At the beginning of the 2017 season, the Royals went through an offensive funk you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Well, maybe the Yankees. Anyway, the drumbeat began then, increasing in volume with every strikeout, popup, and weak grounder.
Sell. Sell. Sellsellsell!
After 30 games, the Royals were 10-20 and had scored a grand total of 82 runs. Comparisons to the 2003 Detroit Tigers were being made. For the unfamiliar, you don’t want to be compared to that team. It looked like a long, miserable summer ahead.
Then the offense awakened. For two months, the Royals were a good team. They went 34-20, scoring 273 runs in those 54 games. Admittedly, they allowed 252 runs in those games, so if you go by their Pythagorean record, they were more of a 29-25 team. But we all know the standings don’t pay attention to that, and this bunch of Royals has a history of outperforming that formula. Now the summer seemed promising and fun. The drumbeat softened, then disappeared altogether.
Until this last week. A three-game sweep by the Dodgers is really nothing to get upset about. The Dodgers are 66-29 and running away with their division, and look like the best team in the National League for sure. Yeah, the Royals had a good chance to win one of those three games but when a team is on fire like that, they will pick up comeback wins. More concerning is the fact the Royals have come out of the All-Star Break stumbling and bumbling, losing two close games to Texas and getting blown out by Detroit in two straight. Did I mention those were home games? Not good. Not a good look. The drumbeat gets louder, becoming deafening as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Trade anything that’s not nailed down for whatever prospects you can get! Blow it up! SELLSELLSELL!
But I’m here to defend not selling. I would not defend standing pat, as the Royals have proven over 94 games that they are mediocre in their current state and not really a playoff team at the moment. But if the Royals want to make trades that improve the current team, I’m all for it. And I think selling off would be a mistake.
The first reason is that this mediocrity has not been achieved in a vacuum. Check the AL Central standings. Cleveland should be better, but they appear to be suffering a wicked post-World Series hangover. At 48-45, they stand just 1.5 games ahead of the Royals. The Twins are a surprise team, but they are just 48-46, nestled a half-game behind Cleveland and one ahead of the Royals. We are almost four months into this season. Neither team has shown the Royals any reason to simply concede the division title. With 10 games left against Cleveland and seven against Minnesota, it’s difficult for me to say the Royals are out of contention. Heck, the second wild-card team right now is the Yankees, with the same 48-45 record the Indians have. Yes, the Royals have been thoroughly average this year, and yet they are one good week away from being in a playoff spot.
The second reason to not sell is that, even if the Royals keep their impending free agents and still miss the playoffs, they won’t go away empty-handed. They will receive some very nice consolation prizes in the form of draft picks next year. Baseball changed the rules on draft-pick compensation last offseason, but free agents who receive contracts with a total value of more than $50 million still net their old team a compensation pick after the first round. I would say Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas are good bets to do just that, assuming none take the reported $18 million qualifying offer the Royals would have to give them first. The Royals could be looking at four picks in the top 40-45 spots in the 2018 draft. That can boost a farm system quickly, just as trading away those players can. Sure, they probably won’t get any draft-pick compensation for free agents like Jason Vargas or Alcides Escobar, but I wonder how much they would get in a trade for them anyway.
Which leads to my next point: the relatively low return they would probably get. There seems to be an assumption that teams will be willing to hand over their almost major-league ready top prospects for two months of a Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, or Vargas. I’m not sure I agree with that outlook. Teams are increasingly less likely to trade guys who are almost ready to contribute in the majors relatively cheaply. Consider the trades that have happened in the last few days. The Cubs got Jose Quintana for four minor-leaguers. All four are in Class A leagues. The Yankees got Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle for three minor-leaguers and major-leaguer Tyler Clippard. All three of those minor-leaguers are in Class A. Washington got two relievers for a major-leaguer and two minor leaguers. Again, both minor leaguers are in Class A. Finally, Arizona got Royal-killer J.D. Martinez from Detroit for three minor-leaguers. At last, we have our first player who is currently in Class AA! But the other two are still in Class A. Even if the Royals do sell, I think it’s safe to say they will not be receiving an impact player for 2018. Or 2019. And as they seem unready to do a complete teardown (remember, key players like Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez are going to be here a while longer), there seems little difference to me in acquiring players who are years away from the majors this July or next June in the draft. It’s going to be a while before the next big wave of talent either way.
That’s one problem with selling. The other is that the players involved in these trades so far have been, well, not really top prospects. Here’s the Baseball Prospectus Midseason Top 50 ranking. One of those players has been involved in these trades. That’s Eloy Jimenez, going from the Cubs’ system to the White Sox. And while he looks like a top prospect, he’s still in Class A ball and projects to be a power-hitting right fielder type. There’s a lot that could go wrong there (admittedly, there’s a lot that could go right there). It’s true that some of the other minor-leaguers involved in these trades are in the middle tier of prospects. But would the Royals get a better return? It’s hard to argue that they would. Vargas is certainly having a better year than Quintana. He’s also six years older and hasn’t been as durable as Quintana. Also, Quintana could be under team control through 2020. Moustakas would be more valuable than Frazier, but the Yankees also got a couple of very good relievers in that deal. As for Hosmer, how many other contenders really need a first baseman? The Yankees, maybe the Twins, perhaps the Red Sox. It’s a limited market, and the fact they’d be dealing with teams with nearly the same record says it’s a bit silly. And to me, Cain seems like the sort of player best appreciated over a full season—he’s probably not going to carry your offense for two weeks, but he does many little things so well his value is in being consistent. Not that he’s not terrific or an upgrade for someone, just that he might not fetch as much as he should in return.
The flip side of this is that the Royals don’t have any prospects I would be incredibly upset to lose, and if they can fill a hole or two on the major league roster relatively cheaply, they should do it.
And finally, there’s the sentimental reason. I admit sentiment is no way to run a baseball team, but on the other hand Dayton Moore has definitely tried to create a family atmosphere in the organization ever since he took over. That’s why this core group seems so close-knit. Even if he should trade off these impending free agents (of course, I don’t think he should), it’s unlikely he would. And I’m OK with that. You could say that, since this is the group that finally broke through and turned the franchise from laughingstock to champions, they deserve one more chance at postseason glory.
Here’s hoping they get that chance. Based on the arguments I laid out above, the holes on this team could be easily patched up at not much cost. That’s much more fun than breaking up this team.