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Royals fans are getting restless

Amid a flurry of activity, the Royals have been quiet.

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MLB: JUL 18 White Sox at Royals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Barring a sudden change of events in the next few hours, baseball will go on a transaction freeze when the current labor deal expires tonight. The looming lockout has spurred an exciting frenzy of free agent signings that has given great buzz for the sport - just as it shoots itself in the foot with a labor dispute!

The bevy of signings has not been dominated by the typical big market teams either. Mid-market teams like the Rangers, Tigers, and even the stingy Marlins have been some of the biggest players so far. And smaller market clubs like the Twins and Rays have made headline swith mega-deals extensions for star players already on their team. In fact, the New York Yankees, baseball’s biggest heavyweight, is one of a few teams that has yet to sign a single player during the off-season.

Another team that has failed to add a single player since the end of the regular season, is the Kansas City Royals. On the one hand, fans shouldn’t expect the Royals to be plunging into the deep end with huge deals for players like Corey Seager or Javier Baez. On the other hand, the Royals won just 74 games and could definitely use some depth after injuries and disappointing play caused them to finish in the bottom five in the league in both runs scored and runs allowed.

The lack of any kind of activity at all has left many Royals fans restless.

Alec Lewis of The Athletic responded to fan ennui with a column asking fans to change their mindset and trust the process.

Stop your dejected social media scrolling and furious typing; alter your mindset and think about the way the Royals have built their current club and what that might mean for their strategy.

He writes that the Royals have had a quiet off-season because they are building up their farm system which will be key to their future success. The team won’t be making a big splash until they are close to contention - certainly an understandable argument and one I have also made.

But there is a lot of room to operate between signing top free agents and adding literally zero players. The Royals still need to fill several roles in the bullpen, figure out how to get more offense out of their outfield, and more innings from their starting pitching. Prospects won’t be the solution to all these problems.

Alec writes about how the Royals may be able to be more “transactional”, as Dayton Moore put it, once their prospects reach the big leagues, citing Tampa Bay and Cleveland as models.

Here the Royals sit with what many big-league scouts agree is that good farm system. Depth should allow them to be more transactional in the coming months and years, especially when the Royals’ group of young talent nears arbitration — 2023.

But those teams aren’t just trading top players like Blake Snell and Mike Clevinger to get better, they are constantly making deals to improve their organization. The Rays made all sorts of smaller trades to upgrade their team. They traded away former first-round pick to get outfielder Randy Arozarena. They traded away a reliever to get Manny Margot. Yandy Diaz was acquired from Cleveland for hitting prospect Jake Bauers. All-Star catcher Mike Zunino came in a deal with Seattle for light-hitting speedster Mallex Smith and outfielder Jake Fraley. Of the 18 players who were worth at least 1 WAR on the Rays last year, 13 came from another organization.

The Rays aren’t afraid to trade away a player that could blossom elsewhere - and some have! The Royals tend to hold onto certain players too long, well past the point they have established they aren’t productive. Trusting in your own players can pay off, particularly if you have a very good development process. But the Royals will have to distinguish between trusting the development process, and having blind faith that players will improve.

Bill Simmons once wrote that fans should give teams a five-year grace period following a championship where they don’t complain about anything. The Royals won the World Series six years ago. Then they allowed the farm system to atrophy (don’t blame this on the trades the Royals made to contend - Sean Manaea, Cody Reed, and Matt Strahm wouldn’t have moved the needle on where the Royals are today).

They’ve done a good job building the farm system in the last four years. Alec asks “isn’t four years to replenish an entire farm system relatively swift?” In year five of their rebuild under Jeff Luhnow, the Houston Astros were in the playoffs. In year five of their rebuild under Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs were in the League Championship Series. The White Sox made the playoffs after four years of a rebuild. The Tigers began their rebuild at the same time as the Royals and finished ahead of them in the standings this year, were ranked a top ten farm system, and are now making aggressive signings this winter.

We’re about a month into the off-season, and many times waiting out the market can lead to some real savings, so perhaps patience is a virtue in this case. At this point a year ago, the Royals had just signed Mike Minor and Michael A. Taylor, and had not yet acquired Carlos Santana or Andrew Benintendi. Of course, last year there was no work stoppage throwing a wrench into plans either.

Building through the farm system is really the only way for small-market clubs to build winners. But it also allows clubs to slow-walk the goalposts further and further out. It took Dayton Moore a good seven years to build a competitive club before. Will Royals fans be as patient this time?