You were the hit of the party. You looked fantastic, your jokes got huge laughs (“If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college!”), you busted a move on the dance floor, and you made some great connections – maybe you even met “the one.” Sure, you drank a little bit too much – why does your head hurt so much the next morning? But it was all worth it for the party of the century.
That was the Royals in 2015. Oh, it was a glorious moment, some three decades in the making. Remember that amazing comeback against the Astros? Remember Lorenzo Cain running around the bases against the Blue Jays? Remember Eric Hosmer running home on Lucas Duda? That all culminated with 800,000 of your closest friends watching Ned Yost hoist a championship trophy in downtown Kansas City at the party of the century.
But in 2016 our head hurt. And in 2017 our stomach was a bit queasy. The dreaded hangover. Now it is 2018, and the bill has come due for that party you paid for. Friends have departed – Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas were among nine Royals that filed for free agency last fall. Hosmer is now in San Diego, Cain in Milwaukee, and it seemed as if Moustakas would soon be gone as well.
But then the surprising happened - Moose returned to the Royals on an absurdly low one-year, $6.5 million deal, making him the poster child of a topsy-turvy off-season that everyone is still trying to make sense of. In addition to Moustakas, the Royals added free agents Lucas Duda and Jon Jay to one-year deals. A month ago, the Royals easily had the worst lineup in baseball. Now, they at least have the semblance of a Major League roster.
But where does that leave the Royals in year three since their championship? Despite the recent additions, the Royals still find themselves a bit where they started when Dayton Moore took over in 2006 – with few proven players on the roster and a farm system in disarray. However this time around, Moore has an organization that knows how to field a winner, and the championship ring to prove it.
The 2018 roster
The Royals acknowledge they will have to rebuild the organization, starting from the ground up. Financial limitations — in part because of their small market, but largely due to poor contracts taken on in recent years — kept them from making more competitive offers to retain their core talent. They did make a bid to keep Eric Hosmer, but were only willing to offer a reported five-year deal worth $100 million, short of what the Padres offered.
World Series MVP Salvador Perez is still around to provide some stability, and the Royals will hope late bloomer Whit Merrifield was no fluke in 2017. Danny Duffy inked a five-year contract extension last year and is blossoming into a frontline-type pitcher. The return of Moustakas gives the Royals a big boost to the lineup, but his stay may be short, as the team may try to flip him at the deadline if they are out of contention. Time may be limited for Jon Jay in center and Lucas Duda at first base, as their one-year deals mean they shouldn’t shop for homes in the Kansas City-area. The rest of the roster is largely full of unproven youngsters and players past their prime.
The club will want to get a good long look at what third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert and Jorge Soler can do. Jorge Bonifacio was also supposed to get a long look this year, but he was recently hit with an 80-game suspension for a horse steroid. Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar are both far removed from the type of players they were during the championship run.
The Royals were successful due to a dominating bullpen, but those days are long gone. Kelvin Herrera is the only member of their vaunted “HDH” trio that once included Greg Holland and Wade Davis. Herrera struggled last season, losing his closer’s role for a bit, and the Royals will hope he can rebound if nothing more than to give them a tradeable asset this summer. Duffy anchors the rotation that features an intriguing young arm that surprised in 2017 in Jakob Junis. Starters Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have both failed to live up to their contracts, and the Royals would love to move both of them if they could find a taker.
The farm system
Most talent evaluators seem to agree the Royals have one of the worst farm systems in baseball. It may be tempting to blame that on trades they made at the deadline during their championship runs, or the fact they have been drafting late due to their success, but the truth is they have just been drafting very poorly for a number of years, ever since hiring scouting director Lonnie Goldberg.
Adalberto (formerly known as Raúl) Mondesí has the highest upside in the farm system, and the shortstop performed well in AAA last season after a disastrous start in the big leagues. However with the re-signing of Alcides Escobar, Mondesi’s role in 2018 seems less clear. The Royals may want him to get more seasoning in the minors to work on his plate discipline, his durability, and his attitude.
