Is this Reds off-season a good or cautionary model for the Royals?

When it comes to MLB market size, it is widely known that the Kansas City Royals are the epitome of a small-market team. According to Nielsen Market Size, Kansas City is the 32nd largest market, in between San Antonio and Columbus, Ohio. Of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, only the Milwaukee Brewers (35th) and Cincinnati Reds (37th) play in smaller markets, and they both are in the National League, which further puts the Royals’ situation into further context.

One of the biggest challenges, as I have stated on this blog before, is that it can be tough for small market teams to compete when it comes to building payroll and keeping or attracting star players. And unfortunately, that has been the narrative for the Royals in the Dayton Moore era: yes, the Royals would like to build a consistent winner, but they will have to be creative in doing it because their small-market status restrains what Royals management can do, especially when it comes to building a roster at the big league level.

So far, this year has proven that the Royals are embracing a more frugal rebuild: after a franchise-high Opening Day payroll of $143 million in 2017, the Royals payroll has declined each year, falling to $122 million in 2018, $96 million in 2019, and is projected to be around $78 million this Spring (barring any last minute moves by Moore). Even though the new ownership group led by John Sherman wants to have a consistent winner in Kansas City, it seems as if the Royals are going to opt for an approach that’s going to try to win with cost-controlled, farm-developed talent rather than big-name free agents.

And such a strategy is not a bad thing. It obviously paid dividends in 2013-2015, a stretch where the Royals won two pennants and a World Series title. Yes, Moore probably held onto the “core” group a little too long (i.e. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, etc.), but that stretch showed that Moore could properly draft and develop players who could win at the Major League level.

However, while the Royals will point to the payroll frugality as a necessary strategy of playing in a small market, another small, state-line Midwest city is doing the exact opposite. Instead of crying poor and settling for small, short-term deals or building within, this team is going for broke, making a big splash in free agency this winter.

That team is the Cincinnati Reds…the smallest-market team in Major League baseball.

Which begs Royals fans to ask this question: should the Royals follow the Reds mold in the future? Or is the Reds’ expensive strategy a caution to the Royals and other small market teams of what not to do?


What are the Reds doing differently?

When it comes to Midwest baseball teams who have experienced torture, the Reds and the city of Cincinnati has to be up there. While the Bengals are a huge draw, Cincinnati has always felt like a baseball town first, especially considering their long history in professional baseball. However, after dominating during the early days of baseball, and winning two World Series titles in 1975 and 1976 during their “Big Red Machine” days, success has been slim for the Reds. After winning a World Series title in 1990, the Reds have only been to the playoffs four times (1995, 2010, 2012, and 2013), and they haven’t advanced out of a series since 1995.

Safe to say, the Reds fan base is desperate to win a championship, and Reds management is selling out this year to make that happen.

After slashing payroll at the conclusion of the 2015 season (where they went $115 million to $89 million), the Reds have slowly begin increasing payroll each and every year. The Reds went from $89 million in 2016 to $95 million in 2017, to $101 million in 2018, to $126 million last year. However, even though the Reds steadily increased spending each year from 2016-2019, they ranked near the bottom of the league in spending in 2016 (28th), 2017 (25th), and 2018 (25th). It wasn’t until last year that they rose to the middle of the pack when it came to payroll (they ranked 15th last year).

Even though the off-season isn’t technically over yet, the Reds have been the most active MLB team on the free agent market this winter, and it’s not even close. Currently the Reds’ projected payroll is $141 million, which would $15 million higher than 2019. Here is a list of the moves the Reds have made:

Thus, as you can see from the moves above, Reds CEO Robert Castellini and general manager Nick Krall are going all-in to make it back to the postseason and bring the Reds their first crown to Cincinnati since 1990. And it makes sense too: the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates are in a rebuild, and the Brewers will look to be in regression as well, especially after losing Moustakas and catcher Yasmani Grandal to free agency, and with the health of Christian Yelich in question for the upcoming season. Really, the only competition they will have in the division is the St. Louis Cardinals, and even then, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to match what they did last year with an aging roster.

While the Royals settled for low-cost, short-term options this off-season, the Reds on the other hand distributed serious money across the board in an effort to boost their Major League roster. What also makes this Cincinnati situation interesting is that the Royals point to their farm system as a reason for being prudent in free agency. They don’t want to sacrifice the future just so they can get a veteran or two, which may not have much of an effect on their record. And a lot of Royals fans can understand: why overpay for another Brandon Moss or Jason Hammel when they can promote within, and get similar production for a fraction of the price and a lot more seasons of club control.

However, it seems like the Reds are trying to experience the best of both worlds. The Reds farm system has arguably been better than the Royals’ system the past 3-4 years. According to Baseball America, the Reds system was ranked 12th in 2016, 13th in 2017, 10th in 2018, and 7th in 2019. As for the Royals during that time span, they ranked 21st, 26th, 29th, and 27th from 2016-2019, respectively. Hence, the Reds have showed that a small-market team can not only build a team through spending in free agency, but that they can also keep their farm system robust in the process.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Moore hasn’t been able to do both at the same time and that’s what should make this Reds spending worrisome for him going forward in 2020 and beyond. If the Reds make a serious improvement this year, they can show that small-market teams can spend in free agency while still maintaining a decent minor league pipeline. And that model will put pressure on Moore to make serious moves before 2021, especially for Royals fans who are starved for more significant success.


