Three years ago, the Royals were running away with the AL Central and were just three months from winning a World Series. Today, the Royals are one of baseball’s worst teams and are the subject of ire from many. I don’t provide that timeline to shame those disagreeing with the Royals strategy based on how recently they won the World Series, but rather to show how fast things can change. Also, it’s to show how really short a window they had in their championship run. And also to maybe try and understand the philosophy the Royals seem to be taking.
When the Royals had the best farm system in the game in 2011, it was believed they were a couple years away from being competitive. I remember Jon Heyman saying the best team in spring training in 2011 was the 2013 Royals. I’m not sure why that sticks with me so much, but it does. Why, if the farm system was so good and loaded with such elite talent, would it take a minimum of two years before they were especially good? Young players don’t always hit the ground running like many hope or expect, and that’s where I think the Royals are trying to alter the timeline a bit with their moves over the last few weeks.
When the season started, the common refrain about the Royals system (other than it being horrible) was that there was just no upper level talent in the system. When the season began, the Royals top three prospects according to the mothership were in A-ball. On the mid-season Baseball America list, seven of the top 10 are currently in A-ball or lower at the time of the ranking. But you get it. The talent in the system is almost exclusively in the lower levels.
Since the start of the season, the system has made some big strides for a few reasons. One, their draft focusing so heavily on college pitching has evened up the offensive and pitching prospects in the system. And two, a good chunk of their prospects have taken big steps forward this season.
Nicky Lopez is now in Triple-A Omaha and hasn’t missed a beat. After hitting .331/.397/.416 in Double-A, he’s been even better since his promotion, hitting .320/.417/.495. Khalil Lee who just turned 20 a few weeks ago is now at Northwest Arkansas. He hasn’t been great in his first exposure to the Texas League, but he’s held his own well enough. Seuly Matias has been hot and currently has a shot to break the Sally League home run record. He’s at 31 after another one last night. There’s more, too. MJ Melendez has shown impressive power I don’t think we expected. Brewer Hicklen is putting his name on the map. Kyle Isbel, a draftee with all those pitchers, has been just ridiculous and is now in Low-A doing damage there.
And no, it’s not all cinnamon and rainbows, but there’s been far more good to the 2018 season from the prospect ranks than bad. And this is where I actually really like a lot of what Dayton Moore has done and where I at least think I understand the method to his madness.
Even with all the progression in the low minors from these guys, the upper level talent is still very thin. And over the past three months, the Royals have brought in Rosell Herrera, who was a top-100 prospect prior to the 2014 season (yes, that’s a long time ago) and was hitting .278/.366/.566 in Omaha after hitting .267/.320/.500 in Louisville in the Reds organization. They traded for Brian Goodwin, also a top-100 prospect prior to the 2014 season (yes, still a long time ago) who hit .251/.313/.498 in the big leagues last season and is under team control through 2022. And then they traded their best remaining trade chips for Brett Phillips, a top-100 prospect prior to the 2018 season (yes this one) who hit .305/.377/.567 in the minors (yes in Colorado Springs) last year and .276/.351/.448 in the big leagues last season. This year has been a tougher go for him, but the energy he brings along with the potential is hard to ignore. And he’s under team control through 2023.
So, along with Nicky Lopez and the current crew at the big league level, it appears the Royals now have the opportunity to go through this next group of prospects more in waves than the previous core. Then, they had a lot of success bringing everyone up together and winning at every level and all that, but there was an abrupt end to the winning when they all became free agents at the same time. And, as I alluded to before, they all had to learn at the big league level at the same time. Here’s how I can see it shaking out now that there is some talent spread throughout the organization. Obviously not everyone will make it, but this is kind of the timeline I could see happening.
Whit Merrifield, Danny Duffy, Salvador Perez, Jorge Bonifacio, Adalberto Mondesi, Brian Goodwin, Brett Phillips, Rosell Herrera, Jorge Soler
Nicky Lopez, Josh Staumont, Cam Gallagher, Richard Lovelady
Khalil Lee, Kelvin Gutierrez, Kyle Isbel, Blake Perkins, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Gerson Garabito
2021 and Beyond
Seuly Matias, MJ Melendez, Michael Gigliotti, Nick Pratto, Emmanuel Rivera, Kyle Bubic, Jonathan Bowlan, Carlos Hernandez, Yefri Del Rosario, 2019 draft picks
Again, some will miss, some might move faster and some might appear who we aren’t even thinking about, but I believe this is the Royals thought process here. While it’s not exactly what I’d have likely done, I think there’s some logic to it. The talking points we’ve heard from Dayton Moore are that he’s embarrassed about this season and is trying to make the 2019 club better, which doesn’t sound great because who cares about the 2019 club? But at the same time, I do believe it’s in the team’s best interest to have some established players in the big leagues when their next core starts to come to the big leagues.
It will be nice if Phillips or Goodwin or Herrera or whoever is in the big leagues and playing well when Lee comes up so he doesn’t have to hit second right away. Or if Merrifield is there so Isbel can slide into that role with a little less fanfare. I think that’s the thought process here.
I have some big-time doubts about whether or not this will work, but I can at least see what the Royals are trying to do and I’m not sure it won’t work either. Ultimately, the longish-term fate of the organization rests in the hands of the guys who aren’t going to be counted on now or next year and maybe not even in 2020. If they work out, this all likely works out. If they don’t, well, it doesn’t matter what the Royals do to bridge the gap. But I think I see their plan at least and I don’t think it’s as crazy as it might appear on the surface even if I’d be far more focused on 2021 and beyond than they seem to be right now.