Sam Mellinger

Explaining — not endorsing — what the Royals are doing in rebuilding the franchise

"He's family," Royals GM Dayton Moore after trading Kelvin Herrera to Nationals

Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore talked about his feelings for pitcher Kelvin Herrera after trading him to the Nationals for three prospects.
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Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore talked about his feelings for pitcher Kelvin Herrera after trading him to the Nationals for three prospects.

There can be no illusions now that a popular and homegrown star is sold. There can be no misunderstandings about a proud group currently riding a bullet train toward 100 losses. The Royals' last three months will be hard, and sometimes hard to watch, the result judged more on who's left and who's new than whether the team loses 95 games or 99 or 112.

Kelvin Herrera, thought by many to be the game's best available relief pitcher, is gone in the game's first major midseason trade of 2018, for a package some believe is beneath his talents.

But if you look closely, you can see what this is about. The pieces are bizarre by themselves, but put them together and they follow a stream of logic, whether you agree with the plan or not.

The Royals targeted advanced minor leaguers and acquired strong defenders shortly after using their first five draft picks on college pitching. They did this now rather than wait for the July 31 trade deadline, sending the $4.4 million or so Herrera is owed this season to Washington in exchange for a lesser package of prospects.

The message is clear: Stunned by a team on pace to lose some 25 more games than was internally projected, the front office is dumping salary, trying to get closer to making budget while cutting short the gap between now and the next window to contend for a championship.

Like all worthwhile endeavors in baseball and life, this comes with particular risks and logic that can be debated.

The Royals could have waited on more of a market to develop for Herrera. They could have offered to cover the rest of his salary to raise the profile of the prospect return. You might remember that in 2015 the Royals chose to trade better prospects so they wouldn't have to pay the remaining salaries of Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.

On both sides here, then, the Royals are opting to cut spending in exchange for less baseball talent. They won the World Series in 2015 anyway, and are doubling down on the strategy now.

They also could have targeted teenage lottery tickets in the lower levels of the minors, and to be sure, the path the Royals are so far choosing in The Process 2.0 is in this crucial way a departure from the first rebuild.

That was centered around high school draft picks, most notably Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. The idea was to collect the highest ceilings possible early in the rebuild, even if it meant higher risk, and then fill in the gaps later with college picks and trades.

Now, the Royals appear to be taking a vastly different approach.

"Don't you think it's interesting that they took all college pitching (early in the draft)?" a rival executive said. "I sure do."

It's even more interesting now.

Everything that follows is said as explanation, not endorsement, because my strong feeling is the Royals' best way back to contention is to eat as much pain as possible right now — that means trading anyone who'll bring back talent, and covering as much salary as it takes to maximize the return.

But Moore's moves are signaling that he and his assistants believe they can bring contending baseball back to Kansas City sooner than later.

Again, look closely, and it's all there. The college pitching, followed by trading a top asset for advanced minor-league talent that is thus far short on offensive production but long on defensive skill.

The Royals are unlikely to be open to trading catcher Sal Perez — even if it means a better long-term future — because they think they might have a winning team by 2020.

They jumped the market with the Herrera trade for a few reasons. First, and perhaps most obvious, is money. The Royals expected to be in the red this year, and the atrocious on-field performance has only made it worse. Trading Jon Jay and Herrera early will save more than $5 million. If and when Moustakas is traded, the Royals would stand to save the prorated portion of his $6.5 million guarantee.

Second, they did not believe waiting would've cultivated more of a market. Several potential trade partners wanted starting pitching rather than relief, and the Nationals were presumably motivated to have Herrera in their bullpen as long as possible.

Third, the trade may have bucked conventional wisdom but fits comfortably into how the Royals have always operated. They trust their own reports more than consensus, and tend to value fit and makeup more than most rivals.

In that way, they are building again in the image of their pennant winners: The draft class is loaded with power arms, and the Herrera trade provides high-end defenders.

The trades and draft picks line up with apparent holes in the roster and system, too. Cheslor Cuthbert is out of options, and has not played since leaving a game with back spasms on May 14. He is hitting .194/.282/.301 this season, and .252/.303/.378 over 830 career big-league plate appearances. Kelvin Gutierrez is two years younger, and thought to be a significantly better defender.

Blake Perkins was the other major part of that deal. He is considered to be one of the better defensive center fielders in Class A, joining an athletic group in the Royals' system highlighted by Khalil Lee.

This is the beginning of the next wave, then, from Adalberto Mondesi set to start at shortstop — we think? — to Jorge Bonifacio's return from suspension all the way down to Lee and Seuly Matias and MJ Melendez and a draft class headlined by starting pitcher Brady Singer.

In some ways, this moment is an echo of the Zack Greinke trade, which was built around Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. The analogy isn't perfect, for a lot of reasons. But they did not know if Cain or Escobar would ever hit. They felt confident both would be terrific defenders.

That's what the Royals are trying to do now, and again. That's starting to come into focus after a deep draft class, and the trade of one of its most valuable assets.

Pay close attention, and you'll see more of it as we go along, too.