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Royals trying to keep Cleveland honest in AL Central

In a division that has largely stood still, Kansas City is dealing from depth to keep hope alive

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MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Watching Royals GM Dayton Moore pick his way through the offseason, the first adjective that comes to mind is “gingerly.” The Process was already vindicated in 2014 and 2015, so it’s not like his reputation or job is on the line, but the forecast after 2017 is one big question mark. The bulk of the core hits free agency after the season, and his farm system lacks help-now/help-soon talent to comfortably supplement a team that went .500 in 2016.

In isolation, those elements have caused a number of teams to start tearing it down. Then you consider that a hard-to-replicate collision between Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon cost them the services/effectiveness of two of their best position players, and they’re still a threat.

Then you consider how slow the winter has been. Jose Bautista is nearing a return to Toronto and Michael Saunders signed with the Phillies, but so many credible MLB players remain on the market. The White Sox have stalled on a third prospect haul despite little competition on the tanking front (imagine how their fortunes could look if they had another team hawking its best wares as aggressively).

Then you consider the division, and that none of the other AL Central teams have even tried to pose a threat to Cleveland this winter. The White Sox are rebuilding, the Twins are licking their wounds, and the Tigers have picked a frustrating time for austerity. The Indians look pretty airtight by comparison, but 2016 was a long season for their best pitchers, so somebody has to be poised to pounce if they wobble.

This being the case, Moore has chosen to compete in 2016, but in a fashion that leaves him with a functioning team after a potential free-agent exodus. Considering the factors, he’s done a pretty impressive job with the three big moves he’s been limited to.

No. 1: Traded Wade Davis for Jorge Soler. Davis hits free agency after the season, and a flexor strain limited him to just 45 games and 27 saves in 2016. He was effective enough to post his third consecutive sub-2.00 ERA season, but the 2016 Yankees can tell you that a great closer doesn’t mean much if everybody else involved can’t get the score to his liking.

Soler was crowded out of the Cubs’ outfield due to holes in his approach and below-average defense, but he has made strides with his plate discipline that could eventually facilitate a big power surge, and the Royals have room at DH now that Kendrys Morales moved to Toronto. That’s a decent return for a team that is trying to bridge the gap between contending now and winning later without a huge rebuild in between, especially for one year of a closer with recent arm troubles.

No. 2: Traded Jarrod Dyson for Nate Karns. As a White Sox fan, I’m happy to see Dyson out of the division:

His absence is a blow to the Royals’ outfield versatility — the Gordon-Dyson-Cain trio was unfair to fly balls — so they can’t afford another injury to the other two again. But with Edinson Volquez going to Miami, Danny Duffy an impending free agent and Ian Kennedy having an opt-out after the season, the Royals needed another starting pitcher they can pencil in for a few more seasons. Karns is that, even if his teams have shielded him from facing opponents a third time through the order.

No. 3: Signed Duffy to a five-year, $65 million extension. Duffy made no secret about wanting to remain a Royal indefinitely, and this contract backs up the talk. Another season like the one he just had -- 12-3, 3.51 ERA, 188 strikeouts over 180 innings — makes him a $100 million man on the open market. Instead, he’ll stick with Kansas City on a five-year, $65 million contract.

That’s the same extension John Danks signed with the White Sox, and that could be an omen considering Duffy’s history, as last season was the first time he even topped 150 innings. Tommy John surgery interrupted his initial ascent, though, and the Kansas City Star delved deep into what’s behind the renaissance. He’s legitimate even if his health is far from assured, and so it’s a deal the Royals had to do even if more setbacks are in his future.

That’s basically the entirety of the Royals’ offseason. They made another grab for power by acquiring Peter O’Brien from Arizona for a minor-league pitcher, and they also signed Drew Butera for two years for some reason, but those three moves show the tightrope on which Moore is trying to maneuver. The question from here is whether they’ll be able to sign any of their other free agents, but another Duffy-like discount looks highly unlikely.

Right now, Moore and the Royals are playing for 2017 and crossing the bridge when they get to it. As long as they still have one of the league’s smaller payroll ceilings, a forced step back still looks likely. Ideally, it coincides with the White Sox as they take their step up.