The Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Rays share a lot of similarities. Both clubs wear blue. Both clubs play in the American League. Both clubs are small market teams with small payrolls. And, most importantly, both clubs have managed to make the most of it, with each franchise managing to win two American League pennants apiece in the last 15 years.
However, the similarities end there. Because while the Royals are tied for the fewest winning seasons in Major League Baseball over the last 15 years, the Rays have tied for the third most winning seasons. Furthermore, the Rays play in the crucible that is the American League East, where they must play 19 games a year against both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Royals, meanwhile, must play against the likes of the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers. It’s no disrespect to say that this is...not the same level of competition.
Additionally, the Rays aren’t simply handicapped by their low payroll; rather, they consistently run the lowest payrolls in the league. In the last decade and a half, the Rays have been among the bottom five in team payroll every year but twice—when they were still in the lower third.
So how do they do it? Well, they do an excellent job at developing talent and then an equally excellent job of trading that talent for more talent when they get expensive. Rinse, repeat. Since 2007, the Rays have had eight hitters and four pitchers accrue more than 10 Wins Above Replacement, per Fangraphs. Both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have had 11 hitters and eight pitchers do the same. The Rays are simply experts at trading their players when they get expensive and while they still have high value. It keeps payroll low and the prospect pool full.
The Royals do not do so, by Dayton Moore’s own admission. They might as well operate on different planets.
The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League pennant and advanced to the World Series with a payroll among the lowest third of MLB in 2020.
“They do an excellent job of developing and maintaining pitching,” Moore said. “They’re very transactional. They’re more transactional than we are. I’ve been criticized for that many times, that we stay for players a little too long. Sometimes it works out great. Sometimes it doesn’t. We’re one of the least transactional organizations in baseball.”
There are certainly downsides to the extreme transactional model. The Rays have been good, sure, but at what cost? Why would you get invested in the franchise, knowing that every controllable star will be traded at the apex of their talents? There is a stark difference between knowing that a small market team won’t be able to keep a star when free agent hits and knowing that your small market team is going to ship that player off before it even happens.
Still, the Rays win year in and year out, and the Royals have...not...so that’s a point in Tampa Bay’s favor. Moore, to his credit, seems to understand intellectually that being more transactional is probably a good thing for the club.
Moore seemed to indicate a potential change in this regard when he said, “I think as we go forward, I have to be more open-minded to being more transactional.”
The problem here is that the Royals are in the perfect situation to be more transactional this deadline. It’s a golden opportunity, and one that I have already emotionally prepared myself for the Royals to squander.
Here we stand at the All-Star break, and the Royals have fallen flat on their face. They are a definitively awful team, and they are bad at just about everything. They can’t hit. They can’t field. Their starting pitching stinks. Their relief pitching also stinks. Worst of all, they have very little upside—the 2021 Royals are old, particularly with their position players.
Ultimately, the Royals need a complete roster overhaul. There are maybe 10 players on the current active roster who are A) under contract in two years and B) can reasonably be relied on to fulfill a role for a baseball team that intends to lose fewer than 90 games.
The Royals need to realize that this team ain’t gonna compete in 2022, because they don’t have the talent to do so. But here’s where the transactional part comes in: they can probably compete in 2023—if they push for it.
Perhaps Moore and the Royals’ biggest sin over the last decade and a half has been pursuing every win equally and by valuing every player in a vacuum. For instance: Whit Merrifield is a good player, Whit Merrifield helps us win baseball games, and extending Whit Merrifield will help us win more baseball games. The problem is that Merrifield hasn’t done much except to get additional wins during 100-loss seasons, and those wins matter far, far less than getting the 88th, 89th, and 90th win for a team pursuing a playoff spot.
This is the perfect time to be transactional. It is time to cash in on some chips. Sometimes you must lose a battle to win the war. What does this mean? It means trading Merrifield, finally. It means trading Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer, or Josh Staumont. It means trading Carlos Santana or Andrew Benintendi. It means trading Danny Duffy. It means trading those players for prospects with upside, not the kind of wishy-washy “big league ready” players that returned the likes of Kelvin Gutierrez and Mike Montgomery.
This seems, shall we say, very unlikely. They might make a token trade, like offloading Michael A. Taylor and his expiring contract for a reliever with iffy command who’s already spent some time in the big leagues. We know they probably won’t because they’ve already had a chance to do so over the last few years have and instead chosen to pursue that 58th win in 2018 and that 59th win in 2019. To be transactional now would go against years and years of consistent messaging.
To be as transactional as the Rays is perhaps going overboard. But they don’t win consistently in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox for no reason whatsoever. Emulating a little of their willingness to transact should be the bare minimum for the Royals.