Is it time for the Kansas City Royals to rebuild?
If so, this would be the time for them to start doing so aggressively. While the Indians are likely to be the division’s powerhouse for at least the next two to three years, the rest of the division is in shambles. The Tigers are tottering along, hamstrung by bad old contracts and unsure what to do with Miguel Cabrera possibly giving them another full year of subpar hitting while butchering first base; the White Sox have only one or two players left to deal before they’ve fully cleared house and committed to their own Astro or Cub-style rebuild; the Twins have their own moment to strike and be wild card contenders for the next few seasons, but the new Minnesota front office has a lot more work to do to fully open its contention window and keep the breeze blowing through it for awhile.
Then there’s Kansas City.
Three of the players who were centerpieces of Kansas City’s five seasons of sustained success — it feels like it’s been a lot longer, somehow, but the Royals only truly turned it around in 2013 — are leaving in free agency: Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas will almost certainly be playing elsewhere next season. It’s possible that if the market is truly miserable, one of them (probably Hosmer) might re-sign late in the season, but this marks a changing of the guard, especially considering that Alex Gordon might as well have signed somewhere else given how badly he played since inking his new contract.
It’s been a good year for K.C to start building up the farm system, too: The Braves’ loss of prospects due to their blatantly rule-breaking behavior in the international market has been Kansas City’s gain, with the Royals signing Juan Carlos Negret and Yefri Del Rosario to minor league deals. Presumably they remain active on the rest of those newly-made free agents, but those were two of the stronger gets after the Angels signed Kevin Maitan, the darling among that group.
A rebuild, of course, conjures specific impressions in 2017: The team in question deals all of its good players, slashes payroll down to 35 percent of what it used to be for a year or two, is bad for another couple seasons after that, and then the winning starts happening. This sounds better than ever — the last two rebuilds following that model both won the World Series over the last two years.
Looking at the Royals’ roster right now, however, Kansas City seems to have very little to blow up. Who is the best player on this roster? Danny Duffy, who still hasn’t broken 180 innings as a starter in four full seasons on the roster? Salvador Perez, who is the very definition of major league competency behind and at the plate, but who is used to being the fourth or fifth-best hitter in the club’s lineup? Quite frankly it’s a terrible team as constructed, and even if this were a good free-agent class, free agency would unlikely improve it much. Perhaps the question isn’t “should the Royals rebuild” but “how did it take us so long to realize the Royals are already rebuilding?”
The answer: The Royals went off script last year when, at the trade deadline and a long shot for contention in the wild card, they decided to stick it out, not deal Jason Vargas or any of their big names for additional prospects, and see what happened. That’s part of the deal teams make with fans when they finally get to the winning seasons after four or five years in the wilderness: Teams try to keep that window open as long as possible. After all, it’s really no skin off your nose as a front office and as an owner to tank the payroll and start losing again. If anything, it’s more profitable that way: Lost ticket sales are more than offset over the first two years by money saved on payroll, and major moneymakers, the regional and national TV deals, don’t care how bad the team is.
Dayton Moore has extensive experience in rebuilding the Royals from an extremely underwhelming team to a legitimate contender; his last iteration of a championship Royal club has a World Series to its name, primarily due to the cards falling right in October a couple years in a row, but it was still a pretty good squad. He can probably even do it again, especially if more of his prospects hit their ceiling this time. But it’ll be a few years — maybe just long enough to nip a burgeoning White Sox reign in the bud.