The Baltimore Orioles now have some friends on the other side: the Kansas City Royals recently shuffled off the mortal coil of contention and have now joined the Orioles among those clubs mathematically eliminated from the postseason. While the competition for the No. 1 pick rolls on, Kansas City’s season is otherwise dead. Today, they’re the topic in our series of post-mortems on 2018 clubs.
The 2018 season was always going to be a dreadful one for the Kansas City Royals, no matter the objections lodged by the franchise to the contrary. The 2017 campaign was the final one before free agency for most of Kansas City’s core contributors, with Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Minor, Mike Moustakas, and Jason Vargas all departing — a group, incidentally, that combined for 14.2 WAR in their final season together. That’s not to say the Royals should have attempted to retain most of those players — after pitching like Greg “Mad Dog” Maddux in the first half, for example, Jason Vargas more resembled Chris “Mad Dog” Russo” in the second — but the departure of 14 wins was a real loss for a team that only won 80 total (72 in terms of Pythagoras).
If Kansas City was going to maintain the fiction that they weren’t really going full-on rebuild and had intentions of remaining competitive, they needed to add players back to the roster, the organization lacking adequate in-house options to replace even a fraction of the production that was lost in the offseason. They’d have to do it cheaply, as well, with a payroll guaranteed to already be over $100 million even without bringing back a single one of their free agents.
There’s a simplified “triangle” you hear a lot in the context of project management — sometimes reduced simply to “Cheap/Fast/Good: Pick Two” — and it reveals the challenge facing the Royals this past offseason. They wanted to be relevant in 2018 but also wanted “cheap” and “fast.” The offseason signings ended up being a mulligan stew of familiar but unexciting names, players such as Blaine Boyer, Clay Buchholz, Lucas Duda, Justin Grimm, Jon Jay, Ricky Nolasco, and Michael Saunders, who would hopefully either keep Kansas City’s fall from being too Wile E. Coyote-like or at least prove to be flippable later on. Alcides Escobar was brought back, one of the links to the 2015 World Series team, complete with an incentive clause for playing time that would have functioned as a disincentive clause for most organizations.
After a winter in which no team met his contract demands, Mike Moustakas also found his way back to the Royals, representing another key member of the 2015 team to join the 2018 edition. Like many of the other veterans, his most likely role was to be flipped somewhere else at some point during the season.
ZiPS didn’t see the Royals as having anywhere near the tools required to even threaten for a Wild Card spot past the first few weeks of the season or so. The projections gave the Royals a 69-93 predicted record coming into the season — with a 0.3% shot at the playoffs, mostly via the Wild Card — fighting with the Tigers and White Sox for last place in the American League Central.
As with the Orioles, the Royals would need a legendary comeback over the season’s final weeks in order to meet even the diminished expectations entering the 2018 season. While a 39-2 record is still technically possible, it’s also quite implausible. Instead, the team’s quest to awaken their young players to the dangers of adult films will likely prove to be the year’s highlight. As for the team itself, their best winning streak of the season remains an anemic three games.
After very carefully dipping their toes into the rebuilding waters last winter, the team did show more clear signs of fully embracing this process over the course of 2018, even if they were a bit tardy about the whole thing. Purely from a value standpoint, the Royals did very well in the prophesied Moustakas trade, acquiring Jorge Lopez and Brett Phillips from the Brewers. I find it a bit worrisome that the Royals targeted near-MLB talent already mostly developed rather than higher-upside players who are farther off, but it’s difficult to be too curmudgeonly about getting real players in return for two months of a player hitting .249/.309/.468.
Jon Jay was flipped for two pitchers, one an actual prospect (if also a speculative one), in Elvis Luciano, whom my colleague Eric Longenhagen discussed at the time of the trade. Pitchers like Luciano are exactly the kind of lottery tickets that any team ought entering a rebuild ought to consider. Even if he isn’t an elite talent, he still has some possible future value, and an organization can never have too many assets in the pipeline.
