Nine-Hundred eighty-five days after they popped champagne in Queens, 829 days after their ring ceremony in Kansas City, and — perhaps most astonishingly — just 346 days after they owned a playoff spot as the most recent non-waiver trade deadline passed the 2018 Royals are an abomination.
They are on pace for 116 losses, which would be the second most of any team in the last 50 years. Their rotation is a mess, the bullpen spotty, the hitting anemic.
To be fair, it is not unusual for World Series champions to fall. The Giants lost 98 games three years after their 2014 title. The Red Sox finished last twice in a row after their 2013 championship.
But no world champion has ever lost quite like this, quite so soon, in at least 50 years.
Two precedents are close. The Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series on Luis Gonzalez’s wrister off Mariano Rivera, and three years later lost 111 games. The Marlins won the 1997 World Series, and lost 108 the year after.
But the Diamondbacks followed their championship with 98 wins, and the Marlins intentionally put a horrible team together in 1998.
The Royals are on new ground, in that way, so two unavoidable questions have emerged:
How did they get here?
And how do they get out?
This is the first in a two-part project that attempts to answer those questions, guided by conversations with Royals officials, rival executives and coverage of the organization from the start of the rise in 2006.
This list is incomplete, and by definition subjective, but here are the 10 most important factors in the Royals’ path from champions to non-competitive.
10. Ned Yost’s lost fire.
Cultivating a swagger that was alternately fun and angry was Yost’s greatest managerial success. The genesis of that vibe came from a core group of players that arrived in the big leagues with real friendships and deep ambitions, but Yost’s touch helped turn it into magic that saved the franchise at its darkest moments — the Our Time disaster, being below .500 in July 2014, the sixth inning of the 2014 Wild Card game, the fourth game of the 2015 ALDS, and more.
The Royals have largely lacked that since the parade. Some of that is human nature, some of it is different players in different points of their lives. But it’s been noticed both inside and outside the organization, and whatever extent Yost was given credit for establishing a productive vibe, it’s fair to criticize him for it being lost.
9. Trades ahead of last year’s deadline.
This is heavy on hindsight, because at the time the Royals owned a playoff spot and were supremely motivated to make the most of their last season with Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas together. Also, the trade with the Padres seemed to bring back the pitching help the Royals needed, and a trade with the White Sox provided a veteran, well-liked and reliable hitter to fill an outfield spot.
But the pitchers (Ryan Buchter, Trevor Cahill and Brandon Maurer) provided essentially nothing, and the outfielder (Melky Cabrera) didn’t make enough of a difference.
The Royals would clearly be in better shape today without those trades. Matt Strahm is a left-handed reliever with upside and long-term club control for the Padres, while Esteury Ruiz is the No. 11 prospect in baseball’s best system. A.J. Puckett is rehabbing an elbow injury but remains a back-of-the-rotation prospect for the White Sox.
8. Trades that prioritized money over talent.
The Royals have done this a few times, first by packaging Scott Alexander’s value to make up for Joakim Soria’s contract and most recently by trading Kelvin Herrera so far ahead of the deadline.
The Royals are a business, and it’s worth noting that they have not been among the teams criticized for not spending on talent since Moore’s hiring in 2006. But the paths to acquiring talent are limited, and the Royals’ success depends on maximizing each. This is one area they have chosen to save money rather than acquire the best talent possible.
7. Breaking from their identity.
Prioritizing defense and athleticism over power helped the Royals win. Brandon Moss’ contract may have been the clearest break from that philosophy, but there were others — trading Jarrod Dyson, putting Jorge Bonifacio in the outfield, and targeting Jorge Soler when it was determined Wade Davis needed to be traded.
Soria’s free-agent deal was a departure from loading the bullpen with younger, cheap, power arms. Five years and $70 million for Ian Kennedy meant sacrificing long-term financial flexibility for someone else’s free agent.
Soria’s trade is particularly regrettable as he’s having a nice season for the White Sox, and earned back some trade value. In Moss’ case, the Royals were able to unload him (with cash, it should be noted) in a deal that brought back Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer, each of whom could be part of the future.
