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The Royals Have To Start Thinking About Rebuilding

Last September, the Kansas City Royals were eliminated from playoff contention, ending their title defense. Remarkably, that ended a three-year span in which there wasn’t a single second of major league baseball played where the Royals were not in contention to win the World Series. From the beginning of 2014, through the final out of game 7 of the 2014 World Series, through the 2015 World Series, through to the end of the 2016 regular season, the Royals were in contention at all times.

It was a run that was a long-time coming for Royals fans, who endured years without a playoff appearance and patiently awaited the fruits of a fabled farm system. The Royals never became any sort of juggernaut, but they won two pennants and championship. That is an unmitigated success for any franchise.

No one wants to pull the plug on what’s been the team’s best run in decades. This was a team that launched storied playoff comebacks, that prided itself on not being dead until the final out. The players involved surely aren’t shaken by a 30-34 record in mid-June, especially not while in the midst of their current four-game winning streak. Given the choice, they’d almost certainly opt to try to continue this run, to return to the playoffs after an absence last year.

Making the playoffs at this point would be hard for the Royals. Even harder might be forgoing even a chance at such a run. But after another two months of uninspiring play, it’s coming near time for Kansas City to step back.

The Royals have a number of key players hitting free agency after this season. If this was a good team, that wouldn’t yet be a concern. Those impending free agents would be held on to in a one-last-ride type of attempt at playoff glory. Little thought would be given to the idea of moving those expiring current assets in favor of future ones.

Alas, this is not a good team. Let’s dispense with that notion right away. The Royals are “only” four games below .500, as well as four games behind the surprising AL Central-leading Twins. To the layman, they are far from out of it, and there’s truth to the sentiment. They aren’t out of it. But the team would have to play very well to return to contention. Expecting a high level of play from this group probably isn’t reasonable.

That’s because they haven’t even played as well as their record indicates they have so far. Their 30-34 mark isn’t good, sure, but one could argue it’s not a death-knell. Heck, it’s hardly worse than the Cubs, and it’s a better record than the Cardinals or Giants have. Yet they’ve been outscored by their opponents by 35 runs, a run differential indicative of a team with a .440 winning percentage, thirty points worse than the Royals’ actual winning percentage.

Beyond that, FanGraphs’ BaseRuns metric, which strips out the luck influenced factors of sequencing in estimating a team’s quality of play, pegs the Royals as a 28-36 team, with the 2nd-worst BaseRuns differential in the American League. An optimistic observer might look at the Royals and see a team only a few games out of the division lead. A more realistic one might look at them and see a team that’s lucky to be that close in the first place.

The truth is the Royals are only as close as they are because the Indians are off to a slow start. Cleveland still projects to be excellent down the stretch, with PECOTA forecasting a .580 winning percentage the rest of the way. The Indians remain overwhelmingly likely to take the Central, leaving the Royals to chase the Wild Card. That would require the Royals to leap any a chunk of teams, like the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Twins, Mariners, and Rangers.

In all, PECOTA gives the Royals only a 5% chance to make it to October. FanGraphs’ projections are even more pessimistic, giving Kansas City a 4% shot. The upshot is clear: the Royals should take advantage of the number of teams that will think themselves contenders in this, the two Wild Card era, and get a jump on retooling before it’s too late.

Playing the season out on the whim that that 5% playoff probability could come true would, in all likelihood, leave the Royals with a fourth-place finish and a chunk of their roster ready to skip town for greener pastures, with perhaps a compensation pick or two to show for it. If they are proactive and start making plans to sell now, however, they can make the next building phase toward their next contending team less painful.

The starting pitching trade market does not appear particularly robust, with top pending free agent arms like Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta unlikely to change teams before season’s end. The Royals’ Jason Vargas and his 2.10 ERA could look appealing to several clubs. No one will mistake the journeyman for an ace after two months of excellent play, but Vargas has at least somewhat supported his performance with fine peripherals and a 3.22 FIP. He could fetch a prospect or two on the open market.

At age-28, Mike Moustakas is having perhaps his finest season, running a .278/.317/.565 line. Contending teams like Boston and the Yankees have potential needs at third base, and the Royals would be wise to subsequently shop Moustakas. Eric Hosmer has rebounded from an awful start and now owns a .315/.364/.468 line. Lorenzo Cain has combined a solid 105 OPS+ with his usual superlative defense in center field. All three will be free agents in five months. The Royals’ roster, while no longer good enough to compete now, still has players that other teams would pay for on the trade market.

GM Dayton Moore already implicitly acknowledged the imminent closing of the Royals’ window when last winter he traded Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson, each on expiring deals, in exchange for young players with team control. Losing Davis and Dyson hurt: they are good players who played vital roles on the Royals pennant-winning teams. Trading more players who helped the franchise to glory will ultimately leave a sour taste, and the Royals should perhaps hold on to any players whom they intend to try to sign to large free agent deals after the season. Anyone they don’t foresee returning, however, should be considered a trade candidate.

The Royals don’t want to suffer through what the Phillies have gone through in their post-glory years. They don’t want to suffer what the aging Tigers soon will. And in truth, trading their veterans now isn’t a fail-safe way to avoid a painful rebuilding phase. There’s no guaranteed way to build a contender, no way to ensure a path back to relevance. But getting a head-start on rebuilding, the Royals can at least boost their odds. A rebuild won’t be pleasant (they rarely are). But if the Royals take an honest look at their team’s construction, a rebuild will become the only real salient option.

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Jake Devin fell in love with the game of baseball as a child, watching the Yankees of the late nineties and early aughts dominate the league. The Yankees don't dominate anymore, but Jake's passion for the game is as strong as ever, with exciting new ways to view and analyze the game popping up seemingly all the time. Jake recently graduated from Binghamton University where he completed a degree in mathematics and economics, as well as a four-year track and field career.

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