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The 2020 season was the third straight year in which the Royals finished in fourth of fifth place, but the club did begin to see some of the fruits of its rebuilding efforts break into the big leagues. They’ll head into the winter looking to supplement their lineup and plug some holes in the bullpen.

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Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; salary projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

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The Royals’ record didn’t really reflect it, but the club still had some high points in 2020. Top pitching prospects Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, viewed as potential building blocks in the rotation, both made their big league debuts and held their own. Ups and downs were obviously to be expected given that Singer had just 16 Double-A starts under his belt and Bubic made the jump straight from Class-A Advanced, but the bottom-line results were plenty respectable. Singer tossed 64 1/3 frames with a 4.06 ERA and near-identical marks in FIP (4.08) and xFIP (4.05). Bubic was hit hard early but finished well, ultimately completing his rookie season with 50 frames and a 4.32 ERA (4.75 FIP, 4.48 xFIP).

There were positives in the bullpen, too, where minor league rolls of the dice on both Trevor Rosenthal and Greg Holland proved to be savvy. Moore spun Rosenthal into a prospect package headlined by an MLB-ready outfielder, Edward Olivares, while Holland anchored the bullpen and helped to ease some younger arms like Josh Staumont into higher-leverage spots. Moore has said he’ll look into re-signing both, but each right-hander should have a chance at garnering multi-year offers this winter, with Rosenthal in particular standing out as one of the most sought-after relief options on the market. Both are probably out of the Royals’ price range at this point.

The bullpen will still be a priority for Moore and his lieutenants this winter, but the primary focus could be on augmenting the lineup. Moore was candid in addressing his team’s offense following the season, proclaiming a need to improve his team’s on-base percentage and expressing a desire to upgrade at least two spots in the lineup. Whit Merrifield’s versatility will allow the Royals to explore a broad range of possibilities, but looking up and down the lineup, it’s rather clear where they could look.

Six spots in next year’s lineup appear largely set. Franchise cornerstone Salvador Perez will be back at catcher, and the Royals’ infield corners are set with Hunter Dozier at first and a revitalized Maikel Franco at third base. Adalberto Mondesi will man shortstop. Jorge Soler will serve as the DH. Merrifield can play either second or anywhere in the outfield, but recent usage seems to suggest the club prefers the latter. The Royals haven’t gotten much of a look at trade acquisitions Olivares and Franchy Cordero in the outfield, so bringing in two new outfield faces seems unlikely.

The outfield should be an easy spot to add one veteran, however, with affordable OBP-driven veterans like Brett Gardner, Matt Moore and Robbie Grossman all likely to be available this winter. (Gardner does have a club option with the Yankees.) If Moore wants to buy low on another former top prospect, as he did with Franco, he could see whether Jurickson Profar’s September hot streak as the Padres’ left fielder proves sustainable.

If there’s a second spot in the lineup, it seems second base is likely. Moore was quick to praise Nicky Lopez’s glovework and overall upside, but there’s little overlooking that the former second-round pick has logged an awful .228/.279/.307 slash in just shy of 600 big league plate appearances. Said Moore in regard to his middle-infield duo (via Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star):

We love the combination of Mondesi and Lopez, especially defensively. I think we all recognize that there’s a lot of range, talent, athleticism, creativity, with those two. They’re able to make plays. I think that’s really important. We also all understand from watching our team play and from knowing baseball, you’ve got to have production from those spots. You can’t have a period of time when you’re not getting production out of shortstop and second base. You can live with one or the other struggling offensively, but not both.

Moore went on to state that the Royals are “prepared to give [Lopez] more time,” although that certainly doesn’t have to be in the Majors right away. There are varying ways to read into the comments — MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes sees it as a vote of confidence in Lopez for 2021 — but at the very least Moore left open the door for Lopez to return to Triple-A and iron out the kinks while a veteran provides more competitive at-bats.

The market is flush with veteran infielders and will be all the more so after the non-tender deadline. Players like Cesar Hernandez and Tommy La Stella would give the club the short-term OBP boost it seeks while Lopez works to bring his bat up to speed. If Kolten Wong’s 2021 option is bought out by the Cardinals, his combination of elite defense, speed and low strikeout rate is a skill set the Royals have prioritized often in recent years.

Clearly, none of the names listed are going to transform what was a light-hitting lineup into a powerhouse, but for a still-rebuilding club that ranked 26th in the Majors in OBP (.309), 25th in walk rate (7.8 percent) and 24th in total runs (248), adding some lower-cost options to boost the unit’s competitiveness is a sensible approach. Some tinkering with the bench is always possible, and a shortstop-capable infielder would prove particularly prudent if there is indeed some minor league time in Lopez’s future, as he’s also the primary backup for Mondesi at short.