In the two years since Mondesí graduated from prospect status due to Major League service time, the Royals have failed to place a prospect in the Top 100 list for Baseball America, becoming just the second club in the last 15 years to be shutout from the list in back-to-back years. Their best prospect is probably outfielder Khalil Lee, who has a good blend of speed and power, with good defense on the corners and a strong arm. He could be a Top 100 prospect in a year, and a future impact player if he can cut down on his strikeout rate. Outfielder Seuly Matias is another potential power bat, and 2017 draft picks like first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher M.J. Melendez show a lot of promise. However, none of these players have played above low A ball yet, requiring patience from Royals fans.
The good news is that the Royals will have a great opportunity to turn around their farm system. Because of free agent compensation and a competitive balance pick, the Royals will have four of the top 50 picks in this June’s draft. They should have one of the largest draft bonus pools which could allow them to be creative. This summer, the Royals will also finally have their limit lifted on how much they can offer international free agents, a penalty incurred for going over their bonus pool amount in 2015, allowing them to be more aggressive in pursuing Latin American talent.
The financial situation
Following their championship, the Royals handed out some of the biggest contracts in franchise history in an attempt to maximize their window of contention. Their payroll reached a franchise-record $145 million in 2017, but the team won only 80 games. Management has claimed they have been living beyond their means with little to show for it, so orders came to cut payroll.
This was no easy task for the Royals considering that (a) nearly every team in baseball is implementing austerity measures; (b) they severely backloaded many of their big deals; and (c) the biggest contracts for the Royals have been for underperforming players. The Royals will pay $9.25 million this year for Brandon Moss and Travis Wood, two players that are no longer on a Major League roster, and $3.5 million in buyouts on options for Chris Young and Omar Infante, who were both released long ago.
But what is really weighing down their payroll this year is the $36 million combined owed to Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy, both of whom were very disappointing in 2017. Gordon’s contract runs through 2019, Kennedy’s through 2020, with the Royals paying a combined $93.5 million over the next three seasons for those two players. The Royals are probably stuck with those deals which will not only hamper the payroll, but provide a cautionary tale if they ever want to hand out another multi-year deal to a player over the age of 30.
Despite some challenges, the Royals were able to cut payroll by moving Joakim Soria and some of the salary for Brandon Moss in separate trades. The free agents they signed came at massive discounts, allowing them to fit under the financial constraints. A rebuild will allow the Royals to clear more of those salaries from the books by the time they are competitive again. While attendance should take a hit the next few seasons, Royals fans have proven they will come out to support the team when they are competitive, setting a franchise record for attendance in 2015.
The Royals will also hope to add more revenues by cashing in on a new lucrative television deal. Their current deal with Fox Sports Kansas City is considered one of the worst in baseball, paying $20 million per year. With other smaller market clubs like the Reds and Rays signing billion dollar TV deals, the Royals could be in a much better situation financially once their current deal expires after the 2019 season.
The next few years
The next few years will be trying ones for Royals fans. Dayton Moore is adamantly opposed to tanking and has vowed to field the most competitive team he can, but it is clear the team is focused on rebuilding with an eye towards the future. Players like Danny Duffy, Whit Merrifield, and Kelvin Herrera could be dealt for more prospects to build up the farm system. Dayton Moore has indicated the club has no plans to sign anyone to a multi-year deal in the near future, and the emphasis will be on seeing what young, homegrown talent can do.
The Royals may not do a complete Houston Astros-type razing – Dayton Moore seems to have too much pride in winning to do that, and the signings this month show his dedication to fielding a competitive team. But expect them to do a rebuild-lite, trading veterans when they can, giving time to younger players, but still signing short-term stop gaps to field something resembling a Major League team. Royals fans seem to be all-in on a rebuild, trusting the process of Dayton Moore.
But a championship ring did not buy Dayton Moore total immunity from criticism. This next year could be crucial for this organization – and it will have nothing to do with what happens on the field. How the Royals handle the draft and how they pursue international free agents could determine how long Royals fans will have to wait until they get to see the next contender in Kansas City. Royals fans waited 29 years between playoff appearances, but they won’t be willing to wait 29 years again.