Stuck between a rock and last place: Why the Royals will struggle to improve

Stuck between a rock and last place: Why the Royals will struggle to improve


To say expectations for the 2018 Kansas City Royals were low prior to Opening Day would be an understatement.

The team was coming off of its first losing record since 2012 and had just lost a handful of stars to free agency — including all-star first baseman Eric Hosmer. Kansas City also had a slightly tougher schedule, even if it came with the caveat of playing in the weakest division in baseball.

The Royals are currently on pace to lose 112 games, which would rank as the worst finish in franchise history and sixth-worst in modern MLB history

That record would bring six more losses than the historically bad 2005 Royals team that won just 56 games, endured a 19-game losing streak and named three different managers during the season.

Fans of the 2005 squad would be stuck in a type of baseball purgatory for the next seven years. The Royals were neither improving nor getting worse, averaging just over 93 losses per year and lacking the strong prospect pipeline needed to take that next step towards fielding a successful club.

Much to the chagrin of Kansas City faithful in 2018, this club may be headed in the same direction.

Most teams posting 100-loss seasons are rebuilding, pumping their farm systems full of high-potential prospects that can make a lasting impact once they’re promoted from Triple-A ball.

The Royals haven’t placed a single athlete in the MLB “top prospect” listings during this season, including the separate list of 97 projected pitchers that’s collected by the league.

For context, three other AL Central teams currently have at least four players on the lists. The exception is Cleveland, who has one, but is also in contention for their third consecutive division title and has either developed or traded their young talent to field a winning club.

Even within Kansas City’s own farm system, the team’s top prospects aren’t expected to make any kind of impact until at least 2020.

Within the top 10 players listed, only two are above the Royals’ Class A-Advanced league affiliate in Wilmington.

One is Khalil Lee, a third-round pick in the 2016 draft who’s second on the Royals’ watchlist and was recently promoted to the Double-A affiliate in Arkansas.

The other is Nicky Lopez, who was taken in the fifth round of that same draft after attending Creighton University. He was sent up to Omaha following a promising .331 average through 281 at-bats in the Double-A league.

It’s hard to say how far down the front office will reach when picking players for the expanded roster this fall, however Lopez is the player most likely to spend a portion of his season at the MLB level.

The other options for teams to improve lies in free agency and trading. While acquiring two or three superstars in one offseason is a strategy that has worked well for teams with massive

budgets such as the Cubs and Yankees, that’s not a luxury that the mid-market Royals hold. Even if they did, it would be hard to say it’s the right move for a rebuilding team.

Last offseason, the 98-loss Giants attempted to fix an aging core by promising a combined $101.85 million to Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson. Jackson has since been traded to the Mets, McCutchen is posting the lowest batting splits of his career and the Giants are currently three games under .500, all but eliminated from playoff contention. The strategy has only proven to be somewhat effective when a team already has those strong building blocks from their farm system in place at the major league level, most recently the Cubs and Yankees.

With that said, the Royals aren’t far below the league average in payroll ($138.3 million) and will have enough flexibility to make smaller moves like re-signing shortstop Alcides Escobar or adding some depth to a struggling pitching staff should they choose to do so.

It’s easy to critique the Royals’ front office, managers and players for the team’s performance and lack of investment in their future.

However, it would be hard to find a fan in Kansas City who wasn’t smiling, crying or a combination of the two as Ned Yost and company hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy high into the New York sky.

Ultimately, this is the aftermath of mid-market success. It is a flash in the night—it is quick, bright and fleeting. The window of success is tight for teams outside of a large market to field a dominant team and even tighter for those teams to win a World Series title. Once the contracts expire and the requested salaries increase, that window is gone.

So while a city waits patiently for its team to return to the fall classic, they can rest easy knowing that there is another window waiting to be pried open somewhere down the road. Until then? I’m told the tailgating down in the parking lot of 1 Royal Way is just fine.

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