By Andy Mccullough

Tribune News Service

On the ground floor of Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, the doors to the Royals clubhouse were closed and the lights were turned off. A week earlier, in the aftermath of a crushing game-seven World Series defeat, James Shields packed up his locker for the final time. He stowed his strobe light and his fog machine and all the other props he deployed during a two-year tour as the leader of this franchise.

Awaiting Shields was the lucrative promise of free agency. A second stint in Kansas City looks improbable. For general manager Dayton Moore, the primary task of his offseason has become the search for Shields' replacement.

"It's going to be awful, awful difficult for us to win the negotiations for top free-agent pitchers," Moore said during a news conference Wednesday. "Just in terms of length, as much as anything. It's just an organizational philosophy we have with that. So we're going to have to look for pitchers that fit our mold."

A familiar name could fill that void. Ervin Santana shined as a Royal in 2013 and saw his market depressed by a qualifying offer last winter. After another successful season in Atlanta, Santana is once again available. The Royals will at least consider a reunion with Santana, a 31-year-old right-hander, according to people familiar with the situation, but they will not be the only club seeking his services.

Santana leads the second tier of free-agent pitchers, the group positioned beneath the top trio of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and Shields. Santana, who was 14-10 with a 3.95 ERA in 2014, stands alongside Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano as more realistic options for a fiscally conservative club such as the Royals. The third tier features a troubling grab bag of arms such as A.J. Burnett, Jake Peavy, Jason Hammel, Justin Masterson and Brett Anderson.

For teams searching for pitching, the free-agent market can be treacherous. No contracts curdle faster. But with their payroll on the verge of topping $100 million for the first time, the Royals could open their wallets for a reunion. Santana could fetch a deal that lasts three or four seasons and costs as much as $12 million a year, according to rival executives.

Santana enjoyed his one season as a Royal, when he posted a career-low 3.24 ERA in 211 innings. He has raved to friends about the front office, the sterling defense and the training staff. He would welcome a return, according to people familiar with the situation. Of course, Kansas City must match his price.

The Royals paid Shields $13.5 million for his services in 2014. But the team has to earmark a good portion of his salary toward raises for arbitration-eligible players such as Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland.

The total bill for Herrera, Holland and Wade Davis should top $17 million, which is a hefty sum for three relievers.

The team is expected to at least listen to trade offers on all three relievers. The value of Holland, a two-time All Star, may never be higher. But Moore stressed the significance of the trio. They proved essential in October.

"We're not in a hurry to break those guys up," Moore said. "We'll just have to wait and see how the offseason comes together."

Moore enters this offseason in a more comfortable position than ever before. The youthful offensive core blossomed during the World Series run. The team needs to fill holes in right field and at designated hitter, but Moore expressed confidence that hitters already under contract will only improve in 2015.

The Royals can always explore trades for a pitcher. But free agency may be their best avenue. The farm system offers tantalizing but unrealistic options. Kyle Zimmer, the team's top pitching prospect, underwent a minor shoulder debridement in late October. Moore hopes Zimmer will be able to pitch in games by next June.

A sterling October effort in relief earned Brandon Finnegan an opportunity to compete for a spot in the starting rotation in the spring. But he has started only five games as a professional, and all of them were at Class-A Wilmington. He is more likely bound for either the major-league bullpen or a minor-league rotation.

To the market Moore will go. He has displayed aggression in recent years in this market. The club extended Jeremy Guthrie in November 2012. A year later, they struck a four-year deal with Jason Vargas in November.

The Royals locked up Vargas after their initial discussions with Santana proved unproductive. The team monitored his subsequent endless winter from a distance. They stayed in contact with Santana, but indicated they were unable to even match the one-year, $14.1 million deal he received from the Braves. The Royals had already extended themselves financially to sign Vargas and Bruce Chen.