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The Royals’ timeline for contention sounds pretty vague

Maybe they’ll win in 2021, maybe not.

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 Dayton Moore, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, watches as the Royals take batting practice prior to a game against the Detroit Tigers on May 1, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals are not rebuilding. No sir, they have made that very clear. Dayton Moore expects the team to win games next year - probably not enough to contend, but he does want an expectation of winning games rather than looking to the future, even as they look to the future.

But if the Royals aren’t rebuilding, and they’re not yet ready to contend, when will they be ready? Dayton Moore discussed the timeline to contention with Rustin Dodd of The Athletic as the outset of the General Manager’s Meetings this week. Dodd writes that Dayton Moore is reluctant to give a firm timetable, noting that circumstances can change in a hurry. Accordingly, Dayton Moore is a bit fuzzy on when he expects the team to contend again.

“I’m not declaring that we’re going to win in 2020 — or ’21 or ’22,” Moore said this week in a conversation with The Athletic while attending the annual GM meetings. “I just feel like in 2021, we’re going to be in better position to be more aggressive.

So the 2021 season may or may not be a winning season, but it is the target season for when the Royals expect to be aggressive, presumably in acquiring players. This makes sense in many respects. The onerous contracts of Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy will be off the books by then, and the club will be in the last year of deals for Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez. The Royals are obligated to just under $30 million in contracts for that season, and nothing beyond that year.

But suggesting the team is simply planning on being aggressive by 2021, rather than actually being in contention seems like moving the goalposts a bit. Pete Grathoff reported earlier this summer that Moore “had previously targeted 2021 for when the Royals likely could push for the playoffs”, decrying the use of tanking to get there. And owner David Glass certainly seems to think the Royals will be competitive before that season, telling Jeffrey Flanagan, “I think by 2020, we’ll be right in the middle of it again.”

I get hedging your bets a bit, and adhering to a rigid timeline in the face of a changing environment would be foolhardy. And this isn’t the first time Dayton Moore has been pretty vague about the timeline. His goals are described less in terms of when the team will contend, but in terms of components needed to contend, i.e “it takes five years to develop a farm system”, “in three years we’ll have financial flexibility to be aggressive”, etc.

But as a fan, it sounds like “planning to plan”. We plan to “be more aggressive” by 2021. What does that mean?

Royals fans are more than willing to sit through a rebuild if there is a clear path to contend once the team bottoms out. The Cubs and Astros have shown that a complete teardown can take about four years, and the Braves got back to contention even quicker than that.

What Dayton Moore describes sounds more like indefinite incremental improvement. Will it take three years to get back to contention? Five years? It took eight years the last time he tried. The message we get from the Royals is “ask us again in 2021.”

Maybe the final 34 games of the year where the Royals played so well with young players are an indication the franchise is on the right track, ready to get back to respectability sooner than people think. Maybe the farm system is much better than the low-graded organization experts peg it as. As Rustin writes, “It’s a lot of maybes.”

Ultimately, it all depends on how wise Dayton Moore and his staff are over the next few years. As Dayton Moore himself once put it, “if you make enough good decisions, three-year plans turn into two-year plans and five-year plans turn into three-year plans. If you make bad decisions, 10-year plans turn into no plan.”