By Cliff Corcoran
The Royals have a big problem. They've been winning. A lot.
When they opened the season by winning just 10 of their first 30 games, quickly sinking to the bottom of the American League Central standings, the path forward seemed clear. But now, they've turned their season around by playing .614 ball over the past 44 games to pull within two games of the overachieving Twins in the AL Wild Card race, and within two games in the loss column of the first-place, division-favorite Indians.
The Trade Deadline is just over a month away, and the Royals need to decide if they are buyers or sellers. A month and a half ago, Kansas City looked like an obvious seller, not only because of its poor start and resultantly bleak outlook, but because of the quantity and quality of what it had to sell. Three quarters of the Royals' infield, their most effective starting pitcher and their best all-around position player are all due to become free agents in November. In addition, their closer and their top setup man will enter their walk years next year. Then there is another quartet of veteran role players on the team who have options for 2019 but may prove more valuable to the Royals as trade chips this July than as placeholders during a potential rebuild. The 11 players I just described are Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Jason Vargas, Lorenzo Cain, Kelvin Herrera, Mike Minor, Brandon Moss, Jason Hammel, Joakim Soria and Travis Wood.
True, Escobar, Moss and Wood have struggled, as has pending free agent Peter Moylan, but that still leaves eight players of interest to other teams, four of whom could depart as free agents in November, leaving the Royals without compensation for valuable assets.
With that much to sell, the Royals could restock a farm system that ranked 27th in the Majors entering the year, per Baseball Prospectus. Doing so would initiate a rebuild that could have Kansas City back in contention in the next handful of years. Failing to do so, however, could push the Royals' hopes of returning to sustained relevance into the latter part of the next decade or beyond, as it would restart the process of dismal finishes begetting elite Draft picks that helped build the current Royals team. That process, which eventually led to the organization's third pennant in 2014 and second World Series championship in 2015, began all the way back in 2002 with the selection of Zack Greinke, a full dozen years before it bore playoff fruit.
Is the opportunity to make one more run for a championship with the core that won it all in 2015 worth risking a decade or more of futility? It's easy enough for those of us outside of the organization or the fan base to say no, but the temptation must be strong in Kansas City. After all, since May 8, the Royals have had the second-best record in the AL, bested only by the Astros, a team they beat in the postseason two years ago. Over that span, Kansas City has been 3 1/2 games better than the Twins, a team whose eventual descent in the standings seems inevitable (and which has its own buy/sell quandary to confront), and 4 1/2 games better than the defending AL champions in Cleveland.
With the Royals' offense, which struggled so mightily to start the season, rounding into shape -- scoring 5.2 runs per game in June compared to just 2.7 per game in April -- Vargas and Minor sustaining their surprisingly strong performances on the mound and lefty Danny Duffy, the recipient of a five-year extension in January, due to return from the disabled list before the All-Star break, the Royals could be just a few additions from being a legitimate contender in the AL Central.
Of course, making those additions would mean further weakening an already poor farm system. It could also mean demoting or dismissing two players who were central to the team's recent success, shortstop Alcides Escobar and left fielder Alex Gordon, who have OPS+ figures of 33 and 54, respectively, after posting 71 and 84 marks last year.
The other hole in the lineup is at designated hitter, where the group led by Moss has hit just .202/.275/.403 on the season. Replacing Escobar, Gordon and Moss with the likes of Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez and Phillies utility bat Howie Kendrick, all pending free agents themselves, or some combination of comparable players, could very well carry the Royals into the playoffs, where they have a history of exceeding expectations. However, it is not clear that the Royals have the organizational assets required to obtain any one of those players, never mind all three.
Then there's the cold hard reality of the numbers. Yes, the Royals have won at a high rate over their past 44 games. Yes, Cleveland has underperformed, while the Twins have played over their heads, putting the division title well within reach for an upstart team. Still, even after their surge, the Royals have a mere 9.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason, per Baseball Prospectus's numbers. In the AL, only the Orioles, Tigers, A's and White Sox have a lower chance of making the playoffs. One reason for that is that only the A's and Orioles have a worse run differential (the Twins, interestingly, entered Monday's action tied with Kansas City at -38). Even over those last 44 games, the Royals managed to outscore their opponents by only a single run, 210-209. It doesn't take a sabermetrician to figure out that's the performance of a .500 team, not a .614 team. Per third-order record, the Royals aren't breathing down Cleveland's neck: They're still the worst team in the division and the second-worst in the league behind Baltimore (though, again, roughly even with the Twins at 33-41 to Minnesota's 33-40 entering Monday's games).
Going for it carries a great risk for Kansas City in light of the potential negative impact on the next decade of Royals teams, but those numbers suggest that it would be a foolish risk even if the core of the lineup wasn't on the verge of free agency. Objectively speaking, the correct move for the Royals is to sell. The Royals, however, haven't always been the most dispassionate organization, and tearing down a team that just rose into apparent contention will not go over easy with the fans or the players who will remain behind them. In the complicated flush of reality, there may not be a good solution to the Royals' problem, but it will be fascinating to see what they do, either way.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.