Analyzing year five of the Royals rebuild

The run that the Kansas City Royals went on in 2014 and 2015 might be the greatest two-year run in team history. The Royals built up on of the best farm systems in baseball history from 2007 through 2011 and even though they didn’t all pan out the way we thought, the prospects in that system delivered two pennants and one world championship to Kansas City. Mike Moustakas tore his ACL in 2016, the team traded Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson before the 2017 season, and all of a sudden the run was over. The Royals lost over 100 games in back-to-back seasons in 2018 and 2019 before showing signs of life again in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. They won 74 games last season and will be entering year five of their rebuild in 2022.

The city is anxious for Bobby Witt Jr.’s arrival and the mark of the next competitive window opening for the big league club, but it’s likely that the team won’t be ready to compete for a playoff spot until at least 2023. While it’s fair for fans to expect this team to be more competitive than they have over the last four years, is it also fair to be patient and understand that this could be the last dull year before things really get going? I wanted to take a look at the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs for answers, to see if maybe there isn’t already an expectation in place. From there, we’ll compare where the Royals stand in terms of their ability to replicate what the Astros and Cubs did in back-to-back years in 2016 and 2017. Here’s a quick rundown of all three teams’ respective rebuilds:

Kansas City (2018-Present)

  • 100-loss seasons: 2
  • Non-playoff seasons: 4 and counting
  • Number of top 10 draft picks: 4
  • Top farm system entering year 5: Yes

Houston (2011-2015)

  • 100-loss seasons: 3
  • Non-playoff seasons: 4
  • Number of top 10 draft picks: 5*
  • Top farm system entering year 5: No

The Astros only signed four of their five top-10 picks. Brady Aiken didn’t sign so they got an additional pick in 2015 that they used to sign Alex Bregman. The Astros really kind of squandered two of their top picks, as Mark Appel didn’t pan out at all either. In all, they signed Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker during their rebuild, the last of whom didn’t really burst onto the scene in the big leagues until after they’d already won their World Series. Correa had graduated by 2015 so…that certainly would’ve helped their case for a top farm system…but the rest of the guys they had sort of flew under the radar.

Chicago (2011-2015)

  • 100-loss seasons: 1
  • Non-playoff seasons: 4
  • Number of top 10 draft picks: 5
  • Top farm system entering year 5: Yes

The Cubs landed one of the best draft prospects in recent memory in Kris Bryant one pick after the Houston Astros picked Mark Appel #1 overall. They also drafted Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber, both of whom played an integral part in their ascent to World Series champions in 2016. The Cubs and Astros rebuilds differed from Kansas City in that they both had a mini head start to their rebuild. The Royals won 80+ games in the two years before their rebuild began and you could probably make the argument that the Cubs and Astros rebuilds began two years before I actually gave them credit. For example, the Astros drafted George Springer #11 overall in 2011…

The big difference here too is that the Cubs hadn’t been to the World Series since 1944, the Astros hadn’t been since 2005, and the Royals started their rebuild just two years after winning the World Series. They did not have the built up draft capital that the Cubs and Astros had when their rebuilds REALLY began. So, while we work through this, keep all of that in mind.

Where do the Royals stand?

The toughest challenge that the Royals will face in their rebuild compared to the Astros and Cubs is that the Astros and Cubs both have more money to spend on holes in their lineup than Kansas City. The Cubs and Astros both also made the playoffs in year five (or six, depending on when you want to say their rebuilds began) of their rebuild, something that it does not look like the Royals are strong candidates to do in 2022. By the 2011 standard I set for both the Cubs and Astros, you could potentially argue the Royals are a year behind in their rebuild. Though I think it’s fair to say they’re probably right on pace in the grand scheme of things.

The gap will begin to grow if the Royals can’t make the playoffs in 2023. Next year the Royals figure to have anywhere from 7-8 homegrown starting pitchers ready to make an impact in the big leagues, a bullpen with plenty of firepower, and a core of young hitters who already have big league experience under their belts. It’s not that the Astros and Cubs are the ONLY standard…if the Royals win 85 games next year and narrowly miss the playoffs I think a majority of fans would see progress, but there will certainly be a faction of “playoffs or bust” fans and the Royals don’t seem to be all the way there just yet.

