The 2003 season was almost a great year for Royals fandom. A team that shouldn’t contend but was in the mix right up until the end. Lima time! It was a blast. A short, small spurt of summer fun in an otherwise endless winter of mediocrity and futility. When 2004 came and the team was terrible again, I checked out for a while.
I followed the team through the Greinke years, but I was less invested. Like many others, turning on the TV to watch your favorite team lose was not something I did a lot of. Then 2013 happened, and 2014... and 2015... oh how wonderful was 2015? I digress.
From 1985 until 2013, the Royals were mostly very bad. The question we are all asking is when will the Royals be good again?
By my thinking, there are really only three ways to measure a team who is rebuilding (I know, they say they aren’t rebuilding, but I don’t know what else you call replacing almost your entire core of players with newer, younger players while also losing a bunch of games, so I’ll say rebuilding). The first is by on-field record, the second is the farm system and the third is financial flexibility. It’s these three things that I want to focus on.
On field success
The Royals have been bad, and don’t show many signs of improving their results from last year. Anything short of 70 wins this season will kind of feel like a failure, and I think that 70 wins is a big stretch. 65? Sure. But honestly, 65 wins is a few lucky breaks away from 59, where the Royals finished last season. Over 162 games, six wins or losses seems like statistical noise. I’m going to say that in terms of a rebuild, at least so far, and predicting the 2020 season, this feels like a bad mark for them.
From a financial perspective, the Royals are in an okay place. They’re currently projected for a payroll of around $80 million this year, and after shedding Kennedy and Gordon next season, and accounting for 10 players in arbitration in 2021, they’ll be right around the same $80 million.
But do they have much flexibility? With new ownership, I think the only thing we can say fairly is we have no idea. Is $80 million just the amount they’re wanting to field this season, and build upon as they ramp up towards hopefully more successful seasons? I hope so. But don’t completely rule out the idea that the new ownership group may have taken on debt they need to pay back, or be looking for a quick return on their investment up-front.
The new Royals TV deal is still a bit of a mystery. Jeffrey Flanagan reported last week the Royals had a deal, possibly worth around $50 million a year for 10-15 years, but now it sounds like more of a 6-8 year deal with concerns from Fox Sports Kansas City about the changing broadcasting landscape. So financial flexibility may still be a bit questionable.
Improving farm system
In September, Bleacher Report had the Royals going from the 24th best farm system to the 10th. MLB ranked them out of their top 15, but has them as a farm system on the rise. Baseball America recently ranked them 18th.
There is disparity between the ranking systems, but overall the consensus is that the Royals are in a far better place now than they were just a few short years ago. This is a big win, but comes with a pretty big asterisk.
The Chicago White Sox were one of the top farm systems in baseball coming into 2019, and have only dropped further down the pack by graduating out top prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease. They also have top prospect Luis Robert (USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year) who is major-league ready.
The Minnesota Twins (you know, the 2019 AL Central Division winners) farm system is ranked 8th by both Bleacher Report and MLB.com. They did just trade a top 100 prospect in Brusdar Graterol, but still have four top-100 prospects and a few fringe prospects who could show up on the list anytime.
Add to that the fact that the Tigers also have a higher ranked farm system and only one player with a committed contract beyond the 2020 season (granted, it’s Miggy at 32 million a year). The Indians are ranked just behind the Royals as well. I think you may see where I’m going.
It’s nice to look ahead and think “When these guys get to the Majors, we’re going to be good.” However the reality is that every other team in the division is either more likely, or at least as likely, to have their prospects turn into impact players. The “window” that has been talked about as being 2021-2023 to contend also lines up with Chicago’s peak, the Twins next wave, the Indians next wave, and the Tigers likely next wave with all the payroll flexibility in the world.
When teams are doing better than you (Twins, White Sox) and also have farm systems nearly as good or better than you, it’s difficult to fight your way out. Because of this, coupled with the uncertainty of future payroll restrictions, I think it’s quite likely the Royals next “core” to make it to the playoffs may not even be in the system yet.
I hope I’m wrong.