Is a rebuild in the cards for the Kansas City Royals after losing All-Star Eric Hosmer to the San Diego Padres?
It’s a tale as old as time — or at least as old as the billion-dollar television deal. Small-market team flounders for several years. Small-market team gets smart, stops trying to win with mid-tier free agents and commits to developing through the draft. Small-market team becomes a winner for the first time in over two decades.
Then, the tragic fall. Small-market team’s homegrown players hit free agency.
The Kansas City Royals were less than irrelevant from their World Series title in 1985 to a return to their dramatic return to the postseason in 2014. Thirteen times between 1985 and 2014, the Royals lost over 90 games. They lost over 100 games four times. After numerous failed rebuilds, Kansas City finally struck gold with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon and a dominant crop of failed starters turned shutdown relievers.
A multi-year rebuild culminated in back-to-back trips to the World Series and a title in 2015 for the Royals. After the dust settled on the World Series win, the Royals were left with two more cracks at it before Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain would get their chance to test free agency. The front office, never known for spending, drove payroll up exponentially. Alex Gordon and Ian Kennedy got the two biggest contracts in franchise history. The Royals spent nearly $160 million on their roster for 2017 and won only 80 games while refusing to trade any of their pending free agents.
Last summer was the ultimate worst-case scenario for the Royals. They weren’t quite good enough to make the playoffs, but they were good enough to stick around the fringes of contention. The second Wild Card will prove time and again a mirage in the shimmering desert for small-market teams who feel pressure to go for every possible playoff berth like it’s their last. The Royals should have held an everything-must-go clearance sale at the deadline and restocked their farm system. Instead, they are left to pick up the pieces with a pittance of compensatory picks that were devalued significantly by the last CBA.
A full rebuild must be the next step for the Royals. Attempting to cobble together an 83-win team with the leftover scraps of their roster and mid-tier free agents would be the worst possible move right now. The Cleveland Indians are set up to win the AL Central for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins are done with their rebuild and moving into their window of contention with an exciting young roster. The Chicago White Sox have one of the deepest farm systems in the league, specifically because they decided not to chase 80-win seasons.
Every team in Major League Baseball has gotten smarter in the age of analytics and Big Data. A small-market team like the Royals plays on a razor’s edge when it comes to keeping up with the big boys, who now have superior player-development systems and scouting departments to go along with their outsized MLB payrolls. Some of the best farm systems in the league now belong to the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Washington Nationals. Being smarter is no longer enough of an edge to keep teams like the Royals in a position to win year after year.
The Royals hit their window perfectly, with almost every single thing going right along the way. What has to come next is a realization that things were good while they lasted, but this window is firmly slammed shut. The farm system, which no longer boasts a single top-100 prospect, must now be the focus. In some ways, losing Hosmer and Company was the best possible thing for this franchise because it will force them to accept the writing on the wall in a way that was impossible with emotions running high in the middle of last season. Royals fans, don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.