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It’s okay if the Royals play themselves out of a top three pick

Tanking isn’t everything

Kansas City Royals players celebrate after winning a Major League Baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals on July 18, 2019, at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, MO. From left are Nicky Lopez (1), Billy Hamilton (6), and Bubba S
Kansas City Royals players celebrate after winning a Major League Baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals on July 18, 2019, at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, MO. From left are Nicky Lopez (1), Billy Hamilton (6), and Bubba Starling (11).
Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the Kansas City Royals on track for the second overall pick in the MLB draft for the second year in a row, all it took was one week after the All-Star break to put that into jeopardy. As the teams around them kept losing, the Royals kept winning. Kansas City won six of their seven games on that first homestand. By the end of it, they found themselves as the third-worst team in baeball, with three teams—the Toronto Blue Jays, Miami Marlins, and Seattle Mariners—within three games of the Royals.

It isn’t that big of a deal if the Royals don’t end up with the second pick in the draft, or even the first, barring a generational or can’t-miss talent, which don’t happen in every draft. Last year, I took a look at the track record of the top 10 picks in the last decade’s worth of drafts. The first three picks over that time period have performed markedly better than the fourth pick and lower. Staying in the top three is a good place to be.

This is common knowledge, that having a worse record gets you better draft picks (and therefore a better, faster rebuild). Ned Yost, of all people, has been the Royals employee to utter the clearest version of this axiom to the media:

Yost doesn’t accept losing any more than he accepts moon-landing conspiracy theories, but he understands the implications of what general manager Dayton Moore has stressed is a draft-based reset.

“Generally, in order to get back to the World Series, for a couple years you’re just not going to play .500 baseball,” Yost said. “And if you are playing .500 baseball, the odds of you getting back to the World Series are going to drop dramatically. Because you’re not getting the quality draft picks.”

If you’ll allow me to put on my conspiracy theory hat (which is, obviously, a fedora; I’m not sure why you’d ask when it’s so obvious), I think this might be a pretty good sign that the Royals are, indeed, tanking, but doing so in a Buzz Lightyear “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style” kind of wink-wink approach that lets them save at least some face—aka “This isn’t tanking, it’s using armored vehicles honestly but in a way that will get us a better draft pick because baseball is WAR.”

Conspiracy fedora or not, it is an unassailable fact that selecting higher in the draft is better than selecting lower in the draft, and because of that you might think that a stretch of winning is a bad idea.

Despite this, it’s ok if the Royals play themselves out of a top three pick. It’s probably ok if the Royals play themselves out of a top five pick, if it comes to that (though based on run differential and current team records, it’s unlikely that the Royals will draft lower than sixth overall). There are multiple reasons why this is so.

Wins mean young talent is developing

On Friday night, the Royals shitcanned Wily Peralta because he sucks, but also because he’s a 30-year-old impending free agent and also also because he threw his 22-year-old rookie catcher under the bus so hard that the grizzled and unflappable Miss Frizzle herself stuck her head out the window to give Peralta a stare of disappointment. Josh Staumont, a flame-throwing 25-year-old with a 33.5% strikeout rate in Triple-A Omaha, took his place on the roster.

Granted, most swaps of aged veterans for young guys won’t be this electric or nearly this satisfying, but the Peralta-for-Staumont swap is indicative of what’s been happening and what will continue to happen moving forward: a commitment to young players.

Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen Homer Bailey, Terrance Gore, Martin Maldonado, and now Peralta leave in favor of Michael Montgomery, Bubba Starling, Meibrys Viloria, and Staumont. In the coming weeks, we’re likely to see Jake Diekman traded with Richard Lovelady called up, Lucas Duda released in favor of Ryan O’Hearn, and Billy Hamilton released or traded with Brett Phillips making his 2019 Royals debut.

If the Royals win going forward, it will be primarily with these young players who are under team control for years. And that’s a good thing for their development. Think about it: if the Royals continue to flounder, it will be the young players to blame. But if the Royals win, it will be due to these inexperienced players.

It’s really a no-lose situation. If you win, you win. If you lose, hey, you’re gonna need a lot of new players anyway. Starling going nuts and hitting a bunch of home runs is eons, galaxies, and universes more interesting and better for the long-term health of this team than Duda doing the same. All wins are not made equally.

These Royals were never a 110-loss team

On June 6, Kansas City capped off a six-game losing streak to drop their record to 19-43, a win percentage that, pro-rated over a full season, would translate to 112 losses. A few weeks later, when the Royals were 27-51, Craig Brown asked whether or not the Royals really were that bad.

