Remember when the Royals were baseball’s next up-and-coming team, and they were going to grab the reigns of a mostly weak American League Central division? It wasn’t all that long ago. Of course, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the Royals have ever been realistically close to realizing their playoff dreams over the past 25+ years, but they certainly were supposed to have been there by now.
I would be remiss to mention that the Royals haven’t been to the postseason since their World Series victory in 1985. But it’s not just that. Kansas City has just three (3!) winning seasons since 1990, with no season clearing 84 wins. Futility: definition of.
But it was supposed to change; it was supposed to be legitimately different by the middle of this decade. Currently, with the Royals sitting at 45-51 and in third place in the AL Central and 8 games behind the Detroit Tigers, it seems as though this season won’t turn out any differently.
So what happened, exactly? Well, I’m not going to provide explanations for every single one of the Royals 19 losing seasons out of the last 22 years, but we can start not long after the last winning campaign: 2003, Kansas City finished 83-79 and in third place in the division, but followed it up with a horrific 58-104 season. And then they followed up that year with 56 and 62 win years.
Let’s go back to 2007. The Royals had three players in the top thirty-two of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects: Alex Gordon at #2, Billy Butler at #25, and Luke Hochevar at #32. All three players are still with the organization in this the year 2013, but Gordon and Hochevar have not lived up to expectations.
Fast forward to 2009, and the trio was in the majors and replaced by another pair of position players high on Baseball America’s yearly list. Third baseman Mike Moustakas slotted in at #13, and first baseman Eric Hosmer landed at #24 – allegedly another pair of middle-of-the-order hitters that were on the fast track to the big leagues.
By 2011, they were ranked #8 and #9 by BA prior to making their major league debuts. Moustakas has hit a very disappointing .243/.296/.382 in 1190 plate appearances since his arrival. Hosmer has not been a whole lot better, hitting .267/.322/.413 with 42 home runs in 1416 plate appearances since his 2011 call-up.
Also on the BA Top 100 list in 2011: 7 more Royals prospects. That’s right, they had 9 total players in the top 100 prospects in all of baseball. And that was only two short years ago.
Of course, not all prospects pan out. Far from it, in fact. So it’s hard to blame the Royals’ front office and player development staff entirely for the poor draft record. And the jury is absolutely still out on some of those nine prospects from the 2011 Baseball America rankings. But let’s take a quick look at some non-draft-related roster decisions that fell flat.
The perfect microcosm to explain Dayton Moore’s now four-year long tenure as the general manager of the Royals is Jeff Francoeur. The former Atlanta Braves’ first round pick had been shipped to the Texas Rangers after a very poor start to the 2010 season with the Mets. After the trade, however, Francoeur put up a nice line of .340/.357/.491 in Arlington down the stretch, despite playing in just 15 games.
Francoeur managed to land a 1-year, $2.5 million contract with Kansas City over the winter, with a $4 million mutual option for the following year. But after putting up a .285/.329/.476 line in 2011, the Royals were fooled into giving Francoeur a 2-year, $13.5 million contract. They were so excited to throw the money away, in fact, that they extended him in August of 2011.
Francoeur’s 2012 encore performance was brutal, hitting just .235/.287/.378, and his 2013 was even worse before he was released and eventually signed with the Giants. And there’s Dayton Moore, in a nutshell. He found what could have been a nice value deal on the free agent market, but was fooled into lighting an additional pile of money on fire to try and keep around what amounted to an cruel aberration.
More recently, Moore decided that the Royals were only an ace away from competing with the Tigers for the AL Central crown in 2013, so he set out to acquire a number-one starter for the rotation. Of course, it would cost him dearly in prospects. Kansas City gave up their top remaining prospect in Wil Myers, along with two pitching prospects that appeared on the aforementioned 2011 Top 100 in Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi. It will be years before this trade can be fairly analyzed, but I didn’t like it on the day it happened and I still don’t think it was the proper move.
But wait — there’s more! Remember the Franoeur debacle? The Royals have nearly repeated it on the pitching side. The Royals somewhat pointlessly flipped the scuffling Jonathan Sanchez to the Colorado Rockies for Jeremy Guthrie in the second half of the 2012 season. To that point, Guthrie had been awful, putting up a 6.35 ERA and 1.69 WHIP in 90 2/3 innings for the Rockies. After the trade, however, he was great, with a 3.16 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 91 innings for Kansas City.
Keep in mind, however, that Guthrie is going into his age-34 season in 2013, coming off a season in which he had a 6.35 ERA midway through the summer. In fact, he had not posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2009 with Baltimore, when he went 11-14 with a 3.83 ERA. So what kind of a contract would you give him?
Well, you aren’t Dayton Moore. Guthrie received a 3-year, $25 million contract that will pay him $5 million this season, $11 million in 2014, and $9 million in 2015, his age-36 season. Not exactly a great deal for a small-market club that’s trying so hard just to tread water.
So the mismanagement is apparent. But it isn’t all drafting. Some bad drafting, while it can become crippling, is permissible. As much as front offices try and pretend as though the draft isn’t a crap-shoot, and as much as we like to fit scouting reports and statistics into nice, neat little boxes, the “if he pans out” caveat is the most painfully true but disappointing four-word statement in baseball. It hurts, but it’s always there and ever-important to remember.
The worst part, of course, is the poor contracts and trades. The shooting-in-the-foot that is entirely unnecessary. Sure, the Royals may have to modestly overpay players on the free agent market as a small-market “tax”, but I sincerely doubt that too many teams were going to be waiting on Jeff Francoeur’s doorstep on the dawn of free agency in 2011. And $25 million for Jeremy Guthrie? Say it with me: unnecessary.
And so the Royals beat on. The steady pitter-patter of a poorly run organization that plays in a beautiful ballpark, in a nice city, and in baseball’s weakest division. But the current window, believe it or not, is closing quickly. It’s really only there for a fleeting moment, as the Tigers will remain a solid team, the Indians are building what will be a consistently competitive squad, and the Twins have a top-two farm system in all of baseball.
The Royals future largely rests on the shoulders of still-youngsters Hosmer, Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Salvador Perez, and Lorenzo Cain, as well as the quickly-aging Gordon and Butler. Shields has absolutely held up his end of the bargain as the staff ace, pitching to the tune of a 3.24 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 141 2/3 innings, and Ervin Santana has been a pleasant surprise (3.18 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 130 1/3 innings). The rest of the rotation, however, is a mess.
And of course, the man in charge of this often-rudderless ship is still Moore. The farm system is nearly bare (Baseball America ranks the talent level #18 as of spring 2013), and the organization remains in an awkward holding pattern. Too young to start over, but old enough that there is no doubt some panic within the organization. Which of these supposedly promising young talents will indeed break out of his shell, and which players are lost causes?
It’s the never-ending game that MLB front offices play. And the Royals certainly aren’t alone in that.
They just need to start being right more often than they’re wrong.