So what is the standard? What should we expect from the Royals over the next couple of seasons? I’ve been writing a series of articles projecting the 2023 lineup for nearly five years now. For at least two years I’ve maintained that the Royals need to be ~.500 in 2022 and damn close to the playoffs by 2023. That’s a standard I’ve set them, it’s a standard that I maintain, but what does it all really mean? Let’s ignore the Win-Loss record for a minute. Here’s a short list of things that I think the Royals need to have accomplished by the end of 2023:

  1. Identify your future starting rotation
    • The Royals have a ton of young arms working their way through the system. Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Jon Heasley, Carlos Hernandez, and Angel Zerpa have made big league starts. Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan, Drew Parrish, Austin Cox, and Asa Lacy appear to be within striking distance. Can you make a playoff-caliber starting rotation out of some combination of seven of those arms? Do you need to go get a veteran to lead that staff in free agency or via trade? The more you can learn in 2022, the better you can set yourself up for the 2023 season. I’d move Mike Minor to the bullpen and let as many young arms start games as physically possible this year.
  2. Figure out a long-term plan in CF
    • Michael A. Taylor *probably* can’t be the everyday CF for a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. He’s fine, but he’s certainly not a long-term answer. The Royals don’t really have an immediate backup plan on the roster either. What’s the long-term plan? Is it a 2022 draft pick? Is it through trade? Free agency? Whatever it is, that probably needs to be identified before the 2023 season begins. Most of your lineup is set for the foreseeable future. There’s one glaring hole left.
  3. Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Vinnie Pasquantino need to get a MINIMUM of 200 big league PA each in 2022
    • I don’t care how they do it, but the Royals need to get these guys in a big league lineup on a regular basis by the end of 2022. Heading into 2023, the Royals need to know what they have in house. I almost added Kyle Isbel to this list, but I think he’s going to get plenty of playing time. That’s 7-8 members of your 2023 lineup if you include Salvy, Nicky Lopez, and maybe Whit Merrifield, that would be returning from the end of the 2022 season. Where each of them will play is still to be seen, but you’ve got to get eyes on them at the big league level for a semi-extended period of time before you head into a crucial offseason for the future of this club.
  4. Figure out which prospects you can trade for help at the big league level
    • The Royals have done a great job of building up a stable of prospects that should be big league ready (ish) by 2023. They can’t all have big league playing time. Some of them will have to be moved for help in the rotation and/or in CF. But which ones? Michael Massey seems to be a good candidate with an infield logjam at the big league level. Maikel Garcia and Clay Dungan, too. We already talked about all the arms the Royals have coming. Trading 3-4 of them for a veteran that you can immediately slot into the top of the big league rotation seems to make sense for this team. Could they trade one of their first base prospects too? There’s a lot of options, and 2022 ought to be a great opportunity to decide who you’re going to lockdown and who can be moved heading into 2023.
  5. Okay, fine…WIN
    • I know we said we’d ignore the Win-Loss record for this, but let’s be honest. Fans want to see this rebuild start to pay off. I’ve backed off of the idea that this team needs to win 81 games in 2022, but it has to be closer to 80 than the 74 games they won last year. Any kind of lateral or backwards step at the big league level in 2022 is sure to cause a stir among fans that the front office won’t be able to escape. This team doesn’t have to make the playoffs this year, but they can’t have multiple 10-game losing streaks either. If the Royals are 10 games below .500 in August, it will once again be football season before kids can even get back to school in Kansas City.

Conclusion

I want to make sure that this doesn’t sound like I’m worried that the Royals WON’T do any of this in 2022. I really think they will! The Royals have been really good with their internal evaluations, even if they don’t always portray that well to the fans, and I think that the front office is going to tell us loud and clear what the plan is heading into Spring Training of 2023 by the moves they make before then. So, don’t read all of this as me being pessimistic they can accomplish it all, because I am quite the opposite of that. It’s just a brief outline of the things that, in my opinion, they’ve got to get done this year. Their ability to do that will tell us a lot about what to expect from the big league club in 2023.

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2 thoughts on “Analyzing year five of the Royals rebuild

  1. Neither Melendez nor Pasquantino will get 200 PA’s in the show in ’22 unless Perez and some other regular player are injured and/or the Royals dump Cam. Both Isbel and Olivares should have got a minimum of 250 AB’s last year but neither came close and I doubt they will this year unless Mondesi and Dozier miss half the season with injuries. The horrible Hunter extension hangs an albatross around the necks of Isbel and Olivares because as it shakes out now, the Royals IF will be Mondesi & Witt Jr. sharing time at 3B & SS with Lopez playing 2B and Whit in RF, Taylor in center and Benintendi in left. But because KC made the mistake of giving Dozier $25 million, he’ll be force fed to the fans as the right fielder, not Isbel or Olivares, should an injury provide playing time.

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