When your team is well on its way to exceeding 100 losses, as the Royals are, things are tough. They’re even tougher when you’re a small market club and you can’t exactly dig yourself out with high-impact free agents. And they’re even tougher still when you don’t have a high-end farm system stocked with some of the best prospects in the game.
That’s where the Royals find themselves right now, with a triple-whammy of being bad, of having little financial flexibility, and with one of the worst-ranked farm systems in baseball, according to many observers before the year. Since those rankings came out the Royals have made steady progress. They made three significant mid-season trades, sending Jon Jay to Arizona, Kelvin Herrera to Washington, and Mike Moustakas to Milwaukee, in exchange for eight minor league players, two of which are already in the big leagues in Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez. The Royals also had a draft that saw them make four of the top 40 selections, with a very high emphasis on college players, particularly pitchers. They added a top-20 international free agent and have gotten promising production from players in the system like Khalil Lee, Seuly Matias, and Nicky Lopez.
Despite these improvements, the farm system is still considered near the bottom in baseball, according to experts. Baseball America, who ranked the Royals second-worst in organizational talent before the season, recently updated their organizational rankings mid-season, but still have the Royals at #26.
The Royals came into the 2018 draft without one starting pitching prospect in full-season ball whom scouts from other teams saw as a plausible future No. 4 or better starter. So adding Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch was huge in helping balance out the talent in the system. The Royals do have a nice mix of position players who aren’t that far off of the Top 100, but they need their college and pitching-heavy 2018 draft to match up with those hitters.
Keith Law seems to agree that the Royals still have a long way to go, writing in a recent chat that “[o]utside of the 2018 draft, it’s bottom 2 or 3. They added a huge infusion of moderate-ceiling but high-probability talent, which is kind of what they needed most after some high picks used on prep arms haven’t worked out.”
While the Royals have added more depth to the system with their summer moves and the draft, the organization still lacks high-end talent. The Royals were just the second team since 2000 to have back-to-back years with zero Baseball America Top 100 prospects. This summer they finally added first-round pick Brady Singer to that list, coming at #59, but even their profile doesn’t see him as a high-upside player, writing his potential is as a “potential middle-of-the-rotation arm.”
The Braves blog Talking Chop took a composite of mid-season Top 100 prospect lists to rank organizations. This isn’t a comprehensive look at farm systems like other assessments, but simply a relative ranking based on upper-end talent. Writer Doc Herbert found the Royals still rank 26th, with only two players - Singer and Matias - making top 100 lists, while teams like the Braves and Padres have over 10 prospects to make such lists.
This lack of high-end talent is a problem for a team on a rebuild, writes Kansas City Star writer Sam McDowell.
To be sure, the Royals can still find the path of their predecessors, but the likeliness that they capture the brisk nature of those turnarounds appears slim, given the numbers....
There are avenues to win without the high-ranked prospects. Whit Merrifield was never in the top 100 (yet Kyle Zimmer cracked the list three separate years). The production from prospects is fickle. A boatload of them never even reach the major leagues.
But the rankings do mean something. The success of those 100-loss teams proves that. They had quality and quantity, and at least in the Cubs’ case, they had dollars to spend to supplement the looming impact of a farm system.
Without top prospects in the farm system, the Royals will find it very difficult to truly be a contender. They can draft an Eric Hosmer, but they can’t go out and sign him (nor would they necessarily want those players past their reserve years). They can’t sign an ace pitcher, but they can trade in top prospects to acquire a guy like James Shields.
Teams can turn things around quickly of course. A year ago, the Angels were ranked dead last by Baseball America. Before this year that had improved to #14 and this mid-season their ranking was up to #10. Their 2017 first-round pick Jo Adell has had a monster year, emerging as one of the best prospects in baseball, they had a good 2018 draft, and many players already in the system took a big step forward this year.
So there is hope. The Royals will likely have a top two pick in next year’s draft, and have re-committed themselves to spending in Latin America. Farm system rankings are pretty cyclical, and Fangraphs writer Stephen Loftus has found it typically takes two years for a team to go from bottoming out to significantly improving their ranking, although he has found the Royals are in the midst of a long bottoming out that has taken six seasons. Seemingly the Royals have nowhere to go but up.
The question will be - how long will it take for that system to produce results? The Royals had the best farm system in baseball in 2011, but it took two more seasons to even field a winning team. Even if the Royals were to suddenly catapult into the top ten in rankings next year, is that enough time for them to produce a competitive team by 2020, as owner David Glass has suggested?
In the meantime, it is encouraging to see plate discipline from Khalil Lee, power from Seuly Matias, and high-contact and terrific defense from Nicky Lopez. They may not be enough on their own to turn around this farm system, but the Royals will take any minor league success story they can get right now. If the Royals are looking for a home-grown team for the next contender, they either have to add a lot of high-end talent in a hurry, or stretch out their timetable to give themselves more time to find that next star.