Rebuilds in professional sports are not linear. This is fairly common knowledge at this point. Different rebuilds feature a different path, a different emphasis, or even different definitions of the term altogether. In all cases, though, fans of rebuilding clubs are likely just hoping for progress in some form or fashion as the years of the stage transpire. And progress doesn’t always look the same, either, depending on whether you’re in a market like the Chicago Cubs or you’re the Kansas City Royals.
The 2022 season has brought some of this progress concept to different organizations. The Pittsburgh Pirates have seen a couple of arms and a handful of outfielders graduate to the top level for a look. Same with the Baltimore Orioles. And more are on the way for both. The Arizona Diamondbacks, too, have seen a similar pattern lead to a surprising start. You’ve got the opposite side of the spectrum, as well. The Oakland Athletics are still in the earliest stages of their latest iteration. The Cubs are locked in a sort of purgatory in theirs. And then there’s the Kansas City Royals.
The Fun Stage?
The Royals were supposed to be in something of a transitional stage this year. That year where your squad goes from the depths of the league to more mid-tier in showcasing that progress. Some pundits even went as far as predicting the Royals to be in the playoff mix (even if ultimately landing on the outside of it). This stage is supposed to be the fun stage. It’s the stage in which we currently see a team like the Orioles. There’s enough progress to keep them interesting, enough prospects cracking the big league roster to generate buzz, and enough energy that can serve as a springboard to the eventual success. This is where the Royals were largely expected to live coming into 2022.
Instead, they find themselves at the bottom of the league in myriad ways. As of this writing, the Royals have 20 wins. That’s the worst in the league. Behind the A’s, O’s, Cubs, and Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds got off to a historically bad start in April, but since then, even they’ve managed to surpass Kansas City’s win total. The pitching staff has yet to accumulate even 1.0 fWAR between them. They feature the league’s second-highest ERA (5.18) and second-highest FIP (4.68). They’re generating strikeouts at the second-lowest rate (7.12/9) and issuing free passes at the second-highest (4.07/9). But with a dozen pitchers appearing thus far sitting age 26 or younger, you can excuse some growing pains. At least to an extent.
And yet, even with numbers like that coming down off the bump, it’s the lack of offensive production that has been the most striking for this club. Especially when one considers the long-term state of the lineup.
The Suits of (Offensive) Woe
Now, despite the fact that the Royals sit at the bottom of the league standings — in addition to having been shut out eight times — Kansas City is not the worst offensive team in the league. They’re 23rd in wRC+ (92). They rank 22nd in on-base percentage (.303). Their collective ISO sits 24th (.132). They rank 29th in HR/FB% (7.6 percent). Those are not good numbers. But they’re not even the worst in their own division. They’re not even the second-worst. But that’s hardly a consolation, either.
It does, however, get a bit more legitimately bleak when you look at those longer-term ramifications for the lineup. Of this year’s K.C. regulars, five players have a wRC+ that sits above league average. Only three of those players have more than 150 plate appearances. Of those three, only one (Bobby Witt Jr.) is locked into a long-term spot. Andrew Benintendi is likely gone by the trade deadline. Hunter Dozier is 30, and while he’s signed to a longer-term deal, his timeline may not match up with the Royals’. And even those two, while technically above league average, haven’t been overly impactful with a combined ISO of .128.
There is some consolation in the presence of MJ Melendez, who has a wRC+ of 126 and is ISOing .210. But he’s also moderately blocked by the presence of Salvador Perez. The rest of the roster, though, is scattered with barely replacement-level players and some defense-first types. So a team in that transitional stage struggling mightily on offense, with likely only one legitimate part of their future squad performing at an above-average level. That’s…not what you want. Especially with a team that was set to turn a corner.
Offensive ineptitude, with little headway for the future being made on the active roster, is hardly a way to generate the type of buzz you hope for at this stage. It certainly can lead to questions about what the immediate, as well as long-distance, future looks like, given the timing. That is, perhaps, the main concern here. At this juncture, you hoped for more of a clear picture as to what this team could look like as it evolves over the next couple of years. Instead, it’s a far murkier picture than it has any business being.
Projecting into an Uncertain Future
Despite my self-assured headline, there is a chance that the picture does come into focus a bit more, perhaps even as soon as this year. The Royals do have a bit of offensive pop coming down the pipe. Vinnie Pasquantino likely isn’t far off. Neither is Nick Pratto. The two represent a pair of Kansas City’s elite prospects and are perhaps their best hope to inject some life into the offense outside of Witt Jr. & Melendez. However, even their eventual additions should be met with tempered expectations for the rebuild as a whole, given that the bats below them on prospect lists don’t feature quite that level of impact. So even if they’re able to stick when they do arrive, it might not be enough for the offense to reach the level it may need to in order to keep pace in the American League.
That’s the real concern here. The offense this year, the offense next year, and the offense beyond. Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez are likely legitimate members of this future roster. Pasquantino and Pratto could very well be, too. But what 2022 has not done is show who might be capable of supplementing their potential future stars in the next stages of the rebuild. And that’s even with some younger bats among the group. It doesn’t really lend itself to heavy optimism.
Of course, if you want to get really wild in the line of thought, the last time the Royals did this to the maximum, they were led by a handful of late bloomers and an elite defense. Maybe we just need to extend the timeline a little bit.
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire) Featured image by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter)