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A Royals rebuild is inevitable

Building a great baseball team is hard, but simple. Kansas City will need to rebuild.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images

Losing weight is, really, pretty simple.

Don’t get mad—it’s certainly not easy! And it can of course be complicated, sometimes extraordinarily so. But it’s simple. Any diet you use will follow three basic steps: eat healthier food, be vigilant about portion control, and stay physically active. Sustained success will only come from a firm commitment to each of those pillars.

Since life isn’t fair, results vary. Some people have faster metabolisms than others, and some have health issues that stand in the way of forward progress. For some, there’s nothing that they can do to lose weight through no fault of their own. Again: it’s not easy, and it’s not always straightforward. But it is simple.

While it’s true that anything can be distilled down into something simple if you get to a level that’s macro enough (example: hydrogen is a light, odorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people), some things can be explained simply and still retain meaning. Such it is with diets, and is also true about constructing a baseball team. In fact, building a baseball team that exhibits continued excellence shares many of the traits as trying to lose weight: it’s hard, not everything will work for everyone, and inherent unfairness makes it far easier for some to do so than others.

More than that, constructing a baseball team that wins year after year is also essentially a three-step process:

  • Acquire, draft, and develop great prospects within a great farm system
  • Sign successful home-grown players to long-term deals
  • Supplement home-grown roster with free agents and trades

Importantly, you really can’t do this in retrograde: free agents are so expensive and risky as to make a team built on them impossible to sustain, and you can’t sign players to friendly contracts if you aren’t producing good players in the first place.

Constructing a baseball team is devilishly hard; it’s fraught with danger, and styles and approaches can vary wildly and bring an equally wild set of results. But it’s simple. If you’re a general manager of a team, you have to start with a great farm system that produces productive in-house players. It saves millions upon millions of dollars in the short and long run, not to speak of the inherent upside younger players carry that is nonexistent in ten-year veterans.

In order to get to that point, sometimes you need to purge a team in order to build up the farm system through trades and lose enough to collect a series of high draft picks. It’s how the Houston Astros did it. Houston scattered a mediocre 2010 squad to the wind and squirmed through the next four terrible seasons—but they lost with purpose. In 2015, they broke out and became a playoff team with an army of young talent. Though they missed the playoffs last year with an 84-win season, Houston has the best record in all of baseball this year.

And it’s how the Chicago Cubs did it. Chicago weathered an old, boring, bad 2011 squad and turned to Super GM and Cursebuster, Theo Epstein. Epstein dismantled the squad, putting the sorry Cubs through three years of misery—misery with purpose. They then averaged 100 games a season between 2015 and 2016 and won the 2016 World Series.

It’s also how the Kansas City Royals did it, though their initial badness was not on purpose. The Royals cut ties with GM Allaird Baird halfway through 2006, hiring an Atlanta Braves executive named Dayton Moore. It took Kansas City longer than it took Chicago or Houston, but eventually the same thing happened in the same way. Before the 2011 season, the Royals had one of the best farm systems of all time, due in part to multiple consecutive top-10 picks in the draft. With a group of homegrown heroes, the Royals made it to the seventh game of the 2014 World Series and won the 2015 World Series.

Chang W. Lee

Draft and develop homegrown players. Extend them. Construct a team around them, filling in the pieces. Win. It’s hard—pretty much everyone tries to do it, after all—but it’s so simple.

A team can perpetually succeed if it is constantly receiving contributions from its minor leaguers. Good examples are the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals, who have succeeded mostly due to good contributions from a parade of controllable players, a few of whom became bona fide stars. It takes significant effort to do so, and relies on excellent scouting and player development.

Moore’s Royals have been unable to do so. Their drafts have been consistent duds since 2010, the draft that they chose the recently-released Christian Colon over Chris Sale. In 2011, each of the top 12 picks have made the Major Leagues and have accrued positive Wins Above Replacement—except fifth-overall pick Bubba Starling. Kyle Zimmer’s continuing health issues have punctuated a 2012 draft class that has done a pretty significant amount of failing. And among Foster Griffin, Ashe Russell, and Nolan Watson, the Royals top picks in the 2014 and 2015 drafts, none of them has yet reached AA, and only Griffin has graced high-A ball, the level below AA. The Royals did not have a first-round pick in the 2016 draft as a consequence of signing Ian Kennedy.

All this has culminated in a painful death spiral for the farm system. Once the best in the league, it has fallen significantly. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the system as fifth-worst out of the 30 MLB teams before this 2017 season, plummeting all the way from the top third of farm systems as recently as 2014.

Unfortunately, as the farm system rots without top talent, the Royals themselves are coming to the end of their rope this season. Everyone’s becoming a free agent at once at the end of this year, and the team hasn’t been good. In the three-step process, the Royals are at the end of step three: as the core becomes more expensive and starts to depart via free agency, Moore and his front office team are using more free agents and trades to plug the holes. This, pretty clearly, hasn’t worked. The team just isn’t cost-efficient any more, and an aging core isn’t what it once was.

The way forward is clear. Step One is to get a great farm system that produces quality homegrown players. Generally speaking, the better the farm system, the better the Major League team that comes afterwards. Moore needs to pivot to doing that, and doing that hard. That means trades—Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Vargas, and Joakim Soria have no business still being in Kansas City after the trade deadline. In the offseason, the Royals should probably even shop Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez. Trading those eight players by the end of this year would bring a small army of young, controllable talent and would considerably brighten the Royals’ future.

Hunter Dozier and Raul Mondesi—the next Royals stars?
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Of course, doing so much trading will result in the Royals losing a bunch of games, this year and next, and maybe more than that. And Moore is on record for being very critical of losing on purpose. To Moore, “baseball is more about the heart than the head.”

But baseball isn’t always about the heart. Sometimes you’re required to make baseball decisions that don’t jive with what your heart says. Everyone in Kansas City wants the Royals to be good again. Everyone in Kansas City wants the Royals to be good for a long time. Nobody in Kansas City wants the Royals to lose. You can’t have all of those things at once: something has to give.

Simply put, the Royals will only win their next World Series with a team full of the next generation of Royals players, the next Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy and Greg Holland and Wade Davis. The economics of baseball have shut the door on this current group on winning another championship.

‘Rebuild’ is a dirty word in sports, especially baseball, because it’s a lengthy process with no guaranteed goal. But rebuilding is necessary. Remember: every great baseball team is created primarily through a great farm system graduating productive, cost-controlled players. That is non-negotiable.

Moore is not smarter than the system. There is no magic diet that will help you lose weight that allows you to continue to eat unhealthy food. It’s hard, but it’s simple: you have to do it, and to commit. Likewise, rebuilding and creating a great farm system is necessary to building a great team. You can’t have it all. Hopefully the Royals don’t try.