The road to the deep 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals playoff runs began on June 7, 2007, when the Royals selected Mike Moustakas with the second overall pick. Moustakas was symbolically the first of the core members of the New Golden Age Royals and represented one category of players on those teams, that of the Dayton Moore-selected homegrown stars. This category also included players like Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Greg Holland, Jarrod Dyson, and Danny Duffy, and by extension included James Shields, Ben Zobrist, Wade Davis, and Johnny Cueto, who were acquired in exchange for other talent from Moore’s expansive minor league war chest.
Another category represented among those teams were the hired guns. These were guys like Ervin Santana, Drew Butera, Jeremy Guthrie, Nori Aoki, Omar Infante, Josh Willingham, Bruce Chen, Jason Frasor, Jonny Gomes, and Alex Rios. These were players picked up in free agency or acquired for marginal minor league talent to fill in roster holes and make the team deeper. These were, in other words, the ‘veterans.’
All of a sudden, the 2018 Royals have quickly pivoted to a team invested in playing young, promising players. Whereas the team began this season with a starting lineup featuring five players over the age of 30, last Saturday night’s lineup featured five rookies—six including the starting pitcher—and two others with fewer than 150 career games played.
And these rookies have been winning. That Saturday, the Royals secured their third consecutive series victory for the first time this season. Yesterday afternoon, Kansas City defeated Cleveland for their sixth consecutive victory and their eighth over their last nine contests. With expanded rosters, the rookies seemingly coming out of the walls, and the winning, eyes are turning to next year and beyond, wondering if perhaps the Royals could indeed compete in 2020 with the next Hosmer, Moustakas, and Duffy possibly already on the squad in Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier, and Brad Keller.
That’s not going to happen, though. Those guys aren’t the next Hosmer, Moustakas, and Duffy. That’s because those guys, if they succeed, are more likely to be the third category of Royals on the 2014-2015 teams.
See, in addition to the Moore-developed youngsters and the hired guns, the 2014-2015 Royals teams were filled with another set of players. These players were ones left over from the old regime, the older ones not quite a part of the Moore youth movement but the ones from and derived by the previous youth movement. These were players like Alex Gordon, drafted in 2005 and 30 years old in 2014; Billy Butler, drafted in 2004 and 28 years old in 2014; and Luke Hochevar, drafted first overall in 2006 and 31 years old in 2015. Importantly, this also includes both Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, both acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Zack Greinke, drafted in 2002 and 30 years old in 2014.
So O’Hearn is not the next Hosmer. That comparison falls to Nick Pratto, the talented 19-year-old closing out Low-A Lexington with a bang. Rather, O’Hearn might instead be the next Butler, the productive and reliable veteran bat to compliment the young gun.
There is clearly a difference between O’Hearn, Hosmer, and Butler. O’Hearn won’t be a Butler clone any more than he’ll be a Hosmer clone. He could be better or worse than those other two, but either way is a decidedly different player. But what is important to note is this: O’Hearn just turned 25. Dozier just turned 27. Other than Brad Keller and Adalberto Mondesi, none of the ‘young’ players and rookies are younger than 24. If Kansas City’s next competitive window is 2020ish through 2025, those guys are going to be in their late 20s/early 30s by then.
For those of you who think that the Royals could make a quick turnaround and compete sooner, you should probably temper your expectations. Yes, the rookies have produced lately. But the rest of the team just isn’t good enough. The starting pitching depth at the top levels of the system is extremely thin and staffed by unproven guys without solid prospect pedigrees. The outfield next year is a giant question mark. The bullpen is a radioactive mess that melts down with such consistency that it is impossible to completely renovate in a year or two. And the rookies that are doing well haven’t done so for very long and therefore haven’t truly proven themselves.
Look: those facts don’t tank those players’ value. It just means that they aren’t the next core. That core is made up of teenagers and dudes who just became able to drink legally, constructed of Pratto, MJ Melendez, Seuly Matias, Khalil Lee, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, whoever the Royals nab with the second or third pick in the 2019 MLB draft, and others.
Of course O’Hearn and Company are important. They could be the veterans on the next Royals playoff team, or the guys traded for prospects that become the next core. There’s just a paradigm shift in thinking that needs to happen. This isn’t the next wave. But it is the waters in which the next wave will crest.