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What does it take to build a sustainable winner?

Owner John Sherman and GM Dayton Moore want sustained success, but how?

MLB: SEP 16 Royals at Athletics Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2010, the Royals lost 95 games, finishing in dead last in the Central Division with the fifth-worst record in baseball. Just four years later, they were in Game 7 of the World Series, about 90 feet from tying the game to give them a shot at a championship. The very next year they won it all, the ultimate goal for any team. It was a remarkable feat that seemed impossible back in 2010.

But there would be no dynasty. Just three seasons after they were crowned the best team in baseball, the Royals would lose 104 games, second-most in baseball. A year later, they would lose over 100 games again, with no clear signs of major improvement for 2020. The fruit had blossomed nicely, but in short order it had rotted on the vine.

“Sustainability” has been a popular buzzword in the corporate world, typically about environmental practice, but also in regard to keeping an operation humming along through good times and bad. It has been a popular phrase in particular at 1 Royal Way, where those that run the team would like to see fewer embarrassing seasons like the last few years at the K. As Dayton Moore told Tracy Ringolsby at Baseball America back in 2018:

“In this era, people will look at a market like ours and say, ‘You go through windows. Five, six years of winning, and five, six years of losing.’ We want to do a better job going forward, where we can have sustained success over a long period.”

New owner John Sherman seems to be on board with such an approach, which shouldn’t be surprising considering his background with the Cleveland Indians. The Indians, which were a laughingstock in baseball a generation ago, have become the poster child for sustained success. They have had winning seasons in 10 of the last 15 years, including each of the last seven. Over that time, they have more wins than all but five other clubs.

What does it mean to win on a sustainable basis? Columnist Sam Mellinger put it pretty well in a recent column.

“This is dripping with nuance, but a team guided by sustainability will generally cut the peaks in exchange for avoiding the worst of the valleys. A team focused on winning 85 games every year will operate differently than one that’s OK losing 100 because it wants to win 95 down the road.”

So how do teams like the Indians find consistent success despite lacking the resources the other contenders rely on?

Avoid signing long-term free agent contracts

Long-term contracts can provide stability for a player, but if things go south, a team can be left with a less-than-productive player at a high salary. In the last 15 years, the Indians have signed just two free agents to deals longer than three years, signing Nick Swisher to a four-year, $56 million contract and Michael Bourn to a four-year, $48 million within a month of each other before the 2013 season. Both players fell off in productivity by the second year of the deal, leaving the Indians with two albatross contracts they were finally able to move to Atlanta in 2015 in exchange for another albatross contract.

The Royals have had a similar record of success with long-term deals. They have signed five players to deals of three years or more. All either fell of significantly in production or would miss significant time with injury.

Royals long-term contracts 

Free agent Date Years Amount WAR
Free agent Date Years Amount WAR
Gil Meche 12/13/2006 5 $55 million 10.2
Jason Vargas 11/22/2013 4 $32 million 7.3
Omar Infante 12/17/2013 4 $30.25 million -0.3
Alex Gordon 1/6/2016 4 $72 million 4.8
Ian Kennedy 1/16/2016 5 $70 million 6.2

That’s not to say the Royals didn’t get any value from these players. Gil Meche was pretty solid for a few seasons, they may not win a pennant without Jason Vargas in 2014, Alex Gordon has been a solid defender, and Ian Kennedy has become a solid closer. These are the kind of risks teams with resources are willing to make, or teams willing to push all their chips into the table and make a push for the playoffs are willing to make, as the Royals did in 2014 and 2015.

But this is not generally the modus operandi of teams looking for more sustained success. A long-term contract that goes bad can inhibit what a team is willing to do.* For a smaller market club to be a competitive team on a yearly basis, they need to maintain financial flexibility, and avoid being weighed down by an immovable salary.

*-I realize that teams are worth a billion or more with millions in revenues pouring in and thus should be able to continue spending despite bad deals, but this is about how teams operate in practice, not what they should do in principle.

Trade good players away before they decline

The Indians have won 90+ games in each of the last four seasons, coming within one win of a championship in 2016. With the collection of talent they have amassed, it would seem the opportune time to push their chips in and add talent to push them over the edge towards a championship.

Instead, the Indians have taken the opposite tack, trading away some of the key parts of their team. They shipped slugger Edwin Encarnacion to the Mariners last winter. Trevor Bauer was dealt to the Reds last summer. Corey Kluber was practically given away to the Rangers last month. Trade rumors continue to surround shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitcher Mike Clevinger.

