Two events of the offseason reverberated particularly loudly to Kansas City Royals fans, and should have reverberated loudly to those in charge as well.
The first was Stephen Strasburg’s free agent deal with the Washington Nationals. One of the Nationals’ aces and one of the most famous and inevitable first overall draft picks of all time, Strasburg had opted out of his previous contract to hit free agency. That didn’t stop the Nationals and Strasburg, both fresh off their first World Series victory, from reuniting. The terms: seven years, $245 million.
The second event was much smaller in scope, yet more important to the Royals. The Los Angeles Angels, attempting to capitalize on having one of the best players in baseball history in his prime, wanted to clear payroll to make other moves. They did so by trading Zack Cozart, his -0.6 Wins Above Replacement over the last two seasons, and his $13 million in guaranteed money to the San Fransisco Giants for cash or a player to be named later. The catch: the Angels also sent along Will Wilson, a legit prospect and the 15th overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft.
Both of these events are relevant to the Royals in different ways. The meaning behind Strasburg’s signing is as blatant as if a wizard magically transported the Merriam Ikea to the middle of the I-35 and 69 convergence during afternoon rush hour: Kansas City ain’t ever gonna have that money. The largest contract they’ve ever given was Alex Gordon’s four-year, $72 million deal in 2015. Could Kansas City ever offer $100 million or more? Maybe—most likely as an extension. But the Royals aren’t winning a bidding war with Washington, or New York, or Boston, or Los Angeles. Not in the current baseball climate.
What the Royals can do, however, is think both tactically and strategically about what they can do to make their team better. And that’s what the Giants did with Cozart and Wilson: they had the money, and they used it to, basically, buy a prospect—and a good one, at that.
Ultimately, with its market limitations, Kansas City can do one of two things effectively. They can either try to win now or try to win later.
What the Royals have done for the last three years is neither. And, barring a change, it sure looks like that’s going to happen again this offseason.
Let’s start with the payroll. The Royals were among the bottom 10 in payroll last year, at 23rd overall. Despite this, they seem intent on minimizing payroll further:
Finally, Dayton Moore said payroll, which is estimated to be around $75-80M now, won't rise significantly, though it will have to rise some given that the Royals will need $$ for a potential Jorge Soler extension, plus money if Alex Gordon decides to return.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) December 9, 2019
An $80 million payroll would have been a bottom-five figure in 2019 (at 26th overall). It would have also been a bottom-five figure every year previous until 2013. While we don’t have figures for 2020 yet, it’s safe to say that the Royals will have one of the lowest payrolls in the entire league.
Kansas City has a new owner: John Sherman. The team has a new manager, too, though that matters significantly less. Either way, a freeze on expenses with new leadership is reasonable. So, sure, maybe the Royals wouldn’t be willing to take on salary in this case to pull a Giants-esque move. But then, you’d think that the Royals would be looking to improve their team in another way: by trading some current assets for future value.
Dayton Moore tells us here in San Diego that while there is interest from other teams in Whit Merrifield, he expects to keep his core group, including Merrifield, Jorge Soler and Danny Duffy, intact going forward. He has maintained that position for awhile now. #Royals— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) December 9, 2019
Regarding the obligatory Whit Merrifield trade rumors (one more today): Dayton Moore has told us repeatedly over the past six months, and again here at the Winter Meetings, he is holding onto his core players, including Whit. Yes, things can change, but it seems really remote.— Jeffrey Flanagan (@FlannyMLB) December 11, 2019
Specifically regarding Whit Merrifield and the San Diego Padres, with whom they have interest:
“I’ve always believed that you have to have strong examples of how to conduct yourself as a Major League Baseball player,” Moore said. “Whit Merrifield provides that example. You can’t necessarily quantify what that means to the future of the team. But when you know you’re going to be transitioning a lot of young players to your 26-man roster over the next few years, guys like Whit Merrifield are important to help establish winning.
“That being said, there’s no player on this roster, there’s no player in this organization that is untouchable if you get the right type of deal. You have to be open-minded and responsible to the process.”
Could Moore be just posturing to try and get better trade offers for Whit? Perhaps. But probably not. This is the third point that Moore has been able to trade Whit for players that better fit the Royals’ timeline. He didn’t do it the previous two times, so why would this time be any different? He’s said the same stuff about intangibles and unquantifiables every time. If you can’t quantify what something is worth, you’re not gonna trade that thing.
Again, the Royals have two ways to improve. They can improve now, which necessitates an increase in payroll. With another $50 million, the Royals could make a sizable leap from where they have been over the last two years. However, the Royals aren’t doing that.
Which is understandable, considering how far the Royals have to go, except they aren’t doing the flip side of the coin: trading assets that won’t be valuable when the team is good again for assets that will. However, the Royals aren’t doing that.
Which is understandable, considering how much worse and uninteresting the team would be without Whit, Jorge Soler, and Danny Duffy, except they aren’t doing the flip side of the coin: using payroll space to accomplish the same thing. However...well, you get the point.
Over the last three years, the Royals haven’t decided what they’ve wanted to do. They didn’t tear down after 2017, refused to trade assets after 2018, and don’t seem poised to take advantage of the market this offseason. It is frustrating watching the Royals flail around and lose one hundred games a year. But it is far more frustrating to see the Royals brain trust blink slowly at the two options in front of them—win now or win later—and choose neither option as they turn around to have a Bible study about the dangers of porn.
These things do take time, and trading Duffy and Merrifield and Soler isn’t going to be the reason the rebuild succeeds (none of it matters if the Royals can’t draft, scout, and develop their own farm system). But it could be the difference in how much of a success it is, and it will be a one, two, or even three-year difference in terms of when the team is good enough to compete.
In other words, I just hope the Royals don’t end up wasting your time and mine. Doesn’t seem likely.