Flipping the other players, as is the case for many one-year veteran contracts, never actually worked out. Blaine Boyer was mercifully released in August with an ERA over 12 and Grimm’s fairy tale turned out to be more frightening than anything adapted by Jacob or Wilhelm. Nolasco and Saunders failed to make the roster, being culled from the herd in March. There’s been no comeback in Lucas Duda’s bat and he remains on the roster, unlikely to be traded for anything in a world in which Justin Bour, a superior option, attracted very little interest. Buchholz ended up having a shockingly good season, with a 2.25 ERA spread over 13 starts (only a single game score below 40), but for Arizona instead of Kansas City.
Kansas City even managed to stop playing Alcides Escobar every single game. Sure, he still plays most games — helped a bit by Adalberto Mondesi’s continued injury woes — but at least they’re not playing Escobar like a generic Cal Ripken Jr. knockoff toy that you see being sold for 99 cents in that weird drugstore near your uncle’s house that smells like carbolic soap and also has weird soda that you never heard of. Ryan O’Hearn didn’t exactly tear up the Pacific Coast League at .232/.322/.391, but the early stages of a rebuild ought to feature a lot of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.
What Comes Next?
The fundamental question surrounding the Kansas City Royals remains just how seriously they take the rebuild. It’s always hard to separate the public stance of a team from their private beliefs, but Dayton Moore and gang have never struck me as the types who were comfortable throwing in the towel. It’s easy to say, “They know they’re rebuilding, the talk of competing is just for the fans,” but is it, really? A small-market team that’s truly psychologically committed to a full rebuild is hardly justified making a serious offer to Eric Hosmer — even if that specific $147 million offer was likely fiction — a contract that can’t be justified by anything but nostalgia. Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez remain Royals — as does Danny Duffy — though I find more justification for the last one, giving him more time to possibly rebuild his value.
The thing about the Royals — and probably the opinion I have that gets Royals fans the angriest — is my suggestion that it’s time for a clean break from the 2015 clubs. Flags fly forever — or at least until 2042, if Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is correct — but it would be wrong for the org to let the most recent World Series championship delay the next one. The fans have largely already stopped coming to the games, so the idea of a quick retool for which the team lacks money or talent, just seems misguided.
As attendance drops go, three years from a World Series victory, among teams since 1995, the Royals find themselves facing one of the largest declines, sandwiched only by the two Marlins World Series wins.
vs. Three Years Later
|Year||Team||% of Original Attendance|
The fans are already treating the organization as if they’re conducting a full-fledged fire sale. If the team is already experiencing the negative results of the strategy, why not actually reap the positives?
As I see it, the largest danger for the Royals in rebuilding is not learning the right lessons from 2015. People hate to use the word “lucky,” but every World Series winner is, in effect, the good team that got the luckiest in October. The fundamental strengths or weaknesses of a roster remain unchanged whether the team wins the Series or gets bounced in the first round. Knowing the actual date when a team’s window will close is a luxury most teams don’t have, and the Royals didn’t make any serious push to make the team stronger or, alternatively, to rebuild in 2016 or 2017. This left the Kansas City in an awkward position, and they acquired fewer prospects than they would have otherwise had they started rebuilding at some point in 2016 or -17. The idea that ownership would be willing to spend $100 million on Eric Hosmer this offseason, for years that won’t actually matter in terms of winning a championship, rather than spend that $100 million during seasons which the team still had their core intact, is a worrying one.
Way-Too-Early 2019 Projection: Salvador Perez
ZiPS remains completely unworried about Perez’s down 2018, admittedly one that got him named to his sixth consecutive All-Star Game despite a .221/.259/.394 line. A .235 BABIP had a lot to do with the weakness of that line: ZiPS thinking that Perez’s hit profile in the first half reflects a player who “should” have a BABIP in the .270s rather than the .230s. Perez has had a more Perez-like second half, at .252/.288/.489, which should at least help quell some of the concerns.
I don’t expect the Royals to actually trade Perez this winter, but if they do, I suspect front offices will mostly ignore the early-season line and be highly interested in Perez — as opposed, that is, to paying Miami’s asking price for J.T. Realmuto. Salvy is what he is at this point (still only 28): a free-swinger who can get comically fooled at times, but has a lot of power for a catcher and plays solid defense. Not every player has to be Captain Science at the plate to push a team forward.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.