The only thing on most Royals fans minds at this point - and probably the biggest point of contention between the optimist, the pessimist, and the realist - is when can they get back to the glory days of * checks notes * 2015. It wasn’t that long ago the Royals were World Series winners, planting their flag on the tallest mountain baseball has to offer. But then the fall from that mountaintop came quick, as three years later the franchise lost 104 games. As if they just looked over the edge of the mountain and hurled themselves off. The ground couldn’t have come any quicker.
I’ve previously written before that the Royals should have had a longer window of contention, if they had only drafted decently. Not perfectly, but decently. Instead for a near-decade their first round picks came up fruitless, with tens of millions of bonuses spent with little to show for it.
From 2009-2014, the Royals have spent just over $26,000,000 on first round picks. Those picks have returned a total of -0.1 WAR. Four of them haven’t made their MLB debut (Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot, Kyle Zimmer, and Bubba Starling) and two of them have been below replacement level (Aaron Crow and Hunter Dozier). All the positive WAR that Christian Colon generated (0.7 wins), Hunter Dozier has wiped away (-0.8 wins).
That’s good for a return on investment of -2.87%.
Last week, in his piece on the potential future of Whit Merrifield, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star noted:
Internally, the Royals believe the core of their next contender will be in the big leagues by 2021, when Merrifield will be 32. Viewed coldly as return on investment, now is the best time to trade him. The younger talent acquired would be maturing by 2021, when Merrifield is likely to be fading.
If everything goes to plan the core of the next championship window will be in the big leagues by 2021. The Royals’ best version of their future is centered on Adalberto Mondesi, but also includes familiar names like Brad Keller and Jorge Soler, relatively familiar prospects like Khalil Lee and Brady Singer, and lesser known names like Kyle Isbel and Meibrys Viloria.
The Royals pretty clearly see 2021 as the start of their window opening, a parallel you could draw to 2011. It even kind of feels like they think in 2021 they will be competitive, in the sense that they will be fighting for a playoff spot in September, which is more akin to 2013. Likely though it seems they just see 2021 as the core coming together, with then two years later in 2023 (a similar timeline to the 2011 squad) being the first real competitive year.
So everyone will want to draw parallels to the 2011 team, when it was filled with young top organizational prospects. There is though, an operative word I’m missing in that prior sentence. The 2011 farm system wasn’t just filled with top organizational prospects, but some of the best prospects in all of baseball (per Baseball America).
#8 Eric Hosmer
#9 Mike Moustakas
#10 Wil Myers
#18 John Lamb
#19 Mike Montgomery
#51 Christian Colon
#68 Danny Duffy
#69 Jake Odorizzi
#83 Chris Dwyer
That’s nine top 100 prospects, nearly 10% of the top 100 list was Royals prospects. Maybe it wasn’t clearly the best farm system ever, but it’s certainly in the nuanced discussion of the topic.
Compare that to the current crop of prospects (again per Baseball America):
#56 Brady Singer
One top 100 prospect compared to nine in 2011. Now, the list I just cited is from midseason-2018 (technically September 19th), so while it’s updated, it’s not necessarily apples-to-apples of the 2011 list, which was a preseason list. While player rankings get moved during midseason updates, the preseason lists are where you see the most delta as analysts have time to gather more reports and draw opinions (Keith Law starts from scratch each winter).
And of course, I just chose one list, which doesn’t grasp the general consensus on the organization. Seuly Matias made FanGraphs top 100 list, coming in at 83rd overall during their midseason re-shuffle (FanGraphs actually keeps theirs semi-fluid with numerous shuffles throughout the year; a policy Baseball America has adopted too). For Baseball Prospectus, they also ranked Seuly Matias in their top 100, coming in at 75th overall. Furthermore, Brett Phillips (who was acquired by the Royals from the Brewers in the Mike Moustakas trade) came in behind Matias on the same list, ranked 81st.
So you could make the argument that the Royals have three top 100 prospects in a way, I suppose. One solid top 100 guy in Singer, and then two back-end top 100 guys in Matias and Phillips. Still, that’s a far cry from the 2011 list, who had as many top 10 prospects as the 2018 org has overall top 100 prospects.
