The Royals will open up spring training games this weekend, and the players on the field may be unrecognizable to many long-time Royals fans. Of the 45 players that appeared in a game for the Royals in their 2015 championship season, just 10 are in camp with the Royals this week. Gone are All-Stars like Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas, replaced by the Not Quite Ready for Prime Time Players.
ESPN writer Bradford Doolittle recently wrote that “the Royals will field the worst group of position players in the majors. It’s not even close”. He projects the team to have less WAR combined than Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Just two projected starters - Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon - have played in more than 300 big league games. The Royals are going young and going cheap.
Hey, that sounds like tanking. Are the Royals tanking?
“If tanking is a part of your mentality, you shouldn’t be in professional sports. In fact, you shouldn’t be in sports.”
That’s what Dayton Moore said back in May, when the team was off to a terrible start and contemplating a firesale.
“We’re always going to do whatever we can to field a competitive team, there’s no doubt about that, that’s how we’re wired. We’re not going to tank like the way some people like to talk about.”
That’s what Dayton Moore said last November, as he addressed a shrinking payroll and the prospect of losing his star free agents.
But wait a minute, Dayton. What do you think “tanking” means?
“You never deliberately say you’re going to tank - and I don’t believe that the Cubs tried to do that, I don’t believe the Astros tried to do that.”....
“If we’re comfortable with losing games, you’re not a competitor. You don’t have the vision to win. You’re not simply qualified, in my mind, to sit in a leadership position, where its a bottom line business and its about winning and doing your best every day.”
That was Dayton Moore from an interview two weeks ago in an interview with Soren Petro on The Program on 810 WHB. If you define tanking as deliberately losing games or accepting losing, perhaps the way NBA teams try to lose in order to improve their odds of the number one pick, then sure, the Royals aren’t tanking. No MLB has tanked in that manner in recent history, not the Astros, nor the Cubs.
But those teams clearly put winning ballgames as a secondary priority behind acquiring and developing assets for the future. Jeff Luhnow was hired by the Astros in the fall of 2011 and traded away veterans like Mark Melancon, Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon, Wandy Rodriguez, Chris Johnson, and Jed Lowrie away for prospects. They lost 107 games his first year, then 111 his second. Despite playing in one of the largest markets in baseball, they had the third-smallest payroll in 2012. The next year, the entire Opening Day roster made less money than Alex Rodriguez.
The Astros may not have been trying to lose on purpose, but they were making winning a secondary priority to developing their young talent. And brother, did that ever pay off. The Astros amassed a farm system the envy of baseball and won a championship in 2017.
Dayton Moore seems to get it. He has stressed several times in interview on the need to build up the farm system. He has talked about the importance of picking early in the draft. In his interview with Soren Petro, he seemed to understand that while winning is important, planning for the future is key.
“Now they may make a move in free agency with the sole purpose of - okay, this player is going to have value at the deadline and I can flip him and get a player for my future. I understand all that, that makes good sense - you’re trying to win at the same time and also put yourself in position where you have a player that you can move, and use that player to get someone to help you for the future.”
The team has talked about going into a rebuilding mode, how the focus of the coaching staff will change, and yes, how the payroll will need to go down. While they may talk about being competitive on the field, the team really has no choice but to rebuild. Look at this roster - Paulo Orlando, Hunter Dozier, Cheslor Cuthbert are starters. Of course they’re tanking.
What this means is that any thoughts of a Mike Moustakas reunion at the right price, or bringing Logan Morrison to his hometown team, or picking up Corey Dickerson cheap, are probably pipe dreams. These players don’t really factor into the long-term, which is where the Royals need to focus.
Tanking, rebuilding, trusting the process, call it what you will, but the Royals are not going to be doing all they can to field a competitive team in 2018. And that’s okay. Perhaps it is bad that baseball has taught fans to accept losing, to keep their eyes fixed on the horizon towards a championship trophy that may just be a mirage. But in Kansas City, with memories of a championship still fresh in our minds, we can accept “tanking” for a few seasons if it gets us back a Blue October.