March 30, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Kansas City Royals
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Roughly 515 days ago, the Royals became World Series champions. A season ago, Kansas City finished with a .500 record. Based on PECOTA projections for 2017, the Royals should expect to win 72 games and finish last in the American League Central. In fact, only the Padres should win fewer games in all of MLB, according to PECOTA. Being crowned King of the World, before drifting to the middle of the road, and finally settling to the bottom of the heap. Life comes at you fast.
PECOTA and the Royals have a funny history, of course. Ol’ Bill didn’t see the World Series coming for his old club in 2014 or 2015. PECOTA kind of nailed the Royals in 2016, however. Just like what they used to say about the real-life ballplayer, you can’t outrun PECOTA forever! (OK, they never said that about Bill Pecota.)
Regardless of projections and predictions, the Royals obviously don’t consider themselves to be a team that is tanking, or even should be tanking completely, at least not yet. Otherwise, general manager Dayton Moore would have done that by now. Instead, they are playing for today and tomorrow, with Moore taking proactive steps and dealing from depth (or redundancy) to buy himself time on two temporal fronts.
Notably, the Royals sent closer Wade Davis to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler, and moved outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners for right-hander Nathan Karns. Not only could Kansas City replace Davis and Dyson with other major leaguers on their roster, but both will be free agents after the season. Soler and Karns not only figure to play prominent roles in 2017, but they also won’t be free agents until 2021. The Royals also let free agent Kendrys Morales go, and signed Brandon Moss to give them perhaps the same quality of hitter, more flexibility on defense and a cheaper player no matter what.
Further, in the wake of the shocking death of right-hander Yordano Ventura about three weeks before the start of spring training, the Royals signed right-hander Jason Hammel as a replacement. Even for a reasonable $16 million over two years (plus a mutual option), this isn’t the kind of move a team that thinks it’s going to lose 90 games usually makes. Moore is always looking ahead, but the Moss and Hammel moves showed how firm he was about the Royals in 2017; he expects to contend. But is he just putting off the inevitable?
The past four seasons have been the most enjoyable for Royals fans since the early-to-mid-80s. With manager Ned Yost at the helm, they made a run at the AL Central in 2013, followed by two straight appearances in the World Series, and the afterglow of 2016 as reigning champs. But with the Royals near the bottom in market size and TV revenue, fans and media have been figuring that 2017 would be the end of the line for this incarnation. That’s what makes Moore’s moves—what he’s done and hasn’t done—so compelling. When the trade deadline comes July 31, and if the Royals are a half-game back in the Wild Card, is Moore going to tank?
If Moore were going to tank in the offseason, first baseman Eric Hosmer—who is said to be seeking perhaps $200 million in free agency, although Brandon Belt money seems closer to fair—would have been sent elsewhere for prospects. Hosmer still figures to be a potentially hot commodity in late July in what has been predicted by those in the know to be a deadline feeding frenzy. The same goes for center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who also will be a free agent after this season. The same also goes for third baseman Mike Moustakas, a free agent at season’s end. It would even make sense for the Royals to deal closer Kelvin Herrera, who won’t be a free agent until 2019. Come the deadline, the Royals will have a whole lot of what everybody wants.
The thing is, the Royals figure themselves to be buyers at the deadline. Back to the crystal ball for a moment: PECOTA figures Cleveland for 93 wins and first place, but nobody else in the AL Central is considered more than 79. PECOTA figures the Wild Cards to be around 85-87 wins. If the projections are close there but off with the Royals, K.C. very well could be in Wild Card contention at the moment Moore has to cut bait on the impending free agents still on his roster. Just three years ago, the Royals won the Wild Card game (a memorably wild affair with Moss’ Athletics at Kauffman Stadium) and steamed into the World Series.
Lest we forget, the Royals were this close to winning two championships in a row. There’s no way Moore blows up the roster in July if there’s a chance of winning another Commissioner’s Trophy. The other thing is, and this is getting near Gift-of-the-Magi territory, the Royals don’t have much to trade for reinforcements, as far as minor-league assets go. If Moustakas gets hurt again, it will be up to Christian Colon. If Danny Duffy goes down, they won’t be in position to trade for whomever this year’s Johnny Cueto would be. The Royals already traded away, or promoted, most of their best prospects. That point alone might be enough to eschew another run at the World Series with this group.
A lot of logical thinkers out there probably are saying the Royals should rebuild anyway, that the possible reward of restocking the farm system outweighs the unlikeliness of winning the World Series in 2017. Especially considering the dangers of the one-and-done Wild Card. There they go again, underestimating the Royals. Just like PECOTA, just like everybody. With luck and most of the roster playing well, the Royals should be sparring with Cleveland for first place. Look at the facts:
Alex Gordon can do better than a .692 OPS. Cain can do better than a .747 OPS by getting a .747 OPS in 600 at-bats. Hosmer can put 50 points on his OPS. Moustakas can play 150 games. If the pitching staff gets 150 starts from Duffy, Jason Vargas, Ian Kennedy, Karns, and Hammel, the bullpen will be in position to be as effective as ever, relative to the past four seasons. All of that happening isn’t assured, but it’s possible. Quite possible.
And if it all happens, Moore will be in a position to add at the deadline, and he’ll do it, and the Royals will forfeit untold (but also unknown) riches in swapping out the likes of Hosmer, Cain, and Moustakas in what would be emotional, soul-killing trades for fans who don’t want to see their idols auctioned off. The Royals are in position to take one more shot at the World Series. Almost nobody thinks they can do it. And that’s just how the Royals like it.