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Why the Royals are in such a tricky spot this offseason

Not a lot of surplus value

Nick Pratto #32 of the Kansas City Royals runs after hitting against the New York Yankees at Kauffman Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nick Pratto #32 of the Kansas City Royals runs after hitting against the New York Yankees at Kauffman Stadium on October 01, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The 2023 Major League Baseball season is in the history books. The offseason is now in full swing—kind of sort of, at least. One of the most important events on the MLB offseason calendar will begin in early December with the annual Winter Meetings. This year, the four-day event will be in Nashville from the 3rd through the 6th, and a lot of negotiation will happen. Even when deals don’t go through during the event, groundwork is often made for free agent signings and trades later on in the offseason.

We’ve already seen a little bit of activity on the Royals’ end this offseason. Most notably, the Royals parted ways with Jackson Kowar to acquire Kyle Wright. But these are the first moves of the offseason, an offseason that presents an incredible challenge to the front office and to ownership.

Kansas City is in an incredibly tricky spot this offseason. To explain why, I’ll use one of my favorite tools: the website Baseball Trade Values. Founded by John Bitzer, former contributor to fellow SB Nation website Athletics Nation, he and his team created a website that lets us, the fans, evaluate trades in the same way that MLB teams evaluate trades.

What do I mean by that? Well, now that the Moneyball revolution has caught on everywhere in the league, all front offices use their own internal system for evaluating players. These systems ascribe a specific value to every player at every professional level. For a trade to work, the overall value provided needs to match the value received, be it in one player or multiple players. Baseball Trade Values uses a blend of different metrics and factors to estimate player values, which include:

  • Projections
  • Cost per free agent WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
  • Inflation
  • Years of control
  • Injury risk
  • Market adjustment

But the most important part of a trade is surplus value, which is calculated after tallying up a player’s field value and subtracting their salary. This surplus value is what really drives trades, and a simple exercise proves it. Consider two players, both of which are projected to be worth 6 WAR over the next three years. Who has more value, with all other factors being equal—the one who is owed $10 million over the next three years, or the one owed $30 million over the next three years?

Baseball Trade Values presents surplus value in the denomination of millions of dollars, and they’ve been incredibly successful in approximating trades. Since August 2019, we’ve seen 584 real life trades, with 94% of trades accepted by Baseball Trade Values’ model. The average margin for error has been 1.9, or 1.9 million dollars worth of value (which I’ll call “SV”). That’s pretty solid, even if any model can’t quite nail down every scenario.

Now that we’re on the same page, you can probably see where this is going. Organizations with more surplus value have more attractive trade pieces. Organizations with less surplus value have less attractive trade pieces. And the Royals, well, they don’t have a lot of guys with surplus value. In fact, when looking at every team’s list of players with 10+ surplus value per Baseball Trade Values’ calculation, the Royals rank—yep—dead last in total number of players and total number of MLB players with 10+ SV. That’s bad!

Number of players with 10+ surplus value

Team 10+ Value MLB 10+ Value MiLB Total 10+ Value
Team 10+ Value MLB 10+ Value MiLB Total 10+ Value
Reds 18 6 24
Rays 20 2 22
Dodgers 15 6 21
Orioles 18 3 21
Pirates 15 5 20
Guardians 14 4 18
Diamondbacks 13 3 16
Mariners 12 4 16
Brewers 10 5 15
Cardinals 12 3 15
Red Sox 10 5 15
Cubs 8 6 14
Rangers 11 3 14
Twins 11 3 14
Braves 12 1 13
Marlins 11 2 13
Mets 8 5 13
Tigers 9 4 13
Astros 12 0 12
Nationals 6 6 12
Phillies 9 3 12
Blue Jays 9 2 11
Rockies 7 4 11
Yankees 7 4 11
Giants 9 1 10
Padres 4 5 9
White Sox 5 4 9
Angels 8 0 8
Athletics 7 1 8
Royals 5 1 6
AVERAGE 10.5 3.4 13.9

In baseball, there are three ways to improve your big league team. One, you can spend money and add surplus value to your team via smart free agent signings. Two, you can shift your surplus value from your farm system to your MLB team. Three, you can trade from an area of strength in your organization to shore up an area of weakness in your organization, which can be done in the majors and minors.

Hypothetically, Kansas City could bump up its payroll, but owner John Sherman has thus far shown no reason for fans to believe that can or will happen, so improving their team that way seems unlikely. Second, as you can see with the dearth of surplus value in the farm system, the Royals don’t have a lot of ammunition to trade for an impact big league player. And, finally, the Royals don’t have any areas of strength in the organization. If they did, they would not have lost 106 games.

It takes value to trade for value. The Royals’ issue is that they have so little value up and down the organization, which severely limits the types of trades the Royals can make. But, clearly, the Royals need to make some trades, because their current roster stinks. The route forward under these extreme operating parameters is clear: make a bunch of trades like what happened with Cole Ragans and acquire a player who the team thinks can improve drastically. That is...more easily said than done.

In other words, don’t expect this to be a crazy offseason. There may be a lot of deck chairs moving around with some familiar names involved, but I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done this specific offseason to turn the franchise around. That will have to come from internal improvements, to add surplus value through player development. Color me skeptical, but that’s just how it is.