The Kansas City Royals had a good run. World Series runners-up to the San Francisco Bumgarners in 2014 followed by World Series rings in 2015, the Royals defied expectations and silenced their skeptics. The Dayton Moore-led franchise deserves ample credit for their successful two-year run, but the current state of the franchise is middling at best and it’s time for Moore to sell some his more valuable pieces in hopes of rebuilding for the long haul.
The Kansas City Royals, founded in 1969, acquitted themselves quickly to MLB success. Their first winning season was in 1971. They went to three straight ALCS series from 1976 to 1978, losing all of them to the Yankees. The team won the AL pennant in 1980, went to another ALCS in 1984 and eventually won the 1985 World Series in the seven game battle of Missouri against the Cardinals. George Brett, one of the best players of all time, was a staple on those teams. Annual attendance at Kauffman Stadium was consistently above the two million mark. Things were going well.
Following the death of founding owner Ewing Kauffman in 1993, the club CEO and chairman positions were filled by David Glass, the successor to Sam Walton as Walmart’s CEO. Clearly influenced by Walmart’s cost-conscious corporate culture, Glass slashed Kansas City’s payroll from $40.7 million in 1994 (7th highest) to $20 million in 1996 (24th highest). The on-field results and fan attendance subsequently suffered, with the Royals finishing below .500 every season from 1996 to 2002 and fan attendance averaging around 1.5 million per season.
The unfortunate aspect to Kansas City’s mid-1990s frugality is that it came at the cost of a plethora of high-end, homegrown talent. The four-headed leviathan of Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye was the envy of the league, but all except Sweeney were traded away once it became time to open the checkbook to retain them. Allard Baird, Kansas City’s GM from 2000 to 2006, had the unfortunate task of dealing from a position of weakness as it was no secret that the the Glass-led ownership team had no intention of keeping these players. Even so, the combined MLB talent pool assembled from the Damon, Beltran and Dye trades consisted of Angel Berroa, AJ Hinch, Roberto Hernandez, Neifi Perez, Mark Teahan, Mike Wood and John Buck. Roberto Hernandez and John Buck proved the best of the bunch, but the majority of their career fWAR was accrued after they left the Royals. To put it bluntly, the botched trades of Damon, Dye and Beltran set the Royals franchise back for a decade.
Two months into a pitiful start to the 2006 campaign, the Royals fired Baird and hired Dayton Moore, a 10-year front office veteran from the Braves organization, to take the reign as Kansas City’s GM. The Royals scuffled under the first six years of Moore’s tutelage, amassing a combined 419-553 record and missing the playoffs every season from 2007 to 2012. Moore, an unabashedly “old school” baseball mind, publicly decried advanced metrics with comments like this, and condescendingly mocked those who didn’t trust in his “process”.
Moore ended up having the last laugh, as the Royals were arguably the best team in baseball from 2013 to 2015, going 270-216, winning two AL pennants and one World Series in the process. But despite the Royals’ hardware, some remained suspicious of their success. Kansas City outperformed their Pythagorean win-loss record by 9 games from 2013-15, and another four games in 2016. Looking deeper into the numbers, it was apparent that the Royals offense wasn’t all that impressive: 15th in runs scored, 20th in weighted runs created plus, 30th in walk rate and 29th in isolated slugging percentage from 2013 to 2015. Their pitching was better, with the 5th best ERA, however their team xFIP was only 23rd.
At the risk of sounding reactionary, the 9-17 start to Kansas City’s 2017 season has been abysmal, even on the back of some terrific individual efforts from players like Mike Moustakas and Jason Vargas. Some severe flaws with Kansas City’s roster construction, combined with an aging core and inept farm system, is leaving the Royals with little choice but to blow things up and start fresh.
State of the Union
The 2017 Royals have displayed a rare level of offensive futility, resulting in a paltry 2.9 runs scored per game. They are dead last in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. A league low BABIP of .246, which is due to bounce back somewhat, is at fault for some of their offensive woes. However, the Royals’ approach at the plate is just awful. The team swings at a league worst 33.4% pitches out of the strike zone, indicating that their middle of the pack strikeout rate is due worsen. On top of that, Kansas City hitters are allergic to walks, and have been for quite some time. The high incidence of swinging at bad pitches has resulted in the third worst hard hit percentage in the league, as well as an elevated infield fly ball rate. The Royals offense, although it will likely improve a bit over the coming months, is a complete mess. Much of this is attributable to an organizational philosophy that favors free swinging over patience at the plate. That type of game plan can work when hitters are nimble and quick-wristed, in the midst of their primes, but as soon as bat speed slows down it becomes a real problem.
