The Royals Haven’t Learned from the Royals

It was last offseason that the Royals picked up James Shields from the Rays in a controversial blockbuster. The Royals wanted to improve their pitching staff and take big steps toward the playoffs. The Rays were looking to reload with young cost controlled talent, as always, and they saw an offer they couldn’t pass up. Sure enough, the Royals are on pace to be improved by a few games. The Rays, too, are on pace for the same, as they haven’t missed Shields that much. FanGraphs was opposed to the Royals’ side of things, arguing they weren’t good enough to go for broke, and that in order to get better they also subtracted. The Royals, today, are 43-49. This is going to work as our background and setting.

With the trade deadline approaching, teams are having to self-identify as buyers or sellers. At either end, it’s all pretty apparent, but it gets more blurry in the middle, especially what with the still-new extra wild-card slot. Some teams might neither buy nor sell. Some teams might attempt both. You look at the Royals and you’d think they should shed, but talk to Dayton Moore and he’ll tell you you’re wrong. Moore hasn’t thrown in the towel on 2013, and he seems to suggest he’s most interested in adding, adding pieces of immediate value. So, buying. Dayton Moore seems to identify the Royals as a potential buyer.

Before we proceed, a point: this might not be how it actually happens. It’s easy to say things, and there are plenty of reasons for Moore to support his own ballclub in the press. What Moore hasn’t done yet is actually bought, this trading season. The Royals play the Tigers next, and maybe things will become more clear in the coming week and a half. All we have to go on are quotes, and not actions, so it’s important not to make too many presumptuous accusations.

But Moore sure seems sincere, and for evidence of him being an aggressive buyer, just look at a few months ago. Last offseason, Moore had a mediocre team, and he bought. What he has today is a mediocre team, so there’s reason to believe he’ll try to buy again. Or, failing that, he might simply not sell, electing to play out the string with the players he’s got.

A few quotes from the linked article:

“If and whatever we do (in terms of trades), it will be done with the interest of winning more games now. We’re going to keep pushing in all areas to make us a better overall team and ultimately to compete better now.”

“We feel we owe it to the core of players we have signed in the last few years to compete now,” Moore said. “There is a window of opportunity to win for this group, and we’re in the early stages of that window but we’re not going to back off the goal to win.”

Maybe most frighteningly:

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is a world championship,” Moore said. “But how many winning seasons have we had in the last 20 years? Two? We have to overcome that hurdle first and then move past it, and we’re trying to do it as quickly as possible.”

With front offices, what’s equally as interesting as the moves is the thinking behind them. For Royals fans, that last quote should be unsettling, because it reveals a poor understanding of progression. You don’t have to build an 81-win team before you build a 91-win team. A winning season should never be the goal. The goal should be to have a playoff season, or, failing that, a season that sets you up to have a playoff season in the nearer future. The way Moore has behaved and continues to behave, it looks like he’s trying to build an average team first, and a good team won’t necessarily follow from that, because too much might end up having been sacrificed. This is a worry.

The Royals tried. Good for them, I suppose. It got people excited. It certainly got people stirred up. The Royals didn’t make themselves a playoff team, but they forced people to think about the playoffs, and the Royals maybe being in them, and so Dayton Moore made people talk. But this team hasn’t taken a step forward. Not one that’s big enough. Last year’s Royals finished with 29 WAR, and this year’s are on pace for 34 WAR, and they’re eight back in the American League Central, and they’re 9.5 back of the wild card. And while you could say the Royals haven’t hit their stride, it’s not like projections are in love with the bunch.

Check out the projected standings page. The Royals, the rest of the way, are projected for a .475 winning percentage. That’s third-worst in the AL, ahead of only the Twins and the Astros. The Royals, somehow, are projected to be a little worse than the White Sox, and while things are unlikely to play out that way since the White Sox intend to sell, this isn’t empty, nonsensical information. The Royals aren’t bad. The Royals aren’t good. The Royals aren’t making the playoffs.

So you think the offense can be better? The Royals have a team .300 wOBA. They’re projected the rest of the way for a .313 wOBA, which would represent a 30-run improvement or so. Offensive improvement is factored into the Royals’ projected record, which is not a good one. It’s one that’s worse than the Mariners’ projected record. The Mariners, too, refuse to acknowledge their position as should-be sellers, and there are a lot of parallels between Dayton Moore and Jack Zduriencik, but that isn’t a good thing for either one.

