There are two ways to render judgment on the 2013 Royals, and they’re equally valid. The first is to acknowledge that they’re playing meaningful baseball in September for the first time in 10 years and are on pace to win 84 games for the first time since 1993. By the standards of Royals baseball, they are the best team the franchise has fielded in decades.
The other position to take is that, barring a near-miraculous finish, the Royals will miss the playoffs for the 28th consecutive season. They have the ninth-best record in the American League despite the highest payroll in franchise history, and despite going all-in for this season by trading Wil Myers for James Shields in a seven-player trade that will be rehashed for years to come. Giving the Royals credit for their best record in a generation is essentially rewarding them for the putridity of their predecessors.
The reality is that the ultimate legacy of the 2013 Royals has yet to be written, and not just because there are still three weeks left in the season. How we’ll remember this season depends on whether it marks a steppingstone to greater things in the future, or whether it proves to be the high-water mark for this collection of players.
Which is to say: Whether 2013 will be regarded as a success depends on whether 2014 will be regarded as a success. And next year, nothing short of a playoff berth constitutes success.
The Royals must understand these expectations, because they placed them on themselves. For years, general manager Dayton Moore has talked up the turn-of-the-century Minnesota Twins as his blueprint for success. Back in 2010, here’s what Moore said: “Terry Ryan and Minnesota Twins had a well-built farm system, and they started in ’94 when Terry took over, and for seven straight years they had (a losing record.) In year eight, they were above .500, and in year nine they were in the playoffs.”
As it happens, Moore was hired in 2006, and for seven straight years the Royals had a losing record. This is year eight, and they’re on pace to win 84 games; the 2001 Twins won 85. But in 2002, the Twins won 94 games and the AL Central, their first of six division titles in nine years.
If the Royals don’t win the division next year, it won’t be because they weren’t given enough time. Every other team in baseball has finished above .500 since Moore was hired, and 25 of the 29 other teams will have made the playoffs in that time.
Another 84-78 season next year won’t cut it, considering that Shields will be a free agent after next season, and Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will be entering the final years of their contracts. The window for this group of players may close faster than you think.
All this means that the Royals are facing their most important offseason of the century. They have to find a way to improve an offense that has been moribund all season while finding a way to replicate a pitching staff that leads the AL in ERA.
The first step is to recognize that it’s not the pitching staff that’s remarkable; it’s the defense. Depending on the statistic you use, the Royals either have the best defense in the AL (Defensive Runs Saved) or the best defense in the major leagues (Ultimate Zone Rating). What this means is that the Royals can afford to let Ervin Santana, their premier free agent, walk away this winter. Santana has had a wonderful bounce-back season, but he’s been made to look better than he is by all the leather being flashed around him. He will likely command a contract of at least four years and close to $15 million a season, and at those prices the Royals ought to take the compensatory draft pick instead and find another pitcher for their defense to pretty up. Bruce Chen, whose 2.81 ERA is the lowest of his career and who is 36 years old, should also be allowed to leave if he expects a pay raise.
The Royals were wise to identify Santana as a stock they could buy low last winter, and they should use the same tactic again. From Yovani Gallardo to Phil Hughes to Brandon McCarthy, there is no shortage of starters that the Royals could acquire in trade or sign as a free agent without making a long-term commitment.
The next step is to leverage the strength of their bullpen to help fill holes elsewhere. The Royals are doing their best to prove the adage wrong: you reallycan
have too much (relief) pitching. Their bullpen is so deep that Louis Coleman, who has a 0.36 ERA, was stuck in the minors much of the season, as was Will Smith, who has four walks and 37 strikeouts. As a whole, the Royals’ bullpen has a 2.60 ERA, the lowest by any AL team since 1990.
So the Royals need to make a trade. They need to take offers for closer Greg Holland. Losing Holland would hurt, no doubt; he’s having arguably the best season by a reliever in team history, with the second-lowest ERA (1.45) and the highest strikeout rate (41 percent) of any Royals pitcher with 40 or more innings.
But even the best relievers are unpredictable commodities; the ones that burn the brightest can burn out the fastest.
Of the 15 pitchers with the most saves in baseball in 2011, just three — Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera and Chris Perez — are still closers today. The others got hurt or suffered a sudden loss of effectiveness. The Royals know firsthand how quickly an elite reliever can disappear; Joakim Soria was one of the game’s best closers until the day he tore a ligament in his elbow, and just like that his Royals career was over.
And judging from the trade market in recent years, closers can still bring back everyday hitters in return. Andrew Bailey was traded for Josh Reddick; Mark Melancon brought back Jed Lowrie; even Matt Capps got Wilson Ramos in return. If the Royals trade Holland, they can replace him with Luke Hochevar, who has almost matched Holland pitch-for-pitch this year. Kelvin Herrera still has the best stuff in the bullpen and has a 1.67 ERA since returning from the minors.
They then need to make a play for one of the top free agents available to play right field. There’s no excuse for not bumping up the team’s payroll next year — Major League Baseball’s new TV contract goes into effect in 2014, bringing more than $20 million in additional annual revenue to each club. There’s enough money there to go after one elite guy.
The best fit might be a familiar player. Carlos Beltran turns 37 next April but is still a terrific player, hitting .309 and slugging .516 for the Cardinals this season. His broad skill set of power and speed should allow him to continue to age gracefully, and while he may command a pay raise from his current $13 million a season, he probably won’t require more than a two-year commitment. David Lough has been a pleasant surprise this season, but he’s more of an excellent fourth outfielder.
And finally, the Royals must trade prospects to upgrade the game’s worst middle infield. They’ve used six different second basemen this year, and they’ve received even worse production at shortstop, where Alcides Escobar has the lowest OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of any qualifying player in the major leagues.
Trading Myers last winter was short-sighted not only because prospects of his caliber almost always turn into major-league stars, but also because he was ready to contribute in the major leagues. But the Royals’ best remaining prospects don’t fit that description. Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer are terrific prospects, but they’re pitchers, and pitching prospects will break your heart. Mike Montgomery did, John Lamb did, and Chris Dwyer did
Ventura may turn into an All-Star starting pitcher one day. But he’s more likely to get hurt, or to struggle to throw strikes in the majors, or to wind up in the bullpen. Trading him for someone like Howie Kendrick, a career .293/.330/.429 hitter whom the Angels are dangling on the trade market, would make a considerable amount of sense. (Or perhaps this is where you trade Holland, given that the Angels have the fourth-highest bullpen ERA in baseball.) The Royals should dangle a package of prospects to the Orioles for the last year of J.J. Hardy’s contract, which would allow Baltimore to move phenom Manny Machado back to his natural position of shortstop.
If you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. Trading Myers wasn’t enough to get the Royals over the playoff hump, but the next prospect trade might.
If the Royals take a conservative approach this winter, they’re still likely to be at least a .500 team next year. But another 84-win season won’t be greeted with nearly as much excitement as this one will. Flags fly forever, and the Royals haven’t had an opportunity to plant one in a generation.
Aggressively addressing the flaws on the current roster will help the Royals take the last step in their rebuilding plan. The legacy of these Royals has yet to be written. There’s still time to make it a good one.