'We Compete:' Royals have holes to fill but refuse to tank as they reconstruct roster

It’s a Friday in March in Arizona, a little more than three weeks into a shortened spring training.

The Royals stretch as usual, their routine structured by a color-coded spreadsheet tacked to a corkboard in the clubhouse and displayed on a monitor by the players’ exit.

There is no room on the schedule for deviations. Even on this day, the morning after reports swirled that All-Star third baseman Mike Moustakas was coming back to Kansas City on a one-year contract, there is no room for players to dwell on anything but the task they’ve been assigned.

Because Moustakas’ reunion with the Royals doesn’t change the fundamental truth about this 2018 squad: Unlike the last four years, there is no expectation to contend for a division championship or a wild-card berth.

That cycle ran out. There is now only the expectation to compete.

The major-league roster additions of Moustakas, outfielder Jon Jay and first baseman Lucas Duda were intended to shore up the remaining gaps in the development of a handful of younger players who are still fumbling through what it takes to play consistently at the highest level. The veterans were not signed to orchestrate a fifth-straight attempt at the playoffs, but instead to boost confidence and be role models.

Plainly, they were added because the Royals do not believe losing 100 games and achieving status quo with the teams who intend to tank will teach their small crop of burgeoning prospects and the larger group of young major-leaguers how to be successful.

“That’s what Mr. (David) Glass does,” manager Ned Yost said during one of his daily rounds with the media. “He provides us with the opportunity to get better. He’s a fierce competitor like we are. And, you know, he likes to win. That’s whats so great about working for an owner that likes to compete and has enough respect for the city that he’s going to do whatever he can to try to put the best team on the field. A lot of teams in this situation would just fold up and say, OK … we’re cutting payroll, we’re not doing this and if we lose 100 games, we lose 100 games.

“And Mr. Glass isn’t into that, and Dayton and I aren’t into it either. It’s fun to have a team of guys ahead of you that stay focused on what you stay focused on — and that’s providing a good product or try to provide a good product on the field every day that’s capable of winning.”

In their lockers this spring, Royals players found charcoal-colored T-shirts with the words “We Compete” printed in bold-faced type across the chest.

The shirts are an extension of the words general manager Dayton Moore began to weave in to his public discussions about the state of his team long before the free-agent departures of Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and others.

The franchise isn’t going back into the dark ages of outfield relays drilling first basemen in the back or players jogging to the dugout before a ball drops in the outfield grass — not as long as Moore can help it.

“I believe that we can put a strong, competitive team on the field each and every night and also develop in the minor leagues,” he said. “I believe we can build our farm system back to the level it was in 2010 and 2011, and maybe even do it better and still win games at the major-league level.

“You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. If you want a a winning culture, you’ve got to do everything in your power each day to win.”

So if the Royals likely can't compete for a championship this season, but don't want to tank, what are they doing?

With few players set in stone for the future, the Royals will dig in and replenish their 29th-ranked farm system, which took a hit after outfielder Bubba Starling and pitcher Kyle Zimmer began to struggle. The Royals will have four of the top 40 picks in this year's draft, and they'll need them to shore up depth on the mound and in the middle of the infield.

As a team that plays 81 games in Kauffman Stadium, the biggest ballpark, acreage-wise, in the American League, the Royals depend on fundamental baseball. Adding pitchers who attack the strike zone and athletic defenders who can play small ball and show bursts of power will return them to the level they played at during 2014-15.

Team officials believe highly touted prospects such as catcher MJ Melendez, first baseman Nick Pratto and outfielder Khalil Lee provide a good base. They believe pitchers Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin and Richard Lovelady are just beginning to scratch the surface of their abilities in the minor leagues, too.

Those prized minor-leaguers will not be rushed. The Royals intend to surround them with mentors who’ve been part of winning cultures and who can impart what it takes to win, both on and off the field.

"It's a test of patience on our end," said J.J. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager for player personnel. "You want it fast but some guys just aren’t gonna go — not everybody is built to be in the big leagues by the time they’re 21."

They weren’t able to do the same thing with Hosmer, Perez and Moustakas. When that championship-winning group arrived together in Kansas City in 2011, the players were virtually left to forge their own paths alongside Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, neither of whom at that time knew what it meant to be a successful major-league player.

In the meantime, the Royals will operate on a scaled-back budget after two straight seasons of record payrolls that didn't produce a worthy return on investment.

But by 2021, their salary obligations plummet. Their payroll could receive a boost from a new TV deal after the current contract expires at the end of the 2019 season.

Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy's contracts, worth a combined $29.7 million, are the only ones on the books for 2021. Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert would be in their second and third years of arbitration, respectively, by then.

Melendez, Pratto and Lee could make their major-league debuts that year. Adalberto Mondesi and pitchers Eric Skoglund, Griffin and Lovelady could be in the mix, too.

Flexibility in the budget and farm system would allow the Royals to bolster the roster with veteran leadership that will lead them to their end goal — like the Royals did by signing Raul Ibañez in 2014 and acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in 2015.

“Peer mentoring is so important,” Moore said. “So coaches, manager, front office people, we can all have our say. But we’re not gonna be walking daily with the players. The players are gonna be walking daily with one another. So you’ve gotta have those good influences around.”

Moore says there’s no timetable for what the Royals should accomplish by the time top 2017 draft picks Pratto and Melendez are ready to join the major leagues in 2021 or 2022. Those target years loom over his head, sure, but only because the entire organization wants to see its players reach their ceilings.

That’s a schedule the Royals cannot deviate from.

"Just because you did it before doesn’t mean you’ll do it again,” Moore said. “You’re not reliant on that. We’ve got to be relentless and focused on leading and committed to our process.

"There’s a greater sense or urgency, I would say, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do it again just because we did it before. You’ve got to go do it. You’ve got to earn it. No one’s gonna give you anything in this game.”

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