The pitching side of the ledger looks better, with the 12th best ERA in the MLB and the 8th best FIP. The team’s 4.37 xFIP heralds some bleaker days ahead, but even then it is only 19th, and the Royals have managed to outperform their xFIP over the years due to a cavernous, pitcher-friendly ballpark. The starting rotation is headlined by starter-turned reliever-turned starter again Danny Duffy. Duffy had a fantastic 2016 season, however his velocity and command is down in 2017, indicating that his 3.89 ERA is likely to crop above 4.00 in the coming months. The biggest surprise on the Royals staff thus far is Jason Vargas, previously your standard Jamie Moyer-esque lefty innings eater, who has posted a 1.42 ERA / 2.10 FIP / 3.37 xFIP over his first five starts of the season. Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel and Nathan Karns round out the rotation, all of whom profile as solid back of the rotation arms.
The Kansas City bullpen, which was perhaps the best in baseball over the previous three seasons, has looked suspect to start the year. Wade Davis, the MLB ERA leader over the last three seasons, was dealt to the Cubs in the offseason for mercurial slugger Jorge Soler. Kelvin Herrera, arguably a top 10 relief arm in baseball, has incrementally lost some ticks on his fastball over the years and has looked unspectacular in 2017. Joakim Soria, who was a dominant reliever for the Royals back from 2007 to 2010, has returned after stops in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh, and is striking out over 30% of batters he faces. The remainder of the pen is fairly unspectacular, with names like Peter Moylan, Mike Minor and Chris Young.
It’s time for Dayton Moore to recognize that while the Royals had a splendid couple seasons, it’s time to tear the ship down and rebuild it from scratch. Here’s what I would do:
The first order of business is to trade first baseman Eric Hosmer, who is potentially the most overrated player in baseball. Loved by old school diehards for his “clutch” hitting and perceived slick glove (he has somehow won three gold gloves), Hosmer is merely an average offensive player and has actually been the worst defensive first baseman in baseball since his first full season in 2011. Since 2014, Hosmer’s isolated slugging percentage sits barely above the 10th percentile for MLB first baseman, while his weighted runs created plus is in the 35th percentile. Offensively, Hosmer is no better than names like Michael Morse and Adam Lind. He is also an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and agent Scott Boras has floated the idea of a $200 million contract. There are likely a handful of deluded GM’s across the league who actually believe Hosmer is a good player, so the Royals could probably fetch a decent haul for him at the deadline. Potentially contending teams who could use an upgrade at first base include the Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Something like Hosmer to the Astros for utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez and left field prospect Derek Fisher makes a lot of sense for both sides.
Next up on the trade block should be starter Danny Duffy, who is likely highly overrated around the league due to his strong 2016 campaign and good showing at the World Baseball Classic. He is also signed to a reasonable $13 million per year contract through 2021. The Royals should make this trade sooner rather than later, as Duffy is due to have some tough starts in the near future for reasons explained above. Although the San Francisco Giants probably aren’t in buying mode right now, they could use a good replacement for Bumgarner while he’s hurt, and AT&T Park is the type of venue where a fly ball pitcher like Duffy would thrive. This is a bit out there, but if the Royals deal Hosmer, actually good first baseman Brandon Belt would be a sneaky add. Like Duffy, he is also signed to a reasonable contract through 2021.
Jason Vargas, Jason Hammel and Nathan Karns should all be traded to contenders looking for back of the rotation pitching. The Royals are very light on pitching prospects, so these guys should go for high risk / high reward arms in the low minors. Additionally, given the market that was established for top end relief arms last season with the Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman trade, Kansas City should shop Kelvin Herrera around to a team in need of bullpen help.
Aging outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon should also be dealt. Cain might be of interest to the Nationals, who lost Adam Eaton for the season and are faced with the horrifying prospect of trotting out Michael Taylor every day. Alex Gordon could be of use to a number of different teams due to his experience and versatility, but his body is clearly breaking down after a career replete with injuries.
While Dayton Moore earned numerous mulligans for the Royals’ 2014 AL pennant and 2015 World Series championship, he should not rest on his laurels. The Royals are an aging team with a poor farm system. They are not competing with the likes of the Indians in the AL Central going forward, and their odds of battling teams like the Yankees, Tigers and Mariners for the Wild Card is slim. Promising young players such as Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield and Jorge Soler should be kept in the fold while the aging core should be sent packing. Moore should be realistic about his teams’ future and proactive in the trade market, although given his previous stubbornness and recent commentary, that’s probably wishful thinking.