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Hok Talk: The Royals are getting in their own way

They need to spend their money more wisely; and I don’t mean on free agents.

Kansas City Royals v Atlanta Braves
Ian Kennedy’s contract has been a problem from the moment it was signed and it’s only getting worse as time goes on.
Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The Royals have a bunch of bad free agent contracts on the books this year. That much is obvious to anyone and everyone. With Billy Hamilton being designated for assignment, yesterday, everyone they signed this year ended up getting released or traded for cash considerations before the season could be completed except for Jake Diekman*. Diekman brought back a couple of marginal prospects in a trade. Of course, free agent signings haven’t been going well at all for Moore the past few years but this seems to be a new low, even for him.

*EDIT: I forgot that the Royals managed to trade Martín Maldonado and Homer Bailey for talent, too. The point remains that the vast majority of the free agent spending the Royals did this off-season ended up actively making the team worse.

We all know the abysmal state of the Royals’ farm system, as well. Excepting the four hurlers drafted early last year the Royals don’t have much to hope for in their farm system. All of the hitters who were doing so well in low levels last year have struggled mightily this year. Hunter Dozier seems like a massive success but no one else has really stood out much among the players promoted to the big leagues. Even showstoppers Ryan O’Hearn and Adalberto Mondesi took steps back from their hot second halves of last season.

The Royals also haven’t done as well as you’d hope in trades. They sent Scott Alexander out so they could dump the salary of Joakim Soria. Alexander has pitched to an ERA of 3.67 for the Dodgers while Soria was good enough for the White Sox to get traded for a former first-rounder and a lottery pick who is doing well in A-ball for the White Sox, this year. And I think we’d all rather forget one of the worst trades in team history which sent raw, but promising prospect Esteury Ruiz along with left-handed pitcher Matt Strahm to the Padres for Brandon Maurer, Ryan Buchter, and Trevor Cahill.

It’s hard to craft a winning team when you can’t get anything right on any of those fronts. And I’ll admit, it’s difficult to get things right on those fronts. If it was easy to do then GM jobs would probably be a lot cheaper to fill. But there are tactics that teams and front offices can use to give themselves advantages. The Royals used to be one of the best teams on this front. They talk about identifying speed and the ability to put the bat on the ball as the calling card of the 2014 and 2015 rosters; the thing those teams did better than anyone else that was undervalued. But that’s not strictly accurate.

When Dayton Moore took over as GM the Royals started to outspend everyone on prospects. They spent heavily to increase their presence in Latin America. They spent more than other teams were willing to in the draft. And it paid off with The Best Farm System in the History of Whatever. Then many of those prospects, most heralded but with a few surprises, made it to the big leagues and eventually learned how to compete together. They ultimately won a World Series together. The market inefficiency wasn’t that the Royals brought in the most athletic players they could find. It’s that they outspent everyone else to ensure they got the best players available, some of whom were very athletic.

But the loopholes they used have since been closed. Draft spending is now regulated. Other teams have focused more effort on Latin America and a cap was instituted there, as well. Baseball analytics, largely in part due to the efforts and success of Billy Beane and his front office staff which inspired Moneyball, have improved dramatically since that time. Talent and potential production don’t fly under the radar anymore. You can’t beat people by simply buying up a skillset that no one else is bothering with at a steep discount. The only way to win anymore is to do it by spending more than everyone else.

The Royals can’t outspend everyone else on the free-agent market. They can’t outspend everyone at the draft/international signing period anymore, either. So they need to find a new way to do it. The bad news is that a lot of other teams have already figured out the strategy I’m about to outline. The worse news is that means I’m not suggesting the Royals exploit a market inefficiency because they’re simply shooting themselves in their collective feet by refusing to exploit a known tactic that could benefit them.

I am, of course, talking about dead money represented by contracts on players that either can’t produce or can’t help enough to justify the expenditure. This trend may have started earlier but was ultimately popularized by the 2015 trade between Arizona and Atlanta in which the Braves agreed to take on the contract of Bronson Arroyo, who could not contribute to the team in any meaningful way, so that they could acquire a top prospect from Arizona in Touki Toussaint. Deals like that still happen - part of the Dodgers-Reds deal that sent Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati included a salary dump in the form of sending Homer Bailey to the Dodgers so they could release him and pay his salary; there was also the Alexander/Soria deal I mentioned earlier which stands as a less obvious example. But even in cases where one team isn’t necessarily trying to dump salary who will ultimately pay the contracts of the exchanged players makes a difference in which prospects get sent and which don’t. Being willing to pay the contract of the guy you are receiving/sending always guarantees a better return on the trade. Sometimes the difference isn’t significant, but it’s always there.

Since 2015, so far as I can tell, the Royals have paid down the contract of exactly one player while trading him; Travis Wood. And the Royals likely did that is almost certainly because Travis Wood was going to have to be released to help make room for their new acquisitions anyway and the Padres talked them into just adding him into the deal. It’s so bad that when the Royals acquired Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto for their playoff run in 2015 they sent extra prospects along with those players to convince their former teams to pay their contracts for the remainder of the year.

The Royals could have gotten better returns in their trades if they were willing to pay the salaries of Wade Davis, Jarrod Dyson, Ryan Buchter, Scott Alexander, Joakim Soria, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Hammel, and Ian Kennedy. You’ll note that I listed some players who weren’t even traded. That’s because the Royals decided they’d rather spend lots of money to players to go home for the rest of the season or to contribute to 100-loss teams than they would like to spend it on prospects.

And make no mistake, when the Royals choose to pay Ian Kennedy $20M for him to close out the few save opportunities a 100-loss team provides for him, they’re choosing to throw that money away. The money is spent. No one is going to pay that for the Royals. They’ll have to do it themselves, one way or another. He adds no real value to a team that is in the running for the number one overall draft pick. But if they paid down his entire contract while trading him to another team they could pick up a valuable prospect like a Joey Wentz who, yes, is now ranked as the tenth best prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system but would probably be ranked closer to fourth or fifth if he were a Royals prospect. This isn’t an assumption that the Royals really did turn down Joey Wentz for Ian Kennedy, but if the deal was out there for Joey Wentz for Shane Greene, something similar likely was out there for Kennedy.

Ian Kennedy cannot help the 2019 Royals do anything but lose one or two fewer games. Ian Kennedy will not be playing on this contract the next time the Royals are competitive. The money being spent on Kennedy could be spent to improve a future Royals team but instead, the team is choosing to waste it in the name of veteran presence and a stubborn refusal to pay money for extra prospects. Even though that’s exactly what they used to do when those prospects were able to be drafted or signed internationally. Either their thinking on this has shifted drastically or they don’t recognize the truth of that statement. If it is the former, then they are not the same front office that put together the 2014-2015 squads and cannot be trusted to complete the next rebuild; even if the change in thinking is a directive from the owner it only changes the assertion be that no front office can be trusted to complete the next rebuild. If it’s the latter, then they might be too similar to that same front office; they may not have enough good, new ideas to build a winning roster in the current environment.