When the Royals are bad—which has been most of the time over an almost 40-year stretch, if we’re being honest—it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the many players who appear on the Major League roster only to disappear and seemingly never be heard from again. Hardcore Royals fans can come up with a list of these dudes: Tug Hulett, Brandon Duckworth, Lucas May, Scott Elarton, Terry Stockman, Abraham Almonte, Ryan Goins, Domingo Tapia, Tony Cogan.
These players can be referred to as another title: replacement-level players. With 150 full-season professional teams in Major League Baseball and roster sizes of 25-35, there are over 4,000 professional baseball players floating around at any given time. Replacement-level players are plug-and-play players—freely available talent that nevertheless won’t win you any games. Baseball Prospectus describes them as “players of a caliber so low that they are always available in the minor leagues” and that “a team full of such players would win a little over 50 games.”
Of course, there are also plenty of players below replacement level. These are players who actively hurt their team’s chance of winning a baseball game compared to that 50-game mark for a theoretical team made up entirely of replacement level players. Some of those 4,000 professional baseball players just aren’t big league quality. That’s ok, and it’s to be expected. But the more a team has to dip into players who aren’t big league quality, well, let’s just say that isn’t ideal.
In 2023, the Royals lost a bunch of games but also had a bunch of players who played at below replacement level. I averaged Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement and Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement, and taking an average of the two yields a whopping 18 Royals who generated negative WAR last year. These 18 players were “worth” nearly seven negative wins—aka, they cost the team seven games.
Negative WAR Players, 2023
|Jackie Bradley Jr.
The good news here is that the Royals have moved on from or will have a tighter leash on most of this list. Of these players, only Nick Pratto, Jordan Lyles, Alec Marsh, and MJ Melendez are going to be expected contributors to the team, and even then we could very well see diminished roles for them should they not perform.
We’ve already seen a glimpse of what this would look like. Kansas City moved on from the likes of Hunter Dozier, Jackie Bradley Jr., Nate Eaton, Franmil Reyes, and more even by mid-season, and with a more focused lineup of youngsters the team went 15-12 from September on.
If the Royals can find players, even replacement level players, to play in place of guys like these, they’ll improve significantly very quickly. But that will just bring them up out of the 60-win basement. To really improve, the Royals will need legitimately good players. Baby steps, I suppose.