Lucas Duda is going to be a trivia answer in 10 years. “What former starter for the 2015 World Series Mets team later signed and played with their opponent in that Series, the Kansas City Royals?” If we’re all being totally honest here, there is a 0% chance that Duda is relevant to anything beyond the 2018 Royals and probably only a 20% chance that he will be a Royal this September.
In a vacuum, it’s simple to see why General Manager Dayton Moore went out and signed Duda. In eight Major League seasons, Duda has hit at an above average level for six of them. He has averaged a wRC+ of 121 for his career, meaning that he has hit at a level 21% better than league average, and is a left-handed bat in a right-hand dominant Royals lineup. He’s been a decent baserunner and an ok fielder, excepting one spectacular airmail of a throw in the pivotal game of that 2015 World Series.
Let’s watch that again. That was fun.
The over/under line on jokes by Royals fans if and when Duda makes an error this season is, like, four hundred thousand billion, give or take the few feet that would have allowed Travis d’Arnaud to tag out Hosmer.
Duda was one of the guys left at the offseason game of musical chairs without a seat, and that combined with his age—he just turned 32—he was never going to get an expensive deal. His deal with the Royals was only $3.5 million, a relative pittance compared to the Brinks truck that the San Diego Padres unloaded for Eric Hosmer. Duda was a clear upgrade over what the Royals had as far as first base options. He was insurance against one of their youngsters failing.
But the problem is that you don’t make deals in a vacuum. If the Royals somehow pulled off a trade this summer for the equivalent of 2015 Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto, it would be an extraordinarily dumb move.
That’s because rebuilding teams are a different beast, with a totally different set of rules and operating procedures. Do you know if the 2012 Houston Astros had a professional first baseman who was an acceptable hitter? Do you know if the 2012 Chicago Cubs lineup was right-hand heavy, left-hand heavy, or balanced? Of course you don’t. Nobody cares. Not even fans of those teams care.
See, rebuilding a baseball team is like going to high school. The ins and outs might seem important at the time, but five years after you’re finished literally nothing that you thought was important mattered. That hot girl you had a crush on and friendzoned you, Becky, went to some nondescript state college in the Pacific Northwest and doesn’t remember your name. Your former locker buddy Paul defriended you on Facebook last year because your reply to his ranting status about abortion or something was one step too snarky for him. And there was that dramatic thing that happened in third period American history—no, wait, it was first period—no, it was biology—fourth period—what happened again?
There are sure things that matter in high school, but the things that matter in high school are the things that matter outside of high school. You likely won’t need to use all the information from that AP Calculus test, but you will be able to leverage a high score into a more impressive application to that college you want to go to. Your high school sweetheart probably isn’t gonna turn out to be your adult sweetheart, but the skills and language you learn in that relationship are extraordinarily valuable for when you’re ready for a healthy, long-term relationship.
Being able to tear your eyes away from what’s happening now and focus on how what’s happening now matters later is a huge paradigm shift for front offices always working to improve their current teams. And it’s just not clear that Moore and his front office have learned anything from last time.
During the last rebuild, the Royals repeatedly gave playing time to mediocre veterans who didn’t add anything to the team. Mike Jacobs, Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, Jose Guillen. The Royals were awful with those dudes, and every plate appearance or inning pitched by players like those takes away opportunities for young guys.
And speaking of young guys, didn’t the Royals already have a prospect with an inside track at first base?
Royals now confirming Duda signing. Dayton Moore says the move doesn’t block Hunter Dozier because it is a one-year deal. Buys more time for Dozier, O’Hearn, Schwindel to develop.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) February 28, 2018
Of course Duda is blocking Dozier. There are 3.5 million little green reasons why he’s blocking Dozier, if the Royals view Dozier as a first baseman, and even if they don’t he has nowhere else to play. Moore is either being intentionally misleading or aggressively ignorant in his response to Duda and Dozier here, because the length of the deal is immaterial. The salient feature is if the Royals are going to give Duda priority at first base over Dozier, and if they do, for whatever amount of time, then for that amount of time Dozier is being blocked. That’s. How. That. Works.
There is zero long-term upside to signing Duda. Either he is good and he helps the Royals lead to winning more games, which means that the Royals get a worse position in the draft. That’s a bad result. And if he’s bad, he takes plate appearances away from guys with actual upside. That’s a bad result. If he’s so bad you have to cut him, you just wasted $3.5 million. That’s a bad result.
You can do the same exercise with Alcides Escobar. Dude has over 5000 career plate appearances; Escobar ain’t gonna magically become a great player, so there’s no upside there. And if he’s bad, that’s fine, but he’s actively taking plate appearances away from your best prospect,
Raul Adalberto Mondesi.
Front offices rarely get a chance at a second rebuild. And if you do, hopefully you learned something from it so your second rebuild is faster. In just one offseason, Moore has indicated that his preference for useless veterans is just as strong, and has purposefully blocked two of his prospects for no good reason.
Moore could change, of course, but come on: we’re a dozen years in, only two of which resulted in playoff baseball. Strap yourself in for another long rebuild, whether you like it or not.