The Cubs dismantled the core of their 2016 championship club last month, sending Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, and Kris Bryant to contenders at the July trade deadline in separate deals. It marked the end of an era in Chicago, the first championship team at Wrigley Field in over a century, and it brought back memories of when Royals fans said goodbye to many players from their championship team at the end of the 2017 season.
The fall of the Royals’ core worked out differently, of course. The Royals were still in playoff contention in July of 2017, and hung onto their star players in an attempt to make one last run. A poor August slump doomed them, and the team would finish under .500. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas would walk off the field at the end of the season to a standing ovation, marking the end of an era (Moustakas would return on a one-year deal, only to be traded the following July to Milwaukee).
The difference in how the two clubs moved on from their championship day brought up a good question in a recent column by Sam Mellinger - should the Royals have done what the Cubs did this year? Sam seemed to think that perhaps the Cubs did it the right way.
I hadn’t thought of that direct comparison, and I’m not sure how to know if it was easier, but yeah.
That was a total dismantlement, done with no regard for the short-term and all regard for the long. The whole thing still comes down to choosing the right players and making the right decisions, but I do believe there’s value in losing, and that consecutive years within a few games of .500 aren’t what any franchise should want...
But these things are often won on the margins, and these trades can be a way to boost those margins.
I’ll do two things I don’t do too often - defend what the Royals did, and disagree with Sam Mellinger.
We forget now because of the way they finished, but the 2017 Royals were looking like a playoff team. At the July 31 trade deadline, they sat 55-48, just two games back of the first-place Indians, and tied for the top Wild Card spot. They had a 60.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. Having already acquired Trevor Cahill from the Padres the previous week, they were looking to add another starting pitcher, with rumors they could get Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, or Francisco Liriano. Ultimately, the Royals failed to land another arm, which perhaps kept their farm system intact, but may have cost them a shot to compete for a playoff spot.
Dayton Moore is relentlessly optimistic and never would have traded away his core players with the team in the hunt, but let’s pretend that the Royals were run more like a transactional team. What if Moore had taken a look at his team, seen a flawed team that had overachieved, and decided it was time to rebuild?
It is hard to imagine that a complete firesale would have moved the needle on the rebuild much. Hosmer, Moustakas, and Cain were all impending free agents, and teams generally don’t want to give up a ton of prospects for rentals. Hosmer, in particular, is a pretty polarizing player around baseball, and it is hard to see too many teams giving up much for him. Contenders rarely need first basemen, in fact, that year not a single first baseman was traded in the week leading up to the deadline. The only significant infielders dealt were roleplayers Tim Beckham and Eduardo Escobar, while the only outfielder dealt was Melky Cabrera - who went to the Royals for a pair of middling pitching prospects, A.J. Puckett and Andre Davis.
The Cubs had a better trio to trade than the Royals did back then, and they received a decent haul, but certainly not sure-fire prospects. In exchange for Rizzo, Báez, and Bryant, they received outfielder Kevin Alcantara, graded a 50 FV by Fangraphs, outfielder Pete-Crow Armstrong (45), pitcher Alexander Vizcaino (45), outfielder Alexander Canario (45), and pitcher Caleb Kilian (40+), with all five players now ranked among the top 20 Cubs prospects, according to by MLB Pipeline. But according to a recent study by Baseball America, only 20 percent of prospects in recent trade deadline deals would go on to have significant MLB careers. This is very much in line with the general bust rate for prospects. The Cubs will pretty lucky if one or two of those prospects amounts to a significant player.
We should also remember that the Royals did receive long-term players for Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. When those players departed as free agents, the Royals received two compensatory picks that they used to select Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, now two of their best pitching prospects. While draft picks also have a high bust rate, that’s an arguably better haul than they could have gotten trading those players at the deadline.
Last week I wrote that the Wade Davis trade was a dud, because it seemed the Royals were going in two different directions at once. You can argue about which direction the Royals should have gone - they could have begun the rebuild before the 2017 season perhaps, but I think they were justified in going for it that season, and if anything, they probably should have done more to mortgage the future and try to win it all. Because what future were they mortgaging really? The farm system was already bereft of talent. It was going to take several lean years to rebuild no matter what. You may as well try to win while you have Major League talent.
It is sad to see these teams get broken up (and in Chicago’s case, a bit mystifying since they’re a large-market club that could definitely afford to keep their stars), but we all knew the ride would end eventually in Kansas City. It didn’t end quite the way we wanted it to, but I think Dayton Moore made the right call in doing what he could to give the club one last shot, even if it was unsuccessful.