I want to quickly revisit an article I wrote last spring, in which I detailed the “Tanking Blueprint.” For quick context, the topic of this article was that the MLB had a tanking problem, in which I then described tanking as proof for my claim. Here are the five basic rules I laid out for teams to follow when tanking:
Trade anyone of value on your major league roster for prospects.
Save as much money as possible by using as many players that you can that are still on their first contacts. Sign cheap free agents only when absolutely necessary.
Stockpile high draft picks after your team loses 100+ games for consecutive seasons and build an elite farm system.
Allow prospects to develop in the minor leagues while you continue to run out fliers and AAAA players buying time.
When prospects are ready, bring them up in waves and win as many games as possible until they become free agents.
The 2019 Kansas City Royals can say they aren’t tanking all they want, and maybe they aren’t even consciously tanking, but they are totally tanking. Depending on how you view the current state of the organization, you could argue that they are doing either a very good or very bad job of tanking. Let’s take a look at a couple of arguments for both sides.
In a way, the Royals are doing a pretty good job at this tanking thing
The Royals have done an elite job (truly 80-grade work) on items #3 and #4 on this list. They currently possess the #2 overall pick in the upcoming June draft, and are on currently on pace to possess the #3 overall pick in next year’s June draft. Adding two prospects of Bobby Witt, Jr.’s caliber to a farm system figures to be a huge get for Kansas City over the next couple of seasons.
In addition to doing lots of losing to help rebuild the farm system, the Royals are doing a great job of employing cheap, marginal veterans to buy time for prospects to continue developing. Nicky Lopez was probably big league ready on Opening Day, but there was no real way for the front office to know that. Chris Owings filled in admirably while Lopez proved that he was big league ready in AAA Omaha, allowing him time to finish out his development.
Owings and friends, such as Billy Hamilton, continue to fill similar roles for prospects like Erick Mejia, Kelvin Gutierrez, Bubba Starling, and Humberto Arteaga. Arteaga, Starling, and Mejia are almost certainly not ready to take on a full-time big league role yet, specifically at the plate. Likewise, Brad Boxberger and Wily Peralta fill such roles to aid in the development of prospects like Kyle Zimmer and Josh Staumont.
These roles are necessary to any good rebuild. Rushing prospects to the big leagues before the age of 27 can actually slow their development, in turn slowing the rebuild. Besides, when these stopgap veterans play as poorly as Chris Owings and Brad Boxberger have, you help to ensure the improvement of next year’s draft position as well. As far as items #3 and #4 on my list go, the Royals have done a great job of executing them in 2019.
In another way, the Royals are doing a terrible job of tanking
The idea of tanking is to lose first and foremost, and in that aspect, the Royals have done a great job. Chris Owings, Billy Hamilton, Brad Boxberger and the gang have done a great job of that. (Starting to pick up on some sarcasm, are you? Now you’re getting it.)
The problem with this is that the idea of running cheap veterans out in your everyday lineup is to try to get something for them in return at the trade deadline. Yes, the Royals 2019 free agent class is doing a great job helping the team tank, but they’re doing it with no potential for additional value.
What they are doing, however, is blocking mature prospects that the Royals need to start evaluating at the big league level. Kyle Zimmer is 27-years old. Josh Staumont is 25-years old. Bubba Starling is 26. These guys are, in a way, no longer “prospects.” In a way, they’re just big league assets that are playing their seasons in AAA Omaha until the front office decides to bring them back. You could argue that their development period is past them. That they are what they are at this age, and yet, in Omaha they stay.
Rebuilds are supposed to be about giving those guys their chance. Fail, succeed, doesn’t matter. Run the “kids” out there, see what they’ve got (on the cheap). If you’re going to lose, lose with your cheaper, controlled assets. In this way, the Royals have pretty well failed this half of the tanking blue print.
So, is Kansas City trying to tank, or not?
Perhaps the funniest thing about this Royals rebuild is that I genuinely can’t figure out if they’re trying to tank or not. Don’t take anything that the front office says to heart. They can’t come out and say that they’re tanking. That would be very bad. They have to deny it. That doesn’t mean they can’t actively tank and lie about it.
I just don’t know if I buy it. This Royals front office seems to think they can compete AND rebuild, even though the blue print that’s been laid out by Major League Baseball says that it’s more effective to lose a lot of games while you are rebuilding. If the Royals are actively, intentionally tanking, we shouldn’t blame them. They’re doing the right thing, because MLB rewards teams for losing during less competitive seasons. The only question that remains really is, are they doing all this losing on purpose?