The rare optimistic words about the Royals. Or, perhaps more accurately, the rare hopeful words.
Their fall from the top has been drastic in its scope and surprising in its pace. Some of it was unavoidable, the product of Kansas City’s market size and baseball’s economics. Some of it has been amplified by decisions of the front office, and some has been fueled by plain awful luck.
The same way it took years and decisions and outside influences — many of which happened before the parade — for the Royals to get this bad, it will take the same to climb back up the standings.
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The Royals will have certain winds at their backs, like the advantages of extra and high draft picks this year, next, and likely beyond. They will also face certain challenges, many of which were created by the current CBA.
In Part 1, we attempted to answer this question: How did they get here?
Here, in Part 2, we attempt to answer this one: How do they get out?
Again, this list of the 10 most important factors in the Royals’ rebuild is guided by conversations with club officials, rival executives and coverage of the organization from the start of the rise in 2006.
10. The handling of Khalil Lee and other top prospects.
In some ways, the Royals are already mimicking The Process 1.0, perhaps most notably by promoting a partnership between prospects first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez that roughly mirrors the relationships between Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, and others.
This became known as “the wave.” It proved crucial that a group tasked with changing a losing culture in the big leagues had shared success in the minor leagues.
That philosophy is at least part of why the Royals went so heavy on college pitching in last month’s draft. The hope is to fill holes on pitching side to join Pratto, Melendez, Seuly Matias and others on the rise through the Royals’ farm system. Notably, No. 33 overall pick Jackson Kowar recently debuted with them at Class A Lexington.
9. Keep the Royals marketable.
General manager Dayton Moore talks constantly of seeing the game through a child’s eyes, a message backed up most obviously by his efforts at the Urban Youth Academy, accepting virtually any speaking invitation around town and measuring success in part by how many Royals jerseys he sees in the stands.
Moore sees a larger purpose, sort of a more holistic approach, in which the bond felt between city and team can be both manufactured and beneficial to each side.
Viewed cynically, it can be seen as corny or naive, a baseball man trying to do the job of the marketing department. But there is compelling proof in how well and personally the last rise was received, and in a mostly impotent product still drawing a top-five local audience relative to other markets across baseball.
The Royals won four games over 37 days and, still, more Kansas Citians watched their games than any other TV program. That bond will be important for business going forward, but also for the franchise’s success.
8. Continued expansion of international scouting.
The recent signing of a 16-year-old Japanese pitching prodigy named Kaito Yuki is the most tangible example of the Royals’ push to be a leader in finding talent across the globe, not just in Latin America.
The signing was controversial to many in Japan, rare in both the prospect’s age and choice of professional club. The Royals have been shut out from the most developed and promising Japanese talent because of market size, Kansas City’s relative lack of Japanese culture and other factors.
The signing of Yuki shows the organization’s creativity and commitment to finding other ways to mine talent. In addition to the Pacific Rim they are also searching hard in Europe, Africa and other places.
7. Their recent bets on college pitching.
The Royals had five of the first 58 picks of last month’s draft, an extremely rare opportunity, and shocked many across baseball by going exclusively with college pitchers. They took college players with their first 11 and all but four of their first 37 picks.
This approach ran counter to the organization’s reputation of preferring the higher ceiling of, and opportunity to develop, high school talent, and had at least one rival GM wondering if ownership is demanding a faster turnaround.
Pitching prospects are notoriously unreliable, making the plan an aggressive swing in a critical moment that by definition will have enormous consequences going forward — one way or the other.
6. Be open to trading Sal Perez and Whit Merrifield.
This is a tough spot for the front office, because trading two of their most popular players would run at least somewhat counter to No. 9. But holding on to them means declining an opportunity to stock talent that would realistically better align with the next window of opportunity to win.
Perez’s value is diminished by the worst offensive season of his career, though there is a feeling among some that he would be rejuvenated by joining a winner. Merrifield is 29 with a relatively short track record of success.
