The Precarious Position of the Kansas City Royals
After 2015, you could forgive Royals fans for being in disbelief. The Royals won the American League pennant in 2014, and the World Series in 2015, dulling memories of decades of losing and incompetence. In fact, as noted by mega-Royals fan Rany Jazayerli on Twitter, three full years elapsed in which not a second of major league baseball was played without the Royals being in contention for the World Series. In some ways, this was an unimaginable level of success.
Flash forward one year later and the tenor has entirely changed. Kansas City’s 2016 playoff push sputtered in September, as the Royals went 12-17 during the season’s final month before finishing 81-81, their worst record in four years. Such a middling season from a defending champion would typically be cause for some alarm, but for the Royals, the stakes are particularly heightened. A huge chunk of their pennant-winning teams is set to hit free agency after 2017, threatening to end the Royals’ party not long after it began.
Starting corner infielders Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer will be free agents after 2017. Dynamic center fielder Lorenzo Cain also is set to test the market. Less high profile but still valuable contributors like Alcides Escobar, Jarrod Dyson, and Danny Duffy will reach free agency after 2017 as well. There is potential for a genuine exodus of talent from Kansas City after this season.
This puts the Royals in an unenviable position. The team that won 95 games and a championship just 13 months ago is still largely in place. The defending AL-champion Indians will surely be division favorites in the AL Central next season, but with the Twins still rebuilding, the White Sox commencing a sale, and the Tigers considering one, the Royals profile as a solid #2 in the division. There is certainly still enough talent to envision one last playoff run with this squad.
But the danger is clear: if the Royals push for 2017 and fail, the organization could be left crippled. The new CBA agreement still allows for non-revenue sharing teams to recoup a draft pick after the first round should a Qualifying Offer free agent receive a contract in excess of $50 million, but a smattering of compensation picks is what the Royals are at risk of receiving if they try and fail to make a run in 2017. So with their time as contenders dwindling, what are the Royals to do?
The most brazen (and ultimately satisfying?) option might be to fully commit to winning in 2017, and dealing with the problem of trying to retain some or any of the free agents after the year. The Royals project as a middling team currently, but with replacement level holes at second base and the back of the rotation, the Royals could certainly add a few wins to their ledger with some low cost free agent moves. Free agent middle infielders like Erick Aybar and Chase Utley, and veteran arms like Derek Holland and Doug Fister, could be had cheaply and patch the most glaring holes on an otherwise solid roster.
The most painful, if not necessarily the most prudent, option is probably a fire-sale. With the advent of the second Wild Card, the majority of teams in the league can fancy themselves contenders, and division rivals like Detroit and Chicago seem to be priming themselves to take advantage of a possible seller’s market. The Royals could join in, attempting to open the window for future contention by slamming shut their current window themselves.
Dynamite-closer Wade Davis has already reportedly been traded, with talented but frustrating outfielder Jorge Soler being sent in exchange from Chicago. Duffy is coming off a season in which he contended for the ERA title, and in a starting pitching starved market, he could fetch a solid bounty. Moustakas and Hosmer in theory wouldn’t be quite as enticing, given the glut of corner infielders and outfielders with power on the market, but they’d still probably bring back more value than a compensation pick after 2017. The Royals have the trade chips to really get a head start on a rebuild if they that’s the route the choose.
From the outside, however, the most likely outcome here is for the Royals to make some half-measures. Feel out the market for their players on walk years, make a deal or two (as they already have) if they sense there’s value to be had, and make a low-profile signing or two to paper over weaknesses and attempt to win in 2017. And, in truth, that might be the fairest option.
Should the Tigers and White Sox join the Twins as genuine rebuilders, the Royals could shoot right up the list of Wild Card contenders in the AL, by virtue of playing in the worst division in the AL. If the Royals can keep together even a decent roster, that could be enough to push for 87+ wins, should they have the fortune to play one of the game’s easiest schedules.
Plus, if the Royals do keep the band together but struggle in the first half, they could still recoup a good chunk of value by flipping players at the deadline. Those players will have even less team control remaining, but playoff contenders generally pay a premium for talent midseason when they know they’re in contention, so the Royals wouldn’t stand to lose too much value. Just look at the Royals’ return for Davis and compare it to the hauls ace relievers like Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller cost at last season’s deadline. The Chapman deal in particular might be a bit of an outlier, but they still stand to show that a team like the Royals can try to contend during the first half, with the safety net of a deadline sale as a backup should things go awry.
In all, it would be a disappointing reversion to the Royals’ tactics of yesteryear should they tear down this team and fail to make a real effort to keep some of their core together. It would be understandable if they decided it was much too risky to play this season out and allow their players to skip town for nothing more than compensation picks, but the Royals could find themselves in position to contend in 2017 if things break right. It might be tempting to get a jump-start on a rebuild in Kansas City, but it could just be worth it for the Royals give their core one last shot.