How will the Reds affect the Royals going forward?

The Royals and the Reds play in similarly small markets, but it’s amazing what they have in common and where they differ as organizations. First off, they share a lot of great baseball success and history in the 1970’s, and it is a shame that the Royals and Reds never faced off in a World Series in the late 70’s or early 80’s. One could argue that George Brett vs. Pete Rose would have been a sight to see for baseball fans in October, not to mention a baseball historian’s wet dream.

However, when it comes to fans filling the park, Kansas City and Cincinnati differ significantly. In Cincinnati, it is obvious that the Reds are the main game in town, as Great America Ballpark has exceeded the two million mark in attendance 11 times since 2003. Kauffman Stadium in that time span on the other hand has only exceeded the two million mark three times (during the 2015-2017 time span, which makes sense considering that was the hey day of Royals baseball). While Kansas City certainly supports the Royals in the spring and summer months, it is obvious that the Chiefs are number one when it comes to allegiance and fan financial investment (the Chiefs have never struggled with attendance like the Royals).

However, both are in the same boat of sorts: both have seen a decline in attendance and enthusiasm from the general sports fan in their metro area, and they are hoping that the 2020 season can bring fans back to their respective ballparks.

But as you can see above, they are doing it in different ways. The Royals have been slowly decreasing payroll since a franchise-high of $143 million in 2017 and are opting to generate excitement through the Dayton Moore “culture” angle: this team may not be good now, but they’re doing the right things, and they’ll be back on the map in the next couple of years once all the prospects come up. Check out the video on the Royals player development orientation, and it’s easy to see the emphasis on youth and “Royals culture” as a way to inspire hope among Royals fans in Kansas City.

As for the Reds, they are leaning on the “all-in” mantra to bring fans back to the GAB. It is costly of course, as the Reds 2020 payroll is already double the Royals’, and we have not even started Spring Training yet. However, if the Reds can take advantage of a weakened NL Central division, make the playoffs, and go on a run like the Nationals a year ago…then…well…all this spending will be worth it for the Reds organization as well as fan base.

Without a doubt, the AL Central is not as open as the NL Central. The Twins re-loaded and look to be the favorites again. The Indians lost Kluber, but they still look to have the pieces of another formidable AL Central contender. And the White Sox upped their spending significantly this off-season, bringing in proven free agents like Grandal and Dallas Keuchel to complement their young stars such as Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Lucas Giolito, and Luis Robert, who looks to break out in his first Major League stint in 2020. Unlike the Reds, spending would have not made much of a difference in the standings for the Royals, so it made sense for Moore and the Royals to wait and focus on the “culture” instead of frivolous moves that may have only made a 5-10 win difference.

However, while the Reds’ off-season won’t make a difference on Moore in 2020, it will be 2021 that could put pressure on Moore. If the Reds breakout, then Moore will need to prove that this club can compete not just in the Minors (which to the Royals credit, they did last season, as they had multiple minor league championships to show for it), but at the Major League level as well. Moore and the Royals are telling that this “build and win through the system” can work again, as they constantly point to 2013-2017. But the farm system, while improved, is still in the middle of the pack ranking-wise, a far cry from Hosmer-Moose days when the Royals farm system was the envy of many teams in Major League baseball.

For Royals fans, the Red should be the barometer for the Royals in 2020. While Moore has earned a lot of trust in KC from many sports fans, the attendance drop since the 2017 season has demonstrated that KC fans are in “wait and see” mode with the Royals in 2020. Moore and the Royals know they need to show improvement this year, and unlike the Reds, they think they can do it in a way that’s not necessarily going to turn heads or cost an exorbitant amount of money. But that’s a huge risk, and huge amount of trust in their young talent. Yes, this may be the most promising crop of pitchers in a while for Kansas City…but many Royals fans were saying the same things about Lamb, Montgomery, Duffy, and Yordano Ventura as well back in 2012.

A lot of eyes will be on the Reds this year, not just among the Reds fan base, but across small-market baseball clubs in the American and National League. Small market teams have cited their market-size as a reason for not pursuing “expensive” talents, and yet, the Reds have smashed that notion in a million pieces this winter. If the Reds tank and fail to reach the playoffs, their off-season will be a cautionary tale of what “not to do”, as the Reds will be saddled with contracts that they will hamstring their flexibility for years to come. However, if they win and win in a significant fashion, then the Reds will set a new model for small-market teams everywhere: that you can be successful in player development and at the big league level.

And no team or GM will feel that pressure from the Reds winning in 2020 more than the Royals and Moore.

It would not be surprising to see or hear a lot of Royals fans looking east to the city on the border of Ohio and Kentucky this season, most likely on MLB.tv in between innings of Royals games in 2020.

It could give a glimpse of what Moore may (or should) do roster-wise at the conclusion of the 2020 season in preparation for 2021.

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