The 2018 Kansas City Royals are at a crossroads. This year’s American League champion Astros provide the recipe for success in today’s baseball economy: Tear it down and start over.
The economic reality of Major League Baseball: Winning a World Series title comes with a price. After winning the World Series in 2015, the Kansas City Royals amassed a record of 161-163 in their next two seasons.
With five key players approaching free agency, the Kansas City Royals’ front office knew that the team would look drastically different at the start of the 2018 season. So, a decision had to be made.
One option was to trade off those assets to rebuild the farm system, which was correctly depleted in order to go for the World Series in 2014 and 2015. This could have shortened any rebuilding effort if the trades panned out. The other option was to hold on to everyone and go for it.
They chose the latter.
Strictly speaking from the standpoint of wins and losses — not the only thing that matters but pretty important — they made the wrong decision.
The Kansas City Royals likely don’t have the ability to spend what would be necessary to sign top free agents like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Wade Davis or their own free agent quartet of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. However, there is a way forward that could work, even for a small market team like the Royals.
One need not look any further than this year’s American League champions for the model to follow.
The 2010 Houston Astros went 76-86, placing fourth in the National League Central Division and 15 games back of the first place Cincinnati Reds. During that season, they traded 143-game winner Roy Oswalt to the Phillies for three prospects. Following the season, first baseman Lance Berkman left for the Cardinals. Midway through 2011, second baseman Jeff Keppinger made way for an undrafted free agent named Jose Altuve.
During 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Astros lost more than 105 games each season. This allowed them to obtain high draft picks. In the first round of the 2011 draft, they selected George Springer, who made his first All-Star team this season. In the first round of the 2012 draft, they selected Carlos Correa, who would go on to win the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and also made his first All-Star team this season. With their supplemental round pick in 2012, they drafted Lance McCullers Jr., who made his first All-Star team this season (Do you sense a pattern?) and just won Game 3 of the World Series.
Through smart trades and a strong minor league system, the Astros improved each season and reached the World Series just five years after they were at the bottom of the league.
The Action Plan
So, how does this translate to the Kansas City Royals?
They now have the opportunity to do the same thing. The Kansas City Royals should not be signing any high-priced free agents this offseason. Anyone who materially improves the Royals’ record will just keep them mediocre, allowing them to neither win enough games to make the playoffs nor amass high draft picks.
Furthermore, the Kansas City Royals should non-tender Kelvin Herrera and either allow Scott Alexander to close or go to closer by committee. That’s roughly $8 million that could be saved for other purposes.
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The Kansas City Royals should let the young guys play as many innings as possible. They will take their lumps as they develop, and that’s OK. They should treat the season like a 162-game spring training.
The front office should put every penny possible into their player development department. Embrace analytics and sabermetrics. Scout players far and wide. Dig deep into data and video. Be ready to make those high draft picks.
By the time the current young players are ready — and the drafted players work their way through the system — the Kansas City Royals could be back in the World Series hunt again.
I know this would be tough for the fans to swallow, especially after getting a taste of winning. However given the current economics, there are two options: Be awful for five years and then be competitive again; or be mediocre for five years and be no closer to a World Series title.
The choice is clear to me: Go to the bottom. That’s the fastest way to the top.