The Royals really epitomized the concept of "team" in winning a championship in 2015. They were a team bereft of superstars. Lorenzo Cain was the only Royals player in the top 50 in baseball in fWAR last year. Yet each night, it was seemingly a different player stepping up to win a ballgame for the Royals when it counted the most.
So let's play a game. Let's say tomorrow you had to build a new baseball team from scratch. Or imagine that the Royals said they were trading everyone away except one player to rebuild around. Which player would you choose? For this exercise, let's take contracts and money out of the equation - pretend all of these players would sign the same five-year contract. Which Royals player would you build a franchise around?
By fWAR, Cain was by far the most valuable Royals player in 2015. He was fourth in the American League in fWAR and finished third in MVP balloting by playing exemplary defense and having a career year at the plate. His 7.2 rWAR tied Alex Gordon's 2012 season for the most by a Royals player since George Brett in 1985. Cain posted career highs in virtually every offensive category, finishing fifth in the league in batting average, fifth in runs scored, and second in stolen bases. He has finished in the top five in dWAR in each of the last three seasons.
On the other hand, Cain will be 30 years old next April. Just two seasons ago, his batting line was .251/.310/.348. He has never put up these kind of offensive numbers, and he has a track record of getting injured. Can a franchise depend on this late bloomer for the next five years into his 30s?
The Royals are currently wrestling with the decision on whether to commit five more years with their All-Star left-fielder. By rWAR, Gordon is coming off the best five-year stretch by anyone in a Royals uniform not named George Brett, with 27.2 rWAR since the start of the 2011 season. He is a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. He has been one of the few patient hitters in the Royals lineup, with an on-base percentage of .350 or better in each of the last five years. He is a consistent 15-20 home run hitter who led the league in doubles in 2012.
Gordon will also turn 32 by Opening Day, which is why the Royals have such trepidation in handing him a long-term deal. His power numbers have dropped, the last time he slugged better than .450 was in 2011. Gordon suffered a major groin injury this summer and there were whispers he had lost a step in the outfield. Can a franchise build around a proven All-Star-caliber player in his mid 30s coming off injury?
Hosmer is beginning to become the star of this team, from his game-tying run to home in the World Series to his appearance on the Tonight Show. He has certainly became the most vocal leader for the team, and its flashiest player. Yet Hosmer has yet to show consistency in his career, and the flash overshadows some flaws to his game.
Hosmer posted career highs last year in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs scored, RBI, and wRC+. However just a year ago he was a replacement level player who went two months without hitting a home run and ended with fewer dingers than J.P. Arencibia or Arismendy Alcantara. He has never made an All-Star team or snubbed for an All-Star team, and despite his Gold Gloves, the metrics do not agree he is a plus defender. Hosmer has age on his side, as he is still just 26 years old, but much of his value seems wrapped in what he can be, not what he has done. Has he turned a corner enough to become a star and carry a franchise?
Would you believe Moose has significantly more fWAR (9.0) than Hosmer (5.1) over the last four seasons? Mike was disappointing in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but he bookended two 3 WAR seasons around them. His solid defense coupled with a pair of 20 home run seasons can make Moose a pretty valuable player. He totally revamped his offensive approach this year and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category. He really came on in the second half with 15 of his home runs coming in the final 69 games. Only Albert Pujols and Josh Reddick had a lower strikeout rate among players with 20+ home runs. Moose has been a solidly above-average defender at third, so if his offensive improvement is for real, the Royals should be set at the hot corner.
Of course, 2015 was the first time Moose has had a wRC+ over 90. Had he been a qualified hitter, Moustakas would have been the tenth-worst wOBA in baseball in 2014. Pop-ups continue to be an issue, as Moustakas was tenth in baseball in infield fly ball rate. Moustakas has never been a patient hitter with a lackluster 6.6% walk rate in his career. Has he revamped his swing enough for a team to build around his defense and home run production?
Salvy is the heart and soul of the Royals. He is the field general on the baseball diamond, handling the pitching staff and barking orders. Off the field he is the lovable scamp who dumps Gatorade buckets on each post-game interviewee. He is a three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and a World Series MVP, all by the age of 25. He just set the franchise record for most home runs by a catcher in a single season. His smile is infectious and his leadership in the clubhouse would be invaluable.
The wear and tear of the catching position may be driving Salvy into the dirt, however. His offensive numbers have declined over the years, with his wRC+ declining in each of his five Major League seasons. Last year he posted a career-low on-base percentage of .280 and had the second-worst walk rate in all of baseball. Salvy's Gold Glove reputation comes from his arm, but his caught-stealing rate is merely average, and his pitch-blocking and pitch-framing continue to be weaknesses. Knowing how catchers can wear down, could a franchise build around this backstop with the kind of leadership he provides?
Pitching is such a coveted commodity, that any young pitcher with potential will be extremely valuable. Ventura not only has potential, but has shown amazing ability in just two Major League seasons. Ventura has been a solid 2 fWAR pitcher in each of his first two full big leagues seasons. He finished eighth in the American League in strikeouts-per-nine innings with 8.60 and finished ninth in FIP at 3.57. He has already shown tremendous grit by throwing seven shutout innings in a must-win Game 6 of the World Series in 2014 and already has nine post-season starts under his belt at age 24.
Ventura already has a reputation as a hot-head however, and had to be demoted mid-season after a rough start. Ventura had to exit a few starts with minor injury concerns, and is hardly a workhorse, with no more than 183 innings in a season thus far. Pitchers are always an injury risk, and Ventura is a particular risk with his high velocity and small frame. Can a franchise build around a young, possibly immature, flame-throwing pitcher?