KANSAS CITY -- If the Royals go shopping in the free-agent market this winter, they'll be strolling down the aisle marked "starting pitchers" and, most likely, rummaging through the bargain bin.
The Royals need to upgrade their rotation with a top-of-the-line starter, but they're unlikely to bid for high-priced pitchers such as Rangers ace C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle, their longtime White Sox nemesis. The free agency period began Saturday at 11:01 p.m. CT.
"We'll certainly look at free agency," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said, "but we'll look from within first and we feel like we've got some very talented young pitchers in [Luke] Hochevar, [Danny] Duffy and [Felipe] Paulino, and we liked the way Luis Mendoza threw the ball all year. He was exceptional in the Pacific Coast League. [Everett] Teaford came on strong and we expect Mike Montgomery to be in the mix, so we feel like we've got some candidates within. And we're going to explore trade possibilities to add a starter."
Trading for a starter is a more feasible route than free agency because the Royals, while they have some money to spend, are rich in tradable commodities in their Minor League system. One of the goals in building up the organization is to have the luxury to swap some of those prospects for immediate help up at the big league level.
Floating in the deep reservoir of Minor League talent are some potential starting pitchers, such as Montgomery, Will Smith and Chris Dwyer. But are they ready? September callup Mendoza and possible bullpen convert Aaron Crow are probably closer to supplementing the returning starters.
The Royals did sign two free-agent starters last year, bringing back Bruce Chen and adding another left-hander in Jeff Francis. They came at a relatively modest price, each at $2 million plus performance bonuses. Chen led them in victories (12) and Francis in losses (16), and both again are free agents along with catcher Jason Kendall, who is expected to be out all of 2012 after a second shoulder surgery. It's doubtful that the Royals will sign either pitcher during the exclusive negotiating period that exists in the five days after the World Series.
"I'm confident we'll have the necessary flexibility to do what we need to do to improve our team," Moore said. "We've got to be sure we don't do anything that will preclude our improving our team in '13 and '14 either, so I wouldn't look for any long-term contracts with free agents where we give in excess of three years unless it's just the right player that makes perfect sense."
Rotation help is the primary search target this year because the bullpen was deep and effective, and the rest of the lineup seems pretty well set. The club's two free agent signees of the 2010 Winter Meetings, outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera, proved to be huge successes in right and center field, respectively. Francoeur signed a two-year extension and Cabrera is still under team control (he was a free agent last year after Atlanta released him).
With left fielder Alex Gordon, they formed a talented outfield in all aspects. Catcher Salvador Perez arrived from the Minors during the season. So did infield regulars Eric Hosmer at first base, Mike Moustakas at third and Johnny Giavotella at second, joining the shortstop Alcides Escobar. Escobar was an import from Milwaukee in the trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Brewers.
The only free agent addition among position players could be for a backup infielder.
Free agents: Bruce Chen, LHP; Jeff Francis, LHP; Jason Kendall, C.
Eligible for arbitration: Melky Cabrera, CF: Alex Gordon, LF: Luke Hochevar, RHP; Felipe Paulino, RHP; Brayan Pena, C: Mitch Maier, OF; Chris Getz, IF
Player options: None.
Club options: Joakim Soria, RHP (club has exercised its option for $6 million in 2012).
Non-tender possibilities: None.
Areas of need
Starting pitching: Royals starters had the second-worst ERA (4.82), and the fewest victories (45) in the American League. They posted quality starts in just 46 percent of the team's total starts, third-worst in the AL. If Chen signs elsewhere, they'll lose their top winner. With a strong starting five, the Royals hope they'll be in a position to contend next season.
Infield: The Royals are not entirely satisfied with Chris Getz at shortstop and are not sure if young newcomer Yamaico Navarro will fit. Therefore, they may look for a veteran who can back up Escobar at short and also play second, where Giavotella is recovering from hip surgery, and third, where Mike Moustakas is still unproven. Another possibility is a right-handed hitter with power, who could play the corners.
This year the Royals spent about $44 million when the final accounting was in. It'll go up this year with several players due for big boosts in arbitration. Although no big-ticket free-agent signings are likely, they payroll will probably climb to $55 million to $60 million.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.