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The Royals Are in the Middle of a Rebuild, but That Hasn’t Kept Them Out of First Place

Kansas City wasn’t expected to compete this year. But while teams like the Twins and White Sox have stumbled out of the gate, the Royals’ efforts in the past few down years have put the team ahead of schedule.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

Twenty-eight days is a pretty long time. Enough for the moon to revolve around the Earth. Enough, according to Danny Boyle, for zombies to take over the U.K. And enough for the 2021 Kansas City Royals to have compiled the best record in the American League.

That’s right: the Royals! Not the Yankees’ band of well-paid pillaging giants, nor the Astros’ unkillable sneering heels, nor any of the plucky small-market teams with a reputation for getting by on guile and exceptional knowledge of statistical analysis. But the Royals, the team that came into the season with an 8.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, and 100-to-1 odds of winning the World Series. The franchise that hasn’t even won 60 games in a season since 2017. These Royals are in first place. This is like getting to the end of the second season of Game of Thrones and finding Hot Pie in possession of the Iron Throne.

There are plenty of reasons to believe it won’t last. Nobody knows better than the Royals how fleeting a hot start can be; in 2003, Kansas City jumped out to a 16-3 record but lost the divisional lead by mid-May. After that season, it would be almost five years before the team regained sole possession of first place in the AL Central, even for a day.

And, in the interest of transparency, it’s not like the Royals woke up on April 1 and turned into the 1975 Reds—they’ve been lucky as well as good. Kansas City is 6-1 against the woeful Tigers and Rangers and 9-7 against everyone else. The Royals are also 6-1 in one-run games and entered Wednesday night’s matchup in Pittsburgh with a run differential of just plus-3. They’re outperforming their Pythagorean record by three games; only Oakland has been as fortunate. These are all powerful indicators that the Royals will eventually drift back to the pack.

Not that anyone who’s enjoying the team’s surprising start should give a damn. First of all, this is how Kansas City does business. Almost every good Royals team in franchise history has thrived on some variation of speed, contact hitting, and good fortune in close games. Since the Royals were founded in 1969, they’ve reached the playoffs while being outscored in the regular season twice, the same number of times they’ve reached the playoffs while matching or underperforming their Pythagorean record. Maybe there’s something in the soil at Kauffman Stadium, or maybe Pythagoras just loved ribs.

Second, and more importantly, this team wasn’t necessarily built to compete in 2021, so they’re playing with house money. The Royals are set up well for the future, and there’s plenty to celebrate, whether they finish first or fourth.

I don’t think there’s really a good way to lose 100 games two years in a row, but the Royals came by their rock bottom honestly. After the Astros and Cubs turned full-scale teardowns into World Series titles, tank jobs have become an accepted part of the life cycle of a baseball team. Sometimes, it’s necessary—the Astros of the early 2010s, for instance, were so directionless that it made sense to rip the whole enterprise up, root and branch. But tanking gets less effective the more teams do it, and during the past decade, more and more teams have ripped up fairly young, cheap cores in an attempt to win later. Better to tear it all down a year early than a year too late, is today’s somewhat perverse logic.

The Royals won back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015 by playing a style that went against conventional wisdom—building around speed and contact hitting while their competitors were chasing power—and it was obvious even at the time that their title window would be short. But GM Dayton Moore, who’s been with Kansas City so long a character based on him appears in The Lion in Winter, declined to sell at the 2016 deadline, even though his team was out of playoff contention. By the 2017 deadline, the Royals were in a wild-card position, and even though Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Jason Vargas, and Lorenzo Cain were all due to enter free agency that winter, Moore let it ride one last time. It didn’t work, and every key free agent left that winter, except Moustakas, who re-upped with Kansas City in an ice-cold free agent climate and was traded to Milwaukee that summer.

Some of the younger members of those championship teams stuck around. Alex Gordon, a totemic figure in franchise history, remained a one-club man until he retired last fall, even though his bat all but deserted him in his early 30s. Danny Duffy and Salvador Pérez, who were catastrophically underpaid while the Royals were good, received long-term make-good contracts and remain with the team today. I don’t know if that’s a “smart” way to run an MLB franchise, in the amoral business school sense, but there’s something admirable about it—even if it led to back-to-back 100-loss seasons.

Which is not to imply that those seasons were total write-offs.

When building a successful baseball team, there are several finite resources that must be allocated wisely. The first, of course, is money. The second is—sorry, NFL draft disease has broken my brain—draft capital. The Royals, who’ve never spent like the Dodgers at any point in their history, have hidden their checkbook during the rebuild. But they have drafted well in the past few years.

