Small market teams often are forced to operate around stringent cycles built on the six-year rookie contracts of blossomed prospects, a method the Kansas City Royals have grown all too familiar with. Let’s call it “the six.” Over the six-year window between 2012-2017, her majesty of Missouri racked up an average of 83.8 wins per season, their best period of since the 1980s. Almost everyone in the industry knew their inevitable drop off to the 104-loss team of 2018 was, well, inevitable. The biggest question for Royals GM Dayton Moore was how badly he would allow the bottom to fall out.
Flags fly forever, so long that half a season of Ben Zobrist in 2015 could be traded for Sean Manaea (7.2 WAR in three full seasons since). Zobrist produced 1.1 WAR in half a season with Kansas City after coming over in the mid-season trade before mashing .303/.365/.515 in the playoffs to help lead the Royals to their first championship in 29 years (and quite frankly, considering the market forces of baseball, probably another 29 years).
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) November 2, 2015
But Kansas City sat six games under .500 at the end of July 2016, and the Royals stood pat at the trade deadline (a move for Billy Burns aside). Moore was at an important juncture, four-and-a-half years through “the six” of graduated top prospects Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer. The GM would have to intricately juggle the championship window with the long-term health of the franchise. Unfortunately, it was starting to trend in the wrong direction.
The Royals paper-thin rotation only featured two first-contract controllable starters: Yordano Ventura, who unfortunately died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic that offseason, and Danny Duffy, who posted the highest bWAR of his nine-year career in 2016 and has never really been the same since he got a DUI for passing out at Burger King drive-thru in 2017.
That rotation was rounded out by Ian Kennedy, who had just posted his highest WAR (by almost double) since his breakout 2011 and now finds himself in the bullpen, Dillon Gee posting a serviceable fifth-starter 4.68 ERA in 125 innings, and the gag-inducing castoff group of Edinson Volquez (who was somehow allowed to pitch over 189 innings with a 6+ ERA), 80-year-old Chris Young, and oft-injured Kris Medlen. Heck, even my good friend Jason Vargas got three starts,
Help was not on the way: Baseball Prospectus ranked the farm-system 27th coming into the 2017 season. Just like their Pythagorean record and luck-index would indicate, the Royals would once again need to rely on the clutchness and good timing of a generationally excellent bullpen to keep them in contention: the seeds of overachieving were ripe to not grow in the harvest of the new season.
The KC offense famously downed the Mets in the 2015 World Series by avoiding the strikeout against New York’s cadre of flamethrowing starters by focusing on putting the ball in play over gunning for the long ball – they swung and missed just 25 times out of 330 pitches over the first two games, both Royals victories.
Kansas City reliever Kelvin Herrera was a stalwart in the Royals counterrevolution against launch-angle and openers: an elite setup man who was never officially promoted to closer, reminiscent of David Robertson and Dellin Betances with the Yankees or Tony Watson with the Pirates. You had the feeling that if Herrera ever officially became the closer, well, that meant someone ahead of him in the pecking order had been traded. He was promoted to the spot in 2017, but the bullpen amazingly didn’t collapse around him.
The 2014-15 Royals had the star power of HDH (well, FOX was having trouble marketing the no-name 2014 Royals in the World Series so they gave KC a catchy acronym). Herrera, [Wade] Davis, and [Greg] Holland were three capable, All-Star relievers. By the time Herrera was permanently anointed closer, his leading bullpen mates were Scott Alexander, Peter Moylan, and Mike Minor. This should go how crazy their bullpen revolving door was:
— Brad Fanning (@bradfanningshow) June 23, 2017
The thing is, the ramshackle bunch was surprisingly good. The unlikely trio (not including Feliz) collectively posted an ERA under 3 that year. The Royals hung in contention in 2017 through the trade deadline: on July 27th, FiveThirtyEight had them at 53% odds to make the postseason and at 2% to bring home a second title in three years. Moore was stuck with a puzzle: capitalize on this 2% chance because it’s the best odds he’ll have at another World Series for quite some time, or sink into oblivion now to have that next 2% window (potentially) arrive sooner? Moore chose the former.
It had worked, but it wouldn’t any longer. A slew of notable players, including offensive pillars on either side of the keystone having career seasons in Moustakas and Hosmer, were upcoming free agents, and everyone on either side of the Mississippi knew they weren’t going to be resigned to long-term deals. Moose was slashing .275/.305/.559 with 30 HRs to complement his counterpart Hosmer, posting a .323/.380/.501 and 16 HRs himself.
