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The Royals have an obligation to their fans to be big sellers at the trade deadline

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Fans respond to winning. Keeping your players doesn’t do that.

Kansas City Royals first baseman Whit Merrifield (15) is greeted in the dugout after scoring a run against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson
Kansas City Royals first baseman Whit Merrifield (15) is greeted in the dugout after scoring a run against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at T-Mobile Park. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A few days before the July 31 trade deadline in 2018, there was buzz that the Kansas City Royals could make a major move at the deadline. Whit Merrifield, then 29 years of age and in the middle of a truly great year, was making the rumor rounds. Royals general manager Dayton Moore, however, did not trade him, nor anyone else under team control past 2018. Moore’s reasoning was...odd.

“We need him in our city and on our team.” The sentiment conjured images in the mind’s eye that Merrifield worked as Kansas City’s own Batman, that the Kansas City Police Department would be lost without him, that the babies born in KU Medical Center would cry ceaselessly without Merrifield’s individual blessing on each and every one—a smear of Kauffman Center dirt across their tiny foreheads. With Merrifield’s strong performance down the stretch, the 2019 Royals managed to avoid the ignominy of having the worst record in franchise history. Instead, they finished with a proud 58-104 record.

In January, the Royals doubled down on Merrifield, signing him to a four-year extension that, with one option year, keeps him under team control through through 2023. To MLB.com, Moore said that the Royals “all know that fans adore him and admire how he plays” and that Merrifield “connects very well with the fans.” In other interviews, Moore has stressed that, too.

There’s just one problem: the fans may be buying Merrifield, but they ain’t buying the team.

In 2015, the regular season attendance at Kauffman Stadium topped 2.7 million. In 2016, attendance kept strong through a disappointing year at 2.5 million. In 2018, attendance fell to 1.6 million, the lowest total since 2013. This year, the Royals are on pace for a tick over 1.4 million, which would be the eighth-worst season in Kauffman Stadium’s long history that spans back to 1973.

By the end of July, the Royals must make a decision: how much they want to be sellers at the trade deadline. There are three tiers of players that could be considered as trades. Some are no-brainers. Others will hurt more.

Half-season rentals

  • Jake Diekman
  • Martin Maldonado
  • Billy Hamilton

The expensive pitchers

  • Danny Duffy
  • Ian Kennedy

Long-term darlings

  • Jorge Soler
  • Whit Merrifield
  • Salvador Perez

Each tier returns progressively more value. While Diekman or Maldonado or Hamilton might be nice complimentary pieces for a team looking to fill some holes, none will be core players. If the Royals kick in a lot of salary for Duffy and Kennedy, you could see either being more of a high-leverage player for their theoretical new team, which would yield a greater return.

But it is the last tier that returns the greatest value, and it is Merrifield that is the crown jewel. Merrifield is very good, very cheap, and under team control for years. The combination of those three things means that a trade for Merrifield could easily result in the Royals getting two of the top 125 or so prospects in all of baseball or one of the top 50 prospects—plus a lottery ticket or two.

And trading them all—even Perez, who would have to be unloaded at next year’s deadline or offseason, and only if he showed a strong return from Tommy John—would speed up the rebuild more than drafting college players ever could.

Here’s the thing: none of the players listed are going to help the next great Royals team by being on the 2019, 2020, and 2021 teams. The Royals are just too far away. They don’t need good players. They need good prospects, and lots of them.

Sure, you could argue that many core pieces are already here. It’s not a baseless argument. Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, and Adalberto Mondesi have been worth 6.2 WAR this year in a mere 72 games. Over 162 games, that figure works out to 14 WAR. In 2015—when the Royals won the World Series, mind you—their top three position players (Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas) combined for 13.4 WAR.

However, as Mike Trout has illustrated for almost a decade in Los Angeles, elite top level talent can’t carry your team. You need an infrastructure of useful players for that to happen, and the 2019 Royals infrastructure is a broken mess of a highway right out of a post-apocalyptic zombie film. This year’s team has featured five hitters who have played at least half a win under replacement level and has featured seven different pitchers with an ERA that starts with a number at or bigger than five.

This is why the Royals don’t feel as bad as they are. Their top talent is a blast to watch. It feels like they are close. They’re just not. The boat looks flashy enough, but the bottom is riddled with tiny holes that are sinking it nevertheless. It’s surely a different style than the 2004 through 2006 Royals teams, whose boat was an honest piece of junk with few redeeming qualities. The result, however, is the same. Both boats sunk at the same rate, plunging down into 100-loss waters.

The real reason why the Royals have an obligation to their fans to sell, though, is because they did not succeed in the first rebuild. Moore and his front office had the opportunity to revive baseball for a new generation of Royals fans. For two or three years, it looked like they did. But now, as the Royals struggle to top 20,000 fans on weekend games against once-a-year opponents at Kauffman, and as the Royals barrel towards another 100-loss season and top-five draft pick, it sure seems like nothing really changed from a decade ago.

Kansas City ought to go to the playoff more than twice every 34 years. You do that by not only being good, but by being sustainable. You can only be sustainable if you make the hard choices, like being open to trading your best players because it’s best for the fans in the long run.

But it’s just easier to refuse the obligation to be a sustainably good team. Unfortunately for Royals fans, you can expect that to be the case.