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Do the Royals need to make a big splash this off-season?

Is it time to pull the trigger on a big move?

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John Sherman Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals wrap up the season this week, and while it will be their fifth consecutive losing season, their winning percentage has improved in each of the last four seasons. The team has begun to see the draft class of 2018 bear fruit in the pitching staff, with Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar all in the big leagues with mixed early results. Carlos Hernández has emerged as another intriguing young arm, and more pitchers could join him next year. The minor league system has seen a huge turnaround, thanks largely to the work done by Drew Saylor, Paul Gibson, and Alec Zumwalt. Catcher M.J. Melendez and first baseman Nick Pratto have rebounded from awful 2019 seasons to become top prospects in the game. And everyone in baseball is awaiting the arrival of Bobby Witt, Jr., who is arguably the best prospect in the game.

The Royals will never publicly use the word “rebuild”, but the team has been trying to rebuild a franchise that fell off a cliff following the departures of their championship core players. Recent rebuilds by the Astros, Cubs, and White Sox all made the playoffs in year four of their process, the Royals will enter year five next season.

But with several young pitchers already in the big leagues, and top hitting prospects likely ready next season, is it time for the Royals to make a big splash this off-season? The Royals will likely have a glaring need in center field next year, and possibly right field if Hunter Dozier does not rebound. The starting pitching has lots of young options, but still few arms that can go deep in games. And while the bullpen had some bright spots and has been much better late in the season, they currently have the fifth-worst overall ERA in the league this year and lacked depth when hit by injuries.

The Royals have made a splash before, putting all their chips on the table in December of 2012, when they traded three top prospects for Tampa Bay pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis. The move, which sent Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers, as well as pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery (and outfielder Patrick Leonard), was highly polarizing at the time. But Shields proved to be a very solid 3-4 WAR pitcher for the Royals in both seasons, and his guidance in the clubhouse helped the team win their first pennant in 29 years.

The man that engineered that trade, Dayton Moore, is no longer the general manager, although he has a final say on transactions as club president and still looms large as an influence over General Manager J.J. Picollo. We don’t know exactly how Picollo will run this team, just like we don’t know exactly how new owner John Sherman will run the club financially. The Royals are looking at a projected payroll of around $80 million commensurate with what the Royals spent as they built up their team in 2013 and 2014, but far short of the $100+ million payrolls David Glass spent in 2015-2017.

In addition to trying to rebuild the club back into contention, Sherman may have another motive for making a big splash - galvanizing support for a downtown stadium. He broached the issue earlier this months, saying the club is exploring all options once their current lease expires after 2030. The idea of a downtown baseball stadium has polled poorly initially for many reasons, but spending more on the club to win games could be an attempt to win some favor.

But making a big splash does not fit the way Sherman’s club operated when he was a minority owner with the Cleveland Indians. The organization has always taken a much more transactional approach, trading away their biggest stars such as Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Corey Kluber, and Francisco Lindor, in order to keep a pipeline of young talent running. The Rays take a similar approach, and while neither club has won a championship in the last decade, they have combined for eight playoff appearances over that time. The Rays won the pennant last year and have the best record in the league this year.

Additionally, it does not appear the Royals are in the same position they were in when they acquired James Shields. At the time of the trade, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain, and Alcides Escobar had all spent at least one full season in the big leagues. We still have yet to see Melendez, Pratto, or Witt make their Major League debut. And knowing that many hitters struggle initially in their first year or two, it may not be the time to make a big splash.

The Royals stand at a very interesting crossroads this off-season. They could stay the course and trust the process to produce a new core of good, young players. But we also know that many prospects fail, so supplementing them with solid Major League veterans could hedge against relying so much on unproven talent, plus the veterans can provide valuable leadership and mentorship. Sherman, Moore, and Picollo will reveal a lot about their thinking with what the Royals do this off-season.


Should the Royals make a big splash this off-season?

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