The Kansas City Royals ended the “first half” of the 2018 season much like they started: by getting the crap kicked out of them by Chicago White Sox (and I say first half because technically it is beyond “half” numerically, but games before the All-Star Break are officially considered the first half, regardless of the number; confusing I know, but I didn’t create this obviously flawed system). As we enter the All-Star break, the Royals are 27-68 through 95 games, which makes them officially the worst team in baseball going into the Mid-Summer Classic (the Baltimore Orioles surpassed them after a 1-0 win over the Texas Rangers on July 15th, which put their record at 28-69). To make matters worse, not only is this Royals team one of the worst in baseball currently, but they could be the worst Royals team in the 50-year history of the club. (What a great way to celebrate such an anniversary, right?)
The team that currently holds the worst record in Royals history is the 2005 Royals, who went through three managers (Tony Pena, Jr., Bob Schaefer, and Buddy Bell) en route to a 56-106 record. Much like the 2018 Royals, the 2005 squad had just experienced some surprising success a couple of seasons prior. In 2003, the Royals won 83 games, their first winning record in over a decade at the time. (They previously had a winning season in 1993, thanks to the pitching of Kevin Appier. Yes, I know, it sounds weird in retrospect.) Unfortunately, the Royals were unable to build on the “feel good” campaign, fell back to earth in 2004, and went 58-104, the worst mark in franchise history at the time until they topped that loss mark by two games a year later. The horrid two-year stretch had a huge ripple effect throughout the organization, as not only did managers and rosters change dramatically from 2004 through 2005, but the club also parted ways with general manager Allard Baird, and replaced him with current general manager and former Atlanta Braves exec Dayton Moore on the last day of May of 2006.
For many Royals fans, the ghosts of 2004 and 2005 seemed to be a distant memory after such a period of success from 2013-2017. In the five-year stretch, the Royals won 80 games or more each season, made the playoffs and World Series twice (2014 and 2015), and added the second World Series championship in the club’s history to their mantle in 2015 (in addition to their one in 1985 where they beat I-70 rival St. Louis). Yes, the Royals were a small market club. Yes, they didn’t have the payroll of the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, or Red Sox. But, it was widely thought that the Royals had set a foundation for various levels of success for years to come.
Oh, how misguided and incorrect Royals fans were.
The poisonous brew of players leaving the club in free agency (Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer), poor free agent signings (Ian Kennedy and Brandon Moss), and a lackluster farm system that had been gutted by mid-season trades (Sean Manaea going to Oakland in the Ben Zobrist Trade) and prospects failing to live up to expectations the past few seasons (Kyle Zimmer and Bubba Starling) has resulted in this season being the nightmare Royals fans were dreading at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign. Not only are the Royals the worst team in baseball now, but they are actually outpacing the 2005 club in losses at this point as well.
By the All-Star break in 2005, the Royals were 30-57 after 87 games (due to the season starting later than this year).
Yep, that’s right: the 2005 team was three wins better than the current Royals by this time of the season (and in 8 fewer games to boot). To make matters worse, for the Royals to tie that putrid 2005 squad, they have to to go 29-38 for the remainder of the season, which means they would have to win at least 43 percent of their remaining 67 games. To compare, in the first half, the Royals only won 28 percent of their 95 games.
To put it lightly, Kylie Jenner winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 would seem like an easier and more plausible task than the Royals tying or surpassing the 2005 Royals’ 56 wins. If the Royals duplicate their win percentage in the second half, they would only go 19-48, which would result in a record of 46-116. So, as you can see, the Royals would have to make up 10 games, just to even tie, which seems like an incredible feat, especially when one considers the trade deadline is July 31st. It is entirely possible there will be one to a few players on the current roster missing come August, hence making the team even weaker down the stretch.
So what should the Royals’ strategy be? What should Moore and manager Ned Yost due to avoid history and the moniker of “Worst Team in Royals History?” Here are a few “strategies” the Royals could take that might have an effect on their fortunes after the All-Star break.
Strategy #1: Keep the Vets, Play to Win
It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Royals by the trade deadline are going to part ways with Mike Moustakas, and it seems highly likely that they will also part with Lucas Duda and/or Whit Merrifield to help give a contending team an offensive boost down the stretch. And it makes sense. The Royals are going nowhere, and they need to re-stock their farm system, which was ranked near the bottom in the Majors by nearly every publication of note. To trade some established stars for prospect depth at the deadline is a proven strategy that has worked for many clubs in years past (the Oakland A’s are masters of this approach).
But, teams these days value their prospects more than ever, and it is possible that the Royals may not get much in return for some of their current players. After all, Moustakas didn’t field much interest in free agency last off-season (hence him still being on the Royals), and while he’s having a solid season (19 home runs, 58 RBI, .250 average, and a .775 OPS), he has been overshadowed by Manny Machado when it comes to trade talks. Duda is a big bat, but he’s going through a down season at the plate and is a defensive liability, making him useless on a National League team. And while Merrifield offers position versatility and is a threat with the bat and on the basepaths, he won’t be a free agent until 2023, and he’ll be turning 30 next year, not an age where players of his skill set typically get better.
So with that being known, Moore may say “screw it” to all offers and just let it ride on the vets, and hope that they can stay healthy and turn around this season. The positive? Well, the Royals certainly would have a better chance to win with Merrifield and Moustakas and Duda in the lineup for the rest of the 2018 season as they have shown glimpses of success this year and in previous seasons. The negative? The veteran strategy would also employ vets such as Alcides Escobar, who has a negative-1.8 WAR, the worst mark on the team, as well as Kennedy and Jason Hammel in the rotation, who each have a 5.13 and 6.15 ERA, respectively.
