Omar Infante walked past the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, where he dressed so many times as a member of the Detroit Tigers, and slipped on a crisp, new Kansas City Royals jersey.
It was the latest sign of that the Royals intend to compete for the AL Central this season.
The Royals introduced their new second baseman Tuesday, one day after announcing they had agreed to a $30.25 million, four-year contract that includes a club option for 2018.
“I really got to see this team up close and I was very impressed by what they did last year,” Infante said, “and I think they’re close to taking the next step.”
Infante will make $5 million next season, $7.5 million in 2015, $7.75 million in 2016 and $8 million in 2017. His option is $10 million with a $2 million buyout, and if Infante wins Silver Slugger or is picked for the All-Star game, his salary increases by $250,000 for each remaining season.
Infante, who turns 32 next week, fills perhaps the most glaring hole that remained in the Royals lineup. Kansas City used six different options at second base last season, and none did enough to make the club feel comfortable about them in what could be a pivotal season for the franchise.
The Royals are coming off an 86-76 season, their best record since 1989, and were in contention until the final week. But with star pitcher James Shields entering the final year of his contract, the window to break through to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 may be closing soon.
That’s why the Royals have been aggressive this offseason. They’ve already sign left-hander Jason Vargas to a $32 million, four-year deal to make up for the likely loss of right-hander Ervin Santana in free agency, and traded reliever Will Smith to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Norichika Aoki.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore said following the season that three most pressing needs were to add a starting pitcher, upgrade in the outfield and solidify the second base position.
Infante appears to be the final major item on the offseason shopping list.
“We like our club going forward,” Moore said Tuesday. “We’ve made a lot of improvements, but we fully expect and understand that we’re going to have to massage our roster and keep making adjustments throughout the year, and hopefully stay injury free.”
Infante has had some injury troubles in the past, including an ankle injury that he picked up during a collision at second base that limited him to 118 games last season. But he still hit .318 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs, far better production than Kansas City got from its second basemen.
Emilio Bonifacio, Jamey Carroll, Chris Getz, Johnny Giavotella, Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada combined to hit just .243 with four home runs last season.
Moore said earlier this offseason that he expected payroll to be about the same as it was in 2013, which ended at $86,614,795. But the signing of Infante combined with expected raises for arbitration-eligible players means the payroll for next season will shoot past $90 million, a franchise record.
That’s led to speculation that the Royals may have to trim salary, and rumors that designated hitter Billy Butler — who is owed $8.5 million next season with a club option for 2015 — may become available for a trade. Moore said such rumors amounted to “hot stove rhetoric.”
“It’s no different than you hear other players throughout the league that potentially are going to be moved,” Moore said. “Billy’s a terrific hitter, and he’s going to hit. That’s what Billy does.”
As for the payroll, Moore said that “we’re not under any directive to cut,” and that team owner David Glass has been supportive and flexible when it comes to signing players such as Infante.
“We all understand this makes really good sense, this type of deal,” Moore said, “and putting Omar on this team, Mr. Glass has always been supportive.”
Infante also received interest from the New York Yankees, who are searching for a replacement for Robinson Cano. But they were lukewarm about going beyond three years, allowing Kansas City to seal the deal by offering a fourth year to a player who will be 35 by the end of the contract.
“We think he can play,” Moore said. “The players that play in the middle of the diamond for a long time, they all have some commonalities. They’re very smart, they’re hard workers, good teammates, they know how to play, and that’s why those guys have long careers.”