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Why 2023 is make or break year for the rest of the decade

There’s a potential looming problem here

Manager Matt Quatraro #33 of the Kansas City Royals watches from the dugout during the third inning of the spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels at Surprise Stadium on March 02, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona.
Manager Matt Quatraro #33 of the Kansas City Royals watches from the dugout during the third inning of the spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels at Surprise Stadium on March 02, 2023 in Surprise, Arizona.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Let’s get something out of the way quickly here: the Royals have talent in their farm system. There are talented plays with good chances to get to the big leagues. They’ve got a handful of players who could make their way onto top prospect lists with a strong few months at the beginning of the season. Somebody in the minor leagues right now is probably going to be a fan favorite in a few years.

The trick, however, is that every MLB organization has talent in their farm system. That is the cruel reality of professional sports—those who succeed are the best of the best of the best, and by even making it to Minor League Baseball, they have repeatedly proven their special skills and talents.

As a result, we are forced to compare organizations, for the real disparity here isn’t having talent versus not having talent. Instead, it’s about having more or less talent than your competitors. It is here where the Royals fall short, and it is here where the biggest threat to Kansas City’s dreams of competitiveness are most vulnerable.

Baseball America’s publication motto is “The most trusted source in baseball,” and it is arguably the preeminent publication about amateur, college, and Minor League Baseball. Its writers and analysts are some of the best in the business. Unfortunately for Kansas City Royals fans, their expertise does not have good things to say about the Kansas City farm system talent. Last August, they ranked the Royals 30th—that’s last—in their 2022 midseason organization talent rankings. They had this to say about the system:

The Royals have graduated Bobby Witt Jr., M.J. Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Kyle Isbel and several others from their preseason Top 30. Eight of the nine players in the Royals lineup on many nights are homegrown, several of whom should be fixtures for the rest of the 2020s. So it’s not that the Royals have failed to produce big leaguers. But now that that impressive wave of prospects has reached the majors, Kansas City needs to get pitching prospects like Asa Lacy, Frank Mozzicato and Jonathan Bowlan on track to provide follow-on help.

But with a few months left in the season and an entire offseason ahead of them, there was time for the system to improve. Technically, the system did improve, but functionally it is in the same place that they were last year. Just last week, Baseball America released their 2023 preseason organizational talent rankings. They ranked the Royals 29th.

Anytime you graduate 10 players year-over-year from your Top 30 list your system ranking is bound to tumble. How far it falls depends on the depth of your system. The Royals lacked depth mainly because the team’s recent pitching draftees have mostly struggled. This group is headlined by three players acquired in-season: two via the draft—Gavin Cross and Cayden Wallace—and one via trade—Drew Waters.

While Baseball America is the least sold on Kansas City’s farm system, they are not the only ones who rank the Royals lowly compared to their direct competitors. A few weeks ago, Max also covered the Royals’ farm system talent evaluations, but I think it’s worth going over again as a recap and in case you missed it.

So what does this mean? Well, there are a lot of different avenues to discuss when trying to answer that question, but what I keep coming back to, again and again, is that 2023 is the most important year for the organization in a long time and one that could determine the rest of the decade for Royals baseball.

Here’s where we are right now: the big league club is a definitively bad baseball team. They lost 97 games last year and projection systems think that the Royals will lose 92 games this year (or more). We also know that that minor league talent pool is poor compared to the rest of the league and is in, conservatively, the bottom third of the league. Finally, we now know that Royals ownership will not spend money on the team to try and give the team a jump start; Kansas City’s projected Opening Day payroll of $86.5 million is its lowest full-season payroll figure since 2013.

By graduating so much talent to the big league roster in 2022, they exposed the depth in the rest of the system. At the same time, the young team floundered at the big league level: from August 15 to the end of the year, a period of 45 games that included the everyday additions of Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, and Drew Waters, they only won at a .378 clip.

At the same time, the clock for core roster pieces is ticking. Brady Singer is under contract for four more seasons. Bobby Witt Jr. is under contract for five more seasons. MJ Melendez and Vinnie Pasquantino are under contract for six more seasons.

All of this says one thing, which is that the Royals must improve dramatically and they must improve dramatically this year. That’s because the Royals are in the worst of both worlds: they’re bad in the majors and the minors. You can get by with being bad in the Show if your minor league system is brimming with talent, and you can get by with a bad farm system if you’re making the playoffs every year (the Atlanta Braves, for instance, who Baseball America ranked 30th overall in their 2023 farm system rankings but whose young team just won 100 games last year).

In other words, if the Royals don’t improve enough in 2023 to think about being a playoff team in 2024, their playoff aspirations for the rest of the decade are dire. And if the Royals farm system doesn’t improve, it’s hard to see how the Royals can achieve John Sherman’s desired sustainability if the cupboards are bare.

Kansas City simply has its work cut out for them. We all hope they succeed. But a larger reset—and more pain—might be necessary if this team doesn’t work out.