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The Royals can’t or won’t make the hard decisions

Learn a thing or two from the Cubs

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Whit Merrifield #15 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after striking out during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium on June 19, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Whit Merrifield #15 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after striking out during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Kauffman Stadium on June 19, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Anybody who’s played fantasy sports knows the wheeling and dealing that is more or less a requirement in order to do well. Fortunately, the players on your team aren’t players, but avatars of said players that represent the potential for fantasy points and nothing else. To make a trade is to just shift some of these avatars around to other fake teams with no real consequence.

But trading players in real life is something entirely different. By and large, fans don’t want to grant players their full humanity because to do so would make the rooting experience more complicated. Front office executives who are in charge of these players and where they play do not have this option. Baseball players are real humans with real emotions and real families. To trade a player—or to cut a player or demote that player—means sitting down with them and informing them. It means giving them a call. By extension, it means informing their family that big life changes are in order.

Additionally, this is to say nothing of the fan fallout. When you trade a star in fantasy sports or in Madden or whatever, the only person that really matters in the choice is you. For a real team, though, you’ve got to deal with real world fallout from the fans that are your source of revenue and reputation. There are off-the-field consequences of every trade and signing and demotion and release that you make.

So it is no real surprise that Dayton Moore, General Manager of the Royals and the guy who ultimately has to pull the trigger, is not a fan of trading beloved players.

Moore added: “I don’t like trading our players. I never have. Especially our major-league players who we grow so attached to. It’s part of what we have to do. But nonetheless, I don’t like doing it.”

The Royals simply stick with players for as long as possible and, through Moore’s own admission, longer than other teams in baseball.

“[The Tampa Bay Rays] 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.”

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t interest in the Royals’ players at this year’s trade deadline. There definitely was. The Seattle Mariners made a strong push for Whit Merrifield. Varying reporters reported interested in Carlos Santana, Mike Minor, and Scott Barlow. But nothing much happened, as Moore had a very high bar, and very specific bar, for trade offers to meet.

“We’ve really got to be overwhelmed if we’re going to move one of our key contributors to this team and those players we feel are key contributors into the future.”

“...If you’re going to trade Major League talent that you control, you certainly, in my mind, want to try to get back other Major League players to multiply and spread out and utilize to build your roster in a more complete and balanced way.”

“It’s safe to say that we’re not going to do deals for prospects unless the prospects we get in return are significantly better than what we have, an upgrade over the players that are in our system.”

Of course, the consequences here are obvious: by demanding that you be overwhelmed by a return, you are simply setting the price higher than any team is willing to pay. It is 2021, and baseball teams are run by Ivy League mathematicians and other extremely smart people in a cutthroat industry. The situations in which a team would willingly overpay for a player are slim-to-none. Making a successful trade more difficult is the type of return that Moore demands. Teams looking to acquire big league talent are looking to retain their big league talent to, you know, get better. But trading big leaguers of similar value doesn’t make your team better, which is why trades tend to be prospects for established players and vice versa.

But just because making and going through with a decision is hard does not mean that it can be avoided without consequence. For example, I do not like vegetables. I instead prefer fried foods, cheese, and carbs. Dr. Pepper is my largest and most delicious vice, which I shamelessly partake in on a daily basis. If I ever want to achieve a chiseled figure, or want to become healthier, it simply does not matter that I do not like vegetables; I just have to eat them.

Here’s the thing, though: no general manager likes to trade their players. Yet some general managers recognize the necessity and are willing to bite the bullet when it is their best option.

This is where the Chicago Cubs step in. Like the Royals, their core all came up together and won a World Series, the first for the club in decades. Like the Royals, the Cubs were unable to secure extensions for their core. Like the Royals, the Cubs farm system stopped producing the kind of talent needed to sustain the success they experienced. And like the Royals, the Cubs eventually fell short even with their core intact. At the All-Star break, they were 44-46 and had a run differential similarly in the red.

What did the Cubs do? Did they insist on patching up the core or holding fast? They did not. Jed Hoyer, captain of the ship, decided it was better to sink. He helmed the Chicago Cubs through a teardown so thorough that ESPN used the word “gutted” to describe the remains of the 2016 World Series winning roster. But Hoyer knows where he is. He’s rebuilding.

“You don’t let a crisis go to waste,” Hoyer said after the deadline Friday. “There is no reason to go halfway.”

...“With each trade, we targeted players we really liked and we wouldn’t move from that position,” he said. “Was it emotionally difficult? Yes. Do I think it was absolutely the right thing for the organization? I do.”

“I actually think we sped things up a lot over the past few days,” Hoyer said. “We’ll sit down and figure out how we’re going to build the next great Cubs team. I don’t care about looking like you’re competing or finishing in second place. I care about trying to win championships.”

The Royals’ biggest sin in the current rebuild is not in blowing it up immediately after the World Series or at the 2017 trade deadline; the ZiPS projection system thought that the 2016 Royals would be good, and the 2017 Royals were 44-43 and only three games behind in the AL Central at the 2017 All-Star Game. Rather, it was not making the tough decisions afterwards. It was seeking big leaguers and near-big leaguers in trades like Jorge Soler, Mike Montgomery, Brett Phillips, Jorge Lopez, and Kelvin Gutierrez, none of whom remain on the club or contributed for a single campaign where the Royals won more games than they lost. And it was in failing to trade their stars like Whit Merrifield and Danny Duffy when their value was highest.

This year marks six consecutive seasons where the Royals have failed to win more games than they’ve lost. They’re on pace for 69 wins, meaning they could improve by a whole 12 games and that could still be the case next year, for their seventh consecutive season. I would wager that it will not take the Cubs another six seasons to post another winning season. That’s because they have shown to make the hard decisions that are sometimes necessary. The Royals, on the other hand, can’t or won’t.