On Monday, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs used his valuation framework to try to rank every MLB team’s farm system, using dollar values for ordinal ranks:
By his list, the Royals rank 27th overall, slightly ahead of the Orioles (who also just loss 100+ games) and a little further behind the Diamondbacks. You could bump that up a little bit. If you move Brady Singer from a 45 FV to a 50 FV (which would put him in the 50ish range), then you can add $15M ($21M 50 FV pitcher - $6M 45+ FV pitcher), that gets them to $97M in value, good for 23rd overall. If you take all their 45+ FV players (players who are 45 FV guys but with potential upside beyond a classic 45 FV) and then bump the 45 FV to 45+:
MJ Melendez ($21M 50 FV - $8M 45+ FV = $13M)
Khalil Lee ($21M 50 FV - $8M 45+ FV = $13M)
Nick Pratto ($8M 45+ FV - $6M 45 FV = $2M)
Nicky Lopez ($8M 45+ FV - $6M 45 FV = $2M)
Daniel Lynch ($6M 45+ FV - $4M FV = $2M)
Jackson Kowar ($6M 45+ FV - $4M FV = $2M)
That’s an additional $34M you could increase the system by, moving from the old adjusted $97M to now $131M. That seems like a big jump, but it isn’t, as it just simply ties them with the Rockies at 22nd overall. So even if you bumped all their “core” up a full grade, that moves the needle from 27th to 22nd.
Compare that to the 2011 farm system (using the same valuation metrics in Edwards post):
That’s just the top 100 guys alone, and those nine players would put them right in line with the White Sox entire farm system (3rd overall). If we add some of the other names as 45 FV based on the B/C+ grades on John Sickel of Minor League Ball’s 2011 list (remember that a good farm system isn’t just top heavy, but deep - and the 2011 farm system was extremely deep), it’s more like this:
That puts them as what would be the 2nd best farm system today, up there with the current Padres farm, who also belong in that “best farm system ever” conversation as it has both top prospects and considerable depth.
Pretty simply put, the 2019 farm system isn’t anywhere close to either a) being similar to the 2011 system and b) being ready for contention in ~2023 with the current inventory. You could bump up everyone in the current system a grade or two and still they wouldn’t be halfway to the 2011 team. A couple top 100 guys, none of them being truly standouts and two being more back-end types, isn’t the pace you want to start setting your clock to.
Without either the injection of considerable talent (such as in the 2019/2020 draft, trading Merrifield, good sign and flips, etc...) or the current prospect core taking a large step forward (2+ grades for all of them) there is just no way that 2021 is when the core hits, with 2023 as the time to compete.
The 2021 lineup could look something like:
C: MJ Melendez (45+ FV)
1B: Nick Pratto (45 FV)
2B: Whit Merrifield/Nicky Lopez (45 FV)
SS: Adalberto Mondesi
3B: Hunter Dozier/Kelvin Gutierrez (40 FV)
LF: Khalil Lee (45+ FV)
CF: Michael Gigliotti (40 FV)
RF: Seuly Matias (50 FV)
DH: Salvador Perez
SP1: Danny Duffy
SP2: Jake Junis
SP3: Brad Keller
SP4: Brady Singer (45+ FV)
SP5: Jackson Kowar (45 FV)
At this very moment, that’s a far cry from a competitive team. Now you can say “all of those prospects will get better”, and sure, you could bump them up a half grade or even a full. That obviously gets you a bit closer, but it’s doesn’t seem to be near this lineup:
C: Salvador Perez (40 FV)
1B: Eric Hosmer (60 FV)
2B: Johnny Giavotella ( 45 FV)
SS: Christian Colon (50 FV)
3B: Mike Moustakas (60 FV)
LF: Alex Gordon
CF: David Lough (40 FV)
RF: Wil Myers (60 FV)
DH: Billy Butler
SP1: Zack Greinke
SP2: John Lamb (60 FV)
SP3: Mike Montgomery (60 FV)
SP4: Danny Duffy (50 FV)
SP5: Chris Dwyer (50 FV)
Of course, the lineup doesn’t have to be that good, because that’s asking it to be on par with one of the best farm systems of all time. That would be a nice outcome, but not a requirement. What will have to happen though is severe injection of talent through drafting and trading (hello Whit Merrifield) and some of the current prospects taking a step forward (we’ve seen them historically not do that).
If and when that all happens, then we can start setting our watches.