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Royals can’t rush a rebuild

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New York Mets v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Imagine a team with near unlimited resources, a loyal fan base, and an incredible history of tantalizing defeat. Now take that team and make them the worst they can possibly be, burning the house to the ground to collect on the insurance payment to build a new one right next door. How long do you think it would take a team like that to rebuild?

It took the Cubs essentially four years to go from zero to proverbial hero and to accomplish that rebuilding task they had to:

Draft almost perfectly

In the first round from 2011 to 2015 they took Javier Baez (8 career WAR), Albert Almora (4 career WAR), Kris Bryant (21 career WAR), Kyle Schwarber (3 career WAR), and Ian Happ (2 career WAR). It’s very hard to get a couple first round picks “right” in a few years, but the Cubs went 5-5, to varying degrees.

Javier Baez is some sort of super-utility kinda guy and he’s been worth as many wins as every Royals draft pick since 2009 combined (excluding Whit Merrifield).

Finds some gems

Steve Clevenger has a career batting line of .227/.284/.324 and Scott Feldman had a fine enough long career as a backend starter. What does those two names have in common? They were the pieces the Orioles acquired in exchange for Jake Arrieta (and Pedro Strop). By the time the Cubs were ready to compete, they got an ace for basically free, pulling a back-to-back-to-back top 10 Cy Young vote getter (and winner in 2015) off a scrap heap.

Anthony Rizzo was an average or so player in his first few years and the Cubs saw enough to lock him up to an extension. The next few years he’d end up being worth 5.3, 5.2, 4.9, and 4.0 fWAR, respectively. I wouldn’t say Rizzo was pulled off the scrap heap, but he was considered expendable by the Padres after they acquired Yonder Alonso. He would go on to put up 3.4 fWAR over four seasons with the Padres, equal to Rizzo’s total last year.

The Cubs swapped 35-year old Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks, a guy who never made a top 100 list but ended up being worth 12 wins so far for the Cubs.

They got Luis Valbuena, worth five wins to them, off the waiver wire.

Trade well

One of the benefits of drafting well is that you can then trade those guys if need be if your team is in contention, making a move to put your over the top. When the Cubs were ready to compete, they traded for:

Addison Russell

Aroldis Chapman

Pedro Strop

Wade Davis

Sign well

One of the benefits of having near unlimited resources is being able to sign high end talent and spend money. The Cubs brought in:

Jason Heyward ($184M)

Jon Lester ($155M)

Ben Zobrist ($56M)

John Lackey ($32M)

Jason Hammel ($20M)

Dexter Fowler ($13M)

Chris Coghlan (don’t laugh - he was worth almost 6 wins for the Cubs)

All of that went right for the Cubs collectively over the past 4-5 years and still it required them to be painstakingly bad and rebuild over a half decade.

Last week, all around good guy Sam Mellinger wrote about how the Royals might be trying to speed up their rebuild (or perhaps foolishly think they are closer to contention than they are - my opinion, not Sam’s).

But Moore’s moves are signaling that he and his assistants believe they can bring contending baseball back to Kansas City sooner than later. Again, look closely, and it’s all there. The college pitching, followed by trading a top asset for advanced minor-league talent that is thus far short on offensive production but long on defensive skill.

If it took the Cubs, getting damn near everything right, four years to do it, how do the Royals think they are going to do it as quick or quicker?

Maybe they are inspired by the Braves quick rebuild? They started sometime in 2014 and now are in first place in the NL East (thanks in part to the Nationals “struggling” a bit). But that took them liquidating their entire roster, finding gems (Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies), having an already established star (Freddie Freeman), bamboozling some other GMs in trades (Dansby Swanson for instance), and drafting well.

Similarly in the NL East, the Phillies started their rebuild around the same time and have since suffered five straight seasons of 90 or more losses (okay one year was 89). They drafted well, found some gems (Rhys Hoskins), and then brought in an expensive free agent in Jake Arrieta.

The White Sox just started their rebuild and look like a miserably bad team for the foreseeable future. They had some elite pieces to trade (something the Royals don’t have) when they shipped Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana for numerous top 30 prospects (Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Eloy Jimenez, Michael Kopech).

The Reds have been going at their rebuild for what seems like all of Joey Votto’s career, trying to build it off pitching and being unable to develop dang near anybody.

The Padres hit the reset button after an unsuccessful attempt to speed up their rebuild with trades and signings.

The Rays toiled in mediocrity for several years before deciding to tear it down this winter.

There is an possible timeline that the Royals could be ready in ~4 years, but it seems like they think they can do it quicker? How many of these rebuilds spent significant draft capital on college pitchers with high floors and low-to-medium ceilings?

The Royals are clearly putting a lot of stock and trust in their “next wave” a group of high upside, high volatility guys drafted (and signed internationally) the past two years. They may have went college pitcher heavy (something that wasn’t really a strength in the 2018 draft - ironically it was prep pitching; a demographic they’ve gone heavy with throughout the past few years) because they thought they could align these pitchers timelines with their wave in A-Ball.

The problem here of course is that prospect don’t always pan out, and in fact, they fail a lot. It’s a bit strange putting seemingly so much faith in a group of prospects that are so far away and not necessarily acclaimed by critics (Seuly Matias being the only top 100 prospect ranked so far - coming in in the 80’s).

There’s also some different risk with these prospects, beyond just their distance to the majors, but their rawness.

Nick Pratto: 30.5% K%

Seuly Matias: 37% K%

MJ Melendez: 29.5% K%

Khalil Lee: 24.6% K%

There’s gotta be some concern with how much these lower level guys, who are closer to short season ball than the major leagues, striking out at a rate that would be untenable in the majors, let alone in the minors. Yes, raw player are raw, and the idea is you can develop them, but there is a difference between timing a rebuild around near ready players and those who are very raw.

And this is also hoping/banking that the college pitchers the Royals drafted mostly hit as well. Being high floor college guys helps, but we’ve seen these types not pan out that well too (Brandon Finnegan), and even the best prospects fail at a 50% rate. Furthermore, there isn’t much reinforcement behind them with the Royals prospect ranks being something like a desert scene in Mad Max (the reboot).

The Royals took their draft this year conservatively, I think, and instead they should have focused on high upside that might take time to develop. You can’t rebuild in one year (and yes the Royals will have a nice early pick next June too to help), but it seems like they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Trying to begrudgingly rebuild (something Mellinger seems to allude to when he mentioned that the Royals expected to be 25 wins better than their current pace in the end - likely thinking they are an ~81 win team) and also do it quickly.

Then as Mellinger mentioned, the Royals most recent trades have been fairly conservative too, swapping one of their better assets for some defensive first prospects.

You can’t rebuild quickly generally, and even if you can, you typically need the bigger resources to do it. The Royals don’t have those resources. When Moore joined the Royals, he spoke of a long term plan, not a rushed attempt at success, a #process.

The Royals should do this slowly. Small market windows need to be built on several above average talents. With the volatility of prospects, it’s impossible to bank on anyone, and instead the small market focus needs to be grabbing as many high upside players as possible (something the Royals would say they did in the draft).

The roster needs a complete teardown, leaving no one older than 25 untouched. That means trading Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield, and anyone else that someone will swap a player willingly for. Pay down salary that you’d be spending anyways to get a better return. AA and AAA prospects are nice, but don’t sacrifice floor for ceiling.

This rebuild should take awhile, because that’s what has to happen.