With another season of Kansas City Royals baseball winding down, it's not too early to turn attention to the offseason and what stories have the potential to be the most important developments of the winter. There is one key issue that needs to be addressed above all else this off season and really the rest just take a backseat to the first issue. Let's begin:
1) Sign Alex Gordon To A Long-Term Deal
Coming into the 2011 season Gordon said he intended on dominating and he has done nothing short of that this season. The 27-year old has turned over a new leaf this year and shown what many fans had hoped for him all along. With a .299/.371/.500 line thus far in addition to 21 home runs and 82 RBI, Gordon has posted career highs in every major offensive category. His 45 doubles lead the major leagues, and he is currently fifth in the American League with 173 hits. Though he still strikes out at a high rate, Gordon's had an amazing offensive season. Not only offensively has Gordon shined, but he also has shown great ability on the defensive side. His 20 assists also lead the majors as well.
Currently Gordon is making $1.15 million and is scheduled to make just $1.4 million next season. Gordon and his wife seem to like Kansas City as it is close to Gordon's hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. A long-term deal should be a priority, and Gordon may be willing to work with the Royals to make if financially reasonable for both sides.
2) Search For Starting Pitching
It's no secret that the Royals starting pitching this year has struggled. The starting pitching has a 5.00 ERA during 2011, while the bullpen has a 3.69 ERA giving the Royals an overall team ERA 4.53 at the moment. With losing Zack Greinke, Luke Hochevar has become the ace of the Royals staff and has a 10-11 record with a 4.73 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Hochevar has shown glimpses at times that he is putting things together, but there still is room for improvement.
Besides Hochevar, Danny Duffy is will obviously be back for his second season with the Royals. Beyond that there really are no guarantees. Felipe Paulino figures to be back as he is a cheap contract and showed moxy for the first two months after coming over in a trade from the Colorado Rockies in May. Bruce Chen and Jeff Francis are both free agents, so their return in no guarantee. Neither player is in line for a big contract on the open market, as Francis has struggled with a 5-16 record, and though Chen may be 10-7, he is going to be 35-years old next season.
Certainly the Royals wish Mike Montgomery was further along in his development and ready to join the major league team and though he will likely get a chance in spring training, you can't count on him cracking the 2012 starting rotation come April.
Two in-house names currently on the major league roster are Aaron Crow and Everett Teaford. Crow, who was the Kansas City All-Star selection this year, had a fine first-half in his rookie year but has fallen off down the stretch. He still has a respectable 2.88 ERA in 59.1 innings pitched. Crow also had been a starter throughout his career up until this season.
Teaford on the other hand got his first major league start on Sunday and looked solid in his debut. He pitched five inning of scoreless baseball against the Mariners in picking up his first major league victory. He is a small left-hander that will also get a shot in spring training.
The Royals have mentioned they will be exploring options this winter for starting pitcher, and that may include having to trade a talented prospect or two. Kansas City isn't in line to spend freely on the starting pitching market, and to be honest this isn't a great year for free agent starting pitchers.
3) Develop another left-hander for the Bullpen
Unlike starting pitchers, relievers are more affordable and easier to come by. This bodes well for a team with the financial pockets such as the Royals. The problem is there is a limited number of solid left-handed relievers. If you are a left-handed reliever you often will be able to bounce around the major leagues for quite a few years even if your talent level says that you shouldn't.
The Royals simply used left-handed pitcher Tim Collins too much during 2011. So far he has appeared in 63 games, throwing 62.0 innings. Though Blake Wood may actually lead Royals relievers in innings pitched, you can tell that Collins has worn down as the year has gone on.
Blaine Hardy and Kevin Chapman are two solid left-handers with Northwest Arkansas, but neither are ready to accelerate to the major league level as of yet. While Hardy was dominate with NWA, he struggled in 23 games with Omaha this season to the tune of a 7.14 ERA. Chapman was taken in the fourth-round of 2010 draft out of the University of Florida and posted a 4.94 ERA this year between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas. He still likely needs at least one full year in the minors to show more progression.
4) Figure out the bench situation in the Outfield and at Catcher
For a team sitting 24 games below .500, the Royals are actually in a great position as they really know who their starters are at each position for the foreseeable future. Mitch Maier, who started 103 games in the outfield in 2010 has been a non-existent member of the Royals outfield this season. He has appeared in 40 games and only picked up 84 official at-bats.
With the starting outfield in place, the Royals need to decide if Maier will be a member of the Royals in 2012 or if they choose to bring up Lorenzo Cain. Cain has done nothing this year to hurt his value as he has hit .312/.380/.497 with Omaha. That included 16 home runs 81 RBI, and 16 steals. With Cain set to turn 26 next season, it's fast approaching the the Royals need to decide if he is a member of their major league roster in the future.
Salvador Perez was called up in a series earlier this summer against the Tampa Bay Rays to be the everyday starting catcher for the Royals. We knew he was the catcher of the future, but many were surprised at how soon he was called up. He had barely been in Omaha for two weeks after having been called up from Northwest Arkansas.
Perez has done nothing to disappoint, but the Royals will have to decide if Brayan Pena is the backup for 2012 or if they will go with Manuel Pina or possibly another name that we don't know at the moment. Pena is a great clubhouse guy so it wouldn't be a shock to see the Royals keep him around. He is also content with the role he serves.