility, but it makes other reunions slightly more likely than if the team locked up the 32-year old, long-term.
While the departure of Cain confirms a hole in the outfield and the lineup that Kansas City must fill, bringing back Escobar doesn’t necessarily fill the shortstop hole.
Escobar is entering his 31-year-old season and no longer contributes at the same offensive or defensive level, despite starting all 162 games in three of the last four seasons.
With the Royals likely not contending in 2018, they shouldn’t feel the need to start Escobar every game. He’s now paid more as a utility man at $2.5 million and the Royals have an option with Raul Mondesi Jr. in place. But, bringing back Escobar, even for just one year, complicates the Mondesi situation.
The 22-year old top prospect had a taste of big league action at ages 20 and 21, playing in a total of 72 games, but only hitting for an average of .181 over both seasons. His 22 strikeouts to just 9 hits in 2017 showed he was far from ready at the start of the season.
However, Mondesi rebounded with a very impressive campaign in AAA-Omaha. In 85 games, he hit .305 with 13 home runs, 8 triples, 20 doubles with a notable .879 OPS. Those numbers say that he’s, for the most part, conquered AAA and ready to develop at the big leagues. But, signing Escobar, who’s really only played shortstop, added with Whit Merrifield starting at second, means there’s no longer a clear big league path for Mondesi in 2018.
If Mondesi shows in spring training that he is ready for big league competition, the signing of Escobar at shortstop likely pushes the prospect to second base, with Merrifield to left or right field. If that was by design, then that shows a lack of faith in Soler, Gordon or Bonifacio.
Keeping Escobar was not a necessity, so doing so shows a potential weakness in either Mondesi’s development or the outfield depth. It’s only a one-year deal, so, in a perfect world, the Royals would probably like to transition Escobar to a strict utility role by season’s end with more long-term options in place across the diamond. If that happens, the contract is not as much of a head-scratcher than if he were to start another 162 games.
Escobar’s $2.5 million also should not impact the Hosmer and Moustakas market or what the Royals can pay them, and keeping one of the old band members around can’t hurt their odds of returning.
Keeping Escobar around for one more year shows there’s still at least some kind of commitment to winning games in 2018, something that Hosmer or Moustakas would likely want.
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