Lessons Learned From The Royals’ Run

Sunday, the core of the Royals’ 2014 American League championships and 2015 World Series champs graduated to free agency.

One of the best farm systems of the Baseball America era grew up, went to two World Series, won one and then said goodbye Sunday with an emotional bon voyage that began with a standing ovation for Eric Hosmer, which he responded to by hitting one more home run. It ended with Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain being pulled from the game at the same time so that the quartet could walk off together to one more standing ovation.

Looking back at our cover story from 2011 when the Royals’ farm system was the best in baseball most of it holds up pretty well. The Royals did change the culture of baseball in Kansas City with a group who came up and won together through the minors and eventually the majors.

But we have learned some things in the seven seasons since, and as we’ve watched the Cubs succeed with a similar prospect wave, so considered these some addendums of lessons learned.

1. Any second wave of prospects is better seen as trade fodder to boost the first wave.

When a team has a great group of prospects coming up together, the needs of that first wave overwhelm everything else. Unless a team has a perennial $200 million-plus payroll, the moment the first wave arrives in the big leagues, it starts the countdown to the day that those one-time prospects are too expensive to keep around.

In the case of the Royals, the countdown began in 2011 and 2012. In those two seasons, Kansas City brought up Cain, Escobar, Moustakas, Hosmer, Greg Holland, Perez, Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and several others.

Not all ended up living up to expectations. But from day one, everything was done to sync up this young group. Alcides Escobar was signed to a contract extension that ensured he could be retained through 2017.

Wil Myers was set to be ready not long after Moustakas and Hosmer, but he, lefthander Mike Montgomery, righthander Jake Odorizzi and third baseman Patrick Leonard were traded to the Rays to bring back James Shields and Wade Davis before the Royals’ quartet ever got a chance to get established. The move was widely panned at the time, but people inside the game were much more understanding of why Kansas City would make such a move. Shields ended up being a key part of the rotation that got the Royals to the World Series in 2014. Davis turned into one of the best relievers in baseball.

Later, lefthanders Brandon Finnegan, Sean Manaea, Cody Reed and John Lamb were dealt to bring in Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, two key cogs for the Royals’ championship team in 2015.

The Cubs have taken a similar tack. The rookie class of Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Willson Contreras all arrived in Chicago around the same time in 2015-16. Having such a quantity of low-cost quality bats allowed the Cubs to spend big on their pitching staff, adding veterans such as Jon Lester and John Lackey. But it also meant the team traded away younger prospects like Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez to help boost the big league team’s roster (bringing in Aroldis Chapman and Jose Quintana).

Jimenez and Torres will likely rank as two of the top 10 prospects in the game coming into next season, but considering the current state of the Cubs’ big league roster, wins in 2016 and 2017 are more valuable than wins in 2020 and 2021. Trading Torres already netted one World Series title for Chicago. If the Jimenez deal helps Chicago win one more, it won’t matter how well the talented outfielder performs for the White Sox.

The Royals farm system has ranked 21st and 26th in Baseball America’s organization talent rankings since they won the World Series. This offseason they will likely rank in the bottom five again. The Cubs have ranked 20th and then 16th the past two years and will likely ranking in the bottom 10 again this offseason. With the current system that limits draft and international spending, it’s hard to keep up a top-notch farm system once you have significant big league success.

2. Prospects do fail. But prospects also take time to shine.

There were stories written about how the Royals’ prospects had failed to live up the hype around Opening Day 2013, when the oldest of the Royals’ Blue Wave had less than a year and a half in the big leagues. Player development, especially at the big league level, is full of steps forward and steps back.

After two full seasons in the majors, Moustakas needed a demotion back to Triple-A in 2014 to truly get on track. He was a postseason hero for the Royals that fall and made his first all-star team the next season. That wasn’t unprecedented for this Royals team–Alex Gordon had previously needed to be sent back to Triple-A after two seasons in the majors to find a position and to hit to his potential. Lefthander Danny Duffy made 20 starts for Kansas City in 2011, but he needed several years to go from erratic if hard-throwing lefty to the team’s best starting pitcher.

3. A prospect wave’s peak comes quickly.

It is better to think of years two-to-four of a prospect wave as the peak time to succeed.

The Royals prospects arrived in 2011-2012. They started showing signs of being contenders during the second half of 2013 (86 wins). Their peak was 2014 (89 wins, wild card, AL pennant) and 2015 (95 wins, world champs).

By 2016, even with many of the one-time prospects now firmly entrenched as solid regulars, the team was just trying to hang on to its success because those stars were getting expensive. In 2014, the Royals paid Moustakas, Perez, Cain, Escobar and Hosmer just over $6 million to form the core of the team’s lineup for a team with a payroll that was under $100 million overall.

In 2016, the same quintet cost $27.6 million in payroll. Add in raises for other key players such as Davis and Gordon, and the team’s payroll had ballooned to more than $131 million, even though the team’s overall talent was less than that of the 2014 and 2015 clubs.

Shields left in free agency after 2014. Cueto, Zobrist and Holland departed after 2015. While the Royals were able to keep the lineup together for six seasons, the cost of doing so as all those players hit arbitration ensured that the team’s rotation and bullpen got weaker and weaker because the team had to make cuts elsewhere to meet payroll. And many low-cost pitchers to fill in the rotation and bullpen, such as Finnegan, Manaea and Odorizzi, had been traded away to build the championship rosters.

The Cubs are currently in the early stages of this right now. Chicago’s young hitters were largely good from the day they arrived in the big leagues, which allowed the team to succeed quicker than may have been expected  The Cubs won 97 games and made it to the NLCS in 2015 with Bryant, Russell and Schwarber playing as rookies.

The Cubs won the World Series last year with an infield of Bryant, Russell, Baez and Anthony Rizzo making roughly $7 million combined. That infield is making less than $10 million in 2017 as Chicago returns to the playoffs. All four of those infielders will still be under team control in 2019-2020, but they will then be making $40-50 million or more. That will be less of an issue for the Cubs, who are in a different realm revenue-wise than the Royals.

4. Prospect waves are still rare.

Most of the teams in the 2017 playoffs have gotten to this point in part because of strong farm systems–it’s hard to win nowadays without producing homegrown stars. Of the 10 playoff teams, six (the Dodgers, Red Sox, Astros, Twins, Cubs and Yankees) have ranked in the top three farm systems in one or more of the past four seasons.

But having a wave of prospects arrive at the same time like the Cubs and Royals did is much less common. The Astros are getting plenty of homegrown help, but its stars’ arrivals were spread over a larger period of time. Jose Altuve (2011 debut) and Dallas Keuchel (2012 debut) were veterans by the time George Springer (2014 debut) and Carlos Correa (2015 debut) and Alex Bregman (2016 debut) arrived.

It’s a similar story with the Dodgers, who have graduated Julio Urias and Corey Seager (2016) and now Cody Bellinger (2017) to give a big boost to a team that already had Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Yasiel Puig. The Red Sox have produced a steady supply of talented youngsters from Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts (2013 debuts) to Mookie Betts (2014), Andrew Benintendi (2016) and Rafael Devers (2017).

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