KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They arrived in Kansas City as a bunch of 20-somethings with everything to prove, the hopes of a long-suffering Royals fanbase resting on their broad, young shoulders.
They are likely to scatter across baseball as two-time pennant winners and World Series champions.
Sure, the core group of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain that helped bring winning back to Kansas City could return next season. But as they hit free agency for the first time, even the most optimistic fans understand that finances mean only one or two — at most — are likely to continue their careers in blue. The others will be playing elsewhere next season.
That means their regular-season finale Sunday marked the end of an era.
“For all of us that came up in the organization, throughout the minor league system, it’s just kind of the way we were taught,” Hosmer said. “It was instilled in us that we were the group that was going to be the ones to turn this city around and bring, make baseball relevant again in Kansas City. When you’re getting that confidence up top, it just carries over and spreads throughout the clubhouse.
“The players really believed that there wasn’t anybody looking over our shoulder to come replace us,” he added. “It’s just crazy to see how quick it’s all happened.”
In truth, it didn’t happen that quickly.
The turnaround began about a decade ago, when Moustakas and Hosmer were chosen in the first round in back-to-back drafts. It hit its stride with the trade of Zack Greinke for Escobar and Cain, and that core reached baseball’s pinnacle with a World Series triumph two years ago.
The past couple of seasons have been a struggle to stay relevant, but even an 80-82 finish this year hasn’t damped the appreciation that the Royals’ core group bathed in Sunday.
They received a standing ovation as they left the game in the fifth inning together.
“I mean, you hear it and talk about it all year long,” Cain said. “When the season comes to an end, we don’t know where we’re going to be, but it got to the point where it was real.”
They aren’t the only ones hitting free agency, either. Left-hander Jason Vargas, rented outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitchers Trevor Cahill and Peter Moylan are among those hitting the market.
As the Royals begin piecing together their roster next season, here are some things to watch:
COACHING REBOOT: Royals manager Ned Yost will be back in 2018, but he announced Monday that the contracts of pitching coach Dave Eiland and bench coach Don Wakamatsu would not be renewed. Yost said he wanted fresh voices in the clubhouse with the expected arrival of new players.
GETTING HEALTHY: Left-hander Danny Duffy will have surgery Tuesday to remove “loose bodies” in the back of his elbow, Yost said. Duffy has felt an issue in his elbow for more than a year, and he wants to get things cleaned up so he can live up to the five-year, $65 million deal he signed last offseason.
COURTING HOZ: Rumors have already floated that the Royals are planning to make a sizable offer to Hosmer, who has become the face of the franchise. But he’s likely to command a massive contract after hitting .318 with 25 homers and 94 RBIs, especially if big-money teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees get involved.
“It’s change and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hosmer said, “and I think that’s the thing for all of us. It’s different. I don’t want to say it’s scary, just different.”
THE REST OF THE CORE: Moustakas is also likely to command a big contract after hitting a Royals-record 38 homers this season, while Cain and Escobar could be more reasonable to re-sign. Cain will be 32 next season, while Escobar’s production is nowhere near what Hosmer or Moustakas provided.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: The Royals still have plenty of veterans under contract, such as left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Brandon Moss. But they also have young players ready to take over, including first baseman Ryan O’Hearn, third baseman Hunter Dozier and outfielder Jorge Soler. Who knows? Maybe they could be the next core to take Kansas City to the top.