Criticizing a World Series winner is a bit of a damp squib. Even further, criticizing a team that played in back-to-back World Series, once to a Game 7 and the next to victory, is not a particularly enviable task. But what is life, if not a series of unenviable tasks?
This is not meant so much to diminish what the organization has accomplished over the past three seasons. Indeed, this is about the future, and a smidgen about the present. Looking ahead, the Royals need new blood. Fresh talent. And there a lot of questions at present about where it might be coming from, when it might get here, and perhaps most crucially, what kind of performance one could expect once they arrive. Do the Royals have a problem developing players?
Kansas City had a lot of things go right, as any successful team requires. Alex Gordon became the second-best position player in team history. Lorenzo Cain became a top-ten position player in all of baseball. Mike Moustakas made a rally to perform at quality levels after being less than for multiple seasons. Eric Hosmer made a show at being an up-and-coming star.
But now, as there was then, is the question of what could have been. A question obscured by the bright lights of success, no doubt, but a question nonetheless.
Twice in his carer, Eric Hosmer has been a three-WAR player. As recently as 2015, he slashed .297/.363/.459. That season is sandwiched between a pair of duds, and collectively Hosmer has put up three seasons where he will have earned approximately 0.0 fWAR or less:
2012: .232/.304/.359, -1.7 fWAR
2014: .270/.318/.398, 0.0 fWAR
2016: .272/.335/.439, -0.1 fWAR
Through nearly five full seasons, the aggregate of Eric Hosmer has been a below-average player. Now, we can blame positional adjustments, or the fact that the metrics really, really, really don't like his defense (He's a three-time Gold Glove winner, you know). But no matter how you slice it, that is a paltry return for a player like Hosmer. The third pick of the 2008 Amateur Draft, taken two spots ahead of Buster Posey, who was seen as a surefire producer at the major league level, has struggled to do just that.
There is a caveat here, that we can't forget about: Most prospects fail. Looking at the first round of that 2008 draft, you'll notice that Hosmer (by bWAR) is fifth in Wins Above Replacement, and was drafted behind and amidst such stalwarts as Tim Beckham, Pedro Alvarez, Brian Matusz, Kyle Skipworth, Aaron Crow (Yes, that Aaron Crow, taken by the Washingon Nationals, who failed to reach agreement with him), Jemile Weeks, Brett Wallace, and Aaron Hicks.
With that in mind, it is important to remember that we are talking about a matter of degree. Yes, Eric Hosmer has been good. Sometimes. And yes, given the failure rate of prospects, he's actually been pretty good, all things considering.
But, it doesn't really feel that way. Not all the time, at least. There is this lingering sense that he should be better than okay, or at the very least consistently cromulent. And when you take a broader look at Kansas City's player development over the past six years or so, you get the sense that player development might be an organizational problem.
The recent history of Royals draftees coming to the major leagues has been one big variance wave of unpredictable fluidity. Danny Duffy struggled, was injured, struggled, injured, struggled, was dynamite for a shade under three months, and is now regressing. Yordano Ventura is struggling still, wrapping up his second consecutive year of decline after a good-not-great 2014. Salvador Perez has disappeared down the stretch for the third season in a row and was brought to the major leagues a year after posting a wRC+ of 100 in High-A. Aaron Crow was converted to a reliever fairly early in his development. Brandon Finnegan even more so. The same might be happening to Matt Strahm which, more so than the other two, would be an enormous red flag regarding how Kansas City handles its pitching talent.
Meanwhile, Raul Mondesi is in the major leagues for some reason. His current wRC+ of 28 is the 45th-worst offensive season (min. 120 PAs) since 2006. 45th-worst might not sound bad, but there have been 4,616 offensive seasons since 2006; it places him squarely in the 99th percentile of doubleplusungood.
It does not stop at the water's edge of Kauffman Stadium, either. The past few years of player development have been a cavalcade of feet shuffling, with some guys showing a little then regressing terribly and with other guys showing terribly then regressing upward a little.
Bubba Starling is floundering in AAA after underperforming in AA to start the year, hitting .181/.213/.265 for Omaha this year. He's kind of just a guy at this point, whose expectation rests somewhere between also-ran in an upcoming trade to defense-first bench guy. Kyle Zimmer can't get healthy, but that's probably not really the Royals fault at this point. Miguel Almonte has completely imploded. Foster Griffin has a 6.23 ERA in High-A. Nolan Watson has a 7.57 ERA in A-ball. Ashe Russell has thrown two innings this year, spending most of his time in Arizona working out delivery and command issues.
On the one hand, this all feels like the normal ebb and flow of player development. Particularly when you trade away a pair of guys like Sean Manaea and Cody Reed, who could have softened the perception of player development issues. And of course, winning a World's Series is a pretty good panacea for a lot of things.
And yet, you are still left with the sense that the Royals could be doing more, or better, or more better, with the guys that they have kept around the past half decade. Despite the success, there is still a lingering sentiment of why did it take so long, with this much talent? And where is it going to next?
Some of the questions have answers that simply haven't been revealed yet. There's always the possibility that a trade or two in the near future will make up for losses and attrition over the past three years. Or even the remote, off-chance that a re-signing keeps a position of need from existing in the first place.