They were, though, for a long time. They were for days, weeks, months--even years, if only juuuuuuust barely, and only if you think that 1.002 years counts as years with an 's' at the end. The Royals are no longer American League Champions either, and although that particular title fell a few weeks ago, they held that title for 735 days, from 2014 until the Cleveland Indians' pennant in 2016.
Kansas City's postseason success has deeply been a part of the last two years' narratives and context. Not only did the Royals not find playoff success this year, they just flat out didn't find the playoffs. For an ensemble that has retained most of its original lineup from the glory days, that is a disappointment, and that's natural. There's always some disappointment when a team fails to reach the heights of the previous year, no matter the heights, and no matter the team.
After the Royals' magical 2014 season, the objective for the next season was clear: make the next step. And the Royals did that, with some good offseason free agent signings like Kendrys Morales paired with two "win now" trades for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. They won the last game of the season, bringing home a World Series trophy for the first time in 30 years.
After that victorious 2015 season, the objective for the next season was also clear: do it again. And the Royals did try--they gave out the two largest contracts in Royals history and bumped up the payroll to the largest it has ever been. It didn't work out. Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon were significantly worse than they were last year, and were significantly more expensive. With major injuries to Cain, Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar, the Royals were forced to lean heavily on a collection of players from their mediocre minor league system. It didn't work out.
After the disappointing 2016 series, the objective is muddied. Now what?
For years, the Royals had a clear path for the following season. When they were bad, they were trying to rebuild. Recently, they've been trying to get better. But, for the first time in at least a decade (and probably more), the path forward is a muddy mess, a mess trampled by uncertainty and bandwagon Cubs fans.
The reasons are pretty simple, and there are four main ones. First, the Royals have a cavalcade of players set to all be free agents at once after the 2017 season. This group includes the 'core' players of Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar, Cain, Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Danny Duffy, and Jarrod Dyson as well as Dillon Gee, Chris Young, and Jason Vargas, all eleven (!) of which are likely to begin next season on the 25-man roster. Second, the 2016 club wasn't an almost playoff team; this was an 81-win team whose run differential suggests they should have only won 77. Third, the farm system, once one of the best in the game, is mediocre and boasts none of the top-tier talent that yielded two consecutive American League Championships and a World Series Championship. Four, the Royals' payroll is in danger of stagnating, even as the team becomes more expensive.
It's the deadly confluence of events that's the problem. If the Royals even had three of the four problems, their path forward would be clear. If their players didn't all become free agents at once, this wouldn't be a discussion. If the 2016 team was an 87-win team that barely missed the playoffs, the decision would be a lot easier. If the farm system was bursting with talent, any path would be a good one. If the Royals were a large market team with more financial resources, any downsides could be mitigated by the talent brought in by hold, hard cash.
Unfortunately, Dayton Moore and Co. have a decision to make, and each of the options is diametrically opposed to the other. Moore can borrow from 2018 and beyond for one last chance for glory with this group by gutting what's left in the farm system cupboard, signing players to heavily backloaded deals that are more likely to end in tears of sadness rather than tears of joy, and keeping the team's best big league assets rather than taking advantage of their trade value. Or, Moore can scuttle 2017 in order to regroup with a new core in 2018 in beyond by limiting free agent spending, trading the expensive big league players for minor leaguers with promise, and keeping what's left of the farm system pristine and intact.
There is no easy answer, but with the World Series over and the offseason boulder starting to rumble down the hill, we are moving forward whether we like it or not. And regardless of what decision is going to happen, we will have to come to terms with the fact that a sizable chunk of our favorite players are going to be gone in a year. There's no way around it.
Usually, I have an opinion about what, generally, the Royals should do over the offseason. Most of the recent offseasons have boiled down to a few key items, and like I said earlier, the general direction has been pretty clear for a long time.
But this offseason, I have no idea. There are so many issues to address with so many limitations, and the fallout of each choice will be felt for years to come, especially the big conceptual ones with scary names like "rebuild."