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The Royals need Bobby, MJ, and Vinnie to step up and be stars

Being good won’t bring back playoff glory

Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) gestures as he runs the bases after hitting a solo home run against the San Francisco Giants during the sixth inning at Oracle Park.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (7) gestures as he runs the bases after hitting a solo home run against the San Francisco Giants during the sixth inning at Oracle Park.
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Despite going to back-to-back World Series within the last ten years and coming away with the Big Trophy in one of them, the Kansas City Royals have been starved for consistent top-end talent for decades. Of the top 100 position players by Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement since the 1994 strike, only three—Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Ben Zobrist—ever played for the Royals. None of them played for Kansas City at their peak.

*Jose Bautista technically played 13 games in Kansas City back in 2004, but he played for four different MLB teams that year so I am not counting it.

Yes, the Royals have had good players. But the Royals have only had four winning seasons since that 1994 strike for a reason: they have rarely had good players for very long, and they have almost never had the best players in the league make their home in Kansas City.

Why does this matter? It matters because objective context is important here. The Royals and their fans are so starved for great players that good players—even very good players—are burdened with the weight of being the kind of stars that the team has lacked. This has resulted in a situation in which we often grade the Royals and their players on a curve.

Put it this way: the Royals are one of only five teams who haven’t had a player win a league MVP award since 1980. There is a huge gap between the star power and production of the likes of Alex Gordon and the likes of Alex Bregman. That’s nothing against Gordon, who will be inducted in the Royals Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible; rather, it’s a stark reminder in a zero sum game where the Royals have stood compared to their competitors.

And this is how we come to the trio of budding Royals stars that now face this reality: Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, and Vinnie Pasquantino. All are talented. All will likely have long and productive careers ahead of them. All will likely provide Royals fans with some great memories.

Yet it might not be enough. The Royals don’t just need them to be good. The Royals need them to be great. They need them to be stars.

They don’t need them to be stars because that would feel nice. No, the Royals need them to be stars because playoff teams have those. Just take a look at the 2022 playoff teams and the WAR of their top five position players, top three position players, and top position player (at the bottom of the list is the 2022 Royals, for reference).

2022 Playoff Team Position Player WAR

Team Top 5 WAR Top 3 WAR Top WAR
Team Top 5 WAR Top 3 WAR Top WAR
Atlanta Braves 23.7 16.7 6.4
Cleveland Guardians 21 16.7 6.2
Houston Astros 27 18.8 6.7
Los Angeles Dodgers 26.8 19.9 7.1
New York Mets 24.9 17.9 6.8
New York Yankees 23.4 18.2 11.5
Philadelphia Phillies 15.4 11.5 6.5
San Diego Padres 19.8 15.2 7.4
Seattle Mariners 18.2 13.7 5.4
St. Louis Cardinals 25.5 20.1 7.3
Tampa Bay Rays 12.9 9 3.8
Toronto Blue Jays 19.4 12.8 4.5
MEDIAN 22.2 16.7 6.6
Royals 8.5 5.8 2.3

Yes, you can make it into the playoffs without a star position player; the Tampa Bay Rays’ top five position players didn’t accrue 13 WAR last year. But there are two caveats here: the Rays had an arguably top-five pitching staff, for one.

The other caveat is that the Rays are clearly an outlier here—nine of the 12 playoff teams had a star position player worth at least 6.2 WAR, while 11 teams had a player worth at least 4.5 WAR. You can pretty much expect playoff teams to consistently have a top trio of players worth at least 15 or so WAR and a top quintet of players worth 20 or so WAR.

Kansas City’s stable of young, high-end talents are still in the early stages of their careers. But man, they’ve got a long way to go. Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino have played in a combined 388 games and have accrued a combined 4.4 WAR. At an average 1.7 WAR per 150 games, that is simply not going to cut it.

I don’t want to be unnecessarily critical here. And, honestly, I don’t think I am. The aforementioned Royal trio are fun to watch and clearly skilled athletes; their ceilings are high. I’m not predicting one way or another whether they’ll get to where they need to be, and we can all root for them no matter if they get there or not.

But if the Royals want to make the playoffs, to become the perennially competitive team that owner John Sherman wants, it needs to start with Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino becoming great players. That’s the bar. If they don’t meet that bar, and if nobody else on the Royals team steps up to replace one of them on that podium, it simply and harshly isn’t likely that the Royals ever make the playoffs in the next half decade.

Regular playoff teams have great players. Not just good players—great players, stars, in the full sense of the word. Under Sherman, the Royals have shown no interest whatsoever in trying to acquire meaningful talent in free agency, and until that happens, we can’t bank on external help. That puts even more pressure on young Royals talent.

Hey, it’s the big leagues for a reason. Sink or swim.