A competitive baseball team is more fun than a noncompetitive baseball team because winning is more fun than losing. This is not rocket science. It is almost not even worth stating, but hey, a blog post has to start somewhere, and that place is an obvious one along the lines of “Taylor Swift is a popular musician.”
But follow this logic with me: what does it take to be a good team? In short, a good team has good players. This, too, seems like it’s obvious, and on the surface it is. Dig a little deeper, though, and there’s a more interesting and somewhat hidden wrinkle to this: well-constructed teams aren’t just built with good players. They are built with reliably good players—otherwise, said “good team” is just a team that had a good season. As Royals fans who were around in 2003 know, that’s not the same thing.
Sifting further down, good teams must rely on known quantities or on bets that have a high likelihood of paying off. They sign veteran players with histories of performance. They trade for players who are performing well. They allow top prospects to win playing time but don’t have a lot available. That’s because a good team must not try to be good; a good team must also avoid being bad, and unproven players have more downside than proven players.
What about bad teams? Well, if you’re thinking critically here, you already know the answer, which is that bad teams don’t need to worry about a player’s downside.
Sure, bad teams have fans to please, seats to sell, merchandise to market, the works. They can’t just provide big league contracts to the first 26 people to enter the Denny’s on Blue Ridge Cutoff on a Tuesday morning and call their offseason complete. But because bad teams are bad, they don’t have to worry about a player not performing to expectations. In other words, the 2023 Royals—like any bad team—have a superpower, which is that they can just try shit out and see what happens.
Good teams have to worry about what might happen to giving a fringe prospect 400 plate appearances. The Royals do not. It’s all upside, baby, because there’s little functional difference between 65 wins and 70 wins; both teams are missing the playoffs and drafting in the top half of the first round. If that fringe prospect stinks, so what? On the opposite side of things, if you can create just one above-average MLB player by throwing plate appearances at the wall and seeing what sticks, you have done something that good teams simply aren’t able to do.
The Royals have traditionally not done this even when it was clear they would stink, a regular strategic flaw that in no small way contributed to Dayton Moore getting canned. Like, just look at this, the Opening Day lineup for the 2022 Royals that lost 97 games:
Said lineup and starting pitcher consists of not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but six players at or across their age-30 seasons. That would have made sense if the Royals were competitive in 2021. They were not competitive in 2021.
But the new Royals seem to get it. They traded Michael A. Taylor, opening center field playing time for Drew Waters and Kyle Isbel. Then they traded Adalberto Mondesi, clearing the way for Bobby Witt Jr. to play shortstop full time while also thinning a middle infield logjam to make way for Maikel Garcia. And while they’ve worked to add veteran arms this season, pitching is a different beast where attrition is the name of the game, and Kansas City’s lack of pitching depth put a heavy burden on pitchers who weren’t quite ready.
So what will the Royals’ lineup in 2023 look like? Young, that’s what. MJ Melendez’s comments about his offseason training regiment seem to suggest that he’s going to be in the outfield full-time. With him will be the aforementioned Isbel and Waters. Edward Olivares is the old man in the group. In the infield, we’ve got Witt, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Nicky Lopez, Nate Eaton, and potentially Garcia and Nick Pratto. Waiting in the wings in the minor leagues are Tyler Gentry, an outfielder who ripped through Double-A in his age-23 season, and Nick Loftin, a solid defender at a half dozen positions who reached Triple-A in his age-23 season last year.
Put it this way: only Hunter Dozier and Salvador Perez are over the age of 30, and if it ever becomes viable for the Royals to trade Dozier, he could very well be on the move.
I don’t think that everybody will improve or that everybody will succeed. However, the Royals aren’t going to make the playoffs this year. So what they are doing is using 2023 to try and brute force their way to finding as many young, dependable position players as they can.
Some will fail. Some won’t. Still—the Royals are using their superpower. They’re letting the chips fall where they may, and that’s a refreshing strategy compared to Opening Day rosters too old to be interesting and too mediocre to win games.