A few weeks ago, I began a discussion about what the Atlanta Braves can teach us about rebuilding ahead of schedule. The Braves, of course, won their division and forced their way to the National League Divisional Series, and while they did not win the series their season was still a surprising success ahead of schedule. If you didn’t read it but don’t want to read it by clicking this lovely link, here is the tl;dr:
- Being in a bad division can help open your window sooner, and being in a good division can make it much harder to get to the postseason. For instance, the Braves played in an underwhelming division with two poorly run (and therefore bad) teams, one team in an earlier stage of rebuild than Atlanta, and only one good team with its own share of problems. However, the equally surprising Tampa Bay Rays also won 90 games, but played in a division with two of the best three teams in baseball.
- If you’re looking to get to 90 wins, which gives you an excellent shot at the playoffs, you’re going to need in the ballpark of 42 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) from your players, give or take. The Braves accrued 37.3 WAR per Baseball-Reference, which is close enough considering variance in 162 games and that player WAR doesn’t relate exactly one-to-one with each team victory.
So how exactly did the Braves get there? Let’s take a look.
INSTANT ROOKIE IMPACT
Ultimately, every team that rebuilds ahead of schedule receives greater than expected production from talented youngsters much quicker than said youngsters were projected to provide. In other words, if you want to contend ahead of schedule you need your talented young players to hit the ground running with few growing pains.
The Braves were no exception. They received some significant contributions from three players in their first significant experience of MLB action:
Ronald Acuna 4.1
Ozzie Albies 3.8
Johan Carmago 3.7
To get three guys producing at a 4-WAR level almost immediately is one of the only ways you are going to compete ahead of schedule. Of the three, only Carmago had any previous MLB experience, with 82 productive games played in Atlanta’s 2017 campaign.
To put this into perspective: a 4-WAR season by a position player is certainly enough to win Rookie of the Year depending on the season. Just this decade, Buster Posey, Wil Myers, Cody Bellinger, and Carlos Correa have all won RoY with WAR figures under 4.3. Now, there’s no formula to how much production you need from your young guys, but to compete ahead of time you’re going to need a lot—having more rookies and young players will certainly help your odds, too.
Look: you’re gonna need good players already on your team if you want to compete ahead of schedule. Otherwise, you need to get too much production from too many unreliable sources in order to have a chance. Fortunately for the Braves, they had a trio of solid players:
Ender Inciarte: 3.4 WAR
Freddie Freeman: 6.1 WAR
Julio Teheran: 1.8 WAR
All three of these guys had been productive for years, and in 2018 continued to be productive. Every team needs established production to compete. That’s just how it works.
LUCKY BREAKS AND BREAKOUT SEASONS
The 2018 Braves came out of nowhere partially because they had players who came out of nowhere. The numbers listed with the following four names are their 2017 WAR and 2018 WAR. See if you can spot a pattern:
Value where there was historically no or little value
- Nick Markakis: 0.7 / 2.6
- Dansby Swanson -.3 / 2.5
- Mike Foltynewicz 1.3 / 3.9
- Anibal Sanchez -.7 / 3
In 2017, Markakis, Swanson, Foltynewicz, and Sanchez combined for 1 WAR. In 2018, that quartet duodecupled their combined value to 12 WAR. Each individual renaissance was a fantastic achievement, and to have four guys do so at once is an easy way to overachieve expectations.
To compete ahead of schedule, you will need lucky breaks and breakout seasons, to receive value where there was historically no or little value. How many lucky breaks and breakouts you need is going to be closely related to how much established production you have and how many skilled young players you have ready. Building a competitive team around breakouts is a sure way to fail to be competitive. But you’re gonna need some good favor to contend early.
HOW THE ROYALS CAN GET THERE
Now, the big question: can the Royals be the next Braves?
The short answer is that 2019 is not gonna be that year. The 2018 Royals accrued 18.6 WAR. They would, conservatively, need to double that to reach competitiveness. Now, they are a little closer than you might think. The 2018 Royals featured the following seven players who combined for -8.3 WAR just themselves:
- 36 yo Blaine Boyer, -1.8
- 35 yo Jason Hammel, -1.5
- 29 yo Justin Grimm, -1.4
- 28 yo Burch Smith, -1.2
- 27 yo Brandon Maurer, -1.2
- 31 yo Alcides Escobar, -0.6
- 29 yo Abraham Almonte, -0.6
By purging these bad veterans from their roster next year and replacing them with even just replacement-level players—and Kansas City already cut loose Boyer, Grimm, and Almonte this season, so they are well on their way—they could ostensibly lower the amount of WAR they need to about 10. However, considering that the Royals would also need to replace the positive production from Lucas Duda, Mike Moustakas, Jon Jay, and Kelvin Herrera that they received this season, that number is closer to 15 WAR.
It’s just really hard to get 15 WAR, especially with the lack of top-tier talent in the Royals’ farm system right now. Most of the intriguing players in the upper minors have already seen action in 2018, and there aren’t a lot in the pipeline that will be ready for 2019. So, next year is probably out.
But 2020 could be interesting, because it’s the first year that the Royals’ group of prospects could arrive. Remember, the A ball Lexington Legends just won their league championship. That group of guys includes powerful and defensively skilled catcher MJ Melendez, first baseman Nick Pratto, home run king Seuly Matias, athletic outfielders Michael Gigliotti and Kyle Isbel, and multiple college arms like Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch from the top of the Royals’ 2018 MLB Draft.
Now, 2021 is the smart year to predict for a competitive Royals team again. Even the fast movers through the system that debut in 2020 will more likely than not need time to acclimate to the majors. Furthermore, 2021 is the first reasonable year that the Royals’ second overall pick in the 2019 draft could debut in the Majors, even if they pick a more advanced college bat like Adley Rutschmann, Bryson Stott, or Michael Busch.
However, the point in looking at the Braves was not to examine the “smart year to predict” a team to be competitive. If you’re going to dream about what if, the 2020 Royals team is it. Start with established production that includes Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, Jake Junis, Brad Keller, and Ryan O’Hearn. Thow in breakout seasons by Nicky Lopez, Brett Phillips, Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler, and maybe even surprising production out of nothing in perennially injured Kyle Zimmer and perennially injured and disappointing Bubba Starling. Then, sprinkle in a Rookie of the Year campaign from Khalil Lee, and surprising ascents to MLB readiness in Kowar, Gigliotti, and Lynch.
That’s unlikely. Let’s be honest. But the Royals should—and even could—try to emulate the Braves’ 2018 in 2020. They’ve laid down the road map, after all. The hard part is following it.