It was (and still is) a legitimate question, because based on pure runs scored and runs allowed, the Royals were much better, at 33-45. That’s the difference between a 106-loss season and a 93-loss season, which is gigantic. The Royals didn’t pass the eye test for a potential 106-loss team, either; this Royals team, unlike a lot of terrible Royals teams (or terrible MLB teams in general) has a decent collection of talent headlined by a true star (Whit Merrifield), a wildly dynamic shortstop (Adalberto Mondesi), a quietly excellent pure hitter (Hunter Dozier), and a legit slugger (Jorge Soler).

Because of this, the Royals just kept losing when other teams were, by runs scored and runs allowed, much worse. Despite both the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers sporting run differentials worse than Kansas City’s, the Tigers only recently overtook the Royals for the second-worst spot in the big leagues. And it’s only been in the last few weeks where other teams with terrible run differentials—namely, the Marlins, Blue Jays, and Mariners—started to sink to the bottom with haste.

There are lots of fancy analyses you can do, but because winning baseball teams score more runs than losing ones, the best teams tend to have the best run differentials and the worst teams have the worst run differentials (funny how that works). And by that back-of-the-napkin math, it’s pretty clear that the Royals aren’t and weren’t in the Detroit Tigers/Baltimore Orioles tier, but in the much more crowded second tier.

In other words, after half a season, team records are starting to more closely resemble their talent level. Luck and variance are evening out. The Royals aren’t screwing their potential for a top-three pick again—they were never that bad anyway.

It’s a strong 2020 draft class anyway

Not every draft is filled with the same top-end talent, and the talent disparity can vary wildly even within back-to-back drafts. In the 2004 draft, the Detroit Tigers drafted Justin Verlander second overall. Verlander is perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation and will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Other than Verlander, though, the best players drafted within the first dozen picks were Jered Weaver, Neil Walker, and the three seasons in which Homer Bailey was actually good.

But the 2005 draft—that was something. Justin Upton went 1.1. Alex Gordon went second overall. Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzke, and Andrew McCutcheon went fourth, fifth, seventh, and 11th, respectively; all became stars. This is to say nothing of Ricky Romero, Cameron Maybin, and Jay Bruce, who were all above-average contributors for multiple years.

It will be a decade before we can judge next year’s draft class honestly, but it sure seems like the industry thinks next year will be more 2005 than 2004. Davin Schoenfield at ESPN says that:

The 2020 draft, however, looks like it will be loaded. While this year’s draft was particularly weak in college arms, next year’s draft is particularly deep in college arms, including a couple of intriguing draft-eligible sophomores.

Jim Callis at agrees:

It’s still 12 months away, but the 2020 Draft is shaping up to be the best since 2011, when the first 11 picks included Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez and George Springer. Mookie Betts and Kyle Hendricks were just two of several notable later-round steals.

After a 2019 Draft during which scouts bemoaned the lack of college pitchers worthy of the first round, there will be no such complaints next year.

As we get closer to the draft, we’ll get more info on the players, and your mileage may vary depending on whether you prefer Fangraphs, Baseball America, ESPN, or for your prospect rankings. But as of now, there is a wide variety of players that look to be taken in the top nine or so picks:

  • Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia
  • Spencer Torkelson, 1B/OF, Arizona State
  • Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF, Harvard-Westlake HS (California)
  • Casey Martin, SS, Arkansas
  • Patrick Bailey, C, North Carolina State
  • Cole Wilcox, RHP, Georgia
  • Austin Martin, SS, Vanderbilt
  • Blaze Jordan, SS, DeSoto Central High (MS)
  • J.T. Ginn, RHP, Mississippi State

If the Royals pick in the top five at all, they will likely be able to choose a talented player, but a talented player of the type (college or high school, pitcher or hitter) they want most.*

*If you’ll allow me another quick sidebar here, I think that the Royals will take Crow-Armstrong if he’s still on the board for them. Baseball America describes Crow-Armstrong as “the top high school player in the 2020 class,” and a “plus-plus runner and a plus defender in center field.” That’s like catnip to the Royals’ scouting department.

There’s no bad situation for Kansas City

Other than long-term debilitating injuries to key players, a persistent and common worry that literally every baseball team has at all times, the wins and losses for the rest of the season are secondary. If the Royals get the second overall pick, great. But if they don’t, that means that their team right now is doing something right.

So enjoy the season. Root for players. Hope for success. And if it comes, and the success translates to wins, enjoy that, too.