This is about how the Royals might be able to turn their worst-case scenario into their best-case scenario, but before we go further, let’s all recognize that we don’t yet know if this is their worst-case scenario.
The Royals were 10-18 entering Saturday’s game, even after consecutive wins, ranking last in the American League in runs, hits, batting, on-base percentage, slugging, doubles, walks, and run differential.
They stink so far, in other words, and if you didn’t know what happened two and three years ago you’d have a hard time imagining this group pushing its way up the standings even if the rest of the American League Central remains mediocre.
So two things can be true at once.
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The first truth is that early May is far too soon to make grand proclamations about a baseball team — particularly doomsday statements about a group with so much past success. The season is five weeks old. Twelve weeks remain until the non-waiver trade deadline. Crazier things have happened, especially if nobody runs away with the division.
The second truth is that this group’s struggles, combined with the realities of baseball’s financial structure and the contracts of many stars, mean the Royals front office is in the beginning stages of figuring out what a fire sale would look like and how to best emerge on the other end.
Because if they’re going to lose, the Royals are doing it at the right time, and in most of the right ways.
Mike Moustakas could be one of baseball’s most valuable trade chips this summer. He is 28 years old, an All-Star with playoff success, a power bat, and good defense at a difficult position to fill.
That last part is the most important. The Red Sox will be looking for a third baseman, if Pablo Sandoval continues to struggle. That would make the most sense, though the White Sox’s Todd Frazier could also be on the market.
The Angels could be a trade partner, too, particularly if they thought Moustakas would want to stay close to his childhood home long-term. The Mets are desperate for a third baseman, but need to play better before talking trades.
Lorenzo Cain would be a fit in a lot of places. He is another All-Star with playoff success, getting on base more than ever before, and would improve any team’s outfield defense.
The Dodgers have used five center fielders this year, none to particularly productive results. Nationals center fielder Adam Eaton is out for the season because of a knee injury. If the complications of an intradivision trade could be worked out, the Tigers could join a long list of teams that would improve with Cain.
Eric Hosmer could help the right contender. He has been the best version of himself over the last 10 days or so, and if scouts are convinced he’s back to his All-Star form, there is always a market for his talent.
The Yankees need a first baseman. The Angels and Marlins could make sense for various reasons.
Depending on how various teams’ needs lined up, the Royals could have trade talks involving Jason Vargas, Ian Kennedy, Kelvin Herrera — even Danny Duffy or Sal Perez could be had for the right offer, though either remains a long shot to be dealt in any scenario.
The point here: The Royals are beginning to prepare for a major roster overhaul that would require any talk of the championship core to come in the past tense, end any illusion of winning in the near future, and start the long and tedious (ahem) process of building back from the ground up.
Because if a team is going to lose, it’s best to lose early, so the front office can break the team down and sell off parts.
The Royals took an overly ambitious plan of trying to win now, build for later, and control costs — all at the same time. If the team is not in contention as the trade deadline nears, it gives an opportunity to abort, and better prepare for the future.
This will come with major challenges, and enticing potential rewards.
First, the challenges.
Teams are less willing than ever before to trade young, cheap talent. Even big-money clubs are aware of the value held not just by prospects, but big leaguers who have not yet hit arbitration.
That means many deals that may have been available five years ago are now off the table. The deals that remain won’t be as enticing.
In the winter before the 2011 season, the Royals made what is likely their single most important decision in developing a world champion — trading Zack Greinke for Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jake Odorizzi. Cain turned into a star, Escobar was a key piece in the success, and Odorizzi was part of the trade that brought James Shields and Wade Davis.
Today, teams making “seller” trades know they are unlikely to receive such a haul.
Another challenge is that the current CBA has made receiving compensation for lost free agents more difficult. In the past, anyone who turned down a qualifying offer and signed elsewhere earned his old team a draft pick. Today, he must turn down a qualifying offer and sign a contract of at least $50 million.
But the potential rewards mean Royals general manager Dayton Moore and the rest of the front office will have no choice but to sell, if the losing continues.
This is how rebuilds are done in today’s version of major-league baseball. Eleven years ago, when Moore took over with the promise of better support from owner David Glass, it was done with patience and draft picks and supplemental trades.
Today, the clubs with the best track records of turnarounds have kick-started the (ahem) process by losing massive amounts of games for a few years. This is the bargain Moore must accept, if he chooses this path.
There is a growing acceptance among some in the front office that this should’ve been the plan all along. The Royals will always be operating at a disadvantage compared to richer franchises, which means they need to be happy winning now or building for tomorrow — not sacrificing both by trying to do too much.
One more time: This is not yet the point of declaring the Royals need to give up on 2017, in part because this is still early enough in the season that buyers are not yet ready to move.
The best scenario remains that this week is the beginning of one more comeback by this group, that they find their 2015 mojo, and push toward the postseason.
But as long as that appears unlikely, the Royals could find themselves pursuing the second-best scenario: knowing the window is closed now, rather than later, which would give them the best opportunity to make the most of the struggles and rebuild for the push to the next parade.
That last world championship will feel like a long time ago. The Royals will try to sell you on the vision for the next one.