Desperate times can push us into desperate pleas, so if at any point in the 29 years between Royals postseasons you closed your eyes and begged for a championship even if it meant more losing later, well, the bill is due. Process 2.0 is going to be long, difficult, and at times ugly.
Your penance for the 2015 parade is a 2018 opening day lineup that could feature four hitters with an OPS worse than .630 last year.
Your punishment for the greatest thrill ride in Kansas City sports in at least 30 years is a team that replaces the franchise first baseman with a rookie who hit .243 in the minor leagues last year and has never played first base.
Your payment for watching a group of prospects turn a long sorry franchise into World Series champions is a team starting its rebuild at least one year too late, without a clear core of potential stars, and a big-league team whose likely No. 2 starter had a 5.38 ERA last year.
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Your settlement for watching one of the great bullpens in modern baseball history is now watching one in which the most effective three relievers from a mediocre group are now in other places.
Three years ago, many of you promised yourselves you’d be OK with the hangover if you could just have the party. Well, now the question must be asked.
Did you mean it?
In terms familiar with Royals fans, the franchise is essentially back at 2007 again. Maybe worse, honestly, because that team had Alex Gordon, Zack Greinke, and Billy Butler all 23 years old or younger.
Royals officials are optimistic about the future of young prospects such as Raul Mondesi, Nicky Lopez and Khalil Lee, but they have nobody as widely coveted as the triumvirate inherited by general manager Dayton Moore.
The roster is dotted with representations of past successes, even now, most notably with Sal Perez, Alcides Escobar, Gordon, Kelvin Herrera and Danny Duffy.
But think about this: depending on your standards a rebuild of this magnitude figures to take four years, minimum. Mike Moustakas, officially Moore’s first draft pick with the Royals, spent three full seasons in the minors before debuting in the big leagues. Eric Hosmer, the No. 3 pick in Moore’s second draft, spent two full seasons before debuting in the big leagues.
Even if you expect that accelerated timeline, the Royals’ first pick in this year’s draft would debut in 2021 or 2022. Hosmer had his first productive full big-league season his third year up. Moustakas was sent back to the minors in his fourth big-league season, and then made his first All-Star team in year five.
These are not unusual timelines.
In 2021, Perez will be 31. The Royals have already discussed ways to save his body, and by then, his seemingly forever contract will be in its last year. Duffy will be 32, also in the last year of his current contract. Herrera, Gordon, Escobar, and Whit Merrifield will all be over 30. Jorge Soler, still considered something of a prospect, will be 29. Heck, Bubba Starling will turn 29 that year, too.
When the Royals won the 2015 World Series, Alex Gordon was their only star over 30. Perez, Hosmer, Moustakas, Herrera and Yordano Ventura were each 26 or younger.
The point is, if there is another championship, or even another window, most of the best players on that team are not yet on this team.
That’s a lot of waiting.
A lot of hoping.
Are you up for it?
The first time around, Moore used the word process — as in, trust the process — so often that fans began to use it back in mockery. Moore speaks to groups around town more often than any other relevant sports figure. He is in tune with fan sentiment, always has been, and eventually he stopped and forbid anyone else in the organization from using the word.
But, here it comes again.
“Let’s do things the right way,” he said this week. “Let’s make sure we have the best medical staff in baseball. Let’s make sure our processes in scouting and player development and character development are the best in baseball. Let’s make sure our clubhouse staff is the most professional in baseball.”
For the last few years, Moore has been asked constantly about whether the Royals would re-sign or trade Hosmer and Moustakas and Cain before they hit free agency. Before that, it was about who he could add to complement a championship core. Before that, it was about whether those young kids could handle the grind and pressure and demands of the big leagues.
This, then, is the baseball life cycle coming full circle because for the next few years the questions for Moore will be exactly like the questions from 2006 to 2010 or so: how will he build the farm system, and are those prospects going to make it?
Moore deflects when asked about a timeline, but one rival executive said it would be three years, minimum. Another said five.
The rules are different this time around. Back then, the Royals essentially flooded the amateur market. They spent more on their 2008 draft class than any team in baseball history. Millions more went international prospects.
Now, rules limit what teams can spend. The fastest way to restock a farm system is through trades, or collecting extra draft picks. The Royals will have at least four in the top 50 this summer, making this draft a critical moment.
The path back to competitiveness will take time, luck, work, time, diligence, and luck.
Cheslor Cuthbert, Jorge Soler, and Jorge Bonifacio will play every day in 2018. Generally speaking, the Royals need two to become productive big-leaguers.
Hunter Dozier, Raul Mondesi, and Bubba Starling each have specific and tantalizing talents and will be in the big leagues this year or next. Generally speaking, the Royals need two from this group to become productive big-leaguers, too.
If all that happens, the Royals still need need at least three or four others to come along. Maybe that comes from internal prospects such as Lee and Lopez. Maybe that comes from even younger players such as Nick Pratto or the upcoming draft class.
All of that, and we haven’t yet talked about pitching. Yes, this will take time, if it hits at all.
The Royals’ front office couldn’t made their own job easier. The ruthless move would’ve been to sell off after the parade, when the players carried the most value. The more realistic decision would’ve been to sell after last season. The farm system would be better, this process at least one year further along.
Instead, the Royals are essentially starting from scratch again. Their organizational infrastructure and experience are vastly superior when compared with the first run, though the internal talent and rules governing the sport are less appealing.
This is the bed they made for themselves. They wanted to build something sustainable, but their margins are tiny and they missed on too many draft picks and signed at least one bad contract too many. So, one more time, from the top.
The leadership group is the same as the first time. The owner, the general manager, the top lieutenant and international scout. No group in baseball has been together longer, and no group in baseball has accomplished more together. They did it once before, and now here they go trying for the encore.
Guarantees don’t exist, but many of you told yourselves you’d be all-in if you could watch just one championship.
So, did you mean it?