One important thing to remember if you choose to read beyond this sentence is that the plan laid out here is unlikely to be utilized by the Royals. That’s understating the point, actually.
Dayton Moore, the general manager who turned the sport’s worst franchise into a world champion, is as likely to quit baseball and join the rap game — M.C. Proce$$? — as he is to fully adopt this long-term plan.
But there are many around baseball who think he should, a few who think he’s making a mistake if he doesn’t, and some who envy how well-positioned he is to do it.
“It’s all right there for them,” said an executive of a fellow American League club.
The Royals are highly unlikely to make the playoffs this year. Moore and his assistants talk constantly of the need to balance short- and long-term goals on their limited budget. With the trade deadline approaching, that’s as important now as ever.
The Royals are rightfully focused on maintaining a strong core for one more championship push in 2017, but they must also begin considering what happens after that. The plan needs to be laid out before it’s time to start.
The idea here, then, is to push all-in on 2017 and then cash out with what could be a painful but relatively short rebuilding process. A cynic would call it tanking, but a realist would call it responding to the incentives of the sport’s rules.
Whatever you label it, this plan has been used to varying degrees and provided varying levels of success in recent years for the Nationals, Cubs and Astros. Each of those teams has been in the playoffs in the last two seasons, and each is in the race again this year. And all three clubs lost more than 100 games in a season since 2009.
Each had extended periods of losing, but — consciously or otherwise — embraced the opportunity to hoard stars for the future. And when the winning comes, it tends to come quick.
The Nationals went from 103 losses to the NL East title in three years. The Astros went from 111 losses to the playoffs in two years. And the Cubs went from 101 losses to the playoffs in three years.
The Nationals were lucky in that their two years with the No. 1 pick gave them Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. But they also got Anthony Rendon with the sixth pick in 2011, the year after losing 93 games.
The year after losing 106 games, the Astros drafted Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers. The Cubs used down years to draft Kris Bryant (second overall in 2013) and Kyle Schwarber (fourth in 2014) and had enough depth to trade for Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell, among others.
Depending on their success in the draft, the Royals could use two or three years of non-contention to build their next championship window — a window that could remain open twice as long. The most valuable asset in baseball is a productive player with fewer than three years’ service time, and the best way to get that is to select high in the draft and stockpile compensation picks.
The Royals can do this, implementing a plan that’s been widely discussed in baseball and made more rewarding by the change in how teams are allowed to spend on draft picks and international signings.
Teams used to be able to spend freely on each, meaning the richest clubs had the most power. But now all spending is tied on the previous year’s performance, meaning teams that hit the bottom hardest have the most power.
The old rules made it possible — not easy, but possible — for small-money clubs like the Royals to keep winning with the right draft choices and international signings. The new rules make that much more difficult, essentially forcing the best prospects to the clubs with the worst-performing big-league teams. The rules were well-intentioned but can be seen as incentivizing teams to skip the more gradual peaks and valleys and constantly either be going for championships or high draft picks.
The Royals are uniquely positioned to go from one last playoff push in 2017 to rock bottom and back again in relatively short order. Doing this would require trust and patience from fans and ownership, as well as steely stomachs from coaches and executives.
The Royals just spent a decade building toward the playoffs, so the value of the long view is well-known around here. With successful examples both here and around the sport, it would presumably be an easier sell this time around.
Here’s how it would work:
Make one more run in 2017. The Royals have seen too much bad luck and too many injuries this year, but the same core that won two straight pennants and last year’s World Series should be healthy and plenty motivated again next year.
After next season, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Danny Duffy are among those scheduled to be free agents. With the exception of Escobar, all figure to be worth a compensation pick at the end of the first round.
That will cut both the team’s payroll and talent, though the most effective way back to contention will not be chasing the quick fixes of free agency. The Royals, like most teams in baseball, are proof that free-agent contracts are woefully inefficient and best made to patch up a final hole or two rather than to build the road.
This is amplified by the fact that even if a free agent proves worth the money, he would then diminish the Royals’ ability to build back up through the farm system.
In fact, if the Royals want to really embrace the hit-rock-bottom plan after next season, they could field offers for Sal Perez, Alex Gordon and Yordano Ventura. If he stays at catcher, Perez could be one of the game’s most valuable potential trade assets, considering his age, position and contract.
That would be extreme, and even in a rebuilding phase each of those players would still be valuable for the Royals.
But even without doing that, the Royals could set themselves up with a treasure of compensation picks and at least a few years of selecting toward the top of the draft, with one of the sport’s biggest piles of money to sign the best amateur talent.
The other option is to sign more of the current core to long-term contracts, but in many ways that’s riskier than embracing some down years for the opportunity provided by MLB’s new rules. The Twins and Phillies are among the clubs that handcuffed themselves to years of non-contention by stocking up on long-term deals that turned out to be lemons.
The draft is the best path. In recent years, compensation picks have included Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Michael Fulmer and Trevor Story. Top five picks we haven’t already mentioned include Manny Machado, Gerrit Cole and Buster Posey.
Baseball draft picks are the most unpredictable in major sports, and the Royals offer good examples of both risk and reward. They selected Hosmer and Moustakas in the top three, and signed Perez, Kelvin Herrera and Raul Mondesi out of Latin America. They also took Christian Colon over Chris Sale, Bubba Starling over Francisco Lindor, and spent big on Cuban prospect Noel Arguelles, who didn’t make it past Class AA.
But the best way to win in the draft is to stack draft picks. The most chances provides, well, the most chances.
The Royals, as we noted here at the top, are unlikely to go all-in on a hard rebuild. Moore and his assistants value every win, whether it’s in a pennant race or not. Potential business interests loom, as well, with the Royals’ outdated TV contract set to expire after the 2019 season.
It is entirely reasonable and in some ways noble for the Royals to be skeptical of a blow-it-up-and-start-all-over rebuild.
But if the goal is to win championships, the Royals’ best path may be to grind through a brutal stretch at the big-league level while restocking with the next wave of talent.