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Getting Out of the Cellar: Kansas City Royals

Yesterday we discussed the team that has the longest path out of the cellar. Today we’ll switch gears completely and examine the team that is closest to losing the last place tag. The Kansas City Royals and the Cleveland Indians jockeyed for fourth place positioning in the season’s final month, and Cleveland won by a mere two games. They also finished just 14 games behind Detroit, which is closer than four last place teams were to their next closest competitors. With an elite minor league system the Royals could be ready for a rise from the cellar. It could all start in 2011.

Unfortunately, the Royals find themselves in a position similar to that of their 2010 off-season. They won’t draw elite free agents, and they might not even draw many, if any, from the second tier. That’s not such a detrimental position, because the team does possess an elite minor league system that could start paying off as soon as next year. Because of these potential stars, the Royals will probably seek stopgaps for positions it can’t fill internally. That might hurt the team early in the season, but it will make spots available as their youngsters move up.

While the Royals have the shortest path out of the cellar, I wonder if they’d be better staying there for one more year. This can be said for most of the 2010 last place teams, but considering the Royals position I wonder if they’d be better off cashing in their trade chips this winter in order to further fortify the team going forward. They do lack a few positions on the farm and could use their current talent as a means to acquire even more young talent. This can be overdone — we’re not playing MLB The Show here — but the Royals do find themselves in a position where it could work.

Three, perhaps four, current Royals stand out as attractive trade candidates. The first is Zack Greinke, already the subject of off-season trade rumors. David DeJesus was likely on his way to being traded last July, but a wrist injury ended those talks. He’ll make just $6 million this season, his last before hitting free agency. The Royals could obtain a useful player in exchange for him. Joakim Soria could close for nearly every team in the league, and there are certainly teams that would want him as an elite setup man. It might be hard for the Royals to part with such a fan favorite, but a rebuilding team has more pressing concerns than its bullpen. With Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas on the rise, Billy Butler might also find himself as a man without a position. He could DH, sure, but the Royals might find more use for him in a trade.

Here’s where the Royals could upgrade:

Catcher

They didn’t like Miguel Olivo. They didn’t like John Buck. They did like Jason Kendall, but he had shoulder surgery in September and will be out until at least May. That leaves Brayan Pena, whom they also seemingly don’t like, and Lucas May. Perhaps they’ll go for another second-rate catcher, such as Gerald Laird. What’s more likely, in the event that they acquire a catcher, is that they do so in a trade.

Whatever the Royals choose to do at catcher, it won’t be an easy decision. They have a top prospect, Wil Myers, playing that position in the minors, but there’s no guarantee he sticks there. We might see them trade for one, though decent catchers are not exactly something a team seeks to trade. However they approach it, I’m sure they can do better than the 0.7 WAR their catchers produced in 2010.

Middle Infield

If the Royals do trade one or more of the above players, a middle infielder should certainly be one of their targets. Maybe they still like Yuniesky Betancourt, but they can certainly do better at shortstop. Their second base combination of Chris Getz and Mike Aviles did produce 1.5 WAR, but they could stand to upgrade here, too. There isn’t much on the open market that will help them going forward, so the best way to fill this position in the future is by trading a current player for a prospect.

This is where I think Greinke becomes the most useful. We’ve seen teams cling to their prospects recently, and middle infield prospects are among the most coveted. If the Royals want to pry one away from a team, Greinke offers them their best shot. Then again, there are guys like Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon on the farm who could also potentially fill those slots. But since there are no sure things it would probably behoove the Royals to acquire at least one middle infielder if they’re going to trade Greinke.

Outfield

Here’s where the situation gets tricky. Do the Royals trade DeJesus now, or after he comes back from his season-ending wrist injury? Do they open the season with Mitch Maier in center, or do they give legitimate shots to David Lough and Jarrod Dyson in spring training? Will Alex Gordon stick in left? An additional outfielder could go a long way in dealing with these questions.

There are plenty of options on the market, and I suspect the Royals will choose from among the second tier players. Maybe they’ll go for a young reclamation project such as Melky Cabrera. Two players they signed last off-season, Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, are also free agents. Not that I’d encourage Kansas City to sign them, but they’re out there. However they choose to do it, they’ll probably need one more player to fill that outfielder role.

Pitcher

Chances are the Royals won’t trade for a pitcher, since that’s a strength of their system. Maybe they’d look for a veteran to eat innings at a decent clip — Aaron Harang does come to mind, but I’m not sure if the two are a match. Whatever the case, the Royals don’t really need a pitcher if they’re going to use 2011 as a complete transition year. They can focus on position players, while letting their farm take care of the pitching aspect.

When I started this series I thought the Royals would be the easiest, since they were the closest to leaving the cellar. But after examining their situation I now think they have it the toughest. No team wants to punt a full season, but that might be what it takes for the Royals to get over the hump and back into contention. They have a number of veteran players whom they can use in trades to help fortify the future. These chips, combined with a superb minor league system that could start paying off in 2011, creates a situation in which could lead to contention as early as 2012. That might be a bit optimistic, but the Royals appear to actually have a chance.