The Royals are currently 3-9 after getting swept in consecutive series against the White Sox and Cubs (Kansas City is not faring well against Chicago teams this year, as they are 0-5 against both teams so far). They have the second-worst record in all of baseball, as they are half-a-game up on the 2-9 Pittsburgh Pirates. According to Fangraphs’ Depth Charts projections, as of Wednesday April 5th, the Royals are projected to go 21-27 over the rest of the year, good for 24-36 overall, which would still place them in the cellar of the AL Central.
Thus, at this point, this much is clear: the Royals, barring a miracles, will not be competing for one of the top 2 playoff spots in the Central, especially with a team like the Minnesota Twins holding one of the best records in baseball at 9-2.
And hence, Royals fans need to be asking this question: when will general manager Dayton Moore and manager Mike Matheny re-tool the roster and lineup, respectively and embrace a “full” rebuild this season?
There is no question that the Royals entered 2020 with “rebuilding” expectations. While the Royals expected to improve after back-to-back 100-loss seasons, it seemed that the Royals’ focus as an organization was more toward making an impact in the Central in a couple of seasons rather than 2020. The Royals decreased their payroll (they went from ranking 24th in payroll to 27th this year), and they failed to make much noise in the free agent market, with the acquisition of Maikel Franco and re-signing Alex Gordon being the major off-season transactions (and both were one-year deals). Those kind of moves are more typical for a team looking toward the future than one that is focusing on the present.
However, as is common for many rebuilding teams prior to the start of the season, the Royals have been in a “middle ground” when it comes to the rebuilding process so far in 2020. While they touted their young players in Spring Training, such as Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez as well as their pitching prospects such as Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, who made their MLB debuts this year, they have also continued to rely on veteran talent, even if their veteran talent may not move the needle in the standings. Gordon continues to be a regular in left field, even though his best days are behind him. Whit Merrifield continues to shuffle around the field, even if it comes at the expense of younger options in the infield (Lopez) or outfield (Franchy Cordero, Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips). And though Franco isn’t exactly old, he’s at an age (27) where he kind of is what he is as a player, which is a free-swinging hitter and mediocre defender who may better serve on a more middle-tier team trying to compete for a playoff spot, not one that is looking to build for 2022.
Now, the Royals haven’t had exactly a lot of luck to start this year roster-wise. Losing Hunter Dozier to COVID right before the season started was a huge blow to the lineup, especially after his breakout 2019. Also, losing Brad Keller and Jakob Junis to COVID as well also put their pitching staff in a bind, as Matheny had to get creative with starting options, which ranged from “bullpen” days to giving Ronald Bolanos a two-start look. One has to wonder what this team would have done had the Royals had Keller and Junis and Dozier in the 3 or 4 spot in the lineup. Would this team still be 3-9? Or would they perhaps be competing for second with the White Sox, Tigers, and Indians?
And thus, it is likely that the Royals will continue to trot out the same lineups for at least a little bit longer, especially once Keller and Dozier return (Keller is expected back on Thursday) to Kansas City. The Royals are probably thinking “We’ve been hit hard by bad luck, and we’ve been slow starters the past couple of seasons…once Brad and Doz return though, all the pistons will be firing and we’ll be back in this thing.”
Now, the Royals probably will be better once Keller and Doz return. They will be better once Bubic and Singer continue to get more starts and continue to get more comfortable on the mound at the Major League level. And they will probably get better once Soler starts mashing home runs again, and Mondi starts swiping bags with ease now that he’s starting to get out of his hitting funk.
But how much better will the Royals be with all that considered? After all, Depth Charts projects a 21-27 finish to the year, and even that sounds like a best case scenario to be frank. And even if they match that projected total, they still are expected to finish last in the Central, which means that they would have to greatly “over-perform” to even have a shot at second in the Central. And with a season in such doubt due to COVID, is pursuing that playoff spot even worth it, especially if the playoffs might not even happen due to COVID concerns?
All these factors should change Moore and Matheny’s plans for the Royals for the remainder of 2020.
So what should the Royals do? At this point, the Royals need to figure out who is worth keeping for the rebuild and who is not, and they’re not going to be able to do that with the lineup rotations they are currently churning out through these first 11 games. The most obvious decision they need to make first is probably releasing one of the outfielders from the trio of Cordero, Phillips, and Starling.
