Maybe you’ve forgotten, but 2011 was hype. It was basically prospect Christmas all season. That year, a ridiculous number of promising young players made their big league debut for the Kansas City Royals, including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Louis Coleman, and Kelvin Herrera; it also featured the Royals debut of Alcides Escobar, the full-season coming out party for Greg Holland, and the first semi-regular appearances for Jarrod Dyson.
However, the 2011 Royals were the baseball equivalent of a middle age man earnestly dabbing for the on-ride camera on a roller coaster; in other words, it was just a colossal failure. That team lost 91 games. Somehow, though, Royals fans didn’t care—at least not very much.
Why? Because there was direction. There was hope. It was liberating: in 2011 fans could enjoy meaningful baseball based on the direction and potential of the team regardless of the win-loss records.
The dirty secret of Major League Baseball is that losing is a fact of baseball for rebuilding teams. With that being said, teams in the midst of a rebuilding cycle can decide how to do so.
The 2019 Royals are embarrassing. That’s unacceptable. But it’s not because the Royals are losing; rather, it’s how they are losing the games. After a 104-loss season, it wasn’t feasible for fans to expect a playoff berth. Fans, though, could very well expect an improvement over last year both in record and in kind of play.
They haven’t gotten either. At every turn, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have decided to cede playing time to and make roster decisions in favor of awful veterans. They’ve played favorites, and have not done so with regard to either performance or potential. This is the crux of the issue.
Of particular note is the utter mediocrity of the veterans who they chose to play. This year, the Royals are paying Martin Maldonado, Chris Owings, Lucas Duda, Billy Hamilton, Wily Peralta, Brad Boxberger, Jake Diekman a combined $17.7 million. The Royals are paying another $2.5 million in buyouts next year, totaling a final payout of over $20 million for those seven players.
Unfortunately, those players aren’t very good. Wins Above Replacement isn’t a perfect and untouchable method of player evaluation, but it’s great for rough estimates. ‘Rough’ is the exact word one would use to describe the group’s 2018 performances. Listed below is each player’s 2018 WAR per Baseball Reference:
- Maldonado: 0.5 WAR
- Owings: -0.2 WAR
- Hamilton: 0.3 WAR
- Duda: 0.4 WAR
- Diekman: 0.0 WAR
- Peralta: 0.4 WAR
- Boxberger: -0.7 WAR
- TOTAL: 0.3 WAR
Ah yes, $20+ million for a group of vets that played at collective replacement level the previous year. Fantastic use of resources, guys. Well done. You could make a strong argument that Maldonado was necessary after Salvador Perez’s injury, and I’d buy that considering the minor league guys in the upper minors. But then, you’d be looking at $18+ million for six players who played at under replacement level the previous year, which is...what’s a good word? I’ll let you fill that in for yourself.*
*Are you wondering why I didn’t put Homer Bailey on this list? That’s because he’s making the league minimum. That’s a good vet signing! Owings and Co.? Not so much.
The truly astonishing thing about the Royals approach this season is that it’s a mega onion where each layer is terrible and stinks of microwaved tuna in the office break room and a little bit of depression. Sure, I could pursue the line of questioning about the lack of value per dollar, but then I get distracted when I realize that Moore, without engineering any major trades or signings, believed that the team would be good:
“Major league players are paid to win baseball games,” Moore said in his office recently. “We’re going to expect this team to play well and win a lot of baseball games, so that hopefully in July there’s pressure on us as a front office to really improve the team for the final two months of the season.
“A lot of people say the Royals aren’t ready to take this step. But we’re not going to put limitations on this team. (Royals owner David Glass) says it all the time: Expectations drive results. Our expectations are to win our division.”
And, yes, you could pursue this relatively batshit line of reasoning and try to parse out if Moore meant this or if he’s just lying or what the point of interviews are if you can’t trust anybody on the team. But then, I’m distracted because I remember that the roster construction is so extremely screwy that it might as well be in the drawer of a carpenter:
- Your backup outfielder (Terrance Gore) has 0 starts and 1 stolen base
- Your backup first baseman (Frank Schwindel) has started two games
- Your secondary backup first baseman (Duda) isn’t playing against right-handed hitters, in part because...
- you already have a left-handed first baseman (Ryan O’Hearn) who is clearly the best of the three and
- your best right-handed bat (Jorge Soler) is a natural DH and
- your primary backup infielder (Owings) is playing every day for...reasons?
And, yes, I could pursue this questioning, until I again realize that, woah, this whole thing would have been way easier if, you know, the Royals just kept Rosell Herrera and Brian Goodwin at the league minimum. A rebuilding club with two MLB-quality (if perhaps not particularly high-quality) players passed to offer guarantee contracts to bad players in Duda and Owings.
There are other avenues to examine, such as why Cam Gallagher has made only one start so far, or why there are three Triple-A relievers that are probably just as good as what they have now (Josh Staumont Michael Ynoa, Richard Lovelady) are pitching in Omaha, or why the Royals demoted Kyle Zimmer after clearly liking him enough to start on the opening day roster understanding his limitations and potential struggles, or why the Royals haven’t signed Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel if they intended to compete.
I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re not seeing anything new here. The Royals front office has a compulsion to do something, anything, whenever the team is deficient of talent at the big league level. Moore has been in charge long enough that we’re seeing the same patterns from the first rebuild.
A thousand words ago, I mentioned the 2011 season. The 2019 season ain’t it. This is 2009, when the Royals signed a veteran center fielder for stability (Coco Crisp), acquired a veteran first baseman nobody else wanted (Mike Jacobs), signed a few veteran relievers who were awful the year before (Kyle Farnsworth and Jamey Wright), and played a random gritty white dude everyday when he was more suited for Triple-A (Willie Bloomquist).
Replace those names with Hamilton, Duda, Diekman, Boxberger, and Owings, respectively. It isn’t any different.
I’ve more or less lost hope that Moore and the rest of the front office can learn from their mistakes. They haven’t. They won’t. When you win a World Series, you tend to think your process is impenetrable.
And, again, it’s not necessarily about the losses. They happen, especially for small market teams that are rebuilding. But you can choose not to proclaim to the Kansas City Star that you expect to win the division when you know you won’t. And you can certainly do things to make your team not embarrassing. Anything less than that is an insult to fans who’ve sat through only four winning seasons within the last 23 years. We’ve seen ‘acceptable veterans.’
That’s not what we’re looking for.