When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series in 2015, they did so on the backs of what we’ve been calling the ‘core’ for years now. This group of players was the youth movement around which General Manager Dayton Moore had built his team, and for better or worse that’s why it took him until his seventh full season with the club to grab a winning record. These things take time. Even Theo Epstein, who at 43 years of age already has a case as the greatest General Manager of all time, needed to burn out a few terrible years in Chicago before winning a World Series.
In 2011, a total of nine Royals prospects made the Baseball America Top 100, a list of the top 100 prospects for the following year in all of baseball. For your wonderful viewing pleasure, here’s a fantastic picture of what this group looked like six Februaries ago:
From left to right, those names are:
John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, Christian Colon, Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer.
A few months before that picture was taken, the Royals had traded Zack Greinke, another homegrown player from half a decade previous, in order to acquire Odorizzi, alongside Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jeremy Jeffress. The Royals would also benefit from the success of Salvador Perez and Jarrod Dyson, two very useful homegrown players who somehow never sniffed a top prospect list. Less than two years after the picture was taken, the Royals would leverage Odorizzi, Montgomery, and Myers for James Shields and Wade Davis.
So when the Royals hoisted the World Series trophy in 2015, it was no surprise as to how they got their rings. Wins Above Replacement isn’t a perfect or all-encompassing statistic, but it is a fantastic way to evaluate players’ total contributions to the team. In 2015, per Fangraphs’ version of the stat, the Royals accrued a total of 37 WAR, and used 60 players during the year. Cain, Escobar, Hosmer, Moustakas, Duffy, Perez, Dyson, and Davis, alongside Alex Gordon and Yordano Ventura (two top prospects whose prospect success came before and after that 2011 group, respectively) combined for 26.7 WAR. That’s ten players—16.7% of the team’s players—combining for 72% of the team’s total value.
Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond, Yoenis Cespedes, Kenley Jansen, Edwin Encarnacion, Rich Hill, and Justin Turner were worth 27.7 WAR in 2016. This offseason, they signed for a combined 29 years and $514.5 million, averaging almost $18 million per year. And the Royals ten players, the ones who combined for 26.7 WAR, only made a combined $39.9 million.
Look: Dayton Moore didn’t reach into a top hat, mutter a few magical sounding words, and yank a few trophies out while looking pleased with himself. Rather, he put together an excellent, cost-efficient team, one that leaned heavily on market inefficiencies like defense and a lockdown bullpen.
Although, to be fair, that team was particularly adept at magically pulling wins out of a hat, so Moore was indirectly in command of Royals Devil Magic. A reminder:
*That’s current Royal Jason Hammel pitching to current Royal Salvador Perez, who smacked a ball past the diving glove of the guy (Josh Donaldson) who made the final out in the deciding 2015 American League Championship game into left field to former Royal Jonny Gomes. Baseball!
Building a team of young guys has been the ideal team construction for everybody, from these Royals to the defending champion Chicago Cubs to the 1990s Atlanta Braves and, yes, the new millennium wrecking ball New York Yankees. So here’s the thing: the current Core isn’t young anymore. They are not Benjamin Button, so they’re not getting younger, either. They are aging, and with age comes declining production and health with an inclining salary associated with the bounties of free age.
Yes, the Royals could keep some of their departing players in free agency. But there’s a difference between weathering a young Mike Moustakas being crappy and making $1.4 million and a re-signed older Alex Gordon being crappy and making $14 million (decimals, as always, make a difference, kids). The solution is simple, but it’s the annoying kind of ‘just win more games’ existential solution rather than the simple ‘restart the computer and your frozen web browser will be back to normal’ solution.
That solution is to get a new core. And that core, for better or worse, is in Surprise right now.
This can go one of two ways. If the new core is great, we’ll be seeing a lineup card that features something like Hunter Dozier at third base and hitting third, Ryan O’Hearn at first base and hitting cleanup, Bubba Starling roaming center field and hitting second, and Raul Mondesi doing his best Fransisco Lindor impersonation and hitting leadoff, with a rotation including Matt Strahm, Kyle Zimmer, and Josh Staumont.
If that sounds unlikely to you, you’re probably in the correct frame of reference here. The Royals don’t have any of the blue-chip prospects that they hoarded like crazy cat owners six years ago. Their success has made this specific predicament, which is what it is.
But regardless of how good the 2018, 2019, and 2020 teams are, the Royals’ future is right here, in Surprise. It could be mediocrity! It could be mid-2000s redux! It could be the continuation of the golden age! LOOK AT ALL THE POSSIBILITIES!
So yeah, you could pay attention to Mike Moustakas’ knee. You could see how Danny Duffy looks on the precipice of his new contract. You could keep an eye on Eric Hosmer and see if he is taking steps to increase the loft in his swing. You probably should do all those things.
You could also pay particular attention to the young guys, the prospects. If everything goes well, we’ll be talking about those guys in the same tone as we do regarding Hosmer and Co. in six years. Either way, we don’t have much of a choice. They are the future.