There’s a scene in the 2005 boxing flick Cinderella Man that has always stuck with me for some reason. Cinderella Man stars Russell Crowe as James Braddock, an Irish-American boxer who left the sport due to a hand injury. Set during the Great Depression, Braddock’s former manager, Joe Gould (played by Paul Giamatti), recruits the financially struggling Braddock to participate in a match that would net them both cash. Braddock wins in an upset.
The film depicts Braddock as a desperately poor, literally showing him begging for money. Conversely, it depicts Gould and his family as financially comfortable—well-off, even. Except it’s not true. When Mrs. Braddock goes to complain to Gould at his “fancy apartment,” Gould opens the door, revealing to her and the audience the truth: the apartment was empty. As Gould says: “Don’t want folks to see you down, that’s all.”
This isn’t necessarily a one-to-one metaphor for the Kansas City Royals. Rather, it should be a constant reminder that not everything is as it seems on the surface. It should be a constant reminder that behind-the-scenes processes and results are vitally important. And it should be a constant reminder that seemingly well-run franchises could be going through major crises outside the public eye.
On the surface, it looks like the Royals are doing alright, if down on their luck at the moment. Every kindergartner in the metro has been alive through two World Series appearances. It sure looks like the Royals have future stars in Hunter Dozier and Adalberto Mondesi—and maybe a star now in Whit Merrifield. The front office and coaching staff has been consistent. There is no organizational dysfunction a la the Miami Marlins or New York Mets.
But below the surface, Kansas City is disturbingly close to disaster.
The Royals are currently on pace for 109 losses, a shameful franchise record along the lines of “Kid Who Vomited on the Most People on the Mamba at Worlds of Fun” in notoriety. But the braintrust was internally discussing how to make the second wild car slot less than two weeks ago. That kind of comprehensive talent misjudgment doesn’t just happen by accident.
Worse than that is the state of the farm system position players. Cornerstones Seuly Matias, MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto have triple slashes that are gory enough to be featured in a Saw film. Khalil Lee is spinning his wheels in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. There haven’t been any real breakouts this year above High-A Wilmington.
Worst, though, is the state of the pitching in Double-A and above. Among all starters (not openers; starters) with at least five starts in Kansas City, Triple-A Omaha, and Northwest Arkansas, this is the full list with an ERA below 4.00:
- Danny Duffy
There you go. That’s the list.
An addendum to the worst list is that the Royals farm teams are losing, too. The Royals have four minor league teams currently playing: Omaha, Northwest Arkansas, Wilmington, and Lexington. Only one—Wilmington—has a winning record.
Can the Royals climb out of this? Absolutely. It’s uncanny just how well the 2018 draft class has done. By the end of July, we could be seeing a Northwest Arkansas rotation consist of four 2018 draft class members. That’s quite a feat! And a solid 2019 draft class—anchored by the second overall pick—could shore up the wave and really get people excited about the future.
But if that second overall pick busts? And if nobody really works out from the 2018 class of pitchers? In that situation, you can kiss competing for most of the 20s goodbye. There is no wiggle room to be had.