In a rebuild, the fourth year is winning time.
The Royals may not have wanted to admit they were in a rebuild, but following the departure of stars Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain in 2017, the team dropped off in the standings considerably. Trades and poor drafts had depleted the farm system, leaving them only a few solid players left, combined with a rogue’s gallery of has-beens and never-weres. They lost 104 games in 2018, the second-worst season in club history, then improved by one win in 2019. Last year was another losing season, but after a slow start, the team went 23-24 to end the year, finishing with a 26-34 record, which would have translated to a 70-win season had they played a full schedule.
Following the season, Dayton Moore told reporters that the time for losing was over.
“We expect to win next year. What is that going to look like? Is that enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. Our mindset is going to be to go out and win every single pitch, every inning, win every single game. And that’s the only way we’re going to ever win another championship. You have to expect to win at all aspects. Mike Matheny and the coaching staff, they understand that completely.”
Understandably there was skepticism. Dayton Moore is known for being the sunny optimist, the Ted Lasso of the baseball world, he always says he expects to win. You could give him my beer league softball team, put us in Royals uniforms, and trot us out at the K, and he’d still say “yea, we expect to compete.”
Kansas City Royals
2020 Record: 26-34 (pro-rated to 70 wins in a full season)
2020 Pythag: 27-33 (73 wins)
2021 ZIPS projection: 77-85
2021 PECOTA projection: 72-90
Key additions: Hanser Alberto, Andrew Benintendi, Wade Davis, Jarrod Dyson, Mike Minor, Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor
Key losses: Franchy Cordero, Maikel Franco, Alex Gordon, Matt Harvey, Ian Kennedy
But while the rest of baseball was finding ways to cut costs with an eye more towards financial ledgers than the standings, Dayton Moore backed up his rhetoric with action. With a crop of solid young pitchers coming up, and perhaps the most exciting young prospect in baseball waiting in the wings, Moore supplemented his roster with veteran players – not big-time, high-priced free agents, but not cheap fliers either.
Mike Minor would be the lefty in the rotation to help mentor the young arms like Brady Singer and Kris Bubic. Carlos Santana would be the power bat that could help teach younger hitters to take a pitch and draw a walk. Michael Taylor could be the speedy ballhawk to patrol centerfield and make life easier for those young pitchers. Andrew Benintendi could solidify left field and bring a blend of power, speed, and plate discipline.
In a lot of ways, the timing for Moore’s aggressiveness made sense. Pitchers tend to develop sooner than hitters at the big league level, so the clock is already ticking on pitchers like Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, who looked impressive in their rookie campaign in 2020. With Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Asa Lacy near big-league ready, it makes sense to begin building a team to be good around them with the expectation to compete in the next few seasons.
Moore was also able to take advantage of a big market inefficiency this off-season – trying to win. The Royals spent the 12th-most in baseball on free agents this winter, even though they did not sign a single player to a deal longer than two years. They are projected to have the 19th-highest payroll, more than 2020 playoff teams like the Brewers, A’s, or last year’s pennant winners, the Tampa Bay Rays.
The timing also makes sense in terms of the rebuild. In many of the most recent rebuilds in baseball, the fourth year is when a club transitions into a winning ballclub. In 2011, the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow as their general manager. Although they had been losing and had made some efforts to rebuild, Luhnow was tasked with rebuilding the club. For the first two years, the team was an absolute laughingstock. But they improved a bit in year three, and by year four they were in the playoffs, nearly knocking off the eventual World Champion Royals.
The timeline was the same for Theo Epstein with the Cubs and the recent Braves rebuild. Last year we saw the White Sox make their improvement with a playoff berth.
This timeline doesn’t hold true for all rebuilds. The Detroit Tigers actually began their rebuild a year before the Royals, in 2017, and have yet to break a .400 winning percentage since then, with little hopes for a winning season this year. The Orioles have lost 63 percent of their games over the last four seasons, with little expectation of a big improvement this year.
But the Royals may have been able to accelerate their rebuild by retaining good players on long-term deals like Whit Merrifield, Hunter Dozier, and Salvador Perez, drafting polished college players, and being aggressive in finding veterans to complement the roster.
