Royals Athletics Baseball

Kansas City Royals' Whit Merrifield, right, celebrates with Mike Moustakas (8) after scoring against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game, Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. Merrifield scored on a single by Royals' Eric Hosmer. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- With less than two weeks remaining until the first pitch of Spring Training, a quiet-but-productive offseason has Kansas City lined up for a successful second season of rebuilding.

The Royals have only made one major signing since ending their season in late September, re-signing versatile second baseman Whit Merrifield to a four-year, $16.25 million contract. Merrifield recorded an American League-leading 192 hits and 45 stolen bases last season in addition to posting a .304 batting average.

The deal pays Merrifield $1 million in 2019, $5 million in 2020, $6.75 million in 2021 and $2.75 million in 2022. It also includes a $10.5 million option following the 2023 season and a $750,000 buyout. This deal represented both sides reaching across the aisle — Merrifield taking a back-loaded salary to help the front office, and the front office offering a long-term contract to keep the utility man in Kansas City. Both concessions will allow the team to focus on bringing in fresh talent in an attempt to recreate the success found during the team’s 2015 championship campaign.

Merrifield’s contract, while important, is a shadow of the Royals’ biggest move of the winter — dropping $43.3 million from the team’s payroll, the biggest payroll change in Royals history. That’s the fourth-largest decrease between the 2018 and 2019 season, behind only the Baltimore Orioles ($68.8 million), Toronto Blue Jays ($44.8 million) and Cleveland Indians ($44 million).

Team 2018 Payroll 2019 Payroll (projected)  Total Deduction
 Baltimore Orioles $130,467,027 $61,693,782 - $68,773,245
 Toronto Blue Jays $150,946,147 $106,098,571 - $44,847,576
 Cleveland Indians $142,804,703 $98,778,251 - $44,026,452
 Kansas City Royals $129,944,821 $86,646,667 - $43,298,154

  

The rest comes from retained salaries from last season, which included 16 players and took up over $37 million of the payroll, though some of those salaries will bleed over to the 2019 season.Much of this was done through inaction. The departure of Jason Hammel, Alcides Escobar and Brandon Maurer accounted for $13.7 million being scratched from the payroll.

It’s likely that the general manager Dayton Moore and the Kansas City front office will hold off on spending this money until the team is in a better position to be competitive. If Merrifield’s contract is any indication, that time is the 2021 season. But opening up free cash is imperative as baseball’s free agency process becomes an arms race for the league’s first $350 million man.

The Royals won’t be in that conversation, but have instead started to look internally for breakout stars. A large part of that process means taking risks on players deemed to be too injury-prone, too slow or simply “not quite there” to see what pans out. There is no better time for this than now, as the team comes off its second-worst season in franchise history. Expectations are low, forgiveness is high and young faces from the farm system can offer fans a reason to tune in when all else is out of reach (see: Brad Keller).

It appears that reliever Kyle Zimmer will fill that role during the 2019 season. The hard-throwing righty has been plagued by injuries since being drafted fifth overall in the 2012 MLB Draft, undergoing three surgeries and seven separate stints on the injured list (formerly the disabled list).

Kyle Zimmer

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Kyle Zimmer throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers Wednesday, March 2, 2016, in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas City signed Zimmer to a one-year contract in January, promising him $10,000 above the league minimum and giving him a first chance in the big leagues. His contract still holds a minor league option that comes with a 78 percent pay cut, so the pressure to perform is present. If he is able to stay healthy, Zimmer’s 9.8 strikeout average per nine innings may be enough to help the Royals bullpen in a major way moving forward.

What does all of this mean in terms of immediate success? According to PECOTA, the league’s leading sabermetric projections system, 14 wins. The system currently has Kansas City at 72 wins, a 14-win increase and good for third place in the American League Central division.

72 wins is a far cry from hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy, but after winning just 58 games last season, it should elicit excitement from the Kansas City fan base.

The first game of the Royals’ 2019 season is on Saturday, Feb. 23 against the Texas Rangers in Surprise, Arizona (Spring Training).

A full list of transactions from the 2018-19 offseason can be found on the MLB website.

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Copyright 2019 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.

Sports Correspondent

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