KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The emotions were still raw, the sting of defeat still fresh from Game 7 of the World Series when Billy Butler stood in front of his locker and spoke in a voice full of conviction.
They would be back, this scrappy bunch of kids. Their return to the playoffs after 29 years was just the beginning, their 3-2 loss on Wednesday night hardly the end. The same team that swept through the playoffs before falling to the San Francisco Giants has brighter days ahead.
“We have so many guys up here that are young, talented,” Butler said. “You saw some young guys take that next step in the postseason, and it’s an exciting thing to see, and for the future of this organization. The future couldn’t be brighter. The whole nucleus is extremely young, and I think they’re going to build off it. I just hope I’m part of that process.”
That’s the kicker: Butler may not be part of it.
The Royals must decide by Monday whether to exercise his expensive club option for next season, and most expect them to decline. That would make Butler a free agent for the first time in his career and leave Kansas City in search of a new designated hitter.
“Even if they decline it, you can still talk,” Butler said. “If it’s not here, it’s somewhere else, but I’d rather it be here. That’s the way it is. We’re a small market. Business is business, but I feel like it’s a little bit more than that here.”
Designated hitter isn’t the only question mark facing the Royals next season.
Staff ace James Shields, who helped to turn around a losing clubhouse culture, will become a free agent. The Royals will likely make him a qualifying offer, but with big-budget teams such as the Red Sox in the market for pitching, the price could be driven up quickly.
That means the Royals could be in search of a starting pitcher, too.
“The next couple days I’m going to go home and enjoy some trick-or-treating with my kids,” Shields said. “I’ll be thinking about that a little bit later, but I’m not too worried about my free agency right now. Obviously I have to think about that and we’ll see what happens.”
Right fielder Nori Aoki will also become a free agent, though it’s possible the Royals will re-sign him. Relief pitchers Scott Downs, Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar could be headed elsewhere and veteran outfielders Raul Ibanez and Josh Willingham are not expected back.
“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions with our roster,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “We’ll continue to look to add players that fit in, but we’re going to have to certainly look to add starting pitching. We’ll try to put it together the way we have.”
That means putting a premium on starting pitchers who offer substance over style, speedy position players who can play defense and provide versatility up and down the lineup.
There are already some solid cornerstones in place.
Center fielder Lorenzo Cain was a breakout star of the postseason, first baseman Eric Hosmer began to realize his vast potential, and Salvador Perez proved to be one of the premier catchers in the game. Throw in a brilliant bullpen anchored by Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland and a staff featuring 23-year-old Yordano Ventura, and the Royals should be solid next season.
“What we need to do now, Dayton and his people have built a base,” Royals owner David Glass said, “and we have to sustain that and built on it and keep it going.”
That means ushering along several prospects awaiting their chance in the minors.
Left-hander Brandon Finnegan provided valuable postseason innings as a reliever, but he’s expected to return to starting. Fellow pitchers such as Sean Manea and Kyle Zimmer offer plenty of potential, but injuries and circumstances have held back some top prospects.
They’ll get a chance to show what they can do in spring training.
For now, though, the Royals head into a strange postseason. For the first time in nearly three decades, the question they face is not, “When will you finally get back to the playoffs?”
No, the question now is, “What are you going to do for an encore?”
“It’s a difficult task. Even the teams that win often don’t get back,” starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said. “We’ll work very hard to get back here. We have a lot of belief in ourselves. We have a lot of talent to make that possible. Each one of us will be working toward that goal of getting a chance to be back in the playoffs and go for a World Series.”