On May 4th, 2011, the Royals played a baseball game. At the time, they were 16-13, a respectable start for a team with little to no expectation for the season. Alex Gordon was piping hot, honoring his promise to “dominate” that season and Billy Butler was doing Billy Butler things, but the rotation was bad. The winning record wouldn’t last. Beginning on May 13, a 20-18 Kansas City team lost 19 of 25 games.
But 2011 was never about winning. Sam Mellinger articulated that well.
“There may not be a lot of people who agree with this, but the Royals are still not the caliber of big-league team that should be judged primarily on wins and losses. There are too many holes, still, too many positions and roster spots that will be filled by different men if and when the winning comes to look only at the record to judge progress.”
2011 wasn’t about 2011, it was ultimately about 2014 and 2015. And it started on May 4th. That 16-13 squad trailed Baltimore by one going into the ninth inning. Jeff Francoeur walked (no, really) with one out. A Wilson Betemit flyout moved Frenchy to second, representing the tying run.
With the game on the line, Kila Ka’aihue walked to the plate. The crowd rose to their feet and watched Ka’aihue fly out to right center, ending the game. It was an ordinary loss, but it turned out to be Ka’aihue’s final at-bat as a Royal. The struggling Hawaiian was hitting .195 with an OPS+ of 93 and there was a first baseman in Omaha hitting anything pitchers could throw at him.
That was the night that Dayton Moore flipped the switch. Eric Hosmer was still weeks away from service time midnight, but Dayton couldn’t keep him down anymore. Not long after, Greg Holland would get the call, and then Mike Moustakas. Alcides Escobar was already the team’s starting shortstop in his first year in Kansas City after being traded for Zack Greinke. Salvador Perez wasn’t far behind and even Lorenzo Cain would get a cup of coffee.
2011 was flipping the switch. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. That switch took a minute to ignite, with players underperforming or the front office struggling to build around them. Dayton put all his cards on the table in the winter of 2012, when he traded prospects Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery for James Shields and Wade Davis.
The entire process was a gamble and felt like an inevitable failure. But it worked.
These last few months have felt like 2011-mid 2014 all over again, except in one giant helping. Moore’s undying devotion to a failed pitching program, paired with bizarre trades and roster decisions has left his approval rating in Kansas City at an all-time low.
But it’s impossible to ignore the youth movement happening at Kauffman right now has his fingerprints all over it. This team is a blast, even when they lose games. This past week was a great example. It ended with the Royals losing two of three to the best team in baseball, including a massacre on Saturday night, but it also saw Daniel Lynch and Brady Singer stymie the league’s best offense.
In fact, Singer became the second starter in baseball history to work 6+ shutout innings on one hit or fewer against both the Yankees and Dodgers in the same season.
All those hard-hit balls that found gloves finally turned into hits this past week for Vinnie Pasquantino, in part because he hit four of them over the fence. He had a 333 wRC+ in six games against the White Sox and Dodgers.
But Baseball America’s updated prospect rankings for the Royals are pretty thin. Jackson Kowar and Asa Lacy, at this point, looked like two more failed pitching prospects, although Lacy needs to be given a bit more time. And the position player list is thin because they’re almost all in Kansas City.
This is the rebuild. Dayton gave us what we wanted. They are playing the kids. His cards are on the table and this hand should be Dayton’s last stand.
I am a bigger Dayton defender than most. His two pennants and 2015 championship have often been spoken of as lightning in a bottle or blind luck. I just don’t believe that’s possible. But his model was not sustainable because everything had to go right.
And that’s what happened, perfectly articulated in his now infamous “There’s no reason this team can’t go on a run where you win 15 of 20” quote from 2013. Kansas City had never won 15 out of 20 games in the Dayton Moore era. At the time of the quote, the 2013 squad was stumbling into the All-Star break on a five-game losing streak, owners of a 43-49 record.
But then the Royals went and won 15 of its next 19 games immediately after. From 2013-2015, every decision and trade had to be perfect. Every player needed to perform to the level Kansas City needed them to perform without exception. And that’s what happened. And it was awesome. But with eight years of hindsight and foresight, it’s obvious that lightning won’t strike twice.
That’s important to remember as we seemingly repeat history. If we are in the 2011 phase of that first rebuild, the Royals cannot give Dayton a long leash if the 2012 and 2013 struggles and blunders repeat themselves.
I think it is reasonable for John Sherman to let Dayton see this through. This is his talent. But that doesn’t mean he should, or that Kansas City isn’t already playing with fire.
Dayton overhauled the hitting program, but has refused to do the same with the pitching program, pushing guys like Kowar and Lacy to the brink of being non-prospects before either really got their footing. The jury is still out on Lynch and Bubic. It would be in the Royals best interest to cut the leash now in an effort to save that group.
Editor-in-chief Max Rieper asked this question last week. The Royals are young and fun, but will they be good? I think Bobby Witt Jr. holds a large stake in answering that question, as he was the only position player of the group that was seen as a future star. That could very well change, but even if Melendez and Pratto and Pasquantino, or even Michael Massey and Kyle Isbel all become good regulars, that might not be a recipe for a championship. They need some star power, and that’s Bobby.
But underneath that, they need the arms of Singer and Lynch and Bubic and Lacy to become, at the very least, viable starters.
It’s fun in Kansas City right now, but a lot needs to go right for this team to be good, as is often true with an infusion of youth. There are no guarantees that they all become good players.
But some of them have to be, right? These guys are hitting. Even the young pitchers are performing. Wins should follow. John Sherman’s patience should be extinguished. Every single significant young player that was projected to lead the Royals into this next window, minus Asa Lacy, is a Major League regular or in the fight to be one.
David Lesky noted that if the right players are available, Kansas City’s payroll could balloon to $100 to $115 million in 2023. And Dayton will be right in the middle of that, to the angst of many. This has to be his last stand. And hopefully, for the good of this group and baseball in Kansas City, it will end differently than other famous last stands.