The trade deadline approacheth, and with it, clarity on several of the unsettled parts of the current season. Whether a team brings in new players or sends away old ones shows us what they think of their own 2017, and how they value whatever chance of playoff success they have. Much of the insight we have into the differences between the Rays and the Blue Jays, for example, comes from their different behavior around the trade deadline.
As a result, the trade deadline is also an opportunity for fans and analysts to try and articulate alternate strategies that they think teams should be pursuing. Most often, this comes in the form of an argument that a certain team should be buying or selling, and prioritizing the present or planning for the future, respectively.
This season, one of the (several) teams without an obvious strategy — asking themselves how plausible their shot at the Wild Card is, what their farm system and roster situation will look like over the next few years — is the Royals. And most analysts have urged Kansas City to sell, including my colleagues here at BtBS.
The argument in favor of an immediate rebuild for the Royals can be summed up in a single graph:
That is a graph of FanGraphs’ estimate of each team’s shot at the playoffs, starting at day one of the season and continuing through the present. At the top of the chart are the three division leaders — Houston, Boston, and Cleveland — followed by the Yankees, who look likely to grab the first Wild Card. The eleven other teams in the AL form the tangled knot between 0 and 25 percent; the Royals are the light blue team, at the bottom of the first cluster. As I’m writing this, FanGraphs estimates that Kansas City has a 16.6 percent shot at either winning the AL Central or playing in a Wild Card game. It gives them exactly a 1.0 percent chance at making the World Series.
Those aren’t great odds, the argument goes, and a lot of things would have to go right for the Royals to make good on them. And the impending departure of much of the Royals’ core — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Lorenzo Cain all are free agents after this season — means that, if the Royals did choose not to play for 2017, they’d have some contracts to sell. It’s the standard, tear-it-down-and-rebuild-for-the-future plan.
But the Royals have said they intend to compete for 2017. It’s of course possible that the front office is merely trying to solicit better offers from other teams, and that a sale will actually happen, but at least publicly, they’re declaring a desire not to sell. And I think that’s the right call.
The goal of a team is not to win the World Series, despite what most players would tell you. That’s certainly a goal of every team, but it’s subsidiary to the main goal: to entertain. MLB teams exist to serve the fans. Their goal is to turn us out to the ballpark, to have us tune into the pregame on the drive home from work, to build a habit in us of buying the paper every morning and flipping back to the box scores, to engage us in whatever way they can.
And that means more than one team succeeds in any given season. The Cubs were not the only successful team in 2016, and 2016 was not their only successful season since 1908. Success can come from a September playoff push that ultimately comes up short, or a faster-than-expected progression down on the farm, or a 21-year-old rookie debut that ignites imagination and hope, or a single effervescent superstar who turns in a once-in-a-decade season.
That doesn’t mean teams should never rebuild. There’s nothing fun or successful about a team mired in poor performance, with no revitalization in sight. But too often, when talking about the calculus teams face around the trade deadline (and in the offseason), we focus on the playoffs, as if they’re the only source of team success. These decisions have to take into account the other ways we enjoy baseball, and engage with our chosen teams.
That brings us back to the Royals. The playoff-focused argument for rebuilding is pretty ironclad. But its scope is too narrow. The Royals are just a half-game back of the second Wild Card slot, and even if their roster is likely not strong enough to maintain or build on that position, they are well set up for a thrilling second half of the summer. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind anybody about 2014 and 2015, years when a “likely not strong enough” roster got a few lucky breaks and ended up with a World Series appearance in one year and a championship in the next. A one-in-100 chance at making the World Series does not translate into a one-in-100 chance of a successful summer. Even if the Royals don’t add any pieces at this deadline, and simply choose not to send anyone away, they probably have an exciting few months ahead of them.
And there’s a cost to pulling the trigger on a rebuild, even beyond the impact on this summer. The three main pieces the Royals have to offer to other teams have an outsized impact on Kansas City’s identity and notion of itself. Cain was traded to the team after his debut season, and Hosmer and Moustakas were drafted and developed by the Royals. Each of them played a central role in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Hosmer has bought drinks for a not-insignificant portion of KC’s population, and has made it clear that he wants to stay with the team.
Sending the remaining half-season of those players to other teams might bring back the Royals a prospect or two, but probably no household names. While keeping the band together for one last push might not yield a ring, it will ensure one more half-season of excitement.
All this, of course, depends on what kind of offers the Royals get for their players. Front office strategies can’t be stagnant, and must constantly be adjusting to new information. But that information has to include all forms of success. The Royals might not be en route to another World Series, or even another playoff birth, but they are in the midst of a classic, thrilling season of meaningful baseball, and they shouldn’t abandon that any sooner than necessary.
Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.