So. The 2016 Kansas City Royals. Not a good baseball team. They're flirting with a 90-loss season only a year removed from a World Series victory with lots of returning players, which is less than ideal. It seems like a missed opportunity.
To recap a bit how we got here: the starting pitching has been bad; Danny Duffy's magical transition into a lefty James Shields has been overshadowed by injury (Kris Medlen, Chris Young, Kyle Zimmer, Mike Minor) and some really awful performances by Ian Kennedy and Yordano Ventura, both of whose seasons have been very disappointing. The position players have been bad; though injuries (Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain) have negatively impacted the club, virtually every player has been worse than last year, and in some cases hugely worse. The bullpen hasn't been bad, exactly, but injuries (Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar) and some truly putrid performances by Joakim Soria and Chien-Ming Wang have eroded the bullpen's peak and depth.
The Royals aren't on an island as underperformers after their World Series victory. To win a World Series, you need a fair amount of good luck and resistance to injury in addition to talent, and it's hard to align all three of those factors for multiple years. Take a look at the results of the previous ten World Series victors in their subsequent season.
- 2015 San Fransisco Giants: no playoffs
- 2014 Boston Red Sox: losing record, no playoffs
- 2013 San Fransisco Giants: losing record, no playoffs
- 2012 St. Louis Cardinals:NLCS loss
- 2011 San Fransisco Giants: no playoffs
- 2010 New York Yankees: ALCS loss
- 2009 Philadelphia Phillies: World Series loss
- 2008 Boston Red Sox: ALCS loss
- 2007 St. Louis Cardinals:losing record, no playoffs
- 2006 Chicago White Sox: no playoffs
Six of those teams didn't make the playoffs the following year, and only one returned to the World Series for a chance at a repeat. Should the Royals fail to make the playoffs this year (which seems likely), they'll make it seven of the last 11 defending champions to miss the playoffs.
What this list doesn't tell us is how or why the teams failed. Some teams had problems that lasted only a year or two, and some teams had problems that knocked them out of playoff contention for years.
Here's the problem: the Royals are probably in that second group.
Now, let's be clear: the team could recover and make another run next year. A reading of disabled list stints this year reads like a list of important players in last year's title run: Gordon, Moustakas, Cain, Davis, Dyson, Hochevar. A number of the Royals have had uncharacteristically down years, too, such as Soria, Hosmer, Escobar, Gordon, Ventura, and Cain. Moose could come back next year and hit 30 home runs, and Hosmer could turn into the .300/.400/.500, 25 home run monster he has the ability to be if he tinkers his swing to yield more fly balls. Gordon isn't going to be 20-30% worse than league average next year (or he better not be).
But let's also take a realistic approach, maybe starting from the easiest thing to see and go from there. Ok, first question:
Who is going to start for the Royals next year?
Duffy will be back. Check! Ventura will be, as well, and could be the X Factor that the Royals need...if you think his last 300+ innings are a fluke. And, um, I guess Kennedy will be back too, the 32 year-old with an FIP at 5. And...then what? Chris Young? Hahahaha, good joke. You could probably re-sign Edinson Volquez, or give him a qualifying offer and basically force him to return. Volquez' ERA is about 5, and he'll be 34 next year, so maybe that's not such a smart idea. Jason Vargas? He'll be 34, having previously pitched in a game in the majors on July 21, 2015; he owned a blazing 87.4 MPH average fastball velocity before his Tommy John surgery.
There's a way that next year's rotation works, of course. It relies on Duffy's new quasi-ace status to remain, and for Ventura to take another step (or two, or three) to become like Duffy. It requires Vargas, Kennedy, and an unknown to be merely average, or for Kyle Zimmer's Thoracic Outlet surgy to fix all his injury woes. All those things happening together are very unlikely.
Moving to the next question: how are the Royals going to score runs next year?
Sure, Moose will be back, and that will help. But Morales will be gone, taking his .802 OPS along with him. Do you expect Paulo Orlando to hit .333 again next year? Escobar, Dyson, Merrifield, and Colon all have very low offensive seasons. If you're going to rely on Raul Mondesi, well, he will be in his age 21 season, and he's never hit above .261 or hit more than 8 home runs in any single season of full season minor leagues. It's time to stop pretending that Hosmer will ever be a great hitter, either; he hits far too many ground balls and goes on too many lengthy slumps. Alex Gordon has struck out 28.3% of the time in 424 regular season plate appearances stretching back to September 1 of 2015, has suffered major injuries in each of the last two seasons, and will be 33 next year.
There's a way that next year's offense works, of course. Moose could turn in a monster year with his power and the higher home run totals across baseball. Gordon merely has to go back to being average offensively to offer a huge upgrade. Cheslor Cuthbert could take a step forward. Mondesi's ceiling as a switch-hitting shortstop with sneaky power still exists. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Bonifacio could parlay some good September callup numbers into nice seasons next year. All those things happening together are very unlikely.
Last question: how will the bullpen be?
Kelvin Herrera will still exist. Wade Davis will, too...for a time. Davis' strikeouts are way down this year, his walks way up, and he has been on the disabled list twice. Before Davis took over as closer, Greg Holland was the closer, until his strikeouts fell, walks jumped, and he went under the knife. Before Holland took over as closer, Joakim Soria was the closer until, hmm, his control waned and he went under the knife.
And speaking of Soria, he's been real bad, but the Royals get him next year. Congrats! Luke Hochevar will be gone, too. A great bullpen requires the good health of Davis and Herrera, with Soria turning into old Royals Soria and a minor leaguer making a breakout season in the pen, like Zimmer or Matt Strahm.
The biggest problem of all is that the Royals won't have any room to pay for impact players in free agency or take on salary in a trade. The Royals landed at about $131 million in payroll this year by Baseball Reference's numbers, the highest payroll in team history. Our managing editor estimates the Royals' payroll next year to be about $147 million. David Glass' payrolls have been going up consistently since the payroll bottomed out at just under $40 million in 2011. Over the past four years, the Royals' payroll has averaged about a 20% increase year-over-year. If that number continues, We should expect the Royals to field a payroll around $157 million in 2017.
That's worth repeating: should the Royals continue their recent payroll pattern, we estimate that the Royals will only have $10 million to play with next offseason.
Regardless of the figure, the Royals have precious little wiggle room. They have to fix one of the American League's worst offenses and one of the American League's worst rotations and a fading bullpen with very little money with which to work.
This team just isn't built for a 2017 triumphant return. Next year returns all of this year's problems, but they're all more expensive and older. The Royals could make a run, yes. But you could win the lottery, too, and it doesn't make spending an entire month's salary on Powerball tickets any less of a bad decision.