Over fourth of July, former Reds and Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden (now co-host of Inside Pitch for MLB Network Radio on Siriusxm) discussed how the Royals should navigate the next few weeks as the trade deadline approaches.
Bowden reasoned that the Royals shouldn’t go “all in” for this year and instead should look to sell. That’s obviously contrary to the reported approach that Dayton Moore and the Royals front office are guided towards doing for this year.
But what if I said Bowden wasn’t that far off...
First, no GM is going to sell in early-July when their team is only 1.5 games back of their division. It’s too early to sell when things could change a whole lot over the next few weeks. By July 31st the Royals could be ten games above .500 or ten games below. The Earth could collide with the moon or it could not. Who knows?
What Bowden got wrong here though is the timeline. In his comments he mentions 2018, 2019, and 2020. That’s not really of importance here. It’s very likely that those years are going to be dark years regardless of what happens before October turns to November.
The real dates of importance are 2021, 2022, 2023, etc... Anyone in the Royals system now isn’t going to turn the 2018 team into contenders. Anyone they acquire at the deadline isn’t going to do that either (buyers are usually hesitant to trade MLB ready talent). What a trade could do is bump the future timeline up a few years. Yeah, that’s not a sexy thing and 2020 isn’t as important to folks living in 2017 as much as 2017 is, but it’s still worth considering. Even the quickest of rebuilds don’t happen that fast or that easy.
The Atlanta Braves began their teardown in 2014 with an eye on competing again when their new stadium opened this year. Despite trading away almost all of their talent (poor Freddie Freeman) and relying on returns from the trades and draft, they find themselves below .500 and nine games out of their division.
The Astros embraced tanking around 2011/2012. It’s worked out for them as they’ve built a bit of an AL juggernaut but it took getting a lot right. They nailed a bunch of first round picks (way harder than it seems), found an ace at the bottom of a scrap heap (Dallas Keuchel), and turned a 5’6” Venezuelan kid into a star player. Even then it took them six-seven years to get where they are now.
The real question is: at what odds are you willing to sacrifice the future (an inevitable future) for a shot at a 50/50 game where the loser goes home? Right now those odds are at ~24%. There are seven AL teams right now with >10% odds at the Wild Card. One bad streak in August, a five game losing streak, could be the difference between the Royals last game being on October 1st or some time after that, but in August it would be too late to do anything about it.
I think the Royals realistic playoff scenario is that they win a Wild Card spot. Even those odds at it stand, while the best in the AL, aren’t terribly high. Last year on July 5th the Detroit Tigers shared those same Wild Card odds and missed out. In 2015 the AL East was tightly packed on July 5th with four of the five teams with >15% odds at the Wild Card. Two of those teams would play postseason baseball (New York and Toronto) while Tampa and Toronto would watch from their proverbial homes.
So what are the minimum odds (X) to sacrifice how many years (Y)? Those two variables are incredibly difficult to nail down. The acceptable odds aren’t black and white. 20% vs 25% isn’t noticeably different, just as eight years isn’t that noticeable from nine or ten really.
That’s also without mentioning that this is truly a unique case. Most years, teams could give it a solid go because most of their pieces will still be around next April. That was the 2014 team. Even though some were calling for the team to sell (a stance that made sense at the time - they were eight games back and two under .500 in late-July) they at least could look forward to having a similar team next year if they were wrong. If this 2017 team is wrong though, that’s an entirely different story. That’s a story that has no past lesson to be learned because there hasn’t been a team recently that lost almost half their core in the same offseason. Most teams could give it a go because they have the next few years. This KC team inevitably has the next few months.
What odds are you willing to sacrifice at least a few future years for a shot at that 50/50 (or worse if it’s an away game) game? Right now those odds are 24%. Anything above that makes a stronger case, but it’s okay to be risk-averse too. Holding on to something falling because you think it will back up is called “bag holding” and it’s an awful feeling that I’m familiar with. If say on July 25th those Wild Card odds are at 15%, is that still worth it? 10%?
That decision doesn’t have to be made now but it will have to be made in a few weeks. And in a few weeks when Dayton Moore and Co. assess those odds and make their decision, they better be sure of it. If they stand pat and they fail, it could set the team back several years. If they sell (as unlikely as it may be), then people will wonder “what if...”
You probably already know what camp I’m in. I see those current WC odds, but I also see an offense that is last in the AL, a team that had to get white hot for a month just to get to .500, a rotation that’s Danny Duffy - a 34-year old TJS rebound guy having a career year - then a few question marks. There’s also a bullpen where their best pitcher the past few years is now arguably their worst, and their best current pitcher is half a year removed from getting shelled by AAA hitters. Four players on this team who are in line to get starts on any given day are replacement level or worse (Gordon, Escobar, Moss, Soler). By BaseRuns they have gotten +4 wins lucky and the same by Pythag.
The return the Royals would get from selling would be substantially more than whatever players are around after the first round next year if they got compensation picks for their pending free agents. That’s of considerable consequence as it shapes the years to come.
However 24% odds (as of July 5th) aren’t low but they aren’t high either. Like I said, we’ll have a few more weeks to see where those odds go, but that only helps separate some of the gray into black and white; it won’t turn the gray into black or white. Whatever that decision may turn out to be (and it’s looking increasingly likely that the Royals “keep the band together”), the Royals front office better be damn sure they are right.