At the end of the day, none of the three are probably regular starting outfielders. The best case scenario? They are utility outfielders who could be good platoon players. Worst case scenario? They are Four-A players. Each have their own strengths and flaws. Cordero has great power and is showing progress with making contact, but he lacks plate discipline and his defense hasn’t been impressive. Phillips may be the best defender and has the best arm and plate discipline, but his sub-par contact skills make him a glove only option. And as for Starling? He may have the best tools and upside out of the three, and he’s a local favorite. But he has to show some progress and consistency both in the plate and on the field if he wants to be something more than just a “project.”
In reality, the Royals need to pick two and just let them play as much as possible for an extended period of time. And the same goes with Lopez. Yes, the Royals need Whit’s bat and second makes the most sense with a crowded outfield, but it still feels like the Royals do not know what kind of player Lopez is just yet, as he has been in and out of the lineup more than any Royal on the current roster outside of those outfielders. Is he a major part of the Royals’ future, as Matheny and Moore seemed to hint at in the Winter? If he is, then they need to play him more and let him get out of this funk. If he isn’t, they need to trade him for something so they can make way for Bobby Witt, Jr. in the middle infield in a couple of years. The Royals can’t have it both ways.
And as for the pitching staff? Yes, it’s nice to see Greg Holland and Trevor Rosenthal have bounce-back seasons after they have struggled so much through injury the past few seasons. But if this team is indeed playing for 2021 and 2022, then they are superfluous options at this point, and the Royals would be better of trading them now while their values are high, even if it may not net much more than either more cash or farm system depth. It’s not like the Royals are short in arms in this system, as they not only have pitchers like Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer currently in the pen, but they also have Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar still waiting in the wings at T-Bones Stadium and looking for opportunities at the MLB level.
The “full” rebuild is never an easy process. But it can work if done right. The Houston Astros went with this method and suffered through multiple years of putrid baseball. But their young players got experience and eventually they helped create the juggernaut that the club is today. The Cubs also went through a similar route after Theo Epstein took over, as they were a terrible team who went through some growing pains with their young roster before they became the competitive club that ended the “Curse of the Billy Goat” in 2016. Even in the division, the Royals could look the White Sox as a model of a team who punted the present in order to rebuild for the future. And while the White Sox loaded up through free agency this off-season in a couple of key areas, most of their talent has come from their farm system.
At the end of the day, that’s what the Royals need to do: embrace the rebuild fully. It would be nice to build a team in the “Cardinals Way” in which the team never fully rebuilds thanks to a nice mix of veterans and a deep farm system, but it seems like that the St. Louis formula hasn’t worked since 2018 and most likely won’t work in 2020. The Royals need to embrace the “full rebuild”, get the young players some actual extended looks and make a decision on who’s in for the turnaround in 2022 and who is not. The longer the Royals try to play the “halfway-in” rebuild game and continue to trot out veterans who won’t be around in 2-3 years, the worse it will get not just for the Royals in 2020, but in the years beyond.
The Royals went through their growing pains in 2012. They played guys regularly like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, even though they didn’t exactly “produce” right away. The experience they got during that year however ended up giving them the at-bats and growth they needed though to help contribute to the Royals’ winning ways in 2013-2017.
Moore and Matheny need to embrace that “full rebuild” mentality of 2012 again. Yes, it will produce a sub-par winning percentage. Yes, the Royals may finish in the cellar. But the Royals will be thankful, because they will know EXACTLY who will be part of this Royals future after this season.
And with those being known and identified, the Royals can have that foundation to realistically build a set “plan to win” for 2022 and beyond. That’s what made 2012 so great: it gave them a plan of what to exactly address in 2013 to help them build a winner.
But that won’t happen if they keep giving at-bats and innings on the mound to veterans who won’t be around. Yes, there will be some hard roster decisions regarding Gordo and Franco and maybe a few on the pitching staff, but it needs to be done sooner rather than later if the Royals want to salvage anything during this rebuilding year.
It’ll be interesting to see when (or perhaps if) Moore and Matheny will realize that this season.