Quick: are the Kansas City Royals a young team? Many of you probably answered with an affirmative. After all, they’re a rebuilding team, right? And aren’t rebuilding teams young?
Unfortunately, if you answered as such, you’d be wrong.
The 2021 Royals squad, at least through the first month plus of the season, are old. The league average age among pitchers is 29.0 years, and the Royals are right there with an average pitching age of 28.9 years. You’d be right that this figure doesn’t tell the full story, of course—Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic are all in their age-25 seasons or younger, and the four pitchers over the age of 33 are on short-term contracts. Still, the Royals don’t exactly have a young bullpen, with the average age of Jesse Hahn, Kyle Zimmer, Scott Barlow, and Josh Staumont at nearly 30.
It is among position players where the Royals truly show their age. With an average age of 29.6, the Royals have the fourth-oldest average position player roster in baseball. Six members of their starting lineup are in their age-29 seasons or older. Their bench is filled with players ages 27 through 29...except for Jarrod Dyson, who is in his age-36 season.
On its face, age is indeed just a number. Yes, older players are in the decline phases of their careers, and yes, they aren’t as good as they once were, but specifically playing young players for the sake of being young is not inherently helpful. In other words, having a young roster is like having payroll flexibility: it’s not always helpful, and in some cases it is entirely unhelpful. The Boston Red Sox may have payroll flexibility, but the Los Angeles Dodgers are the ones with Mookie Betts and the 2020 World Series trophy. Likewise, the age of your roster doesn’t matter if you’re in the playoffs.
But you know when the age of your roster does matter? When you’re rebuilding!
Let’s not get a head of ourselves here: we don’t yet know exactly where the 2021 Royals will end up. However, we absolutely know where the 2018-2020 Royals ended up: as one of the three worst teams in the league. We also know that this year’s Royals have lost 10 games in a row. Good teams don’t lose 10 in a row. These Royals might not be awful, but they ain’t good.
Unfortunately, they’re not good for the right reasons, or for reasonable reasons: they have a bunch of veterans and free agent signings who are expected to produce now, and they have about no one with upside. Currently, the Royals aren’t carrying a single hitter on the roster under the age of 26. I’ll repeat it, because it’s quite amazing: in rebuild year four, not one hitter, whether starting or on the bench, is younger than their age-26 season in mid-May.
The Royals do not have a single position player they can count on to be a star. Furthermore, they don’t really have anybody they hope can be a star. Expecting Adalberto Mondesi to be the franchise’s savior is hoisting far too much on his already injured shoulders; if the Royals get a single healthy season from him before he hits free agency, they would rightfully rejoice. As for Bobby Witt, Jr., well, he’s 20 years old and striking out 37% of the time in Double-A. Give him a minute to breathe before shifting those expectations onto someone who can’t legally drink yet.
Kansas City’s position player woes , however, are not permanent. The Royals are currently carrying seven players who are hitting below league average per wRC+. Of those players, three—Jorge Soler, Michael A. Taylor, and Hanser Alberto—are free agents at the end of the year. Another is the backup catcher, Cam Gallagher. Another, Nicky Lopez, is still making the league minimum and has minor league options. Only Hunter Dozier is owed any real money past this year, and his positional flexibility means that he won’t be blocking anyone.
Still, that the Royals have expendable bad position players does not in any way take away from the fact that their lineup is full of bad position players in the first place, or that the entire group has no upside left. If the Royals are scoring two runs a game with players earning their lumps, so be it. They are not. They are scoring two runs a game and losing ten straight with players that are paid to produce now and simply aren’t. That’s worse.