The Kansas City Royals are among the smallest of small-market baseball franchises. They operate under a unique business model that generally includes fighting for viability among larger franchises in bigger cities, which therefore capture more fans and more titles and have the financial flexibility to contend more consistently. With less revenue, less media attention and less money overall, smaller-market teams are forced to become some of the smartest teams in baseball in order to compete.
Just look at the A’s, whose “Moneyball” approach in the early 2000s kicked off the analytical revolution which still runs rampant today. Or the Rays, who are among the most data-savvy teams in baseball, and have found success since the start of last season with high value trades – including what may go down as one of the more lopsided trade in recent history with the flip of Chris Archer – and new strategies, most notably the opener.
In 2014 and 2015, the Royals put themselves on the map with two deep postseason runs fueled by a highly unique small ball strategy that culminated in a 2015 World Series title. After making their first postseason in 29 years via the Wild Card and finding their success in such an unorthodox way, though, the question of whether the Royals got lucky in winning their championship is uncomfortably viable.
Now they’ve regressed and are among the worst teams in the Major Leagues. With every move, it appears to be more evident that their primary focus is fighting for respectability over competitiveness. The Royals have a roster which consists of some good players, but it is nowhere deep enough to even field a starting lineup that consistently wins games. However, in trade discussions, the team is rumored to be seeking major league ready talent in an attempt to return to contention as soon as possible, foregoing potentially much greater talent in favor of a slightly quicker return.
With some players, most notably the highly coveted Whit Merrifield, the Royals even seem to be opting not to deal them at all, backing down because teams would rather not give up their best prospects who are near the Majors. If the Royals truly want respectability as a franchise, that’s not going to come any time soon with such an overall bad team and so few assets. Therefore, the goal of the franchise should be to create a future team that demands respect, rather than hurriedly assembling a team which may simply put the Royals on the map once again as a Wild-Card contender.
The first step in this process is immediate: trade aging players on the current roster and get the largest return possible for all of them. The most notable players who should be packing to supplement contending teams are Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy, Billy Hamilton, and yes, Whit Merrifield. The team has done well so far in dealing Martin Maldonado, Homer Bailey, and Jake Diekman, receiving a solid pitcher with team control in Mike Montgomery as well as prospects who have upside (and speed) from the A’s in return for the two pitchers. Still, the farm system needs a boost with guys who have real upside, and this will come more from trades of Kennedy and Merrifield especially.
Hamilton is the type of player that any contender is happy to have on their roster come October as a late-game pinch runner, and there are rumors of scattered interest around Duffy as well. If the interest is there, the Royals should also pull the trigger on these two.
If the Royals were more actively shopping these players rather than holding tight to them, they might even be better equipped to negotiate and get a desirable return, and this would serve the team much better in the long run than keeping these guys around for this year. Any of these guys would net something that is likely to pay off for the future, and all it would cost is the potential for performance from the players that will not even matter next season, which projects with a decent amount of certainty to be another losing one. The Royals farm system remains ranked just 27th in baseball (Fangraphs), suggesting that even with great prospect luck, they’ll be hard-pressed to build a team which is truly as contentious as they’re expecting. For this reason, the farm system needs more future value, and this is the best way to come across it.
The next step in an ideal rehaul of the Royals ideology is to eliminate the signings of and loyalty to players like Lucas Duda, which have backfired especially this season in several ways. The primary reason is this: the goal of a rebuilding team is to build up young players who may be supplemented by free agent signings in order to create a winning team when the time is right, and those young players being blocked by veterans who are accomplishing nothing on a losing team makes this goal very difficult to accomplish.
Bringing on veterans is especially painful when they show very little promise of being positive contributors to any team; to take this season as an example, Duda is 33 years old and four years removed from his last season of any considerable value. Paying him several million dollars to give him playing time over the 26 year old Ryan O’Hearn, who flashed serious power last season and would seriously benefit from more time to adapt to Major League pitching in hopes that he may develop into a perennial power threat, is counter-productive in two different ways: O’Hearn misses out on that development, and there is a serious chance that Duda will be worse anyway.
In this case, Duda’s presence was even more damaging, as the Royals gave Duda a roster spot over Brian Goodwin, who went on an offensive tear early in the season for the Angels that made the Royals look silly for dumping him. They also cut ties with Frank Schwindel before truly seeing what he could do in order to give Duda Major League time instead. In addition, the Royals have at least one example of what can happen by giving playing time to younger former prospects, as Hunter Dozier was one of the best hitters in the American League for several months to begin the season and is now much more of a threat at the plate.
Allowing a core of players like Dozier and Mondesi and Keller to develop together is very beneficial to a team that is truly going to win down the line, and the Royals have plenty more players like the aforementioned where he came from: Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling, Nicky Lopez, and Richard Lovelady are all players who have shown great raw tools and could very well become serious threats with time to develop. Distinguishing between signings to complete the roster and those which bring in bad, unnecessary veterans is important, and it is a skill at which the Royals simply need to be better.
Sculpting a younger roster and adding future talent are the truly paramount components of the construction of the next real Royals contender, and one more aspect that is important to begin weighing right now is the managerial situation for that team. Currently, Ned Yost is among the oldest and most tenured managers in MLB, and while there is no inherent issue with that, Yost’s retirement does seem to be drawing more imminent, and the Royals need to have a plan to appoint the best manager possible when the time comes. There is certainly no issue with Yost, as he is highly regarded for his skills in developing players, which is crucial to the Royals moving forward, and Baseball Prospectus rates Yost with a 101.2 wRM+, indicating that he is an above average manager in terms of his teams’ performance relative to their expected records throughout his managerial career.
Given this performance as well as his familiarity with the franchise, Yost seems like the perfect candidate to continue manning the ship in Kansas City, but there are several concerns, most notably that Yost is currently in his tenth season with the Royals, a point at which a manger’s voice may become stale and less effective for the same franchise. Additionally, Yost is among the more old school managers in baseball, as proven by the small ball approach that carried the Royals to the World Series in 2014 and 2015, and this strategy simply won’t play well in baseball moving forward, especially when runs are increasingly being scored via the home run and analytics pay off more and more for the teams that embrace them to the greatest extent. Ultimately, Yost is a valuable piece of the Royals’ franchise, and his loyalty would indicate that he looks forward to manning a great team again soon, but it’s important for the Royals to prioritize putting a manager in the dugout who will help his team compete to the highest level, and as a result they must approach their managerial situation with open minds.
While the Royals struggle with a small-market constraint that drives their desire for respectability in Major League Baseball, the team must prioritize building the best team possible for the long term over fielding a more relevant team in the moment. By making the correct moves, at worst the Royals have an extra year to wait for a far more competitive team, and anyone who knows the franchise has seen the impact of a playoff contender in Kauffman Stadium. While the full rebuild has its flaws and critics, it is currently the most lucrative means of building a great baseball team, and the Royals even have several pieces of a great contender on their roster now. Cultivating a contender in the most efficient way possible often involves a lot of pain, but even fans are quick to embrace a forward thinking mindset from front offices today, and that is exactly the approval that the Royals must prioritize to return to a status of MLB regality.
Photo Credits: Jay Biggerstaff – USA Today Sports