While the specter of a truncated Spring Training or a shortened season still looms, and though free agency and trades are frozen, many parts of the offseason are chugging along—namely, the annual organizational talent evaluation and projection system number crunching.
Things are looking up for the Royals in general, which, granted, is not difficult considering their back-to-back 100-loss campaigns recently. Baseball America—arguably the top publication when it comes to prospects and the minor leagues—ranked Kansas City’s farm system as fifth overall in the league. Additionally, the ZiPS projections are out, and it thinks that Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto are the real deal.
But beyond the potential stardom of Witt and the left-handed bats of Melendez and Pratto (not to mention one Vinnie Pasquantino), there’s another reason to be optimistic about the Royals: they have a lot of low-hanging fruit on their roster.
Let’s talk raw numbers here. In 2021, 473 players accrued at least 90 plate appearances. Among those players who accrued 98 plate appearances, 110 of them accrued negative Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs’ calculation of WAR.
If you’re playing at home, you know that figure equates to 3.7 players per organization, if said players were distributed evenly. The Royals, however? They had seven (7!) players meet those qualifications.
Unfortunately, the Royals’, erm, virtuosity in the category of “had a bunch of bad players and also used them a lot” is even more pronounced when you raise the plate appearance bar. Throughout all baseball, there were 16 players who accrued a negative WAR and also accrued 360 or more plate appearances—or .53 per team. The Royals, though, had three.
And, unfortunately, those three had the three most plate appearances by any player with a negative WAR on the year, even after the Royals shipped off Jorge Soler to go supernova for the Atlanta Braves.
Not Great, Bob
Overall, the full list of Royals players here “accrued” -3.4 WAR. There are varying reasons for this, and some of them will bounce back or are young enough to get better. Still, that is...bad. That is bad. Kansas City used up so much space on their roster for players who performed, as a group, worse than freely available Triple-A talent. Your average MLB team shouldn’t end up with this many underperformers.
It’s the sheer amount of playing time that’s the kicker. Consider a player with 400 PA and -0.2 WAR. That’s not terrible in and of itself. Now, consider another player at the same position with 400 PA and 0.8 WAR. That’s not a great season in and of itself. But when combined, the second player is worth a full 1 WAR better than the previous one, and if you start to do that across multiple positions, you start to make real progress quickly.
The title of this piece is a little glib—of course the Royals should play fewer bad players, and that is certainly easier said than done. But, more helpfully, this means that the Royals can make up a lot of ground simply by moving on from or benching underperforming players.
This strategy won’t take the Royals to the playoffs. It is, however, an easy way to win one additional game a month and bring your talent floor close to 80 wins. The hard part is replacing decent players with really good ones, but you can only get to the point where that matters if you stop playing the subpar ones in the first place.