All numbers listed are 2020 statistics.
If the offensive numbers seem a bit underwhelming that may be by design. The common thread through the Royals’ off-season pickups is that they all had disappointing 2020 seasons, causing them to be a bit undervalued, and could be primed for a bounce back. Andrew Benintendi is a solid league-average hitter, capable of a 2-4 WAR season, but lost nearly all of last year to a rib injury. Carlos Santana hit below the Mendoza Line, but was probably unlucky with a .212 BABIP, and yet he still led the league in walks. Michael Taylor is hoping a revamped swing can bring better offensive results, although his defense alone could make him fairly valuable.
Even mainstays could be expected to have much better results in 2021. Hunter Dozier suffered from a COVID-19 infection that left him sapped of much of his power. He still managed to put up a career-best walk rate, so if he is able to carry that over with a bounce back in power, he could re-emerge as one of the best hitters in the league. Adalberto Mondesi has been an enigma with the Royals, and looked like the worst hitter in baseball at the beginning of the 2020 season. But he ended the year on a tear, hitting .376/.424/.706 with six home runs (and seven walks!) over his last 22 games. If he can carry even a little of that over into 2021, his power/speed/defense combination will make him one of the more valuable players in baseball. Last year was such a bizarre season, it makes sense to give 2020 numbers less credence.
The Royals could also get a boost from the farm system this season. Rookie Kyle Isbel looks like a solid bet to make the team, and could get the start on Opening Day in right field. The former UNLV outfielder had an impressive debut pro season in 2018, but lost most of 2019 to injury, and the entire 2020 season to the pandemic. His development at the Alternate Site last year could be a testament to the revamped minor league hitting program implemented by the Royals.
But the prized pupil may be über-prospect Bobby Witt, Jr. Despite just 37 professional games, he was considered for a roster spot after wowing teammates, coaches, and fans with his tape-measure home runs, blazing speed, and fantastic defensive plays in spring training. He won’t be on the initial Opening Day roster, but you may see him soon in Kansas City, and his addition could be a big boost to the team.
The Royals finished sixth in the American League in ERA last year, and with the addition of Mike Minor and their young pitchers, there is room for improvement. Minor was fantastic in 2019, but struggled last year, like many of Kansas City’s other acquisitions. If Minor can get back to locating his spots, particularly with his slider, he could regain some of his form.
Brad Keller continues to be one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. Since 2018, he has the 24th-best ERA despite the fourth-lowest strikeout rate among qualified starters. His season was delayed last year due to a positive COVID-19 test, but he continued to improve, giving up just one run in five home starts last year.
The bullpen will have a bit of nostalgia with Wade Davis rejoining the club and teaming up with Greg Holland once again in the pen. But it will be the younger kids providing the dominant swing-and-miss stuff that HDH once intimidated hitters with. Josh Staumont had the second-most 100 mph fastballs last year, Kyle Zimmer had the eighth-lowest ERA among relievers in 2020, and Scott Barlow was 19th in swinging strikes. Jesse Hahn also reinvented himself as a dominant reliever, particularly against lefties, who went 0-for-28 against him last year.
All numbers listed are 2020 statistics.
Teams frequently say they expect to win, but the Royals are actually doing the things necessary to make it possible. They are no longer content to hope a young player turns the corner, they instead expect a player to contribute immediately, or they will replace him with someone who will. Past Royals teams may have waited for Franchy Cordero to figure it out, for Nicky Lopez to develop his bat, for Ryan O’Hearn to work on his swing. This team was ready to move on. Those players may end up contributing, but they’re going to have to force their way back on the club.
Of course, all this talk and all this action won’t necessarily lead to winning. As Mike Tyson eloquently put it, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The Central Division should be a tough division, with the division title-winning Twins returning a very talented roster, White Sox loaded with good young talent, the Indians seemingly able to produce amazing pitchers out of nowhere, and even the Tigers expected to be much improved as their prospects reach the big leagues.
But the Royals have put themselves in a position to win. The last few seasons have been tough, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. New ownership committed to investing resources, plus a rising farm system that is producing good young talent, have given fans more hope than they’ve had since their stars departed in 2017.