After 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019 and the equivalent of a 92-loss season in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, the Kansas City Royals were ready to compete. At the very least, they intended to take an important step out from the bottom of the standings. The offseason shows this—the Royals spent real cash on two-year deals for Mike Minor and Carlos Santana, and facilitated a trade for Andrew Benintendi. Meanwhile, they kept every one of their current big league assets and even doubled down, extendeding Hunter Dozier and Salvador Perez.
But you don’t have to read between the lines here, examining what the varying moves meant. The Royals said as much. Take, for example, article in the Kansas City Star from February 28 titled, “‘We expect to make the playoffs’: Royals raised expectations with aggressive offseason:”
The Royals, however, aren’t shying away from the fact that they expect to contend in the division this year. They have no intention of settling for being the plucky little also-rans.
“We expect to make the playoffs,” Royals All-Star outfielder Whit Merrifield said. “We expect to be in the playoffs. We expect to be playing into the fall. You get to the playoffs and anything can happen. We expect to compete in our division, have a chance to win it.”
The fact that the Royals acquired established veteran players in their 30s like Santana and Minor, who’ve been All-Stars and played in the postseason, only bolsters that sentiment.
This is a sentiment that competitive players tend to share. To get to the level of competition that’s in Major League Baseball, you don’t just have to be good; you must also have a competitive drive. But this year in Kansas City, it’s a top-down organizational mandate. In November of last year, General Manager Dayton Moore said as much:
“We expect to win next year,” Moore said during a video conference call with reporters. “What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. Our mindset is going to be to win every single pitch, every inning, win every game. That’s the only way that we’re ever going to win another championship, you’ve got to expect to win at all aspects.”
We expect to win. That’s nice. Unfortunately for the Royals, they were the only ones. The PECOTA projection system predicted that the Royals would win 71 games, while the comparatively optimistic ZiPS had the Royals at 77 wins. The median Royals Review staff prediction was in the middle at 76 wins.
All three look optimistic at best. The Royals have been an extremely bad baseball team this year. At the halfway mark of the 2021 season just last week, the Royals had accrued only 34 wins—on pace for a 68-94 season. They currently own the sixth-worst record in Major League Baseball. Even more daunting, by their third order winning percentage, the Royals are playing like a 62-100 club.
Such a poor performance has prompted, shall we say, some consternation from the club as criticism bubbles up on social media, throughout the fanbase, and on a certain independent Royals fan website that pulls in millions of unique pageviews a year. So Moore sought out the media to explain why the team is losing. He didn’t do a good job.
“All our guys really, really care. They want to do better. They’re hurting. The effort level, when you watch our team play, has been really good. You don’t have guys peeling off on the bases, don’t have drama in the clubhouse. No finger pointing. We may not be winning games, but they’re preparing and acting like winners.”
Caring about whether or not you win baseball games is a prerequisite to working in Major League Baseball; it is not something that differentiates your team from other teams. Every player in the big leagues wants to win! And as far as a lack of drama in the clubhouse goes, well, that’s not a plus or a minus. Nobody truly cares what the clubhouse is like. The fans aren’t there. They don’t pay to watch the clubhouse. Having a drama-free clubhouse is only important if your team is good enough to take advantage of that cohesion, which the Royals certainly are not.
And acting like winners? What do winners do, really? They win. The Royals are acting like winners in the same way that Russell Crowe acted like a singer in Les Miserables; it’s technically an attempt, but by all measures of success it is a failed attempt. Are the Royals acting with integrity while losing? Maybe. But that is completely different than acting like winners, who, you know, win.
“You’ve got to do a lot of things right to win a Major League Baseball game,” Moore said on Friday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. “When you have breakdowns in several areas, it makes it darn near impossible to win. But you can’t make excuses with injuries, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to look in the mirror as a general manager and evaluate your processes. But I’m going to believe in our players, in [manager] Mike Matheny, in the coaching staff.
“I believe in Cal Eldred and Terry Bradshaw, and our players, that we’re going to continue to get better,” Moore said. “Focusing on the things that we need to do better. We have a lot of baseball left. And we expect to get better.”
As far as I can tell, the Royals have this line of thinking
- You can’t make excuses for losing or injuries
- As a result, you’ve got to evaluate your processes
- Therefore, we’re going to do nothing and hope we get better
The Royals are in year four of their rebuild (though one could make the argument that it is year five, and the rebuild started in 2017 after the Royals hedged their bets by trading Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson). During the last four years, the Royals have posted a .394 winning percentage, averaging out to 98 losses per full season.
This might not be a problem except, as we outlined right off the bat, the Royals are explicitly not trying to tank. We know this because they have repeatedly refused to trade their top trade assets—Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield, and Danny Duffy, namely—at their peak value or, obviously, at all.
We also know this because the Royals have repeatedly made trades for close to big league ready players rather than for trading for younger players with high upside. These transactions, such as the aforementioned Wade Davis/Jorge Soler trade as well as the Martin Maldonado/Mike Montgomery, Kelvin Herrera/Kelvin Gutierrez, and the Mike Moustakas/Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez trades neither contributed to a contending squad nor formed building blocks for the next good Royals team.
So, when the team has not performed as well as you thought, and when you expected them to improve, the move when they have slipped backwards is...to do nothing? I confess, perhaps it is my bad that “we expect to win next year” actually means “we expect to flirt with 100 losses.” Maybe I do not understand that particular nuance.
Do you know what other teams do when they don’t get the results they want? They fire people. They make moves. They don’t just sit around hoping they get better while the product they put on the field is unwatchable.
The Royals seem aware that people are unhappy with the team, to their credit, but they also seem to be missing why people are unhappy.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about the pitching coach,” he said. “I understand all that. (Talk about the) general manager, I understand.”
...“When you go through these times, there’s going to be whatever said is said. If something needs to be adjusted, it’ll be adjusted. But to give this too much of our time, I think is wrong. Keep doing your job, keep caring. Keep going about it the right way. And we believe in the end, it’ll translate to the right outcomes.”
Look: I’m not a fan calling for people’s jobs because it’s a way to vent my anger. I’m not calling for Moore’s job, or even for pitching coach Cal Eldred’s job.
Rather, the whole point of this piece that directly and repeatedly quotes the Royals’ own views on this situation is to try and provide some accountability. This year’s Royals are, for the fourth year in a row, an absolutely awful excuse for a baseball club. Had this been the plan from the beginning, to trade off assets and tank hard, I for one would not be criticizing them right now.
But, again, as we have noted with their own words, that is not the case. And so “to give this too much of our time, I think, is wrong” strikes me as a petty excuse. Do the Royals not expect us to hold them to the same standards that they themselves apparently expect out of their own organization? Is criticizing this year’s team construction somehow not up for debate, no matter how many games they lose?
It would be fantastic if the Royals would simply recognize the core problem with this team, which has nothing to do with approaches at the plate or creating a good clubhouse culture. The Royals are here today because they horribly misjudged how close they were to contention and because they have been unable to reliably produce and develop talent.
Until they address those core problems, they will continue to poke around at the bottom of the standings. It is that simple. A winning mindset doesn’t win baseball games. Talent and good coaching do.