It's December 2015. The Kansas City Royals have been World Series Champions for a month now, and it's Winter Meetings time for the General Managers. Let's say somebody asks you a question: without thinking about win-loss record, what would be a nightmare scenario for 2016?
One answer would be that no nightmare scenario exists because the Royals just won the World Series. That, all things considered, is not a bad answer.
But let's say that you were answering the question seriously. You'd probably say that a worst case scenario involves somehow managing to re-sign Alex Gordon or Ben Zobrist (or both), but that they were injured or bad (or both) and be a big waste of money. You'd also add that one of the Royals' core players, say, Mike Moustakas, would suffer a season-ending injury early on, the farm system straining to cope. Speaking of the farm system--Kyle Zimmer would be injured again, Bubba Starling would be bad again, and another one of the top prospects, say, Raul Mondesi, would lose a bunch of playing time. As for Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Alcides Escobar, none of them would make another step forward in their careers, and a few would make steps backward.
As for pitching? Well, you'd say, the back end of the rotation would crumple--maybe Chris Young's mid 80s fastball finally succumbs to father time, Kris Medlen would either be injured or bad (or both). Maybe the bullpen sags too, with either injuries or ineffectiveness to prevent Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, and Joakim Soria to replicate the back end of the 2014-2015 bullpen.
I've got a question for you, now: does that sound familiar?
The Royals ended their season on Sunday with their fourth consecutive loss, ending up at an even .500. For those of you who are into mildly interesting (if unimportant) records, that means that the Royals have only had one stretch in their entire history with four or more consecutive winning seasons, that being 1975-1980.
We've been some truly terrible crap here as Royals fans. In 2004, the Royals lost 100+ game for the second time in three years (part of a stretch of four 100+ loss seasons in five years), and this happened:
And, again, the Royals just won the World Series last year. After getting to Game Seven of the World Series the year before. In fact, 19 of the 30 MLB teams haven't even been to a World Series in at least a decade. Let's not kid ourselves here with the 'woe-is-me' schtick. These last few years have been some of the most satisfying years for an underdog team in sports history. Do not forget that.
But just because something good or bad happened in the previous year does not completely negate the next year's existence or success. So let's just call it what it is: this year's .500 record and the way it happened was the worst possible way for the season to end.
If this team was better, even by only a couple games at 83-85 wins, the Royals could go into this playoff-less offseason knowing that they were almost there even after being dealt a bad hand. A 4-6 game improvement would be all that was necessary. With one final year of the Core, we could strive for one more championship. If they were a lot better, say 86-88 wins, the decision would be even easier, the improvement even less.
If this team was worse, even by only a couple games at 77-79 wins, the Royals could look to turn a group of talented players with only a year left into long-term assets to help them turn the page and get back to the next World Series. It would be painful, but baseball must go on, and the easiest and best course of action would be to move on. If they were even worse, say 74-76 wins, the decision would be even easier, with maybe a protected draft position a consolation prize.
But the Royals are neither. They are at .500, an 81-81 record. Not only does the Royals front office need to implement their plan for next year, always a difficult undertaking with 29 other teams staffed by brilliant individuals, but they need to decide on what path to take in the first place--with little indication which way would be the best. Mediocrity just isn't useful.
And so Dayton Moore and Co. will try to improve the team by at least eight wins with a wounded, aging, continually more expensive Core that have little upside left, with limited funds to spend and only one year to work with before it all evaporates. The 81-81 2015 Royals have made it significantly harder.