The Royals don’t have a good baseball team. They tried to build one, and they failed, building instead a half-decent baseball team that’s a tiny bit better than its current record. Shields has pitched like they wanted him to pitch, so he hasn’t been the problem, but the roster around him has been the problem, which is what people expected to be the case. The bullpen is talented, and the rotation has a horse, and the defense is outstanding, but the pitching depth isn’t there and the hitting depth definitely isn’t there. The Royals were not hard to see coming. What many saw coming, came.

It’s tantalizingly easy to build a case for optimism. Eric Hosmer is showing signs of improvement. Mike Moustakas is too talented, and Danny Duffy is pitching again, and Felipe Paulino is in the process of trying to pitch again, and if things come together, the Royals can pull off an extended hot streak. In isolation, it’s true, the Royals could have a big second half. The problem is that these things don’t work in isolation, and you could make the same or a better case for almost every other team in the league. Every team has things that could break right. The Royals aren’t the only team performing below its ceiling. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s worth clinging to, even if that means admitting a mistake.

And that’s what Moore and the Royals need to do. They need to admit to their mistakes and try to patch things up. Not with the short-term in mind — with the organization’s best interests in mind, extending well into the future. Sometimes it can be admirable when somebody sticks to his guns. Other times it can be stupidly, off-puttingly stubborn, and if you think one thing, and then circumstances aren’t what you expected, it’s perfectly okay to say, “hey, that was wrong.” It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of awareness, and if the Royals won’t acknowledge their own reality, then only deeper still could they dig.

Mountain climbers can ambitiously set their sights on the summit. In the event of changing weather conditions, the right thing to do is turn around and go back to safety. The stubborn thing to do is to press on, and that’s how a lot of people die on mountains. Dayton Moore isn’t going to die, and maybe he’s afraid that admitting to a mistake will deal a blow to his job security, but if he keeps insisting that these are the playoff Royals, he could deal an even bigger blow to his career. He’s already given up major pieces, and the foundation isn’t as strong as Moore seems to think.

It ought to be a no-brainer for the Royals to trade Ervin Santana. He’s a free-agent-to-be, and performance-wise he’s turned back the clock, and the alternative is that the Royals hang on and turn Santana into a compensation draft pick. By trade, they could do better, and they could also conceivably save some money. It would be interesting, albeit ballsy, if the Royals considered putting Greg Holland on the market. Luke Hochevar could be dealt. Most significantly, the Royals could think about dangling Shields, either now or in the offseason or both. Shields is a year and change away from free agency, and he’s not the kind of guy the Royals should be expected to re-sign, at least not to a deal that makes sense for their payroll. Zack Greinke got Jean Segura when he was only months away. Shields himself — and Wade Davis — got the package that the Royals just gave up. There’s the possibility that Moore could get back almost as much as he lost. He might even be able to get back more, ultimately coming out ahead. That depends in part on what you think of Wil Myers.

Moore is committing himself to this team, and to his understanding of this team’s window, but this team’s window isn’t now, and to be honest it probably isn’t 2014. With a few more additions, the Royals might turn into a playoff team next year, but at what long-term cost? It’s almost impossible to see the Royals emerging as one of the league’s best in 2014, given what they have left in the minors and given their budgetary constraints. So maybe, a year from now, the Royals could be a playoff underdog. Then what? If it’s 2013 and 2014 or bust, 2013 is already basically shot, and the Royals have as much chance in 2014 as the Mariners do. Should the Mariners try to put everything they have in that one basket?

Short-term interests are short-term interests, and while sometimes it makes sense to give up long-term value for short-term improvements, the Royals aren’t in that situation. They weren’t in that situation last winter. This is the critical point for Dayton Moore to finally accept: as talented as he thinks the Royals are, other teams exist, too, and many of them are at least equally talented. What the Royals aren’t is unusually talented, and it’s hard to see how they’d get to that point. If the Royals were to reverse course now, it might let some people down, but it could help the Royals in a few years. If they keep trying to make this work, they might just burn up all their fuel.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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