There’s something to be admired about how this era of Kansas City Royals baseball ended last season. Rather than heed the oncoming exodus of talent from their organization ahead — Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer were all headed for free agency — and trade their stars, the Royals doubled down. They traded Matt Strahm, an interesting young lefty with a 94 mph fastball, for experienced bullpen help. They parted with more prospects for Melky Cabrera. Like an aging prizefighter going for broke his last time in the ring, the Royals went down swinging.
Frankly, it’s tough to blame them. On the day they dealt Strahm, they beat our Detroit Tigers 5-3, improving their record to 51-47. They were 1 1⁄2 games out of the AL Central lead at the time. When they picked up Cabrera a week later, they were seven games over .500 and just two back of the Cleveland Indians. The Royals went 33-19 in June and July and out-scored their opponents by 52 runs during that stretch. They had a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs at that point, and their fans were overwhelmingly happy with the decision to buy at the deadline.
Then, the bottom fell out. The Royals missed the playoffs, and Cain and Hosmer departed for greener pastures during the offseason. Moustakas and shortstop Alcides Escobar returned, but the team’s prior go-for-broke trades had sapped most of the farm system’s value. Poor development sapped the rest.
With a couple of bad contracts still hanging around their neck and owner David Glass not all that willing to open his pockets further, the Royals are in a bad place. They don’t have the means to contend this year (unless things really go sideways), and missed out on a chance to quickly re-stock their farm system, lower deadline prices be damned. The compensatory picks will help, but their next wave of prospects is a long way off.
Are they the worst team in the American League? Maybe not right now, especially after re-signing Moustakas. But they will be soon, and might be for a while.
Team at a glance
2017 record: 80-82 | 2017 pythag: 72-90 | 2018 farm system rank: 29
Manager: Ned Yost (9th year)
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Key additions: 1B Lucas Duda, CF Jon Jay, RHP Jesse Hahn
Key departures: 1B Eric Hosmer, OF Lorenzo Cain, OF Melky Cabrera, LHP Jason Vargas, LHP Mike Minor, RHP Joakim Soria, LHP Scott Alexander
The Royals were in limbo for most of the offseason as they waited to see where first baseman Eric Hosmer would sign. When he chose the San Diego Padres over his former team, Kansas City’s fate was sealed: they were headed for a rebuild. General manager Dayton Moore has said his team will not “tank,” and his late-winter activity confirmed that promise. The Royals picked up Lucas Duda and Jon Jay shortly after Hosmer signed with the Pads, and also grabbed reliever Justin Grimm after he was dumped by the Cubs earlier this week.
While those deals might be enough to boost them out of the AL Central cellar, the focus is clear. The Royals will likely shop several of those players, all on one-year deals, at the trade deadline for prospects. Though Duda and Moustakas might not net much of a return given how slow the position player market was last July, it’s more than nothing. Plus, it gives them (and their fans) at least a glimmer of hope heading into the season. With Kelvin Herrera still at the back end of the ‘pen and a couple of potential bounce-back candidates in the lineup, there’s always a chance they could overachieve.
But if Gordon and Herrera struggle again, the pitching doesn’t improve, and the injury bug strikes, they could be very bad.
Down on the farm
The Royals, like so many teams before them, emptied out their farm system in search of a World Series title. And that’s not a bad thing. While Sean Manaea, Cody Reed, and Brandon Finnegan would look good in Kansas City’s rotation right about now, flags fly forever. The Royals spent when they had to, and the payoff was a title their fanbase will cherish for years to come.
The aftermath isn’t pretty, though. According to Baseball America, Kansas City has the second-worst farm system in baseball heading into 2018. They don’t have a single top-100 prospect in their system, and their top three or four draft picks this spring might end up as their top three or four prospects by season’s end. Last year’s first round pick, Nick Pratto, could be a good first baseman, but first base-only prospects aren’t worth quite as much these days. Outfielders Seuly Matias and Khalil Lee are on top of Baseball Prospectus’ Royals list, but neither has made it above Low-A ball yet. There are a few not-quite-prospects floating around the upper minors, including Adalberto Mondesi, Bubba Starling, and Kyle Zimmer, but none have lived up to the hype yet.
Player to watch: Whit Merrified
I’m just as surprised as you are that Merrified was nearly a four-win player last year. The 29-year-old defied all expectations when he hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs and 34 steals, including those of his employers. Merrifield didn’t even make the team out of spring training last April, yet finished the season as their third-most valuable position player. It was one of the most valuable seasons from a Royals second baseman in franchise history, and certainly one of the most surprising breakout years in recent memory. Merrifield’s power may have been somewhat aided by the juiced baseball, but he boasts a fly ball heavy profile that should at least generate double digit homers again. Perhaps even more surprising were his 34 steals, which led the AL. He may not be that efficient again (he was only caught eight times), but it’s hard to fake that kind of baserunning acumen.
Spoiler: it’s bleak. The Royals have defied projection systems like PECOTA before, but they lack the pitching talent and depth to seriously contend for a playoff spot. Their lineup will also take a step back, even if those that over-performed last year don’t regress. The bullpen is a shell of its former self, with little to speak for outside of closer Kelvin Herrera (who wasn’t so great last year himself). I like what they did to close out the offseason, especially in signing the criminally underrated Lucas Duda.
But that kind of move works a lot better when you have playoff-caliber pieces around him, not a rotation propped up by Jason Hammel and Ian Kennedy. A reasonably positive season involves them trading productive vets for prospects, and maybe even getting a mega-haul for Danny Duffy. Anything less might put them further into the hole they have dug themselves, even if they did find a shiny World Series trophy along the way.