We’ve reached the All-Star break, and the Royals have an interesting decision to make in a few weeks. Actually, since real-life trades are complicated, they probably have to make it sooner. There will be plenty of discussion on whether the Royals should make some moves to go for a playoff berth or not, or even trade away pieces to reload a bit. Heck, our own David Lesky and Clark Fosler have weighed in recently. Me, I’m on #TeamStandPat.
There actually is an interesting discussion to be had on the wisdom of selling. Core pieces like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain can be free agents after the 2017 season. Trading them now would likely bring back some very nice prospects. For example, think back to when the Royals traded Zack Greinke, acquiring two key pieces of future World Series teams (Cain and Alcides Escobar, plus Jake Odorizzi, who became a piece in the James Shields/Wade Davis trade). With the current farm system devoid of a lot of high-end talent (especially guys who are ready to make an impact in 2018), one could make a case for reloading for the future.
However, that discussion is moot. The Royals are about 99.99% unlikely to do such a thing. And I wouldn’t want them to, either. They still have an opportunity to do great things next year. I think it would be a mistake to throw that away for prospects and the potential to win in, say, 2020. Keep the core intact for next year, hope for better health, and see what you can accomplish.
Then there’s the “go for it” option. Normally, I would be on board with this. The Royals did that last year in spectacular fashion, acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to fortify a team that was already cruising to a division title. I will always believe that Flags Fly Forever, so I don’t care if Sean Manaea, Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, and Cody Reed go on to become Hall of Famers. What the Royals did in late July last year was both awesome and the right thing to do.
This year, I have my doubts. For one thing, I’m not sold on this team being a playoff team. Certainly, they are “in the hunt” for a wild-card spot, at least. And yes, if they got to the playoffs, I think they’d be dangerous, for the same reasons they were successful in the postseason the last two years. But they are fighting with eight teams for two wild-card spots. Frankly, I’m not convinced the Royals are better than Boston or Toronto (or Baltimore, currently leading the AL East by a slim margin over those two). But for the sake of argument, let’s say that those eight teams are all roughly equal. That means a 25% chance of getting into a one-game playoff, which is basically a 50% chance of advancing to the next round. By my math, that’s a 12.5% chance of making it to the “real” playoffs. Is that worth giving up Raul Mondesi or Jorge Bonifacio? I don’t think it is.
And I’m not even sure this team is a playoff-caliber team, or that they can become one with the potential additions out there. Keep in mind that this team has been outscored by 26 runs this year. They are next to last in the league in runs scored. They are last in the league in home runs and walks, and 11th in slugging percentage. That means their nice team batting average (.272, second in the league) doesn’t mean a lot because they just can’t convert those singles into runs. But hey, they don’t lead the league in grounding into double plays. No, they’re only in third place there.
And that doesn’t even address the rotation, which might be a bigger problem. Really, figuring out which one is the bigger problem depends on the day, since the Royals rarely get a good starting pitching performance combined with an offensive explosion. But this team has one reliable starting pitcher: Danny Duffy. Forget finding a dependable fifth starter; this team needs two or even three starters, really. Edinson Volquez, Ian Kennedy, and Yordano Ventura have all had their moments this year; they’ve also had plenty of moments where the other team was teeing off. I feel like that trio should be better than what they’ve shown, but here we are in mid-July and the trio’s combined ERA is 4.86.
I just don’t see the fixes for these problems being available on the trade market. Josh Reddick would help the offense, especially the on-base percentage, but keep in mind he’s hit five home runs this year in 213 plate appearances and is coming off a potentially power-sapping thumb injury. Ryan Braun, Jay Bruce, and Carlos Gonzalez figure to be too expensive in prospects and probably dollars. On the pitching side, I don’t know. Rich Hill? Jeremy Hellickson? Ervin Santana? They’re all having good seasons. I have my doubts about whether they put the Royals in the driver’s seat for a playoff race. Santana might be the most reliable, but that means adding $13.5 million to the payroll for the next two seasons. Plus the sheer number of potential playoff teams is going to drive up the prospect price for all these players, possibly to a point where they really aren’t worth it.
I have two caveats to this stance: first, if the Royals come out of the break and win, say, 12 of the 16 games before the trade deadline, then I would support them adding pieces. But right now I just don’t see the upside in this team giving up valuable prospects for a slim chance at the postseason. They’ve been to two World Series in a row, and while playoff baseball is certainly addictive, it would be hard to find fault with the organization if they don’t make it this year. Injuries and unpredictably bad performances have really hurt the Royals, and it’s hard to fault anyone for that. And also, if they make a move that adds a controllable piece that fixes one of their problems for the next few years (think Sonny Gray or Julio Teheran), that’s a different story.
I think the smartest thing the Royals can do now is get an extended look at Mondesi, Bonifacio, Hunter Dozier, Alec Mills, and maybe even Matt Strahm at the major-league level. That gives the Royals a head start on their plans for 2017. That’s big, because this offseason will be crucial with the current championship window looking to close or at least narrow a lot after next year. And given what we’ve seen from in-season additions (Cheslor Cuthbert, Brett Eibner, and Whit Merrifield) from the farm system this year, perhaps some of the solutions to the Royals’ problems are right under their noses.
Photo credit: Jake Roth, USA Today Sports