To this day, there is a persistent and very wide-reaching opinion that the Second Golden Age Royals of the mid-2010s ended because a small market team like Kansas City could never keep up with the big market teams, and that their eventual fall from grace was just how these things happen, especially with the trades for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.
This is flatly untrue.
First, we have seen teams succeed with far less financial resources than the Royals did. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series with the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball, a payroll only three fifths the median payroll at the time. They did so again this year with the third-lowest payroll in baseball, only this time their payroll was less than half the median payroll. A strong payroll helps, but is not a requirement.
Second, we’ve seen other small market teams go on long runs despite a market size in the bottom half of Major League Baseball. Cleveland and St. Louis rank 19th and 23rd, respectively, in Nielsen Designated Market Area size, and rank 34th and 20th, respectively, in metro population. Neither the Indians or the Cardinals have had a losing season in the last eight years—additionally, both franchises boast a league pennant and a 100-win season during that time. A large market helps, but small market teams can have strong long-term success as well.
Third, and most importantly, the Royals did not have a longer window because they were awful at drafting and developing players for a very long time. This is not criticism. This is fact. Since the 2010 draft, the Royals have produced one player who debuted as a Royal and has at least four career Wins Above Replacement per Baseball-Reference.
Kansas City was forced to spend lots of money in 2016 and 2017 to fill holes that should have been filled internally, and the inefficiency of free agency just couldn’t carry that weight. It was the price Kansas City paid for whiffing on not one, not two, but three consecutive top-five draft picks from 2010 through 2012.
We are now in the 2020-2021 offseason, and for the first time since the 2016-2017 offseason there is the possibility for some legitimately interesting moves. This year has been challenging for many, but it was a ray of light for the Royals and their fans, when they ascended from one of the worst teams in baseball to a merely bad—but watchable—team. That is a huge jump to take. Now, the Royals are looking to make the next jump.
Just in the last few days, news has broke that the Royals are signing pitcher Mike Minor to a two-year deal as well as signing outfielder Michael A. Taylor to a one-year, $1.75 million deal. Minor, a onetime Royal, will provide depth and flexibility for the Royals on the pitching side of things, which will let their crop of talented pitching prospects develop at their own pace. And on the Taylor side of things, well, $1.75 million is going to be less than two percent of the Royals’ 2020 payroll, and his defense will be a salve for an outfield that was the fifth-worst in baseball per Defensive Runs Saved.
As I type this, what Royals fandom that is left and still paying attention as the calendar turns to December are busy discussing these moves, and indeed some are doing so in the comments of this very website. That’s all well and good! Both signings prompt a lot of questions: Is this the final straw for Jake Junis as a starting pitcher? What does this mean for Nick Heath? Could the Royals still sign an outfielder like Jackie Bradley, Jr.?
There’s nothing wrong with discussing these signings, and they are welcomed news in the long, dark offseason. However, neither will move the needle for a franchise like the Royals. No signing, save a nine-figure one, will do so. It is the minor league system that truly holds the fate of the franchise in its hands.
After a particularly long and dry run in the draft, things are looking up for the Royals. Two members of the 2018 Starting Pitcher Draftaganza—Brady Singer and Kris Bubic—have already made it to the big leagues. Neither is the most talented of the bunch. Meanwhile, the second overall pick of the 2019 draft—Bobby Witt, Jr.—made waves this year while hitting against much more seasoned competition in the alternate site and in the fall. And in this year’s draft, the Royals got a consensus top-three pick at fourth overall in Asa Lacy.
But none of this matters if the Royals can’t produce a batch of above average big league talent, if the Royals don’t get an ace out of their talented arms, if their 2017 position player class double down on their recent failures at the plate, and if Witt can’t actually hit. Caring deeply about free agents is a luxury, and it is one that the Royals fans do not have because this whole house of cards could tumble in an instant. Yes, the Royals improved from two consecutive 100-loss seasons this year. But they are also so close to another one.
The next reliably above average starting pitcher that the Royals produce and the next reliably above average position player the Royals produce will be their first in a decade. There is more hope in the franchise’s young talent now than there has been in a decade, too. But developing talent is hard, and the Royals have been bad at it for a long time. No free agent will solve that conundrum.