There’s hardly anything in the game of baseball that rises to the level of a “deal with the devil.” The magnitude just doesn’t meet that standard.
However, for teams like the Royals who rely heavily on their farm system, there’s certainly a catch-22 that comes along with the highest level of success.
Homegrown talent provided the foundation for the Royals’ two most recent runs to World Series in 2014 and 2015. Those teams’ lineups and pitching staffs were built largely on players shaped by their minor-league system. The system also provided the means to acquire players through trades to fill holes on the major-league roster.
That’s the catch, and the Royals certainly felt it last season. The system has been depleted, at least temporarily. Until it has been built back up, the Royals face an uphill climb to contend for a pennant.
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“At the end of the day, you need six guys that are in the everyday lineup that have a chance to make All-Star teams, and you need six or seven pitchers on that staff that can dominate,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “That’s how you win a championship.
“We’ve seen that. We know what that looks like. We’ve got to continue to develop well, to sign well, to draft well, sign internationally. We’ve got to continue to function at a very high level in all those areas. Our farm system is crucial. Some of the big markets can get away with not having a top, top farm system. We simply cannot.”
The Royals’ starting lineup in the first game of the 2014 World Series opener included five starting position players who came up through the farm system. The lineup in the first game of the 2015 World Series included four starting position players who had the same path.
Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Kelvin Herrera and Mike Moustakas were all home-grown All-Stars for the Royals in 2015.
“We have to get our farm system back to where it was in 2010 and 2011 when it was one of the better farm systems in baseball in a long, long time,” Moore said. “We’re not there yet. Last year’s draft was a good start. Some of the trades we made last year, I think, helped us and gave us a little more depth. We need to have three or four really good drafts in a row to put us in a position where the farm system is stacked and we have a lot of options.”
In 2011, Royals were regarded as the top farm system in baseball. They had nine players ranked among the top 100 prospects in baseball. That group included Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers (each ranked among the top 10) as well as Danny Duffy and Jake Odorizzi.
Last year, the Royals ranked 26th in the same organizational rankings. They went from a top-10 ranking in 2014 (eighth) to 13th in 2015, 21st in 2016 and 26th in 2017.
Of course, between the offseason leading into the 2014 season and end of 2015 the Royals traded 11 pitchers away in order to make those playoff runs possible. That’s on top of the prospects they graduated to the majors.
Again, there’s that catch. To a certain extent, the Royals mortgaged the future in order to bring a title to Kansas City.
“That’s a decision that — in our case, Dayton has to make — a general manager has to make,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “Where are we? Do we have a legitimate chance to win? If we do, I’m willing to do whatever I have to. That’s where Dayton was, and it paid off. We feel some of the effects the following years, but I don’t think anybody is going to trade a World Series ring from 2015 because 2018 isn’t what you wanted it to be.”
In last June’s draft, the Royals selected five pitchers in the first 58 draft picks. The group included Florida ace and right-hander Brady Singer (18th overall), his college teammate and right-hander Jackson Kowar (33), Virginia left-hander Daniel Lynch (34), Stanford left-hander Kris Bubic (40) and Memphis right-hander Jonathan Bowlan (58).
The Royals have also been aggressive in acquiring pitchers in the Rule 5 Draft in recent years. They’ve selected two pitchers in each of the last two offseasons. Last year’s Rule 5 Draft produced this year’s opening day starter, Brad Keller.
Baseball America still ranked the Royals 27th of 30 MLB teams in organizational talent going into this season, citing a lack of potential big-league regulars in the upper levels of the minor leagues as well as a lack of high-end talent. Only pitcher Brady Singer, who has yet to pitch in a regular-season professional game, earned a spot among the top 100 prospects (71st) in the publication’s annual rankings.
MLB.com analyst Jonathan Mayo broke down each organization’s top prospects list by the five tools — hitting, power, running, arm and field — and the Royals ranked among the top five in the two defensive categories arm (second) and field (first).
Meanwhile, Picollo asserts there are similarities with where the Royals stand now with their farm system and when they were building towards their 2014-15 runs. He pointed to the depth of position players, a mix of standouts as well as guys who project as role players.
This week, the club held its organizational awards ceremony in Arizona, and it honored the Low-A affiliate for winning the South Atlantic League championship as well as individual performances.
As for a supposed lack of high-end prospects, Picollo pointed to outfielder Seuly Matias, first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez as three examples of prospects who the Royals believe will be impact players in the majors.
Matias, who set a South Atlantic League record with his 31 home runs despite missing more than a month of the season due to injury. The Royals see intangibles in Pratto, the MVP of the South Atlantic All-Star Game, on top of tools that make him one of the organization’s top prospects and a first-round draft pick.
The Royals think Melendez can be a two-way impact player as a catcher. He’s a left-handed hitter with power — 19 home runs as a 19-year-old in his first year of full-season ball — who can throw well and plays a premium position.
You could make the case that Melendez is ahead of where Perez was at the same stage in his development, Piccolo said. At the same age, Perez’s had been viewed purely as a catch-and-throw guy who might end up batting seventh in a major-league lineup.
The pitching corps, according to Picollo, actually features more guys projected as starters this time around whereas players like Herrera and Greg Holland were definite relievers. Though several of the current crop of potential starters haven’t pitched a full season in the minors.
Picollo downplayed the prospect rankings, both past and present. In fact, he’s used the 2011 ranking as example of how players get overlooked.
After all, neither Perez, Herrera nor Holland were top 100 selections, but went on to collect All-Star honors and Gold Gloves while others rated ahead of them aren’t in baseball or still haven’t had success in the majors.
“I will say it’s never something we talk to our staff about because these are our kids,” Picollo said. “This is what we have. It doesn’t matter what anybody says about them. Our job is to just to get them better, and if we get them better then we’re doing our job.”