The Royals’ biggest mistake now is the message, which is better than the last few years when their problem was the method. The story of their third offseason since the parade involves sober analysis and embracing losing, with a touch of denial.
Let’s start with the sober analysis.
The Royals, mostly through general manager Dayton Moore, have transitioned their signals from a hope to compete in 2018 to a recognition of their current and future reality.
When Moore openly talks of a willingness to trade anyone on the roster, and all but dismisses the possibility of re-signing star free agents Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, he is being as clear as he knows how in telling Royals fans the immediate future will look a lot like the 90-plus loss seasons so common a decade ago.
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Here’s a theory, too, and Moore would certainly deny this speculation: The Royals’ stated interest in re-signing Eric Hosmer is as much eyewash as sincerity.
Moore is extremely sentimental, despite his objections to that description, but he has to know his boss David Glass wouldn’t be psyched about an enormous free-agent contract to add to the combined $142 million contracts for Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy for a team trying to rebuild.
So, my theory is that Moore wants to say he’s interested in re-signing Hosmer for at least three reasons: He’s not ready to admit otherwise; he doesn’t want fans to believe he’s giving up on the immediate future; and he genuinely wants what’s best for Hosmer and knows disinterest could be seen as a red flag to other clubs.
Whether that theory is true or not, this is the part where we transition from the sober analysis to the embrace of losing.
This is an important shift to note, because at some point — almost certainly beginning in the next year — this will stretch the patience of executives and particularly fans to the limit. Once you’ve had a parade, it’s hard to go back to following minor leaguers.
But that’s the best way out of this, because any desire to re-sign Hosmer, Cain, or Moustakas must account for why a large outlay of cash on risky free-agent contracts would be smart when all three had strong 2017 seasons, the Royals still lost more than they won, and are without a supplementing core of young stars or prospects to push forward.
All of that would be enough, even if the American League wasn’t currently stacked with the Astros (world champs with a young core), Indians (winners of 196 games and a pennant the last two years), Red Sox (AL East champs, young core, possible Hosmer destination), Yankees (one game from the pennant and added Giancarlo Stanton), Twins (younger and better than the Royals last year) and Angels (Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Andrelton Simmons).
The only way is to start from scratch. The only way out is to modernize the path the Royals took from the bottom in 2006 to the parade in 2015.
First, that means losing. A lot. The Royals will need to draft high, and the only way to do that is to lose. Their last rise was built largely on Moustakas and Hosmer, taken second overall and third, respectively, in the first two drafts that Moore was officially responsible for.
The last two world champions have followed similar paths, with the Cubs and Astros each losing more than 90 games within three years and 100 games within four years of their championships. Carlos Correa, the Astros’ star shortstop, was taken first overall in 2012 after Houston lost 106 games the year before. Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ star first baseman, was taken second overall in 2013 after they lost 101 games the year before.
At least publicly, Moore is saying a re-rebuild would be easier than the rebuild, and he has a point about the organizational credibility being fundamentally higher now than a decade ago. The Royals don’t need to spend $55 million on the 2017 version of Gil Meche just to show baseball they’re serious.
But in most other ways, this will be more difficult. The biggest hurdle may be that baseball’s rules now make it much more difficult to merely “buy” a better farm system.
In 2008, the Royals spent more money signing draft picks than any team had ever spent before. Moore and the Royals took full advantage of a lack of draft spending limits, perhaps most notably by giving first-round money to 2009 third-round pick Wil Myers, who became the key to the James Shields trade (which eventually became the Wade Davis trade).
That path is now blocked by MLB rules, though teams can now trade draft picks and international spending allotments.
Perhaps this is where the Royals can modernize that old path — instead of merely spending more money, they’ll now have to give up something of value for the right to spend more money.
That’s part of what will make the re-rebuild more difficult than the rebuild, but not all. Because even if it’s true that the club has more credibility, and can now lean on recent experiences, there is also something difficult mentally about doing something the first time.
The same way some around baseball openly wondered if the 2016 Royals lost their feisty edge after the 2015 championship, it’s fair to wonder if a group that’s already done this once will be able to devote the energy, ingenuity and obsession required to do it again.
The Royals’ moves since the parade have mostly backfired, and even if you attribute that more to sentimentality than a loss of sharpness, the club will have to get back to getting all the big decisions right.
All of which brings us to the part about denial. Because Moore is talking about setting up the Royals to win for “10 to 15 years” straight, instead of these shorter cycles or “windows,” and it’s just not realistic.
No small-money club has done what Moore is now setting up as the expectation. The Royals can differentiate themselves in many ways, most notably how well they scout and develop talent, but they cannot escape from the financial realities of Major League Baseball.
So without an owner willing to personally offset significant yearly losses, the best-case scenario is for the Royals to win with homegrown stars, and once that talent ages and prices out, step back and build up again.
Part of Moore’s job is to sell hope. That’s particularly true right now, as the Royals are signaling a rebuild on the way. Maybe it’s more palatable with the attached hope of a more consistent future, but baseball history shows us the best possible outcome is grinding toward a championship and then starting all over again.
If we’re honest, that’s an awesome and unforgettable outcome.