Whenever and wherever the hard bargaining starts for free-agent outfielder Carlos Beltran, the Royals want at a seat at the table. How long they stay there depends on how rich the bidding becomes.

“We’d love to have him in,” one Royals official said. “One thing about Carlos Beltran is he’s a money player. He’s an RBI guy. He produces.”

The Royals know that better than anyone.

Beltran, now 36, began his 16-year playing career with the Royals and had four 100-run, 100-RBI seasons in a five-year span before the 2004 trade that sent him to Houston. He batted .296 last season for St. Louis with 24 homers and 84 RBIs in 145 games.

Club officials say they hope to meet in the near future with Beltran, who previously indicated a willingness to return to the Royals.

Competition figures to be fierce and could quickly escalate in the coming days before all clubs gather Dec. 9-12 in Orlando, Fla., for the industry’s annual Winter Meetings.

The Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles and Mariners have shown interest in Beltran — and all appear to have far deeper pockets than the Royals, who are already bumping against their projected payroll limit after signing pitcher Jason Vargas.

“The big thing for us,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “was going out and making sure we signed, or traded for, a starting pitcher. And we feel Jason Vargas is the perfect guy for that.”

Even so, the Royals insist they will pursue Beltran and appear willing, unlike some suitors, to meet his preference for a three-year deal. Club officials believe they can make the dollars work, through subsequent moves, if the bidding doesn’t get too high.

If talks flounder, the Royals will shift sites to other targets.

“We’re still looking to, hopefully, find a bat,” confirmed Moore, who received a two-year contract extension Friday through the 2016 season.