We’ll never know for sure, but it just may turn out that the Toronto Incident was one of the best things to happen to the Royals franchise in a while. Before that, the team was flailing helplessly and directionlessly, well on pace to lose 100 games. There were frequent observations that the clubhouse was “quiet” or “tense.”
These days the Royals are playing .500 ball. That isn’t necessarily ideal, but it also feels like the floor for this particular group instead of the ceiling. Now anyone talking about the clubhouse atmosphere is discussing how fun and vibrant it is, which seems better, too.
The difference, of course, is that during the Toronto series, 10 kids from the minor league system were promoted, and multiple major league debuts were made as well as a variety of major league firsts. The team only won one of the four games played north of the border, but both the players and fans seemed to be having a lot more fun. Ultimately, baseball is about entertainment. The way that a competitive sport usually attempts to entertain is by providing competition. But minor league teams have long thrived on wackiness to prove that you can entertain without making winning the focal point. Fans began vocally demanding that the team make a change, eject some or all of the players who had put their own desires ahead of those of the team and re-promote those minor leaguers which had so excited them. It took a couple of weeks, but eventually the Royals did just that.
For the first time since roughly 2013, the Royals regularly feature a lineup that has more guys under 25 or younger than guys 29 or older. On any given night, the team will start at least six players 27 years old or younger. Some nights that bumps up to seven. It’s exhilarating!
One thing Dayton Moore seems to have failed to realize during his time in Kansas City is that there can be more to baseball than winning. Sure, if your lineup primarily features guys in their 30s, winning is about all can strive for. When people are showing up every night to watch Whit Merrifield and Carlos Santana, they want to see wins because nothing else has any value. However, when you fill your lineup card with up-and-comers, you also fill it with reasons to watch other than pure wins. Sure, the Royals lost a game on Tuesday night. But Vinnie Pasquantino had a pair of hits - including a home run - and a walk! Jon Heasley started and only walked one and only gave up two runs! Nate Eaton continued his on-base streak! Even in a game the Royals lost, there were things to celebrate.
Everyone wants to talk about whether this team can win next year with all these kids in the lineup. That’s perfectly understandable. But even if they don’t win next year or the year after or even the year after that, no one can take away the feelings of hope and success that even the smallest achievements in today’s game can give us. It would be awesome if these kids all combined to turn the 2023 Royals into a powerhouse, but even if they don’t, they’re a heck of a lot of fun to watch right now. You’d think Dayton Moore, who has always prioritized tonight over tomorrow in terms of wins might have been more able to see that without the near-catastrophe of losing 40% of his roster for a series.
OK, but can the Royals compete next year?
Well, probably not. But I have a lot more hope in August than I usually do!
I know we've all seen the song and dance of the team competing in the back half of the season, and it not translating to the next season. The ideal for success is also those 2012 and 2013 seasons. I thought it might be fun to make a quick pair of lists of the ways these circumstances mirror those seasons and the ways in which it does not
Similar to 2012-2013
- More wins in the second half of the season
- Multiple recently promoted hitters finding some success, including a highly-touted first baseman
- Team seems to be having fun
- Salvador Perez
Dissimilar from 2012-2013
- No more highly-rated prospects to fill in remaining gaps
- Homegrown pitchers are finding success, too
- New GM and ownership that might be willing to spend money in free agency
You’ll note that with one glaring exception, the differences between those teams actually seem more appealing as well. The big question is whether that third point ends up being true. With the first point being different, they’re not going to be able to fill holes with trades this time.
When the Royals made the trade for James Shields and Wade Davis they were able to do it because their farm system still had multiple highly-regarded prospects, most notably Wil Myers. All of the Royals’ best prospects are in the big leagues, right now. They could try to trade a Jackson Kowar or an Asa Lacy but they are very unlikely to get the same value that Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi brought back a decade ago. If the Royals are going to compete in the next couple of seasons, they still have some holes to fill, and they’ll almost certainly have to do it through free agency this time. If they’re as quiet this off-season as they were last off-season, expect them to show flashes in 2023 but ultimately top out around .500. If the Royals eschew their usual strategy of searching dumpsters and bargain bins for free agents and go out and get a couple of premium free agents - probably pitchers - they might be able to compete as soon as next year. It’s a big if, but it certainly seems more plausible now than it did two months ago.