So the returns may not be overwhelming. But the guiding principle for all decisions should be what makes the Royals strongest in 2021 and beyond.
5. Get lucky.
Like all rebuilds, The Process 1.0 took advantage of a significant amount of luck — from big-picture stuff like Alex Gordon’s position switch, to lottery tickets like Sal Perez hitting, to micro-events like the distance between Perez’s ground ball and Josh Donaldson’s glove.
When ace pitcher Zack Greinke demanded a trade (bad luck), the Royals preferred a deal with the Nationals before it fell apart when Greinke wouldn’t sign an extension. That led them to a deal with the Brewers that was roundly seen as inferior at the time, but ended up providing Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi, who was a major part of the deal that brought in Wade Davis (good luck).
Already in 2.0, we’ve seen examples on each side. The Royals were fortunate that a trade market developed for Jon Jay, and unfortunate that selling Jose Martinez — defensible as the reasons were at the time — backfired so thoroughly.
4. Get back to an identity.
We touched on this in Part 1 (No. 7) but the Royals must regain focus on who and what they want to be.
They have not been built to maximize their ballpark or market since at least 2016, and maybe 2015. Other than Gordon in left, their outfielders don’t cover enough ground. Other than Gordon and Merrifield, they’re not efficient enough on the bases, though Adalberto Mondesi could change that once he becomes more comfortable. Their defense is average, and the bullpen is underwhelming.
Beyond talent, then, they simply are not focused in the areas they need to be great.
Some of this is inevitable, some of it the nature of baseball’s economics.
The Royals are hitting the right notes in the minor leagues. They prioritize good catching prospects because that helps the pitchers, and strong defensive first basemen because that helps the other infielders. The Kelvin Herrera trade brought back defense and athleticism.
3. Find the next edge
One of the inevitable consequences of the Royals’ success was that it helped push a trend of other organizations copying their path. Relief pitching became more valuable, and athleticism was often prioritized over power.
One of the great challenges, then, will be to find baseball’s next undervalued commodity. This is impossible to predict, but at least at the moment some shifts could be moving advantageously for the Royals — a higher acceptance of strikeouts could mean a wider availability of hitters who put the ball in play, for instance.
This is particularly crucial as the Royals rebuild their farm system. They can emphasize certain traits, but it’s also important to have enough inventory of talent to make trades that will later address specific needs.
2. Maximize the next TV contract.
The 2015 world championship was a remarkable achievement for a thousand reasons, none more significant than the large financial disadvantage from which the franchise operated.
The Royals are in baseball’s third-smallest market (only Milwaukee and Cincinnati are smaller than KC) so this will always be true, but this disadvantage is unnecessarily and severely amplified by an all-time horrible local TV contract that currently pays somewhere around one-third of the market value.
That deal is up after next season, and the current negotiations offer a potentially fascinating window into the future of television, and specifically sports programming. But whatever the specifics about streaming or provider, the Royals should be in line for an average of $40 million or so above their current annual payment.
Not all of that will go to big-league payroll, and again, the Royals will always be at a disadvantage compared to their competition. But it should be a little more honest.
1. The front office must hit the right notes, again.
This is, by far, the most important factor. This is what drove 1.0, and it’s what will make 2.0 thrive or crash.
This group might be baseball’s worst self-promoters. They have only twice interfered with marketing — first in asking veto power over slogans after “Our Time” backfired, and then in squashing a sponsor’s offer to make “Trust The Process” T-shirts after the championship.
Their work, then, must continue to be focused, detailed and unconcerned about credit. The Royals’ leadership group is remarkably similar to the one that led the first rebuild — the GM, director of player personnel, international scouting director, assistant GM, baseball administration director, pro scouting director, amateur scouting director and analytics director are among those with at least seven years in the organization.
They did it once, and earned the benefit of the doubt in trying again. That’s different than a lifetime pass. But it is a good place to start (another) massive rebuild attempt.