Yost is a loyal, player-friendly manager, and if given the chance, he would trot Moustakas, Merrifield, Duda, and Escobar in the infield every day until the last game of the season, regardless of their performance. So the decision to employ or not employ this strategy would rest on Moore, who would need to trade at least one of these vets to take the lineup card out of Yost’s hands.
Strategy #2: Play the youngsters, but in the right spots
We’re starting to see this strategy a bit in July, as Yost has started to depend on Adalberto Mondesi at SS rather than Escobar. (Though I do not get why he’s playing Escobar out of position in the outfield; he’s the worst hitter on the team…why is he continuing to play?) He’s also been giving Hunter Dozier, and Jorge Bonifacio at-bats as well, a sign that the organization wants to start seeing which “prospects” will have a future with the big league club, and which ones will be traded or triple-A fodder in the next couple of years.
But, going all out on the youngsters carries some risk. Some of the young players have responded, such as Mondesi, who has finished the first half with a .714 OPS. Some still leave a lot to be desired, like Dozier, who was touted as a strong-hitting, corner infielder, but is only hitting .211 with a .604 OPS and has negative-1.0 WAR, the second-worst mark on the team. So, it would be wise to balance out lineups with young guns and veterans on a day to day or series to series basis.
Want to start Mondesi, Dozier, and perhaps Cheslor Cuthbert, when he comes back from the DL (or perhaps Nicky Lopez, who may get called up from Omaha soon), in the infield? Well, make sure Merrifield is in the lineup to stabilize things. The same strategy applies to the outfield. Going with Bonifacio and Rosell Herrera? Then Gordo will be the left fielder to provide veteran mentorship to the lineup as well as in the field. The same works in the rotation, as Danny Duffy could be a veteran mentor for young starters like Brad Keller and Trevor Oaks (who should get called up again sometime in the second half).
The strategy carries a little more risk, since many of the young players on this roster are pretty unproven, and as stated before, they come from a system that isn’t highly regarded by any means. That being said, these lineups offer a little more upside than a “veteran only” strategy, and could also provide some hope for the future for Royals fans.
Strategy #3: Go all in on youth…regardless of the result
The Royals could do the equivalent of the “blow it up” NBA model. Moore and Yost could say “You know what? Screw the veterans! Who cares if they won us a title in 2015! Let’s rebuild now!” Escobar? Now a benchwarmer. Duda and Gordon? Spot starters. Hell, even give Salvador Perez a couple of days more off than usual so we can see what Cam Gallagher can do.
The strategy works in two ways:
- The young players get at-bats and experience, and if there’s anything that makes a younger player better at the Major League level, it’s more at-bats and experience. (It’s just common sense, but it’s amazing how some fans don’t understand this basic concept of “more experience = better development; less experience = less development.”)
- And if the young players suck, well, the Royals get a high first-round pick, and they know for sure who to build around for the future, and who not to sooner rather than later. When employing strategy #2, the problem is teams can get hung up on players longer than they want because the player is not getting enough at-bats to make a definitive decision. However, if you give 400-500 at-bats to a young player in a season, and he is clearly bad, well…it’s easier to cut ties because that is a pretty large sample size.
So there are some strong benefits to the “go young and let it ride” approach. Nonetheless, it’s a strategy that also carries a ton of risk (definitely the most of the three) and could alienate the fanbase more than the box office would like (i.e. it could kill ticket sales; the Royals still rank 11 out of 15 in the AL in attendance, which is a lot better than the 2005 squad). While the Royals need to rebuild and start looking to the future, the typical Royals fan wants to see faces he or she remembers from the 2015 team. So that means seeing Gordo, and Salvy, and Escobar for better or worse. Maybe they’re not the same players they were three seasons ago, but at least seeing their faces brings up good memories and nostalgia over copious amounts of Miller Lite in the bleacher seats.
And fans buying more Miller Lite is good for business at Kauffman stadium.
What strategy is the best for the Royals?
Personally, from an economic standpoint, number two is obviously the most logical. There are some players worth playing and keeping on this roster. Gordon deserves to play as long as he wants as a Royal (he’s earned it by helping them win a title and has been loyal to the organization through thick and thin), and Merrifield is a gritty player who provides a spark to this club and probably wouldn’t get what he’s worth on the trade market. But, there are a lot of veterans who need to go. As unexpectedly great as Moustakas has been this year, his value will never be higher, and the Royals need to get something in return to help stock their Royals system (after all, they received three prospects for Kelvin Herrera; I’m sure the Royals can get more for Moose). Escobar’s defense and timely hitting was appreciated in the 2014 and 2015 playoff runs, but his time as a serviceable MLB player is up and Mondesi deserves his shot. And while Duda brings a veteran bat to the lineup, I would rather see Dozier get a full shot at the position to see if he can be a big-league player, or if he’s simply a “four-A” prospect.
Overall, it’s likely the Royals will probably employ an overall #2 strategy as well. (I mean, really, how could you not? It’s the most practical strategy.) But the big question will be this: Will Moore and Yost’s strategy be closer to #1 or closer to #3? Will they still be loyal to the vets? Or will they ride their fortunes a little more on the young guns, with “low-key” hopes to secure the No. 1 pick if those youngsters don’t pan out?
I think Royals fans will have a good idea of their choice in strategy come August 1st.