Remember that feeling after the Kansas City Royals had won the 2014 Wild Card game?
For those of us lucky enough to physically be there at Kauffman Stadium that night, it was a release of 29 years’ of tension, an exhausted cacophony of sounds coming from frayed throats that had endured almost five hours of a nail-biting thriller of a game. Those watching at home experienced similar emotions, though perhaps without the raw energy with which the stadium buzzed. The 2014 Wild Card Game was a transcendental moment for a huge segment of Royals fans who had only experienced heartbreak after heartbreak.
Remember that feeling after the Royals won the 2015 World Series?
Kansas City had spent all series frustrating the New York Mets with ridiculous late-inning antics. A little earlier that night, Eric Hosmer dashed home from third on a routine ground ball to the left side, and Hosmer scored. After a regular season in which Mets closer Jeurys Familia had saved 43 games in 48 chances, Hosmer’s mad dash represented Familia’s third blown save in the World Series. Though that only tied the game, everybody in the stadium and watching the TV knew the inevitable: the Royals, with a 3-1 series lead, were going to win that game and become champions.
Before the Royals could be considered a good team, on a college choir tour around varying cities in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, I stayed a night at a gracious host’s house in mid-Missouri somewhere. The host’s teenage son was watching the St. Louis Cardinals game, and the family were Cardinals fans.
We talked baseball for a bit, and the kid gushed about the Cardinals’ epic comeback against the Texas Rangers in the previous year’s World Series. St. Louis was down three games to two, and the epic, extra-innings comeback in the sixth game fueled a win in the deciding Game Seven and gave St. Louis another championship.
I hated him for it, as he fondly rattled off his favorite moments of that Series and the playoffs. I rooted for a team that, at the time, had one winning season in the previous 18. This teen, born closer to 2000 than 1990, had witnessed four World Series appearances for his favorite team in his lifetime, two of them victories. That this...kid had enjoyed so much was beyond me, that somebody could cling to memories of a single game or handful of games so dearly was beyond me.
But I get it now. Royals fans like me, who weren’t alive when George Brett and Company won the team’s last World Series, now understand that connection to postseason moments.
Baseball is not really about avoiding losses, or winning a few games, or having some fun. Sure, those things are all a part of baseball, but that’s not the reason why players tie up their cleats in the morning. Baseball reaches its peak when a team competes at the highest level, when a team competes for championships. Flags fly forever.
And that is why Royals general manager Dayton Moore owes it to himself, the team, and the fans to go big. The only way to that level of success is through a complete teardown rebuild, and no other alternative exists.
There are three reasons why a full rebuild is the only option. The first one is that the Royals are losing three of their top four position players (by Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement), a pair of useful pitchers, and their longtime starting shortstop to free agency at the end of this season: Those players are Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Mike Minor, and Jason Vargas. Yes, the Royals have the ability to re-sign them, but all six will be more expensive next season—in some cases significantly so.
The second factor, related to the first, is money. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Royals are already committed to $107 million for nine players in 2018, which includes the $16 million or so they still owe to four players who won’t be or aren’t on the team—Mike Minor, Travis Wood, Omar Infante, and Yordano Ventura. Five players on the 25-man roster will see increased salaries due to arbitration, which a guesstimate will add about another $16 million to the payroll, bringing up the total count to about $123 million for 14 players. Rounding out the other 11 spots with guys making the league minimum brings the total up to about $130 million. That’s not much in today’s terms.
Of the top ten productive players by WAR this current season, only three will be under contract by 2019, and somehow the Royals already have $82 million committed in guaranteed contracts that year. Only by 2020 and 2021, when the Royals will be out from the albatross contracts of Ian Kennedy and Alex Gordon, respectively, will Kansas City begin to have enough financial wiggle room to take risks and make impact signings.
The third factor, and by far the most depressing factor, is the farm system*. Not only do the Royals not have the highly-productive farm system needed to fuel a small market team, but they have the exact opposite: the Royals need water and all they have is a bunch of sand. Before this season, Keith Law ranked the Royals’ farm system as fifth-worst in baseball and John Sickels ranked the Royals’ farm system as sixth-worst in baseball. This July, Bleacher Report ranked the Royals farm system as the very worst in baseball, and neither Baseball America or MLB Pipeline included a single Royals prospect in their midseason Top 100 prospect lists.
*The Royals do have some prospects that are interesting, of course. But it’s important to remember that A) every single team in baseball has a full farm system of young guys with some amount of potential and B) only truly great farm systems yield enough talent to fuel a multi-year playoff run.
Furthermore, the Royals traded Matt Strahm in July, who before this year was considered by most prospect lists as a top-three prospect in the Royals’ system, in addition to Esteury Ruiz, A.J. Puckett, and Andre Davis for a quartet of win-now MLB players.
With a lack of premier big-league talent, a suffocating financial situation, and a bare cupboard of top-shelf minor-league talent, the Royals aren’t going to be good in 2018, and they aren’t going to be good in 2019. Even with a best-case scenario regarding prospects—say, Bubba Starling turning into next-gen Cain, Ryan O’Hearn into Little Hosmer, and Raul Mondesi into the Second Coming of Francisco Lindor—that doesn’t get the Royals where they want to go. Since the start of 2016, with the actual version of the guys the minor leaguers hope to become, the Royals have been under a .500 team.
Here’s the thing, and remember this above all else: the Royals shouldn’t be looking to be good. They should be looking to be great. No team achieves glory by being mediocre for decades. We want to see greatness. No sports legend achieves their status through mediocrity.
What that means, though, is pain. Kelvin Herrera, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Joakim Soria, and Whit Merrifield ought all to be traded by the end of next year for high-upside minor leaguers. The Royals need to spend 2018 and 2019 doing the Tanking Shuffle, losing as many games as possible while somehow trying to look vaguely interested in winning.
That means bounce-back candidate free agents acquired on the cheap for the purpose of being flipped for prospects. That means playing fringe young guys to see what they have. That means a high turnover rate.
Importantly, that means no re-signing of Cain, Hosmer, or Moose.
If that makes you sad, hey, it makes me sad too, but Moore, Ned Yost, and the players had two years after 2015 to mount another playoff run before the freeagentpocalypse this offseason and they failed.
Teams lose. That’s ok. Baseball teams lose a lot, even the best ones. But a smart organization will use its inevitable losses, when they exist, for their benefit. A baseball team is supposed to thrive, not just survive.
The Royals will only get back to the World Series once they have bought into a rebuild and built a farm system that is the jewel of baseball again. If they embrace the need to lose with purpose now, it will slice down on the total rebuilding time needed and increase the potential of the future Royals.
This team will need to rebuild at some point. There’s no way around that. The harder and quicker the rebuild, the greater the bounty.