Ervin Santana is not the answer for the Kansas City Royals, but his arrival at least provides proof that the Royals are willing to tackle the question.
The question is as follows: Do the Royals have the financial means and evaluative might to put together a contender for 2013?
Again, if Santana is the only response to that question, the answer is no. This week's acquisition of Santana in a trade with the Angels is, however, expected to be but the beginning for a Kansas City club that could be a interesting to track this winter.
All right, all right. You've heard this before. The Royals were a popular sleeper (if such a thing can even exist) going into 2012 because of their burgeoning young core, yet they went on to finish with their 17th losing record in 18 seasons, winning just one more game than they did in 2011.
Hardly the Royal uprising so many had hopes for.
But an honest evaluation of the Royals' starting staff going into 2012 should have quelled the enthusiasm over their potential uproar. Bruce Chen was the ace of the staff, Jonathan Sanchez was the high-profile addition and, well, this, predictably, did not end well.
Royals owner David Glass has publicly promised he'll pony up the big bucks to improve the starting pitching situation for 2013. When fans hear something like that, they expect a bold splash, not necessarily the kind of risk/reward that comes with taking on the vast majority of the $13 million owed to Santana next season.
But you can see where general manager Dayton Moore is coming from with this move. Free agency is no friend to a club like the Royals, who have to drastically overpay (see: Meche, Gil) to land even the most marginal free-agent talent, and following a major influx of national television money into the sport, this winter could be ripe with inflation.
"We're not done," Moore told reporters after the Santana acquisition. "We're going to continue to try to upgrade our rotation through trades that make sense, work internally, evaluate our young pitchers, perhaps one or two of our guys in the bullpen, and we're going to explore free agency."
Free agency is going to be a burden if the Royals have to rely on that route. While Santana, if his 2012 results are any indication, is not worth his price tag, at least that's only a one-year commitment. Obviously, it's going to take a much longer scope to reel in the likes of Kyle Lohse or Anibal Sanchez, the likely runners-up to former Royals ace Zack Greinke in the free-agent starters' derby.
The Royals are understandably hesitant, particularly with the Meche deal in their not-too-distant past, to go the four- or five-year route it would probably take to land Lohse or Sanchez or the money it might take to retain Jeremy Guthrie. They believe they're going to have a suitable stable of in-house starting options by the beginning of 2014.
But the Royals also know -- with the usual amount of "ifs" involved -- that their offense has the capability to be above average next season, and they have enough power arms to put together a dependable bullpen.
They know that, as much as the Tigers might be a consensus pick to repeat as American League champs right now, it took the Tigers just 88 wins to capture the Central last season. It was a division that was, and could continue to be, there for the taking.
And so the Royals are approaching this offseason with a bit more aggression than they've shown in years past. Completing the Santana move well in advance of next week's general managers' meetings demonstrates as much. The Angels had to make a decision on Santana's option, and they recognized that he had more value to a club like the Royals than he did to them. The Royals gave up a non-prospect in Brandon Sisk and got back a project in the 29-year-old Santana.
Royals fans might feel like they've seen this movie before, having seen another former no-hitter hurler in Sanchez arrive and look awful. Perhaps Santana will prove just as unfixable.
With Santana, though, the problem in 2012 was not a walk rate double that of the league average (as was the case with Sanchez), but rather a home run rate twice that of the average. Neither is good, but the latter is more able to be addressed. A big key for Santana, who will be vying for his next contract, will be boosting the velocity that seemed to sag as his 2012 season dragged on.
Anyway, if the trade for Santana and the waiver plucking that landed Chris Volstad are the only moves the Royals make to address the rotation this winter, 2013 will be another lost year.
But one doesn't get that sense. Moore seems intent on stockpiling as many options as possible, creating competition and hoping something clicks. Moore's track record in building an effective rotation is suspect, to say the least.
But between Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Zimmer, Yordano Ventura, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery and the rehabbing Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, an organization with well-documented struggles to develop starting pitching might finally have the makings of a decent starting setup by late 2013 or early '14.
In the meantime, Moore has holes to patch, and Santana, while hardly a bargain, seems to be worth a shot as a back-end innings eater, if nothing else. Where the Royals' winter could get interesting is if they listen to offers for one of their core players -- Eric Hosmer (who had a brutal sophomore season but whose stock remains high), Alex Gordon, Billy Butler or Mike Moustakas -- in order to acquire a high-upside starting arm.
By winter's end, we'll know if the Royals were able to bring such an arm into the fold. Until then, that aforementioned question remains unanswered.
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