Royally Screwed? A Make-or-Break Season for Kansas City
In 2014, the Kansas City Royals became the darlings of the baseball universe with their run to the World Series. After 28 seasons without a playoff appearance, the Royals had finally built themselves into a winner with a combination of successful drafts and savvy trades. They featured a young, athletic, exciting team, which was reminiscent of the base-stealing heyday of the 1980s. On top of that, they were a low-budget underdog story of sorts, battling their way from the Wild Card to the World Series. The 2014 Royals would eventually be defeated by the San Francisco Giants behind the heroics of Madison Bumgarner, but the Royals would return the next season, winning the AL Central on their way to beating the New York Mets in the World Series. From the outside looking in, it appeared that the Royals were set up for long-term success, but they hit a speed bump of sorts in 2016, finishing third in the AL Central and missing the playoffs. Going into the 2017 season, the Royals face a lot of difficult personnel decisions, as their blossoming stars have turned into highly-valued assets.
CORNERSTONES ON THE CORNERS
When the Royals were in the midst of finishing last in the AL Central from 2004–2007, it came with a silver lining, as the Royals were granted a top-three draft pick in each of the following seasons. Their first top-three pick, Alex Gordon in 2005, was coming off of winning the Golden Spikes Award at Nebraska, and was quickly hailed as “the next George Brett.” Gordon struggled to live up to the hype in his first four seasons with Kansas City, but a move to left field coincided with an increase in production at the plate. In the past six seasons as the Royals’ left fielder, Gordon has won four Gold Gloves and appeared in the All Star Game three times. Gordon is locked up with Kansas City for the long term, as he signed a four-year extension leading into the 2016 season with a mutual option for the 2020 season.
The following season, with the first pick of the draft, the Royals drafted righthander Luke Hochevar out of the University of Tennessee by way of the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association. Hochevar was previously drafted by the Dodgers with the 40th pick of 2005, but failed negotiations led to Hochevar’s appearance in the American Association. Hochevar signed with the Royals for a $3.50M signing bonus, which would only be eclipsed in the first round by the signing bonus given to Andrew Miller by the Tigers with the sixth pick. Hochevar would have moderate success as a relief pitcher, but Royals fans have to cringe knowing that he was drafted ahead of guys like Evan Longoria, Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer, just to name guys in the top 11 of that draft. After an up-and-down stay in Kansas City, Hochevar’s contract was bought out by Kansas City, meaning he will hit free agency going into his age-33 season. While the decisions on Gordon and Hochevar are taken care of, the decisions surrounding two of the most popular players, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, are much more difficult for Kansas City.
Moustakas was drafted out of high school with the second pick of the 2007 draft, one pick behind David Price. He would progress steadily through the minors, making his debut in the big leagues in 2011. Moustakas would display a power bat and a steady glove his first full season in 2012 on his way to a WAR of 3.1, which was fifth-best among AL third basemen. Moustakas would struggle to maintain his success over the course of his next two seasons, however, posting an OPS+ of 77 in 2013 and 75 in 2014 (league average OPS+ is 100). Despite his regular-season struggles in the 2014 regular season, Moustakas was a large factor for the Royals in the playoffs, clubbing five homeruns and scoring nine runs on their way to the World Series. He would compound his postseason success by having his best season to date in 2015, hitting 22 homers, registering an OPS+ of 119, and making his first All Star Game appearance. Moustakas would be a major part of the Royals’ efforts to win the World Series, as the Royals defeated the Mets in five games. He would follow that up with a quick start to his 2016, hitting 7 homers in only 113 plate appearances, but his season was cut short on May 22nd as he tore the ACL in his left knee. Moustakas is a free agent after the 2017 season, leaving the Royals in a precarious situation with their longtime third baseman.
In 2008, the Royals would use a similar model as the did in 2007, drafting a high school corner infielder in first baseman Eric Hosmer with the third overall pick in the draft. Hosmer would work his way rather quickly through the Royals’ system, debuting with the big club in May of 2011. He would burst on the scene, hitting 19 homers, posting an OPS+ of 118, and batting .293 at the ripe age of 21. Hosmer would struggle mightily to the tune of a .232 batting average in 2012, but has since become a consistent force in the middle of the Royals’ order. From 2013–2016, Hosmer has posted seasons with an OPS+ 99 or above in each season, collected three Gold Gloves, and made an All Star appearance in 2016. He also is known for one of the more iconic play in recent World Series history, when he ran home to challenge Mets’ first baseman Lucas Duda’s throwing arm to tie Game 5 of the World Series. Following the 2017 season, however, Hosmer is set to hit free agency, leaving the Royals in a similarly precarious position that they face with Moustakas.
