Regroup, Not Rebuild

There is just over 40 percent of the season remaining. The Royals currently have 48 wins against 49 losses. There are nine teams in the American League with more wins. They are currently in third place in the AL Central, closer to fourth place than to second. To grab the second Wild Card spot, they would have to leapfrog five teams. The trade deadline looms.

The Royals have been in this position before.

In 2014, through 97 games, the Royals had the exact same record as they do now. Yep, 48-49. Then, as now, they were in third place in the Central. Then, almost as now, they had to pass four teams to get into position for the second Wild Card.

The difference is the distance between the Royals and the rest of the pack. At this point in 2014, the Royals were 3.5 games behind Seattle for that Wild Card spot. Now? They’re chasing Toronto and are six games back. The additional 2.5 games and the extra team they have to pass to get into position is a big difference.

With the core of this team signed through 2017, this presents the Royals with an opportunity not to rebuild, but to reload. It’s time to take a step back and prepare not for the upcoming stretch run, but for the next season. The Royals front office will never come out and say it, but they have an opportunity to strengthen their team for the future without sacrificing the present.

I’m not entirely certain we’ve seen a team in the position the Royals are in. They have assets to trade, but their most valuable ones are key to the team making another push. Guys like Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez could bring back some big time prospects, but to deal off those bats, the Royals would be positioning themselves for 2020, not 2017. And when you think the landscape is favorable for another run (and the Royals front office certainly feels this way) it doesn’t make sense to trade the strongest assets.

That leaves the Royals with some interesting decisions on players not under contract beyond this season. Edinson Volquez has been linked to the Rangers and will probably be tied to another five to 10 teams before this week is over. Kendrys Morales is a valuable bat, and as we’ve seen, isn’t exactly a liability with the glove either. He makes sense for just about every American League team that’s not the Red Sox. The Royals could also look to move a relief pitcher or two. Lord knows those kind of guys are always in demand as the contenders look to shore up leaky bullpens.

The 2016 Royals simply aren’t good enough. The starting pitching is thin, with the back end of the rotation undermining the efforts of the front. Overall, their 4.97 ERA is 13th in the AL. Then, on those occasions they get a positive effort from a starter, their offense often fails. They are scoring 3.98 runs per game, tied with Tampa for the worst run production in the league and over a half run worse than league average.

Everyone has theories why this is so. (My advice to you is to avoid the Royals Facebook page. Holy moly.) There is plenty of time to dissect the whys and the hows, but the general reason is not atypical: Injuries and underperformance. The Royals were going for their third consecutive AL pennant. That’s extremely difficult to accomplish. Since the introduction of divisional play in 1969, it’s happened five times that an organization has won three straight AL pennants. It’s happened just twice since 1979. (It hasn’t happened in the NL. Not one team has reeled off three consecutive World Series appearances.)

The above isn’t presented as an excuse. Rather it’s a point that even the strongest teams hit obstacles they can’t overcome. Maybe the 2016 Royals aren’t the strongest team. It’s probably the most flawed club since the playoff run started. Still, those injuries and an unexpectedly thin starting rotation are so difficult to overcome.

So it’s come to this. The Royals are in a position not to tear down their team and start from scratch, rather they will look to the short term. The focus shifts, but not too far down the road. With a couple of smart deals now and some more maneuvering this winter, the Royals can be back in contention.

Next season starts this week.

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