While you could criticize the Indians for not maximizing their window, this philosophy has been part of their strategy for years. Over a decade ago, they were coming off a 96-win season with a good collection of players in their prime. Over the next year they would trade away key players from that team, but in doing so, they set up their future. Trading Cliff Lee away netted them Carlos Carrasco. Trading C.C. Sabathia away netted them Michael Brantley. Trading Victor Martinez away netted them Justin Masterson. Trading Casey Blake away netted them Carlos Santana. These players would be part of the next genration of competitive Indians teams.

Mellinger points out that had the Royals taken a more “sustainable” approach a few years back, they would have traded Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain away after the 2016 season to smooth the transition. The Royals still face a similar issue with players like Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler coming off fantastic seasons. While each may have a few good years left, their peak seems likely to be behind us, and with the next competitive Royals club still several years off, a more sustainable approach would suggest trading away their valuable older players to set up the future.

Let players leave

Alex Gordon may be my favorite Royals player of all time. The Midwestern kid overcame early career struggles and by sheer will became the best defensive left-fielder in baseball and a three-time All-Star. The day the news broke that he had re-signed with the Royals was one of my happiest off-the-field moments as a fan.

They shouldn’t have signed him. At least, not if they were taking a more sustainable approach. Sure, Alex takes terrific care of his body, but investing $70 million in a 32-year old is not a way to give yourself a chance to win down the line.

The Indians figured out a long time ago what many teams are realizing now - that investing millions in over-30 free agents is more often than not a losing proposition. Carlos Santana. Andrew Miller. Michael Brantley. All of these were key members of the team that left with the Indians making very little effort to retain their services. Sustainability does not allow for sentimentality.

Draft college pitchers after the first round

This seems like an obvious point, but to field a sustainable winner on a budget, you need to find good players in the draft. This provides the pipeline of talent that sets the foundation of your club. Even being able to develop a few middle relievers can save your club millions of dollars that can be re-allocated to fill other needs.

While the Royals may be known for having some high profile first round draft busts, the Indians haven’t always nailed it in the first round either. Outfielder Tyler Naquin (15th overall, 2012) has been a fourth outfielder, outfielder Bradley Zimmer (21st, 2014) shares his brother’s knack for getting hurt, and Brady Aiken (17th, 2015) has yet to get above low-A ball.

It can be very difficult to project young amateur baseball players, but the Indians seem to have found some measure of predictability in college pitchers. Since 2010, they have drafted ten pitchers who have been worth at least 1 WAR in their Major League career, all ten were drafted out of colleges (all but two were selected from four-year colleges). That includes four of the top nine-most valuable pitchers last year - Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Adam Plutko.

Pitching is so hard to project, but it is so pricey on the free agent market, teams like the Indians and Royals can’t afford to rely on free agent arms for their rotations. College arms seems to have less volatility than 18-year old high school kids who can flash some velocity and maybe a decent breaking ball. The Royals went heavy on college arms in the 2018 draft, and though it is still very early with none yet to make a MLB debut, the returns are very promising.

Identify underrated gems in other organizations

Smaller revenue clubs should always be on the lookout to add young talent. While teams are hoarding such players more than ever, there are still opportunities to identify underrated gems and pry them away from other clubs in underrated minor deals.

In the summer of 2018, the Cardinals found themselves in a bit of an organizational crunch, with too many outfielders in their upper minors, and not enough in the lower minors. Rather than keep their outfielders blocked, they engineered a deal, sending speedy Triple-A centerfielder Oscar Mercado the Indians for an A-ball outfielder named Conner Capel and an 18-year old Colombian infielder named Jhon Torres. Mercado made his MLB debut this year, hitting .269/.318/.443 with 15 homers and 15 steals, in a 2.2 WAR season.

The Royals have been seemingly reluctant to part with players once they are signed as an amateur. There is something to be said about developing stability and trust in an organization in contrast to the frantic revolving door teams like the Mariners and Athletics seem to operate. But there is always more talent out there, you just have to identify it.

Of course, this will mean giving up promising young players of your own. And sometimes this backfires - the Indians traded third baseman Yandy Diaz to the Rays for first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, only to see Bauers flounder last year while Diaz posted a 116 OPS+ for the Rays. But the Royals can’t be too wedded to their own players, instead they must overcome the bias of the “endowment effect”, when you over-value what you have in relation to what else is out there. The work of adding talent to an organization never stops.

Is a more sustainable approach better than pushing all your chips in for one big push? Well the Royals took the latter approach and won a championship, while the Indians are still searching for their first title since 1948. But the 2014-15 Royals run was also lightning in a bottle, a formula that seemed darn near impossible to replicate. Perhaps giving themselves more bites at the apple will have the best chance of success rather than hoping they can re-create the magic of yesteryear.