6. Alex Gordon’s four-year, $72 million contract.
Sound logic and real-time praise surrounded this deal, but it might be the worst in franchise history. A wrist injury halted and then diminished his first season on the contract, and a total lack of production ruined the second. He’s back to among the game’s best defensive left fielders in 2018, but his value is still being squashed by a lack of power and too many strikeouts.
5. That foul ball in Chicago two years ago.
How many teams that already needed a fair amount of good luck lost two All-Stars for a total of 149 games on a single play?
Moustakas had just returned from an injury, and missed the rest of the season. Gordon struggled offensively before and after the injury, but combined with Yordano Ventura’s death (more on that in a minute) there was an unmistakable deflation of emotion for a team that had always relied so heavily on it.
4. Trades for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in 2015.
There are no regrets, obviously. They won the dang World Series, with Cueto and especially Zobrist playing important roles. But the trades did amplify the hangover after the party.
Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed are still searching for big-league traction with the Reds, but each retain promise and long-term club control. Sean Manaea has a 3.44 ERA across 19 starts for the A’s, is allowing fewer than one base runner per inning, and would be the Royals’ best starting pitcher.
3. Yordano Ventura’s death in January 2017.
The skinny kid with a fastball that touched 100 was just 25 years old and poised for the season of his career when he died in a one-car accident near his home in the Dominican Republic.
Viewed coldly in baseball terms, his death left an enormous hole in the rotation, and erased the advantage of having a front-of-the-rotation talent under club-friendly terms through 2021. The Royals chased that by signing Jason Hammel to a two-year contract worth $16 million. At least indirectly, Ventura’s death also helped create the need for last year’s trade with the Padres.
Viewed in a wider context, his death shook the franchise and clubhouse in undeniable ways that must’ve affected the play on the field. He was energetic, cocky, wildly talented, often a pain in the neck, and loved by nearly everyone.
2. The drafts and international signings haven’t been good enough.
The Royals have internal metrics that rate their draft classes relatively well, and they absolutely have success stories that for various reasons are easy to overlook — Ventura, Manaea, Whit Merrifield, Ruiz, Adalberto Mondesi, Alexander, Bonifacio, etc.
But look at division rivals. The Indians’ homegrown stars include Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. They traded for Corey Kluber when he was in Class AA, and have highly regarded Francisco Mejia and Triston McKenzie in the minor leagues.
The Twins boast Brian Dozier, Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano (I know, but still). The Tigers and especially White Sox have farm systems generally valued greater than the Royals.
1. Not choosing a path after 2016.
This remains the single most significant and tangible mistake of the Royals’ front office. Notably, this is not hindsight, but something detectable in real time, though the consequences have been even worse than imagined.
Going into the 2017 season, the Royals knew they had one more year with the championship core, and either of two paths would’ve been thoroughly defensible.
First, the Royals could’ve gone all-in to make the most of it. Most obviously, that would’ve meant retaining Wade Davis. Instead of trading for Jorge Soler, the Royals could’ve pursued outfielder Josh Reddick.
If they were able to do that, a domino of positive results might have followed — Soria would not have been put in position to blow seven saves, Moss would not have needed to be signed, and Bonifacio could’ve been the primary DH instead of right fielder. The Royals finished five games out of a playoff spot last year. It’s not a stretch to believe these moves (and perhaps a few others) could’ve been the difference, not to mention less of a need for trading away young talent at the deadline.
Or, if the Royals prioritized their long-term future over one more year with the core — again, a reasonable stance — they could’ve replaced the prospects they traded away by dealing Hosmer, Cain, Davis and, if they really wanted to be bold, Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy.
It was a difficult situation. The first option risked a financial operating loss, the second angering fans, which by extension could’ve put revenue at risk.
But the Royals attempted to build and win simultaneously, which meant accomplishing neither, and failing to take advantage of the last position of power they’re likely to have for a few years.
Check back soon. We’ll go through the 10 most important ways the Royals can make themselves better.
Sam Mellinger is a columnist for The Kansas City Star/TNS.