The Royals’ Last Ride

Not long ago, I was thinking about the teams that might elect to rebuild next. The only really obvious candidate was and is the White Sox, who could begin the process at any moment. After them, I thought about the Diamondbacks, who might be a half-year away. The Orioles might be approaching their own cliff. The Tigers have already expressed a desire to get younger and cheaper. And so on. A team I didn’t think about enough was the Royals. In my head, I still associate the Royals with having so recently won a championship, but now that’s behind them. What’s ahead of them is a future that seems like it’s going to be very tricky to navigate.

Now isn’t the time for the Royals to start blowing it up. The Royals shouldn’t dismantle, not this week, not this winter. I don’t think that would really help them avoid the coming reality. But from the looks of things, 2017 is going to be it. Already, the Royals achieved the greatest success. The cost of that pursuit will begin to take its toll.

This is not, of course, a criticism. The Royals won a World Series, and for a lot of people, that justifies a painful cost. The Royals became relevant and popular in the market again, and that has immeasurable value to a franchise. This is more like looking to the last few years of a major long-term contract. All the good stuff comes near the start. Most big contracts look bad at the end. The Royals might enter a team equivalent of the albatross period.

What the Royals don’t lack is pretty good players. I don’t need to list them out for you. It’s true that, at present, they project to be something like .500. Four years ago, they projected to be about .500, and they won 86 games. Three years ago, they projected to be about .500, and they won 89 games. Two years ago, they projected to be about .500, and they won 95 games. Last year, they projected to be about .500, and they won…81 games, but they were also hurt a lot. We’ve been over this. Similar Royals teams have won.

It’s just, there’s a thing about many of those players. The Royals don’t and can’t run very big payrolls. The following players are due to be free agents after this season:

Right there, you’re looking at 54% of the Royals’ projected 2017 team WAR. They already have about $70 million in 2018 commitments. The Royals could struggle to re-sign any of those guys, and even with extensions, they’d be paying something like free-market value. And when a team is losing a lot of big-league talent, you want reinforcements from the farm system. The Royals’ system is in relatively bad shape, after a number of subtractions and underwhelming performances.

Top to bottom, there’s an argument to be made that the Royals have the least-valuable collection of assets in the game. It’s not that they don’t have assets, but every team has assets, and the Royals might have the worst blend of big-league surplus value and minor-league blue-chippers. It’s been somewhat quiet, because the Royals still get to sell themselves as champions. Yet some kind of cliff is coming up. It could be almost impossible to avoid.

That might make you think they should start re-loading now. I don’t think that would be wise, for two reasons. One, there’s still a major-league opportunity in 2017, especially with the division being somewhat weak. The Royals shouldn’t give up on success. And two, there’s only so much the Royals could get. They don’t even really have the values present to turn into a restocked farm system.

Nobody is trading a great prospect or two for a contract-year player. Not, at least, for the players the Royals have, not at this time. Moustakas is too much of a risk, after his injury. Hosmer’s most recent numbers were not good. Cain was down from where he had been, and Dyson isn’t perceived as a starter. Escobar is just a glove. On the pitching side, Duffy has value, but he’s still something of an unknown as an impact starter. And while Davis is great, he just had arm problems, which can never be dismissed.

The thing to do here seems pretty obvious. The Royals should probably mostly keep things intact. They project to be about as mediocre as, say, the A’s, but you figure the Tigers will get worse. The Twins aren’t good, and they won’t be good, and the White Sox appear increasingly prepared to get bad in a hurry. The AL Central is likely to have just one good team, and the Royals might as well spend a few months trying to keep up. There wouldn’t be much for them to lose, and if things didn’t work out, there’s still the midseason market.

If Duffy stays good, the Royals could move him for a haul in July. At that point he would’ve been a quality power starter for more than a year. Hosmer or Moustakas could make a difference in a lineup, and of course Davis could become greatly sought after if his arm were to stay intact.

On Davis — he might be the one guy to sell today. The Royals would have an in-house replacement in Kelvin Herrera, and closers are obviously in demand. According to various reports, the Royals want to trim some payroll, and Davis would make the most sense, given his $10-million price tag. He’s someone the Royals could move while staying reasonably competitive, and you wonder about the Dodgers and the Cubs. The Dodgers could give the Royals someone like Brock Stewart, and interesting young long-term starter who’s ready for the majors. The Cubs could give the Royals someone like Jorge Soler, an affordable long-term outfielder. Soler might then set in motion another move, maybe a Cain deal, but now I’m just speculating away.

The bigger point is that 2018 stands to be rough, almost no matter what. The Royals do not have a good overall collection of values, and the farm is short on promising reinforcements. There’s not a lot that could be done about that today, by trading contract-year players, so the Royals should just try for one more run. They’ve already accomplished what they wanted. They bought themselves some time, some forgiveness, and this would all be so much worse if the title pursuit hadn’t worked. There’s no giving back all those rings. But that group’s window is just about closed. You can’t say it hasn’t been an enjoyable era.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Agreed. The Royals have the easiest plan of any major league team this offseason. Stand PAT. Listen in on deals for Wade Davis and add a low cost bullpen and starting pitcher. If it goes well great, otherwise sell off some contract-year guys at the deadline.

Let the Twins, Phillies, Padres, Reds, Brewers, A’s, Braves, and White Sox compete for those high draft picks… This is a good enough team in a winnable enough division to go ‘one more for the roses.’