Much of our lives have been put on pause the last two months, and even as some businesses begin to re-open, many other events - from concerts, to weddings, to even the Summer Olympics - have been postponed.
In the grand scheme of all the terrible devastation wrought by the coronavirus, the Royals’ rebuild is a tiny speck that hardly even registers. But this pandemic has had major implications for all baseball teams, and as baseball fans, it is natural to wonder how this weird, delayed, truncated season will affect the Royals and their quest to get back to relevancy. Here are a few ways the pandemic could set back the rebuild.
No minor league development
The most obvious way this could set back the rebuild is the possible loss of a minor league season. Baseball will have to bend over backwards with all sorts of safety protocols just to get Major League ballplayers back on the field, it seems less likely the same measures will be taken to get minor league baseball back in action.
There has been a movement against in-game action to develop minor leaguers, as outlined by writer Travis Sawchik. Some clubs like the Astros have seemed to prefer having players work out at their spring training facilities with sophisticated equipment that gives them more opportunities to evaluate and modify their mechanics, as opposed to four or five plate appearances in a game. But it is still difficult to replicate how a player performs under pressure, in live-game action. As Royals Assistant General Manager J.J. Picollo put it, “not playing competitive games at the appropriate level for each player, that hurts,”
The loss of a minor league season could force the Royals to bring up some pitching prospects to the big leagues sooner than they otherwise would have. It seems likely Brady Singer will spend a considerable amount of time with the big league club this year, and we could see Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic at some point as well. Singer seems to have the bulldog mentality to face such a challenge, but bringing these pitchers up is not without risk, and the Royals will have to weigh bringing them up to get some action against not facing any live hitters at all this season.
While it is true, as Matthew LaMar wrote, that every club is in the same boat in terms of a delay in prospect development, the Royals are counting on their minor league system more than other clubs to produce the pipeline of talent to get the team back to competitiveness. A lost year like this could set that timeline back even further.
Lost trade opportunities
MLB has proposed playing an 82-game season that begins in early July, which almost certainly means the trade deadline, usually set for July 31, will have to be pushed back. Even if it is set back to some time in August, a truncated season could limit trade opportunities to move players like Whit Merrifield, Jorge Soler, or Ian Kennedy in exchange for younger prospects. Teams may also be hesitant to give up prospects for a short-term veteran in an attempt to win in a weird season like this, particularly with expanded playoffs that will lead to more randomness in the post-season.
It is also quite possible the Royals will not want to be sellers this season. A shortened season can also lead to more randomness to play into pennant races, giving bad teams potentially more of a shot if they get off a decent start. The Royals could have more of a chance to remain competitive through 82 games than through 162.
Per ZiPS, should the MLB season be cut in half, the #Royals playoff odds jump from 0.2% to 14.3% — the fifth biggest increase in the league.— Aly Trost (@AlyTrost) March 26, 2020
Remaining semi-competitive, or at least not getting buried 30 games back in the standings by July could dissuade Dayton Moore from dealing any short-term players for long-term assets. We know Dayton Moore has an abundance of optimism in his club - a strength and a weakness - and places a value on winning now. If the Royals are hanging near .500 after six weeks, don’t expect Whit Merrifield to be on the trading block.
Money is tight
Royals player payroll has gone down steadily over the last few years, from $122 million in 2018, to $96 million last year, to a projected $83 million this season (that will be cut in half due to the shortened season). That makes sense for a club that is trying to rebuild with younger, cheaper players, but at some point, Royals fans are going to want to see a reinvestment back into players to get the club competitive again.
The Royals were purchased last fall by John Sherman and a consortium of local owners for $1 billion, and while they are all very, very wealthy people, they aren’t billionaires with Jeff Bezos-type money. The ownership group needed to raise capital to come up with the asking price, and is likely very cash-light after spending a billion dollars. Forbes estimates the club already has debt totaling 24 percent of the value of the club, a number that could be exacerbated by the pandemic.
While everyone should be skeptical of claims the Royals would lose $113 million this year if players don’t take further pay cuts, it is almost certainly true this will not be a very good financial year for MLB owners, with many of them likely taking losses. And with an economic recovery in 2021 not guaranteed, particularly if we don’t know if there will be a coronavirus vaccine by then, the financial outlook for the next few seasons could be dicey. No one should feel sorry for these wealthy owners of course, just that this could cause Royals ownership, and several other baseball owners, to tighten their belts the next few seasons, which may mean the Royals may not be dipping into free agency they way they did when the last crop of young players was ready to start winning.