Baseball is, ultimately, just entertainment. Like other professional sports, it is a unique form of entertainment to be sure, one whose cocktail includes strong emotional factors like civic pride and familial ties. But the product itself is meant to be engaging, fun, interesting. Notably, a sports product extends beyond the game itself—discussing the product is part of the product, and contributes to engagement and, eventually, more cash spent on the product.
There are no baseball games being played right now. But merchandise is still available. Season tickets are on sale, and single game tickets go on sale soon. Parents are planning summer trips for their families. Right now, the Kansas City Royals, like every other baseball team, are fighting on multiple fronts: they are trying to get better (in the short-term or long-term) and are trying to maintain interest and excitement about next year’s squad. The offseason is their tool to accomplish both.
Kansas City, however, faces an uphill battle. It is not an exaggeration to state that the team has sucked and has sucked for a long time. Their composite win percentage over the past half decade is .398, which translates to an average of 97 losses per year. The single best way to cultivate fans is by winning, and by losing so much and so regularly the Royals have burned nearly all the goodwill they collected when they won a World Series eight years ago.
Wins and losses might be objective measures of a sports team’s success—like revenue, attendance, merchandise sales, and TV ratings—but while hard numbers and figures are the output, the input is much more complicated and much more optics-driven and feelings-driven. Unfortunately for Royals fans, their offseason has looked like nothing short of a disaster. Whether or not it is a disaster to the on-field product is irrelevant. It has felt that way, and considering how fandoms are built, how the Royals look and feel is a big deal.
The core reason for this is pretty simple: it does not look like the Royals are particularly interested in fielding a better on-field product this year, and that is mostly due to three reasons.
First is a lack of spending. The Royals haven’t extended any of their young players or made a single impactful move in free agency (giving two years to a mediocre pitcher does not count as “impactful,” sorry). The 2023 payroll has in fact declined from nearly $95 million last year to nearly $85 million this year. While a few more signings could push this year’s payroll closer to and even past last year’s Opening Day figure, it is almost February. The game of free agency musical chairs is winding down.
Second is a lack of personnel changes. Put it this way: the new guy in charge of baseball operations was the second in command of the previous guy in charge of baseball operations, you know, the one who got fired because the Royals’ on-field performance became so consistently pathetic. Sure, the Royals have a new manager and big league pitching coach. But just about every big name behind the scenes still has a name plaque on an office somewhere—like Scott Sharp, Lonnie Goldberg, Daniel Mack, Paul Gibson, and beyond. This is not to say that they are necessarily the wrong people for the job; rather, the Royals had a key chance to add baseball operations talent from elsewhere, and just like in free agency, they have thus far not done so.
Third is a lack of roster movement. The Royals are flawed squad right now—they have an abundance of left-handed hitters on the 40-man roster and an abundance of designated hitter/first basemen type players. Furthermore, they have multiple trade chips in Michael A. Taylor and Scott Barlow whose names routinely come up in trade rumors. Their response has been to...do nothing. Sure, we don’t have an idea of what has gone on behind the scenes. But so little roster movement seems like a feature and not a bug.
That is, of course, not all. Royals ownership wants to build a new stadium and wants taxpayer money to help do so. Such is par for the course for these types of projects, and they’ll probably get what they want. Considering how long these projects take, it makes sense to start these conversations this early, too.
However, the fact that new stadium conversations must happen now regardless of the team’s performance almost doesn’t matter. You know what fans see? You know what they care about? They see ownership tightening the budget at the same time they’re asking for taxpayer money. They see a curiously similar looking baseball operations team coming off a half decade of futility that seems unwilling or uninterested in making big changes or improvements to the on-field product.
And while all this simmers, the Royals went out and signed alleged domestic abuser Aroldis Chapman. This was a bewildering move for on-field reasons. There is lot of evidence that the 35-year-old Chapman just isn’t good anymore; for starters, his strikeout-to-walk ratio has been in decline over the last four seasons, which is..bad. This is the scary kind of graph.
But, of course, it’s Chapman’s character that is a bigger red flag than you’d find at a Chiefs tailgate. What we know is pretty simple: Major League Baseball’s investigation determined that his actions were enough to warrant a 30-game suspension. When he spoke about the incident, Chapman was only apologetic that he fired his gun eight times and not so apologetic about the whole domestic violence thing. We also know that Chapman got left off the Yankees’ 2022 playoff roster because he didn’t show up to practice, and you can’t forget about that time Chapman almost incited a brawl with the Tampa Bay Rays by throwing a 101-MPH fastball at Mike Brosseau’s head.
There are other left-handed relievers available at a similar price point who don’t have Chapman’s long history of on- and off-field incidents. By signing Chapman, it seems to fans that the Royals are signaling that they don’t much care about Chapman’s domestic violence incident. Furthermore, it’s sending weird mixed signals about “veteran leadership.”
Now, there are some caveats to the Royals’ current unenviable PR position right now. They can turn it around relatively quickly, as there’s still some time to work out a big trade, sign a few more free agents, or make a splashy front office hire. Furthermore, it’s a mistake to equivalate offseason activity with offseason success; the right moves are not necessarily the most exciting ones. And, naturally, Spring Training will provide the team with some marketing ammo to get people excited about the return of baseball.
In the absence of a winning ball club, however, the Royals need to make sure fans don’t continue to leave, which they are—2022 marked the club’s worst non-pandemic attendance figures in nearly half a century. Unfortunately for Kansas City, their offseason thus far seems like it almost has been designed to rub fans the wrong way, and they just can’t afford to do that.