The Royals were not expected to be all that competitive this season, but they have underperformed even the most pessimistic projections by dropping 13 of their first 16 games to begin the year. It is the worst start to a season after 16 games since the 2012 seasons, when they began 3-14 in a season where they would eventually win just 72 games.
The bullpen’s woes have been well-documented, but the lineup has been pretty poor as well. Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda are the only two hitters with a positive offensive WAR, according to Fangraphs, and have pretty much dragged the offense across the plate to score what few runs they have scraped together. Only the Giants have scored fewer runs per-game. Overall, the Royals have been outscored by 39 runs, with only the Reds eclipsing them for worst run differential to start the year.
Not only are they losing, but the Royals have been very difficult to watch. What were once strengths of the team - clutch hitting, excellent defense, and an airtight bullpen - have turned into weaknesses. And these aren’t the growing pains of a young team learning at the Major League level. The average-age of the Opening Day roster was nearly 30, with just five players under the age of 27. With little talent in the upper minors, it is not likely to get a whole lot better for this team.
How bad will it get? Well it certainly doesn’t feel like a 100 loss team, like the 2006 (or 2002 or 2005) Royals. Losing 100, as Sam Mellinger points out, is hard to do. Only 24 teams have done so in the last 20 years. And many of those teams were trying to lose, much like many teams this year are “tanking”, which will give the Royals to grab some wins against other fellow bad teams.
But here’s the thing - the Royals could very well be one of those bad teams. Fangraphs projects them for 95 losses. PECOTA projects them for 99 losses - and PECOTA doesn’t typically project teams to win or lose that many games. And these projections are accounting for the current roster. If the Royals are way out of it in July and begin trading Kelvin Herrera, Mike Moustakas, Lucas Duda, even Danny Duffy, what happens then? The Detroit Tigers lost 41 of their final 58 games after their firesale at the July trade deadline last year.
And that’s good. That’s great. We should embrace the suck.
The Royals are losing a lot of games. Fortunately, Major League Baseball rewards losing games. The worst thing you want to be in baseball is mediocre. Teams out of contention have been deliberately fielding poor teams in order to receive prospects in trades and higher picks in the draft. The Royals are not one of the teams deliberately tanking, but the effect has been the same - a position at the bottom of the standings.
This is an important season for the Royals, but it has nothing to do with what happens this April. The most important month is June, when the Royals have 4 of the top 40 picks in the amateur draft, followed by July, when they are expected to be one of the more aggressive teams in the international free agent market.
And they won’t be able to rebuild one of the worst farm systems in baseball in one year. Even with the development of young players like Seuly Matias, Khalil Lee, Nick Pratto, and M.J. Melendez, even with all those draft picks in June, even with prospects acquired for players in July, the Royals have a lot of work to do. Years of poor drafts have atrophied the system. Getting one of the top picks in 2019 and the draft bonus pool that goes with it will help a lot in what will be a multi-year process.
What happens on the field this year, ultimately, is of little consequence to their long-term success. It is not even likely that many players currently on the roster will even be around to see the rebuild through. It would be nice if a player like Jake Junis or Jorge Bonifacio could develop into a solid starter, but there just aren’t enough of these type of players on the roster to get excited about.
Now I’m not saying you should actively root for the team to lose - it seems anathema to fandom, and is an awkward adjustment for fans used to pennants and championships in recent history. I’m just saying the losses shouldn’t sting so much anymore. There is less at stake, and in fact, more reward for losing than there was last year.
Embrace the suck. Let the incompetence flow through you. Let the losses envelop you like a warm blanket. In a way, Royals fans are returning home, to the decade plus before their pennant run. Only this time, there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel.