The definition of what makes a “contender” in baseball is slippery. Is a contender a team that expects to compete for a World Series victory? Is a contender a team that expects to win its division? Is a contender a team that is good enough to make the playoffs? What about hoping to make the playoffs? And just how good does that mean?
There’s a lot of nuance there, but the trait that all contenders share is that they were good enough to get into the playoffs in the first place. So, let’s start there: how many wins does it take to make the playoffs? The answer obviously depends on the year—some years, no team with fewer than 90 wins makes the playoffs; other years, the World Series consists of two 80-something win Wild Card teams.
However, since the playoffs expanded to multiple Wild Card teams in 2012, the answer is pretty clear: in most years, you’re going to need upper-80s win totals to play in October. The average regular season win total of the worst playoff team over the past decade has been a tick over 88. That tracks, as 88 wins would be good enough to qualify for the playoffs half the time in the American League.
Lowest Playoff Win Total By Year
|Year||Lowest AL||Lowest NL||YEAR AVERAGE|
|Year||Lowest AL||Lowest NL||YEAR AVERAGE|
Kansas City has its work cut out for them. Not only do they have to be good—something the Royals have absolutely not been under Dayton Moore, whose teams only achieved three winning seasons in 16 years—but they have to be good enough to get into the playoffs in the first place. The Royals’ main peers include the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, and Milwaukee Brewers, who have combined to win 88 or more games in 21 seasons since 2012. It can be done.
This is important because it’s important to set the bar at the correct level. JJ Picollo and the new Royals brass will not have succeeded if they manage to string together a few decent seasons of 83 to 87 wins. Those win totals just aren’t good enough. The Royals don’t need to build 100-win juggernauts. But 87 to 91 wins every year? Now we’re talking. That’s how the Cardinals have made the playoff 10 times since 2007: by averaging 90 wins a year.
But the Royals are in a tough spot this offseason because they are so very far from sustainability. Yes, their position player rookies generated the fourth most Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs. Unfortunately, there are still pretty big question marks hanging over that group. Bobby Witt Jr. doesn’t get on base. Nick Pratto struck out in over 36% of plate appearances this year. MJ Melendez has been one of the worst defenders in baseball. Kyle Isbel took a step back offensively. Edward Olivares can’t stay healthy.
And, oh yeah, Baseball America ranked the Royals’ farm system as the worst in baseball in August. Asa Lacy, Frank Mozzicato, Alec Marsh, Ben Kudrna—seemingly every notable member of the minor league pitching staff either regressed or failed to establish themselves with their performance.
So, the Royals sit, in a pickle of their own making. They lost 97 games last year, and need to win at least 20 more to have a fighting chance at making the playoffs. Greatly expanding the payroll would be nice, but they wouldn’t make the playoffs next year even if the Royals went out and signed Aaron Judge and Jacob DeGrom—and would be limiting their payroll flexibility in the future at the same time.
Should they spend for cheaper free agents? Well...why? You need playing time for the young guys. Should the Royals blow it up and go scorched earth? Look, at some point you need to keep the talent you have or else you’ll be in a perpetual state of rebuild. At the same time, the Royals don’t have the talent or the depth to wait for another wave.
If the Royals had a few more budding youngsters in Omaha, or if their rookies were a little closer to stardom, or if they had valuable veteran trade pieces on the roster, the road ahead would be easier. But they do not. The Royals are here now because the previous baseball ops team stubbornly clung to their trade assets until they soured while simultaneously refusing to use the data they had at their disposal in player evaluation and development. Hopefully, next year will be clearer—one way or another.