The MLB lockout is officially here, which means that there is going to be no additional free agency activity or substantive trades until the owners decide to end the lockout (for it was the owners and the owners only who instituted it in the first place). Teams can and will sign foreign talent and minor league free agents in the interim, but the Kansas City Royals—alongside every other team—are done.
And, well, the Royals are done without doing anything, having signed precisely zero players to big league free agent deals. They didn’t make any trades, either, not even a minor trade involving someone like Cam Gallagher or his roster equivalent.
Though semi-recent playoff success has kept the hearts of Royals fans warm and cozy for a rather long time, they have also simply stunk for a rather long time. The Royals have all of zero winning seasons in their last six, two of which involved embarrassing 100-loss campaigns despite insistence that they weren’t tanking, no sir. So, with some progress being made, it’s natural to think, assume, or even hope that they’d get into the whole free agency bonanza that happened before the owners instituted the lockout.
In other words, Royals fans are getting restless. But I am not going to preach at you that your feelings are wrong because your mindset needs altering or because it’s just FOMO. I totally get it. However, I do want to highlight two reasons why the Royals standing pat on free agency this year was absolutely the right move for the team.
Reason #1: Free agents are expensive and risky
In part, the Royals haven’t sprung for big free agents in part because they are a small market team without the financial power of larger teams. Nielsen ranks Kansas City as the 34th largest DMA—or designated market area—in the country, and fewer TVs are in the Royals’ market than all but two other MLB franchises (Cincinnati and Milwaukee).
But that’s not the only reason. With the way that MLB free agency plays out, most free agents are in the twilight of their 20s or their early 30s before they reach free agency. This stands in stark contrast with, say, the NFL or NBA, whose stars routinely reach free agency in their mid-20s. When LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat, for instance, he was entering his age-26 season. Meanwhile, practically no MLB player hits free agency before their age-28 season at the earliest.
As a result, free agents aren’t just expensive. They’re risky, too. That’s because Father Time always wins in the end, and players simply don’t effectively play into their mid-30s very often—no matter how good they are at their peaks.
This is not to say the Royals, or any team for that matter, should never engage in free agency. It just means that free agency should be about shoring up weaknesses and filling roster holes rather than as a primary roster bringing strategy. Simply put, free agency is an extremely inefficient way of making a team, and a short look at the Royals’ major free agent acquisitions under Moore highlights just how inefficient free agents generally are.
3+ year FA signings under Dayton Moore
|Player||Year||Contract (in Millions)||WAR||$/WAR|
|Player||Year||Contract (in Millions)||WAR||$/WAR|
Moore’s track record in free agency isn’t unusual, and to his credit he has avoided inking players to the kinds of albatross deals that kneecap their ability to be competitive for years to come (the reason why the Royals haven’t been competitive after 2015 has had essentially nothing to do with payroll). But you can see here, the best player signed to a three-plus year deal since 2007 has been...Jason Vargas or Gil Meche? And, even then, both players had significant injuries that limited their effectiveness.
Signing free agents for the sake of signing free agents doesn’t work. It’s an inefficient way to spend a team and it can affect how much money is available for extensions, which are a much better way to spend cash. Free agency is about finding players where you need help, but that brings us to the second point, which is...
Reason #2: We don’t know where the Royals will need help
You might be thinking to yourself, “gee, Matt, the Royals didn’t even eke out 80 wins last year, they need help in a lot of places.” You would be correct in that assessment The Royals have a long ways to go before being a playoff team, and anybody who watched the playoffs this year could instantly tell that there’s a talent gulf between where the Royals are and where they want to be.
But, again, free agency is about shoring up weaknesses and filling holes in the roster. And the Royals are in a position where there a lot of holes, yes, but also a lot of potential players who can fill them—or potentially crash and burn.
Most notably, the Royals have three top 100 prospects in Bobby Witt, Jr., Nick Pratto, and MJ Melendez. Nobody knows how good they’ll be, or if they’re truly ready. Will Adalberto Mondesi or Nicky Lopez repeat their respective disappointing and breakout seasons, or will we see another version of them?
And this is to say nothing of the pitching staff, which is a gigantic question mark. Yes, there’s talent, but we still don’t really know how much talent and to what degree of talent there is. Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch both have less than 70 innings in the big league level. Is Kris Bubic a bullpen guy or a starter? Can Carlos Hernandez maintain his breakout starting streak from last year? What about Angel Zerpa, Jon Heasley, or Dylan Coleman? Can they be viable bullpen arms after a small taste of the big leagues?
We know that the Royals won’t be able to fill all the holes they currently have with internal options. Prospect attrition rates rather strongly suggest that to be the case. However, we also don’t know when the Royals will be truly competitive—it could be as soon as 2022 or as late as 2024. It could also very well be that this rebuild turns out to be a dud and the Royals won’t ever be competitive with the current administration. No one knows.
As a result, not doing anything is the correct move. There will be another batch of free agents next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. If the Royals take a big step this year and the Royals still don’t go for it in the offseason, then criticize away. But now? Now they’re doing right what they should be.