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This is the make-or-break year for the entire rebuild

We’ll know a lot at the end of this year

AFL West All-Star, Khalil Lee #15 of the Kansas City Royals warms up before the Arizona Fall League All Star Game at Surprise Stadium on November 3, 2018 in Surprise, Arizona.
AFL West All-Star, Khalil Lee #15 of the Kansas City Royals warms up before the Arizona Fall League All Star Game at Surprise Stadium on November 3, 2018 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On the dawn of spring training, hope flourishes for every team. For two months, everything is possible. Young studs could develop into productive players. Veterans could regain a sparkle of the talent of their prime. Injured players can bounce back from the infirmities of the human bodies.

And even for teams like the Kansas City Royals, who have no expectations for any semblance of a playoff run, that optimism extends to the minor leagues. That shiny prospect might take that next step. Maybe a player or two could breakout in a big way, becoming something from nothing.

For a few recent years, though, such optimism regarding the Royals’ farm system was reduced to vague hope. Kansas City skidded through 2017 with an 80-82 record and crashed through 2018 with a 58-104 record. They did so with one of the worst farm systems in baseball; Baseball America ranked them 26th out of 30 MLB teams in 2017 and 29th in 2018. The Royals, simply, did not have enough talent to warrant optimism.

Now, there was talent in the system. Future baseball players, perhaps. Future stars, even. Whit Merrifield is the poster child for sudden and intense success out of nowhere. But there is similar talent in every MLB system. There is a reason why the Merrifields of the world are rare. Top prospects simply have a much better rate of success.

Kansas City has seen these top prospects succeed, guys like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, and even Sean Manaea and Wil Myers at a distance. But there is only one Merrifield.

Prospects matter

To put it metaphorically, a top prospect succeeds in the big leagues by hitting a single grape by a frisbee from a long distance. Many fail—some because of poor throws, others because the wind simply destroys their best effort—but some make it. Non top prospects are trying to accomplish the same feat, but because the level of competition in baseball is so extreme, it is like those players are trying to hit the grape with a frisbee throw from their non-dominant arm while bouncing by in the bed of a Silverado.

Baseball games are famously unpredictable. But on a more macro level, baseball becomes, relatively, significantly more predictable. It moves slowly, dozens of games oozing by every month as the summer drags on, rebuilds methodically assembled over years. No individual player, no matter how powerful, can will a baseball team to victory. Mike Trout is the greatest player anybody has seen in a generation, and his teams have yet to win a single playoff game. LeBron is an all-time great, and primarily through his utter magnificence his teams have made the NBA finals for 8 consecutive years. It’s just not the same.

You don’t need to get one great prospect. That’s not how it works. Rather, you need many, and with many great prospects at your disposal the arc of your team can be seen from miles away. Take the Royals themselves, for instance. Again per Baseball America, the Royals had the best farm system by a landslide in 2011. And despite graduating a ludicrous number of future MLB regulars, the Royals had the second-best farm system in all of baseball in 2012. You know what happened a few years later.

Or take the Houston Astros, who after a grueling few years of extreme tanking had a top-three farm system each year from 2015 through 2017. You know what happened with them, too.

Teams can, of course, succeed without a great farm system. But great farm systems are the only way you can essentially guarantee competitiveness. Look: prospects fail. They fail all the time, even the good ones. Great farm systems put teams in positions to weather the war of prospect attrition and come out on top.

The Royals are in a precarious position

The Royals are no longer the worst farm system in baseball. After suffering through one of the worst seasons in franchise history—quite a feat considering the Royals’ franchise history—one would hope that the Royals would have improved their subpar talent pool of a few years ago. They did, thanks in part to five picks among the first 58 overall in the 2018 draft.

Their talent is mostly in the low minors, but as a result they have a lot of room to grow and high ceilings. Their most promising prospects are all quite similar in age and trajectory.

Nick Pratto, for instance, is an unnervingly athletic first baseman who stole 22 bases in 2018 and posted a comfortably above average hitting line. He is 20. MJ Melendez is a skilled defensive catcher who also happened to also hit well above average for his second professional season. He is 20. You can’t forget Seuly Matias, who cracked a delightfully absurd 31 home runs in 94 games. He is 20. There’s also Khalil Lee, an all-around outfield prospect that can make impacts in every facet of the game. He is 20.

This is to say nothing of Kyle Isbel and Michael Gigliotti—two advanced and multitalented outfielders perfectly poised for big years—or Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar—who have already seen success outside the rookie leagues—or Brady Singer.

But the Royals have not improved as much as it seems. They are, by multiple evaluators, a system in the bottom third of the league. The Royals don’t sport much high-end talent in the upper levels of the system, though they do have some intriguing speedsters.

And ultimately, the reason for this low ranking is that all these hot prospects have conspicuous flaws in their games they must fix. Yeah, Matias posted an isolated slugging percentage north of .300, but he struck out nearly 35% of the time in Low-A ball. Yeah, Lee is talented, but he might not stick in center field and he hasn’t added the power that many expected he would. Yeah, Singer is the crown jewel in the 2018 draft class, but he has thrown zero professional innings and could simply be an inglorious bust in waiting.

The Royals front office chose this path

Coming into 2019, the Royals could have traded Whit Merrifield. They did not. They could have traded Salvador Perez. They did not. They could have traded Danny Duffy back before 2018 when his value was highest. They did not.

If the Royals had traded all three of those players, they could have received a small army of minor league prospects in return. Teams don’t give away prospects like they used to, but it’s not out of the question that the Royals would have received at least three of the top 100 prospects in baseball for that trio as the backbone of those trades.

The Royals front office did not do so. Whether or not you think they should have is more or less irrelevant at this point. They spurned that course of action, valuing their big league assets over hypothetical minor league ones. This might be the right move; all three of those veterans will be on the team for both 2020 and 2021, two years where the Royals could start to be competitive again.

Of course, it might not be the right move.

What the Royals have done is placed a huge vote of confidence in their farm system as is. They think that the Lee/Pratto/Matias/Melendez/Kowar/Singer crop will be the new version of the Hosmer/Moustakas/Duffy/Holland/Perez/Cain crop that carried them to the promised land last time.

And it could be. Again, it won’t take too many steps forward for some of these guys to make top prospect lists and for the system to truly get rolling. They have some truly special guys. Matiases don’t just grow on trees. If the current group of minor leaguers succeed this year, the rebuild will come into focus in a concrete way and the end of the losing will firmly rise over the horizon.

But prospects take steps backwards, too, or don’t take any steps at all. If the current group of minor leaguers fail, they will have no backup plan. No next top prospect to turn to. Their system is not deep enough. And if it does, the rebuild won’t be closing in 2020 or 2021. It’ll be 2024 or 2025, a decade since Kansas City made the playoffs.

The Kansas City Royals will be playing baseball in the big leagues. But it won’t be where the most important baseball will be being played. That will be in Lexington, Wilmington, Springdale, and Omaha. We’ll know one way or another where this is going by the end of the year. Hopefully it will be in the positive direction.