The rest of the club’s lifting seems likely to be done on the pitching side of things, although as is usually the case, there’s little reason to expect the Royals will make a major splash. That’s in part due to their typically middle-to-lower tier payroll but also due to the stock of enticing arms that is bubbling up to the Majors.

Kansas City’s rebuild has been rooted in stockpiling interesting young pitching, and there’s more on the horizon beyond the aforementioned Singer and Bubic. Top prospects Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar also figure to make their MLB debuts in 2021. The quartet of Singer, Bubic, Lynch and Kowar probably won’t all pan out as quality big league starters — such is the nature of pitching prospects — but they’ll be given every opportunity to do so. That foursome should make plenty of starts in 2020, and the Royals have veterans like Danny Duffy, Brad Keller and the somewhat less-established Jakob Junis to help rounds things out. Perhaps they’ll still bring in a recognizable name on a low-cost or even minor league deal to stash some depth in Triple-A, but 2021 should be spent prioritizing opportunities for that promising young group. Each of Singer, Bubic, Lynch and Kowar landed on at least one Top 100 list of note heading into the 2020 campaign, after all.

That leaves the bullpen as the likely area of focus on the pitching side of things. As previously alluded to, Rosenthal, Holland and shared agent Scott Boras will likely be targeting multi-year arrangements in free agency this winter. Ian Kennedy’s ill-fated five-year deal is at last off the team’s books, but his departure creates another vacancy in Mike Matheny’s bullpen.

The Royals have some interesting arms in the ’pen, headlined by fireballing strikeout machine Josh Staumont and breakout former first-rounder Kyle Zimmer. Veteran Jesse Hahn, meanwhile, turned in perhaps the most quietly dominant season of any reliever in MLB this year: one run on four hits and eight walks with 19 strikeouts in 17 1/3 frames. Righty Scott Barlow posted big K/BB numbers, while rookie Tyler Zuber showed the ability to miss bats but needs to further refine his control before cementing himself in the group. Kevin McCarthy has been solid in the past, and Jake Newberry gave some cause for optimism in 2020.

While the organization has some intriguing arms in house, there’s room to add some low-cost supplements. If the Royals want to try to replicate this year’s Rosenthal/Holland jackpot, old friend Wade Davis is on the market in search of a place to rebound. A lefty could also be a sensible target for K.C., as they’re presently lacking much certainty in that regard. The relief market figures to be more volatile than ever this winter, though, with a few dozen new additions expected to join the fray by way of non-tender. That should present the Royals with ample opportunities for bargain hunting, and their lack of a defined closer could allow them to dangle save opportunities to a reliever of particular interest.

Turning away from free agency and looking to the trade market, the Royals have some options on whom they could listen — but a move isn’t as likely as fans of other clubs would expect or hope. Whit Merrifield’s name has been bandied about the rumor mill for years, but Moore has repeatedly gone on the record to quell such talk. It’s only natural to speculate on the trade of a quality player in his early 30s who has a team-friendly contract with a rebuilding club. However, the Royals operate differently in that regard than most of today’s teams. Expect to see rumblings of interest in Merrifield, of course, but an actual trade coming together feels unlikely.

Kansas City also has three players set to reach the open market next winter who’ll be points of focus over the winter. Salvador Perez likely becomes the de facto face of the franchise now that Alex Gordon has retired. With little catching help on the horizon in the farm, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Royals look to extend him next spring — revenue losses or not. There were suggestions last winter that the Royals had interest in hammering out a long-term deal with 2019 home run king Jorge Soler, though it’s not clear how or whether that lost revenue and an injury-hindered season for Soler have impacted that goal.

In the rotation, stalwart Danny Duffy is coming up on the final season of the five-year, $65MM extension he took in lieu of his first bite at the free-agent apple. He’ll turn 32 in December and is coming off a lackluster 4.95 ERA and 4.75 FIP in 56 1/3 frames, but he’s been a stable member of the staff there since moving to the rotation full-time in 2016. At $15MM next season, Duffy probably won’t command significant trade interest off a down year, and as noted in discussing Merrifield, the Royals tend to value continuity.

It’s certainly possible that the Royals will look to acquire some additional controllable options as they did when picking up Cordero and Olivares in separate deals with the Padres over the past several months. With Perez, Soler and Franco all entering their final season of club control and no set option yet at second base, there are myriad possibilities on which to speculate.

The American League Central is more competitive than at any point in recent years thanks to the emergent White Sox and continued strong showings from Minnesota and Cleveland. It’s tough to envision everything coming together for the Royals to jump right back into contention next year, but by the time 2021 rolls around they could have some major contracts off the books, a core of young rotation pieces that have all gotten their feet wet in the Majors and two more of the game’s elite prospects, infielder Bobby Witt Jr. and left-hander Asa Lacy, looming in the upper minors. A quiet offseason seems likely, but things are still beginning to look up in Kansas City.

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