If you look at the standings - and don’t do so if you have just eaten - you will see the Royals are 27-68. This is the worst record in all of baseball, is on pace to be the worst club in Royals history, and is not far off the pace for the worst record in American League history, set by the Tigers in 2003 when they went 43-119.
If you subscribe to the Herm Edwards-philosophy of sports - you play to win the game - this is just a disaster of a season. Matthew LaMar recently wrote that the season is a travesty that deserve more of our anger than it has received thus far. When watching the games, it is hard to see how this organization won a championship just three years ago, only to devolve into the dumpster fire-on-a-field we have seen this summer. Allowing the team to fall into that kind of disrepair certainly takes some level of incompetence.
But I just can’t muster any anger of this season. In fact, I love it.
If you want the truth, I think this season has gone about as well as I could have hoped for the Royals. That may seem counterintuitive, but if you take the long-term view, a disaster of a season was the best outcome for a team that needs to be gently pushed into a rebuild. The worst case scenario was something akin to last year, where the team is kind of in a pennant race, but their odds are still pretty long. At least last year the team actually was firmly in a Wild Card spot by the trade deadline, but you can imagine a scenario where the Royals are a .500 team, a few games back of a post-season spot since the division is so mediocre, and Dayton Moore convinces himself they can contend.
No, the Royals needed to be firmly awful, a big enough mess that even the ever-optimistic Dayton Moore would be convinced it was time to clear the slate and start fresh. And the way they have been awful has worked out well enough that it has helped the Royals long-term. Here’s why it this has been such a great season for the Royals.
The Royals are almost certainly getting a very good draft pick in 2019
Let’s say the Royals had played respectably, but eventually won around 75 games. There are a lot of terrible teams worse than that this year, and if those teams had continued playing at their current pace, that would have given the Royals the tenth pick in the 2019 draft. Now the draft can be a crapshoot, but the thing about craps is that different bets have different odds. And you can dramatically improve your odds in the draft.
Studies have shown that there has historically been a significant drop-off in value after the first few picks, although teams do seem to be getting better at finding good players in the middle of the first round. There are occasional busts, but they seem much rarer with the first two picks than later in the draft.
Only three #1 picks between 1965 and 2013 did not reach the big leagues (Steve Chilcott, Brien Taylor, and Mark Appel), and while a few were just role players, many were All-Stars if not Hall of Famers like Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr. The results aren’t much worse for the #2 pick, with all but five over that time reaching the big leagues and numerous stars like Will Clark, Josh Beckett, and Royals like Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas. As Matthew LaMar recently found in looking at picks from the last decade, it is almost twice as likely for a top-three pick to accrue 10+ WAR in their first six years than to not reach the big leagues. Knowing how dicey the rest of the draft can be, you want a player with that kind of certainty and upside.
Next year’s draft class is expected to be headed by Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman (#playbadlyforadley) and Texas high school infielder Bobby Witt, Jr. (#playlikeshitforwitt). The Royals farm system is starting to improve from its awful state a year ago, but it still lacks big-time, high-impact prospects. A top pick in next year’s draft could change that.
The trade assets have remained valuable
The Royals have had some valuable trade assets in the past, only to see them get hurt before the team was able to move them for prospects. David DeJesus was drawing interest from the Red Sox in 2010 before he injured his wrist, making him immovable at the deadline. There were rumors surrounding Joakim Soria in his first go-around with the Royals, while he was still an elite closer, but Tommy John surgery in 2012 put an end to any trade talk. Even some forearm issues with Wade Davis may have cost the Royals a better haul than they landed from the Cubs in 2016.
This year, however, the most tradeable assets have remained not only healthy, but have been very productive. Jon Jay had a hot month and was dealt to the Diamondbacks for a promising young pitcher. Kelvin Herrera, who had an inconsistent 2017 season, bounced back to have a great start in 2018 and was traded for three Nationals prospects. Mike Moustakas suffered a devastating knee injury in 2016, but luckily for the Royals he has remained healthy since then (knock on wood). And if the Royals want to trade more long-term assets like Whit Merrifield or Danny Duffy, those players have remained healthy and productive as well. Timing is hard to get right when it comes to trades, but the Royals seem to be trading when their assets still have value.
The young players have shown signs of improvement
For a team in a rebuild, there are alarmingly few young players on this roster. But the few young players on the roster have shown progress that should give fans hope for the future. Jorge Soler faced a big year after years of setback in his career. While he can’t seem to shake the injury bug, he did show a big improvement in his hitting this season, batting .265/.354/.466 with a career high wRC+ of 125 in 61 games.
Brad Keller, a 22-year old Rule 5 pick who had never pitched above AA ball, has been the best pitcher on the staff thus far. Jakob Junis has regressed in his last few starts and has been very home run-prone, but he is showing he at least belongs in the big leagues as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Through 200 Major League innings, he has been a 1.7 rWAR pitcher (0.6 fWAR), which may not seem great, but that saves the Royals from having to sign a multi-million dollar free agent to do the same thing.
Adalberto Mondesi and Jorge Bonifacio have both played well in very limited action, although you probably would have liked to have seen Mondesi get more playing time from Alcides Escobar early in the year, and avoided the banned substance suspension for Bonifacio. It would be nice if Hunter Dozier was hitting better, if Cheslor Cuthbert was healthy, and if more pitchers were stepping up. But there are a few young guys who could stick around and give fans some hope.
The farm system is improving
You could argue there was nowhere for the farm system to go but up, but the club does seem to be making steady improvement in what was considered a bottom-five farm system last winter. Though they all still have holes to their game, Seuly Matias, Khalil Lee, and M.J. Melendez all seem to be on the cusp of making Top 100 prospect lists if they’re not there already. Nicky Lopez has continued to impress and work his way through the system. Outfielder Brewer Hicklen has gotten off to a good start, earning a promotion.
The Royals had the biggest bonus draft pool last month, and made good use of it, grabbing two of the top college arms in the nation last year in Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar. It was a college-heavy draft, but there were a number of interesting picks that should add to the system like pitcher Daniel Lynch, outfielder Kyle Isbel, and some interesting overslot late picks like pitcher Jon Heasley and Rylan Kauffman.
There may have been some doubts that Dayton Moore would follow through on a rebuild, but so far he has taken the first steps. He successfully flipped two months of Jon Jay for an interesting arm, and while the package for Kelvin Herrera was a bit underwhelming, it still adds to a farm system that desperately needs any kind of talent it can get. Moustakas is almost certain to get dealt this month, and we will see how serious Moore is about the rebuild if Whit Merrifield or Danny Duffy is traded.
It may not be an upper-half farm system yet, but it is almost certainly not a bottom-feeder anymore. The organization is taking the baby steps needed to build the system back up, and with more trades and high picks in the 2019 draft, the minors should get even better.
It may be hard to watch this team flounder about miming baseball-like activities, but keep your eye on the prize - the future. Despite what Dayton Moore has asserted, there is no value in winning this year. Quite the contrary, there is value in losing. Under this viewpoint, in a small way, the Royals are having a fantastic season.