Arguably the two biggest foes the Cleveland Indians have had to “counter-punch” over the past three seasons have been the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs. Both front offices have built their rosters in similarly methodical ways and both have had their success. In fact, there is documented evidence that the world-champion Cubs actually used the Royals team building techniques to climb the top of the mountain in 2016.
When Royals GM Dayton Moore looked to retool the team this winter, he seemed to have a clear preference for players from Theo Epstein’s Cubs.
Not only did the Cubs win the World Series last season, the two teams were built with similar front-office blueprints. In fact, Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein viewed the Royals as a role model. He told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe in January of 2016:
“We spent a lot of time talking about KC as we planned our rebuild,” Epstein acknowledged. “Basically it was an eight-year process [for them] to get to the World Series. They did a masterful job.
“Look at the arc of those young players’ careers. Alex Gordon was optioned multiple times, and in a bigger market might not have been given a second chance. Mike Moustakas didn’t blossom as a good hitter until late in the 2014 season. Eric Hosmer probably under-performed after lofty expectations for him until midway through that 2014 season. Through great planning and great perseverance they were able to give those players room to breathe and go through that natural growing process. You experience a lot of valleys along the way, whether it’s being demoted or having a difficult month or year. In the end, they were rewarded for their patience.”
Epstein backed up his words with action when he added former KC Royals Ben Zobrist and Mike Montgomery in his push for the 2016 World Series. For 2017, he added former Royals closer Wade Davis and reliever Aaron Brooks.
Apparently, that respect was mutual since Dayton Moore looked for players from Epstein’s Cubs when it came time to rework his team for a title run in 2017.
First, Moore flipped closer Wade Davis for the still-developing right fielder Jorge Soler. What drove the deal was the high demand for premium relievers last winter added to Davis moving into the final year of his contract.
Soler has yet to realize the potential his impressive tools promised when he signed a nine-year, $30 million deal as a 20-year-old emigree from Cuba. But, he still possesses 70 grade power and a cannon arm. Kansas City’s personnel staff still see Soler as a potential five-tool player.
After landing Soler the December trade for Davis, Moore added pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood to bolster his rotation. Following Yordano Ventura‘s tragic passing on January 22 from a car accident in the Dominican Republic, Moore signed both Hammel and Wood to free-agent deals.
The Royals ponied up a $16 million over two years to land Hammel, and inked Wood to a two-year, $12 million pact. Those moves appeared to be something of a change in strategy for Moore, who spent most of the winter insisting that he had little room to add payroll. However, Ventura’s death and the impending free agency of four core players, apparently loosened the purse strings.
To make room for Hammel on the 40-man roster, Moore traded pitching prospect Alec Mills to the Cubs for AA outfielder Donnie Dewess.
Although the similarities between the two franchises are uncanny, the results should not be expected to be the same. At least for 2017.
The Royals ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.67 ERA from the starting rotation. Duffy, a 28-year-old lefthander, emerged as the club’s ace, finishing 12–3 with a 3.51 ERA in 26 starts after beginning 2016 as a reliever. His continued development as a front-of-the-rotation star will be critical. Kennedy, who is entering the second season of a five-year, $70 million deal, also is locked into the rotation, along with veteran lefthander Jason Vargas. Kennedy pitched to expectations in a solid Kansas City debut, while Vargas has been limited to 12 games during the last two seasons after Tommy John surgery in August 2015. When healthy, he’s been solid for the Royals, going 16–12 with a 3.68 ERA as a 2014 free-agent signing. Vargas’ return fills Edinson Volquez’s hole in the rotation after he signed with the Marlins, but the bigger question is how the team replaces Ventura. A pair of former Cubs, Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, were each signed to two-year deals prior to the start of spring training. Hammel won a career-high 15 games last season, but was left off of the World Series champions’ postseason roster and boasts a career ERA of 4.42 over 11 seasons. Wood will get a chance to start after serving as a bullpen jack-of-all-trades for Cubs manager Joe Maddon last season. Veteran righthander Chris Young and lefthander Matt Strahm, who posted a 1.23 ERA in 21 relief appearances after a late-July call-up, also will battle for those open rotation spots, with lefthander Mike Minor as a dark horse.
