Professional team sports Hall of Fames are becoming increasingly more difficult to navigate for voters. The NBA has the least amount of controversy, mostly because NBA teams are more dependent on individual players, thus making it easier to determine which ones were the greatest compared to their peers.
But in the NFL and MLB, it’s getting more complicated. Analytics and a rapidly evolving game will make NFL Hall of Fame discussions a crapshoot, specifically as guys like Philip Rivers retire. Baseball is in a similar position. Analytics and an evolving game have already started to make this discussion more difficult.
For teams, however, the Hall of Fame has also gotten more complicated, but for different reasons. And the Royals know this all too well.
George Brett is the only Hall of Famer who spent most of his career with the Royals. They are one of seven franchises with one or fewer Hall of Famers who spent most of their career with that franchise. Each of those teams – Expos/Nationals, Rays, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Royals, Rangers, and Rockies – are expansion franchises.
Expansion franchises, while struggling to put players in the Hall, haven't really struggled to win. For example, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians are fourth and fifth respectively among franchises in Hall of Fame members. Despite that, the Indians have the same number of championships as the Marlins and Royals and the Cubs have just one more. If you throw in the Mets and Blue Jays, expansion teams who have two Hall of Famers, you’ll have two more expansion teams with multiple World Series titles.
So why is it easier for expansion teams to win the World Series than it is to put a player in the Hall of Fame compared to their non-expansion counterparts? They haven't existed as long as other teams, so that’s one reason. But again, that hasn’t prevented the Marlins from winning as many World Series’ as Cleveland, despite existing for 92 fewer seasons. Another possible reason - free agency.
The free-agent era made it more difficult for small market teams to keep elite talent, sure. But more than that, it just made it far less likely that players stay with their original franchise for the majority of their career, let alone for their entire career.
It’s an uphill battle for a team like the Royals to produce a Hall of Famer that isn’t just a Hall of Famer by technicality, but whose legacy was actually built in Kansas City. So is it still possible?
I see five possible scenarios in which the Royals enshrine a Hall of Famer. In those scenarios, the player in question:
1. Is drafted by the Royals and produces at a Hall of Fame level before he hits free agency
2. Is drafted by the Royals and produces at a Hall of Fame level before and/or after he hits free agency, but still with Kansas City
3. Is not drafted by the Royals and produces at a Hall of Fame level after being traded to Kansas City
4. Is not drafted by the Royals and produces at a Hall of Fame level after signing with the Royals in free agency
5. Is signed by the Royals internationally
Here are a few players that might fit the criteria for each one.
1. Johnny Damon/Carlos Beltrán
Just two players in, you should already see why it’s unlikely that the Royals put another drafted player in the Hall without them being in category B. At this point, Damon is the most likely player to get in the Hall as a Royal, but it’s almost on a technicality. He isn’t best known for his days with the Royals and he certainly didn’t produce at a Hall of Fame level before he left.
He played in 1,687 games after he left Kansas City and he needed all of them to become a fringe candidate. The only reason he might go in as a Royal is because he technically played more games with Kansas City than any other team, by virtue of being a journeyman.
Then you have Beltrán, who was the far better player and was producing at a Hall of Fame-like trajectory in Kansas City. But unlike Damon, he was clearly better in his seven years with the Mets than he was with the Royals.
This scenario is unlikely because it would require a blazing start to his career. And even if that happened, it’s still unlikely that he would spend his prime years in Kansas City.
2. Zack Greinke
This is maybe the most feasible real-life case, but it also took extremely unlikely circumstances to make it happen. Greinke started more games for the Royals than any other team, by a significant margin. He won his only Cy Young in Kansas City, which is a crucial achievement for Hall of Fame pitchers. If my numbers are correct, only seven starting pitchers in the Hall don’t have a Cy Young.
His 72.2 rWAR is right there with the average Hall of Fame starting pitcher and the Royals got the most of it. He has had four seasons with an rWAR above five. Two were in Kansas City. And it is inarguable that the apex of his career was with the Royals, as that 2009 season was quite literally one of the best seasons in baseball history for a starting pitcher.
But that only happened because of his unique circumstances. His terrible 2005 season, paired with an intense battle with depression and social anxiety disorder, helped the Royals to sign him to a team-friendly four-year, $38 million contract before his 2009 breakout season.
So Greinke is a rare case of a player that was drafted by the Royals and performed at a Hall of Fame level after his original contract. But that likely wouldn’t have happened had he peaked a bit earlier.
3. Lorenzo Cain
Another unlikely path. While Cain will always be best known for his time in Kansas City and while he did perform at an extremely high level, high enough to have the 14th-best rWAR in franchise history, he needs to continue producing at that level to even become a fringe candidate.
And though Cain wasn’t drafted by the Royals, he also wasn’t signed by them. And once he hit free agency, he signed with the Brewers. But if there is an example of what this path might look like, Cain is the guy.
This is, without a doubt, the most unlikely scenario. For this to happen, the Royals would need to have the financial ability and be an attractive enough location for a free agent who is entering/already in his prime or they would have to sign a high-risk free agent to a long-term deal and have it work out perfectly or they would need to sign a high-risk guy on a short-term deal and build up enough goodwill that he stays in town once he outperforms his contract.
It’s very unlikely that any of those things happen. And even if they did, it’s even more unlikely that said player would be good enough for a long enough period of time to be a Hall of Famer with the Royals.
5. Salvador Perez
This seems like the odds-on favorite to produce a Hall of Famer in Kansas City. While Sal hasn’t performed at a Hall of Fame level, he is a legitimate star. And according to rWAR, a late-career run could actually make him a fringe candidate.
Either way, the international market might be the Royals’ best chance, especially given the relationships they seem to build with their international players. For them to have a Hall of Famer, it needs to be a player who has deep ties with the organization. Not unlike Alex Gordon, but of course, he would need to be better than Alex Gordon.
The Royals have had success in the international market, so if they are going to produce a Hall of Famer to join the GOAT in Cooperstown, that might be their best shot.