Playoff Riff: Why the Braves and Rays should give Royals fans hope

noun: riff; plural noun: riffs
-1. a short repeated phrase in popular music and jazz, typically used as an introduction or refrain in a song.
—“a brilliant guitar riff”
-2. a monologue or spoken improvisation, especially a humorous one, on a particular subject.
–“subsequent riffs on the same themes fail to amuse”

Definition from Oxford Languages

Watching both the ALCS and the NLCS has been fascinating to watch from a baseball fan’s perspective, especially as a Royals baseball fan. Yes, the Royals did not make the ALCS (let alone make the postseason in the expanded format), but there is something comforting about watching this postseason. Specifically, there is something comforting about watching the Tampa Bay Rays in ALCS and the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.

The Rays are currently up 2-0 in the best of seven series with the Astros while the Braves lead the Dodgers 1-0 after a 5-1 win in Game 1. There are plenty of personal reasons to cheer against the Astros and Dodgers. In terms of the former, the Astros continue to be one of the most unlikable teams in baseball. Not only are they remorseless about their cheating scandal, but they have also painted themselves as the “victim” as if everyone is “unfairly” against them for calling them out for their dishonest and lowbrow actions. Whether it’s Carlos Correa’s obnoxious press conferences or Jose Altuve’s sheer smugness, it is easy to root against this Astros this postseason, even though Zack Greinke is the ace (a former Royal) and Dusty Baker is the manager (one of the more likable managers in the game who hasn’t won one).

As for the Dodgers, my dislike is a little more personal. I grew up in a San Francisco Giants household, as most of my immediate and extended family are fans of the Black and Orange. Even though I am a Royals fan now, much to my family’s dismay, and settled in KC for the longhaul, if there is one team I just cannot stand, it is the Dodgers. I hated living in Los Angeles, not so much for the traffic and smog, but because I hated the daily coverage of the Los Angeles “Bums”. While some people feel “sorry” for the Dodgers’ failure to get over the hump in the postseason, despite having one of the most talented rosters in baseball, I instead celebrate with glee each and every time the Dodgers are eliminated from the postseason.

However, in addition to those reasons above, another big reason why I am enjoying the postseason and the performances of the Rays and Braves is this: the performances of these organizations in the postseason should give hope to Royals fans. It should build the hope that the Royals can find themselves in a similar place as the Rays and Braves (i.e. in the ALCS) in 3-4 years, especially since the Royals are modeling themselves after both organizations.

Let’s take a look into how there are shades of the Rays and Braves in the Royals organization.

 (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

First off, I am not saying that the Royals are the Rays or Braves 2.0. Dayton Moore has his own methods when it comes to player development and constructing a Major League roster. The Royals are loyal to a fault to players sometimes in a way that the Rays would never dream of. A player like Alex Gordon would never retire as a “Ray”. The Rays would have never signed a player like Ian Kennedy to a multi-year deal, even in the wake of a World Series win. The Rays have their approach to player development and roster construction and they stick to it, even if it may seem “disloyal to players” in the eyes of Tampa Bay fans.

However, while the Royals aren’t as “cutting edge” as the Rays, they are catching up. The Royals are using analytics more than ever, especially when it comes to player development. They are investing in their prospects in ways that’s helping the Kansas City climb up the prospect rankings and inch closer to Tampa Bay, who has been the Gold Standard of farm systems the past few years. The Royals are not doing well at the MLB level now, but they are trusting their young players and trusting their system, and we’re starting to see the fruits of it at the Major League level. Brady Singer. Kris Bubic. Josh Staumont. Even acquisitions like Franchy Cordero and Edward Olivares have a “Rays-esque” player vibe, for they could end up being dependable regulars in 2021, even though they were not personally developed by the Royals and deemed “tradeable” by the previous organization (the Padres).

And speaking of Singer and Bubic, the Braves are a model of how to develop and incorporate young starting pitchers to success. Instead of cashing in on their prospects for veteran arms, the Braves have trusted the arms developed in their system. Max Fried, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Wright were all starting pitchers developed by the Braves system (with Anderson and Wright drafted by the Braves), and if the Braves advance to the World Series, it will be partially due to their young pitching. The better the Braves pitching staff does, the more hope that should give to Royals fans, as the Royals too are hoping to ride to the postseason again on the shoulders of their young arms such as Singer, Bubic, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Asa Lacy.

The Braves are on the cusp of getting to the World Series on the backs of three, system-developed starting pitchers. Just imagine what the Royals could do with a complete rotation of system-developed starting pitchers?

(Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

The Rays and Braves are great stories on their own, for any baseball fan. The Rays continue to defy the odds despite existing with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. The Braves continue to show that their model of player development continues to thrive, even as it has evolved through multiple decades. A Rays-Braves series shouldn’t deflate Royals fans in the slightest. Instead, it should inspire Royals fans and let us know what is possible.

This year resulted in another losing season in Kansas City, but development happened at the big league level, despite the pandemic limiting the season. The Royals went 26-34, only eight games under .500. We started to see some seeds of Adalberto Mondesi figuring it out at the plate. We saw Singer and Bubic handle their rookie seasons with grace. We also saw the emergence of Brad Keller, who continues to show that he needs to be see as a crucial part of this Royals rotation in 2021 and beyond, even if he doesn’t have the prospect chops of other arms in the system.

The Rays and the Braves give Royals fans hope. In many ways, the Royals feel like a weird amalgamation of those two organizations, with the Royals capturing a lite version of the Rays’ analytic, under-the-radar player-acquisition approach and combining it with a lite version of the Braves’ player-development-heavy model. The Royals aren’t a perfect copy of either, but it’s fun to see the shades of the Rays and Braves in this Royals organization both at the Major and Minor League level.

And it’s exciting to think about how those shades of Rays and Braves influence could grow in the Royals organization in the next year or two…

Because who knows what kind of success it could produce in Kansas City, not just in the near future, but long-term as well.

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