The Royals’ relief corps was the backbone of back-to-back pennants, but the glory days of HDH when a relay from Kelvin Herrera to Davis to Greg Holland dominated the final three innings are a fleeting memory. Holland sat out 2016 after Tommy John surgery, and Davis, who was set to make $10 million this season, was traded away. The Royals also cut ties with former No. 1 overall pick Luke Hochevar among other bullpen losses. Herrera, who owns a 182 ERA+ the last three seasons, including a 2.75 ERA with 86 strikeouts against 12 walks and 57 hits in 72 innings last season, is the new closer, a role he’s expected to flourish in after saving a career-high 12 games last season with Davis sidelined. Unless he wins a rotation spot, Strahm and veteran righthander Joakim Soria project as the club’s setup men. Soria, a 2016 free agent who signed a three-year, $25 million deal , was a disappointment in his return to Kansas City, going 5–8 with a 4.05 ERA.
For the second time in three seasons, Escobar started all 162 games at shortstop for the Royals in 2016. He set modest career highs with seven home runs and 55 RBIs last season, but he also had the fourth-lowest OPS among qualified batters (.642). The 30-year-old shortstop has slashed .259/.293/.335 the last two seasons, but he remains a solid defensive player at a premium position. Kansas City is hopeful Raul Mondesi can emerge as the everyday second baseman. He’s a slick-fielding speedster and the heir apparent at shortstop, but he’ll only find a regular spot if his bat comes around. If not, Whit Merrifield gets the nod at second base after a solid rookie season.
Moustakas and Hosmer served as linchpins for the Royals’ title-winning youth movement, but there’s no chance both will remain in Kansas City beyond next season. Moustakas hit well last season, including a career-best .500 slugging percentage, in 27 games before suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee May 22 after a collision with Gordon. The Royals hope he can recapture the All-Star form he first flashed in 2015 when he slashed .284/.348/.470 with 34 doubles, 22 home runs and 82 RBIs. Hosmer, who isn’t an elite fielder despite a Gold Glove reputation, also regressed last season at the plate despite obliterating his career highs with 25 home runs and 104 RBIs.
The Royals’ outfield defense is stout with Gordon, Cain and Paulo Orlando from left to right field. Cain had emerged as a star in recent years, posting a 118 OPS+ with a .304/.351/.447 slash line in 2014-15. He averaged 47 extra-base hits and 28 steals during that span and also plays sparkling defense at a premium position. However, Cain missed time with hamstring and wrist injuries last season, which tamped down his production. Injuries also derailed Gordon the last two seasons, including lengthy absences due to groin and wrist injuries. The Royals need Gordon to revert to the player who slashed .281/.359/.450 from 2011-15 after he was a shockingly bad .220/.312/.380 last season. The newly acquired Soler could poach time in right field from Orlando, if first base coach Rusty Kuntz can work a miracle with Soler’s sub-par defense.
Behind the plate, the Royals have a four-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner in Salvador Perez, who added his first career Silver Slugger last season. Perez struck out far too much in 2016 and has slashed .256/.286/.421 the last three seasons, but he remains an elite catch-and-throw guy. Drew Butera is Perez’s backup.
Soler projects as the primary DH, but regulars with an injury history, think Perez, Moustakas, Gordon and Cain, could occasionally DH to save wear and tear without sacrificing lineup punch. Utility outfielder Jarrod Dyson was rumored to be on the offseason trade block. Cheslor Cuthbert can play anywhere on the infield except shortstop and proved valuable in extended action as Moustakas’ replacement. Veteran Brandon Moss also will get the opportunity to carve out a role, as his left-handed power (28 home runs in 413 AB with St. Louis last season) could be an asset off the bench or at DH.
Normal attrition has worn away quite a few of the 2015 World Series Royals veterans. Kansas City will likely open the 2017 season with no more than 13 survivors from their World Championship team. However, adding three Cubs players with 2016 World Series rings will yield around 16 players with recent championship experience.