In 2009, the Royals won a mere 65 games, but they were led by the eventual Cy Young Award winner in Zack Greinke. He won 16 of his team’s 65 games and posted a 2.16 ERA. Greinke finally maximized his tantalizing potential, and with Kansas City floundering at the bottom of the AL Central, it was a prime time for the Royals to move on from their young ace. In December of 2010, the Royals dealt Greinke to Milwaukee for a four-player package of Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress. Escobar and Cain would make immediate impacts for the Royals, while Jeffress would be designated for assignment in 2012. Odorizzi made a different impact, as he was part of a package along with Wil Myers that would net the Royals both James Shields and Wade Davis in a trade from Tampa Bay. In other words, the trickle-down effect of the Greinke trade led to the Royals to add Escobar, Cain, Shields, and Davis to the core of young players they had acquired through the draft.
Shields would spend two seasons at the top of the Royals’ rotation, stabilizing a rotation that was transitioning into becoming a legitimate major league staff. In 2013 and 2014, Shields posted an ERA of 3.15 and 3.21 respectively, making 34 starts in each season. While Shields provided a consistent force in the regular season for the Royals, he hardly lived up to his “Big Game James” moniker in the postseason. Shields started five games in the postseason, but struggled mightily, including losing both of his starts in the World Series. Following the 2014 season, Shields left the Royals and signed with the Padres in free agency.
After his move to the Royals, Wade Davis went from the story of a failed starting pitching prospect to a successful reclamation project with the Royals. In Davis’ first season with the Royals, he started 24 games, but he posted 5.32 ERA and would be moved to the bullpen full time in 2014. Upon his move to the bullpen, Davis became among the most dominant forces in the MLB, posting three consecutive seasons with an ERA of 1.87 or below. In his first full season as a relief pitcher, Davis posted the fourth-best FIP (1.19, min. 50 IP) in MLB history among relievers. Davis would go onto become a two-time All Star in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately for the Royals, Davis was approaching the same problem as Hosmer and Moustakas: he is entering into free agency after the 2017 season. Upon seeing the market that Davis will command in free agency, the Royals decided to flip Davis to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler this past December.
Escobar would take over as the everyday shortstop for the Royals in 2011, a role he has not relinquished. Despite the fact that he’s only posted an OBP (on-base percentage) over .300 twice in his seven full seasons, Escobar has batted in the top two spots in the order in 43% of his career plate appearances. With a career OBP of .297 with the Royals, Escobar has certainly been underwhelming with his bat. His value, however, lies in his defensive prowess, in which he has posted a positive dWAR (defensive Wins Above Replacement) in all seven of his full seasons. Escobar appeared in his first All Star Game in 2015 and also captured his first Gold Glove. Escobar, the stabilizing force at shortstop for the last six years for Kansas City, will also enter free agency after the 2017 season at the age of 30.
Cain took a little longer than Escobar to establish himself as an everyday player for the Royals, but the results have been significant. In his four seasons as the full time centerfielder for the Royals, Cain has posted an OPS+ of 105, posted a dWAR of 9.1, and posted an overall WAR of 18.4, which is fourth-best among outfielders in that timespan, trailing only Mike Trout (37.1), Starling Marte (20.8), and Andrew McCutchen (18.7). Cain has certainly established himself as a star in the big leagues, but unfortunately for the Royals, he is also heading toward free agency after the next season.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
With Moustakas, Hosmer, Escobar, and Cain heading toward free agency after the next season, the Royals have some very difficult decisions to make. After trading Davis and fan-favorite outfielder Jarrod Dyson, they also acquired pitchers Jason Hammel and Travis Wood. Also, in what can only be classified as a tragedy, the Royals and the world lost young pitcher Yordano Ventura to a car accident in his native Dominican Republic. His untimely death will certainly be a point of much grief and possibly of inspiration going into 2017.
While it may seem morbid to discuss baseball matters following Ventura’s death, the Royals have left themselves in a peculiar situation as they approach the 2017 season. Being just one year removed from a World Series championship, the Royals have obvious means to approach the season viewing themselves as contenders. At the same time, coming off of a third-place finish in the AL Central, a continued regression could quickly turn the Royals into sellers. If they turn into sellers, the question remains, how much do the Royals sell? Do they take a page out of Jeffrey Loria’s book with the 1997–98 Marlins and unload the entire crop of stars, or do they attempt to extend some of these stars at what could potentially be an exorbitant price? Given their previous success with the Greinke trade, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Royals unload a couple of their stars. If I had to guess, Escobar and Moustakas won’t bring back the sort of price they are likely looking for, while trading Hosmer and Cain seems more likely, given their stature in the MLB. This is an interesting time for Royals’ fans, as their team approaches a season that will have a grave impact on the very near future of their roster.
(all statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com)