The Chicago Cubs haven’t been wearing their crowns a month and there’s already talk of a possible dynasty. That’s understandable: The Cubs’ combo of youth and talent is that impressive. But yesterday’s champions, the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals, might still have something to say on the subject of the future. While other teams are talking teardown after achieving little of late, the champs of 2014 and 2015 have a more basic challenge: How do they get back on top with the cores they have in the time they have? Because the Giants and the Royals shouldn’t be in the business of rebuilding.
Let’s start with the World Series champs of 2014, the Giants. They slipped into this year’s postseason as a wild card, but they haven’t won the NL West since 2012, and they haven’t had a 90-win season since then either. But the Giants also have huge financial commitments to Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Johnny Cueto for the next five years, Jeff Samardzija for the next four and Madison Bumgarner for the next three (thanks to a pair of cost-effective club options). Bumgarner is the youngest of that group heading into his age-27 season, Samardzija the oldest, as he turns 32 in January. That’s a team as win-now as it gets.
Looking in simplistic terms at last season’s shortcomings for what caused the Giants’ 30-42 second-half stumble, and particularly at their nine blown saves in the final month, you might think the Giants just need a closer and a left fielder who can put big runs on the board. Unfortunately, the Giants’ problem is simpler still, and inescapable as far as dollars and sense: They need to make premium upgrades everywhere they don’t already have huge commitments, and with an estimated 2017 budget approaching $160 million, already the fourth-highest in baseball before they sign a Yoenis Cespedes to man left field and before they give top dollar to Mark Melancon to close, they can’t just open the checkbook and buy solutions for their problems.
So spending dollar for dollar for Aroldis Chapman or Melancon might just put them in a spending war they probably can't afford with the Los Angeles Dodgers and other contenders, not without handicapping their other needs. And merely replacing Angel Pagan in left field isn’t all they need on offense. And the budget is an issue they can’t afford to ignore. The Giants need an upgrade within at least one lineup slot, because with an offense that ranked 13th in the National League in homers and ninth in runs scored, they can’t just hope an upgrade from Pagan to Cespedes gets it done.
My thought? Place a priority on getting one of the closers on the market. And then, to give the offense a boost, I’d be fascinated to see the Giants go to the Minnesota Twins to talk about Brian Dozier, because second base is a place where the Giants don’t have a long-term financial commitment, yet they could make a massive upgrade on offense without having to spend anything like what it would cost in cash to buy Cespedes on the open market to add a right-handed power bat. Start with second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Christian Arroyo, put Ty Blach and whoever else from the prospect pile into the conversation on the pitching side of things, and see if the Twins listen. And maybe then get in on a late-market loser from among the many corner outfielders on the market, any one of whom might settle for signing short-term with San Francisco to get a shot at winning, having failed to get the huge multiyear money he expected. But if the Twins don’t talk and the closers walk, go to the Chicago White Sox to talk about a multiplayer package to get David Robertson to close and Adam Eaton or Melky Cabrera to play left.
What about the Royals?
The team that topped the game in 2015 isn’t much different from the Giants in terms of holding premium talent and having a better bid to win now than it might if it folds up and deals. With Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar all due to reach free agency after the 2017 season, time is certainly short -- the clock is striking 11 p.m., and almost half of this lineup is about to turn into pumpkins.
You might think that’s a formula to deal and take a dive to build for the future, but not so much. Hosmer’s value is limited in a free-agent market flooded with first base and DH options, and Moustakas is coming back from an injury that similarly undermines what he’s worth in the abstract. Dealing Cain might generate worthwhile value now only if you’re placing him with a team he’s willing to sign a multiyear deal with up front.
In the broad strokes, that’s a formula for getting less than full value now and then maybe tearing down in July if things don’t go well. But if you’re the Royals and have to try to convince any of these guys to join Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez in signing multiyear deals to stick around in Kansas City, you can’t quit now. There’s a championship season to take seriously, and the Royals are in the other Central Division, the non-Cubs one where a 2017 title isn’t inconceivable. So after last year’s 81-81 season, the short-term future is totally worth investing in.
With that in mind, there are two things the Royals need to act on, accepting they’ll get Moustakas back at full strength next spring. First, they need someone to fill the DH at-bats abandoned by departing free agent Kendrys Morales. And second, they need a starting pitcher worthy of the front of the rotation. And doing it when their payroll is already projected to set a new franchise record north of $140 million won’t be easy.
The DH slot is a big deal considering how well Morales delivered on his short-term deal after the amount of flak the Royals caught for giving it to him. Last year, the Royals’ DH slot was second only to their first basemen (Hosmer, mostly) in OPS, producing at a .764 clip. They’re not going to be able to afford Carlos Beltran for his final spin, let alone bidding big on Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo. A short deal for Justin Morneau or Pedro Alvarez would work at the right price; so too might a trade for the Cardinals’ Matt Adams now that St. Louis is moving Matt Carpenter to first base.
The starting staff is a little tougher after a year in which the Royals’ rotation finished tied for 21st in quality starts (68) and tied for 22nd in ERA (4.67). Even with Danny Duffy's big year with his move into the rotation, notching a 12-3 record with a 3.56 ERA in 26 starts while throwing a team-best 16 quality starts, the Royals have a need here. Not simply to replace departing free agent Edinson Volquez, but because last year’s free-agent rotation add-on, Ian Kennedy, didn’t deliver huge results, and because Yordano Ventura didn’t turn the corner (again). On paper that’s still a promising trio, and with towering swingman Chris Young and healed-up veteran lefty Jason Vargas in the mix, that’s five arms you can start and do well with. But to go toe-to-toe with the Cleveland Indians and their best-in-baseball rotation (when healthy), the Royals could probably use something more certain than just hoping rookie lefty Matt Strahm can step in this season. Whether they can find that guy without going too much further with their budget remains to be seen, but after last season’s miss with Kris Medlen, they could use a better low-budget answer.
With the huge financial commitments already made by the Giants and the Royals to players in their prime now, yesterday’s champions don’t need to opt out of the present to trade for a better future. They’re just not that far off, especially in today’s competitive environment. Better to stick around than try to race worse-off teams to the basements of tomorrow.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.