Kansas City’s top prospect is shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., the no. 2 pick from 2019. Witt, a consensus top-10 global prospect, was so impressive this spring there was chatter about him breaking camp with the big league club, despite being a 20-year-old who’d never played above rookie ball before. In 2020, the Royals spent their top pick on Texas A&M pitcher Asa Lacy, who’s a funky left-hander who also happens to throw his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s.

Since the Royals fell out of contention, Moore’s front office has invested heavily in college pitchers. Lacy has the highest upside of the bunch, but in 2018 alone Kansas City snapped up Kris Bubic and the Florida duo of Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer.

Optimizing the expenditure of cash and draft picks has been the focus of intense study since the dawn of baseball’s empirical revolution. But there’s a third finite resource that doesn’t get talked about as much: MLB-level playing time. A team that’s trying to win in the short term can’t afford to stick an unknown quantity in the lineup every day, because if that player is bad, it could sink the entire season. The Royals, however, have had nothing but playing time since 2018, and that’s allowed them to conjure several valuable big leaguers virtually out of thin air.

The most notable of these is Whit Merrifield. In his last collegiate plate appearance, Merrifield hit a national championship–winning walk-off single, and it’s a minor miracle he’s played baseball on national TV again. A college corner outfielder without much power, Merrifield dropped to the ninth round of the 2010 draft and spent the next six years working through the minors. He eventually appeared in Kansas City in mid-2016 while the Royals were in need of someone—anyone—to play second base. And ever since then, Merrifield has been really good. He’s led the AL in hits and stolen bases twice each and made an All-Star team. At this moment, he’s probably the Royals’ best big league position player.

Brad Keller was an eighth-round pick who never made a top-100 prospect list, and while he’s struggled early in 2021, he was outstanding in the first three years of his big league career, posting a 131 ERA+ in 360 1/3 innings from 2018 to 2020. Kyle Zimmer was a first-round pick who missed the better part of three seasons with shoulder injuries during his development. Now, at 29 years old, he’s a key bullpen arm for Kansas City. Hunter Dozier posted a .278 OBP as a 26-year-old rookie in 2018, then went on to record 65 extra-base hits the following season.

The Royals have also been active in the trade market, picking up player after player who have serious question marks about their games and have been blocked or platooned on winning teams. Jorge Soler couldn’t crack the lineup in Chicago, then in 2019, he became the first Royal to lead the AL in home runs. Michael A. Taylor was a part-time outfielder in Washington (and usually, in the age of Víctor Robles, a healthy scratch); Kansas City signed him for pennies on the dollar this offseason and Taylor responded by going 5-for-9 with two home runs in his first two games and is currently hitting .270. When the Red Sox decided to cut bait on Andrew Benintendi, the Royals swooped in and grabbed a 26-year-old not far removed from a 4.8 bWAR season for almost nothing.

It’s not that the Royals can turn every castoff into an All-Star. But they’ve been far more patient than other teams. That has not only allowed them to hit on a few players who’d otherwise be on their way overseas or to an office job, but also to make absolutely certain that a player is too injury-prone, or old, or platoon-limited before they give up on him.

The Royals don’t have anything approaching the star potential of the Twins or White Sox, or even the Mariners, whose own rebuild is proceeding along a similar timeline. What they do have, however, is plenty of competent big league contributors. Acquiring and developing stars is difficult and gets a lot of attention, but stars can get only so far on their own without supporting players like Singer, Merrifield, or even Carlos Santana, who signed a reasonable two-year deal with Kansas City last winter at age 34. Santana might not be a foundational offensive threat anymore, but he never gets hurt and always gets on base.

And you can buy stars. The Royals have never run a big wage bill, but right now the team’s $88.9 million opening day payroll is about $65 million short of what they were spending in late 2017. Kansas City has only $46 million in payroll commitments for 2022, some of which will go to arbitration raises and re-signing the likes of Duffy—who could become very expensive indeed if he keeps pitching the way he has in April. But that leaves room to get elbows deep in this offseason’s enticing free-agent class: Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, Michael Conforto, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Royals legend Zack Greinke, among others.

Or, if the Royals keep winning close games and the White Sox and Twins never get out of neutral, Moore could swing a trade for a star now, as he did to bolster his first two pennant runs with the James Shields and Johnny Cueto trades.

Nobody knows better than the Royals how important it is to capitalize on an open competitive window. Maybe that window is here now—but if not, it will be soon.