The 2017 Trade Deadline
Moore didn’t exactly double-down at the deadline, acquiring Melky Cabrera and Brandan Maurer for spare parts in a final toast to a fading franchise: “the six” was nearing its conclusion.
Two five-game losing streaks in a month ensued, including getting shut out four games in a row, sinking them from six games over .500 to two games under.
Without their two franchise cornerstones and with the bullpen struggling, the Royals finally struck the inevitable collapse that the industry knew was coming (and was probably overdue). They slumped to a measly 58 wins in 2018 and are on pace for 59 in 2019. The lack of effective controllable starters has really stung them: no one in the rotation who’s started at least 10 games has an xFIP under Jacob Junis’s 4.59. For context, of players with at least 60 IP this season, Junis’s xFIP ranks 81st. And he’s their best. But hey, flags fly forever.
Baltimore Follows Suit
What about a place where there aren’t any 21st-century flags flying? Banner-aside, the Orioles have had a remarkably similar timeline to the Royals over the last decade. Perpetually bad, then finally have a big breakthrough into the postseason carried by a fantastic back-end bullpen (Jim Johnson, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton baby!), perennially overachieving in close games, generally lucky (+14.3 on the luck index in 2012), and of course, probably blew things up a little too late.
When it was finally time to move on, the O’s parted ways with their long-kept asset who personified the winning (and eventually losing) timeline of the franchise: Manny Machado. In 2017, it was rumored the Red Sox would consider swapping Rafael Devers for Baltimore’s prodigal son. The only problem was, the longer the Orioles waited and the longer they convinced themselves they could compete, the less likely rival teams like Boston would part with serious assets for Machado. Ultimately, Baltimore settled for a lesser swap with the Dodgers, highlighted by MLB.com’s No. 89 prospect OF Yusniel Diaz.
The Next Royals?
Two teams are teetering on a similar spot as the 2017 Royals, admittedly with starkly different long-term outlooks. Cleveland’s enigmatic starter Trevor Bauer is due for free agency in the fall of 2020 and has had his name tossed around the rumor mill so much this season he could call it a character assassination (sorry Trevor).
During Trevor Bauer's arbitration hearing, this was the story used against him: https://t.co/krYv4leJrX
Typically, arbitration hearings feature straightforward arguments based on performance. The case against Bauer, as he said today, ended with a "character assassination."
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 14, 2019
Trevor’s a really good guy, it should be noted.
Trevor Bauer wanted to be paid $6,420,969.69 this year. When he won a higher salary in arbitration, he hatched a plan: He would donate the difference to charity in $420.69 increments. The story on @BauerOutage's newest initiative, The 69 Days of Giving: https://t.co/krYv4lwkQx pic.twitter.com/ZlEuQS8As1
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 28, 2018
With Cleveland’s surge in the standing leaving them with a 70% chance (per FiveThirtyEight) of making the postseason, they have multiple advantageous options to pick from – well, advantageous considering the size of their market. Bauer could be flipped for younger, cost-controlled major leaguers that could help the team win soon, or they could hold onto him for the playoff push and ship him out for a lesser return midway through next year. Either way, Cleveland will be winning.
San Francisco, however, will almost certainly not be winning in the future. Looking absolutely dead and buried a few weeks ago, the Giants have remarkably dragged themselves to a game above .500 against the will of common sense: they’re 23-10 in one-run games, 9-2 in extra-inning affairs, have an expected win-loss of 46-55, and the TeamRankings Luck Index pins them at +5.11 wins more than expected, fourth-best in the league.
Yes, the Giants have a stellar bullpen that explains their success in close affairs, but with fixtures Will Smith and Tony Watson set for free agency, is it worth competing when current players could be flipped to future-proof the squad? Madison Bumgarner is not a true “the six” kind of player, as he signed a below-market five-year/$35 million dollar extension that bought out his final year of arbitration, but is a cornerstone of the franchise in a similar vein as Machado to Baltimore.
What if the Giants don’t sell? Yes, they are a bigger market than Kansas City and could hypothetically plug in roster holes more easily than the Royals could. But San Fran’s holes are more plentiful, as they lack any true building blocks.
Ultimately, “the six” draws teams at the hip, leaving many with no other option but dramatic rises and falls choreographed around the timelines of star players in their first contracts. They build from the ground up, taste success, go almost all-in chasing a ring, struggle to determine when to pull the plug, and end up stuck in a long rebuild.
(Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire)