The 2010 Kansas City Royals kicked off a new decade by winning 67 games and losing 95. This may sound bad, and it is, but this was actually a two win improvement over their 2009 season, when despite having a Cy Young Award-winning season from Zack Greinke, the Royals were a disaster. But there was hope on the horizon.
A neat little ripple effect to having a consistently bad team–the Royals of 2010 were in the midst of a twenty-three season stretch of winning no more than 84 games (in 2017, the St. Louis Cardinals won 83 games and it was regarded as an unspeakable embarrassment)–is that you get a lot of high draft picks. In 2005, following a disappointing 2004 season in which the Royals went from 83 to 58 wins, Kansas City drafted second overall. They took Alex Gordon. In the next three drafts, the Royals continued to pick in the extremely early part of it. In 2006, at #1 overall, the Royals took Luke Hochevar. In 2007, at #2, the Royals took Mike Moustakas. In 2008, at #3, came Eric Hosmer.
None of these four are players that one would necessarily associate with such high draft positions, particualrly Hochevar. Four 2005 first round picks have been worth more Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement for their careers than Gordon (Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman), and a fifth (Justin Upton, who went #1) isn’t far behind. Fourteen 2006 first rounders, including Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Evan Longoria, have had a stronger career than Hochevar. Moustakas ranks behind seven first-rounders. As for Hosmer, he is a distant second to Buster Posey, and has had a marginally more successful career than fellow first-rounder Brett Lawrie.
None of these players became generational superstars, but all four became contributors to a mini-run of success for the Royals that was unthinkable during a twenty-nine year stretch of missing the postseason altogether. The Royals didn’t, to venture into corny baseball parlance, knock their early draft picks out of the park, but they didn’t strike out either. I guess the proper analogy is they fouled pitches off and then eventually drew a critical walk because pitchers can’t throw strikes forever.
In a nine-year stretch, from 2005 through 2013, the Royals drafted in the top eight picks on eight separate occasions. They built a team on the strength of these players, establishing a core of homegrown, cost-controlled players and then supplementing that core with lesser free agents (the big ticket ones, in addition to being outside of the Royals’ budget, being less necessary when the team could get star, if not superstar, level production from internal options).
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals have not picked in the top eight picks of the MLB Draft since 1998. A consistent run of success, in which mid-eighties win seasons are considered wildly disappointing, will do that. In the four consecutive drafts in which the Royals landed Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer with their top pick, the Cardinals snagged Colby Rasmus, Adam Ottavino, Pete Kozma, and Brett Wallace.
These four Cardinals aren’t even a disastrous quartet of first-round picks–all four made it the big leagues–but they are not core players in the way that the Royals players were. Rasmus, whose prospect status eventually exceeded his draft position, had two solid MLB seasons before struggling in his third season, eventually being traded for (extremely useful) spare parts in 2011. Ottavino played sporadically with the Cardinals before reinventing himself as a very good reliever with the Colorado Rockies. Kozma had a useful couple months in 2012, earning his stature as Washington Nationals mortal enemy, before reverting to a glove-only shortstop in 2013 and totaling zero extra base hits in 2015 despite being on the team the entire season. Wallace was traded with two others for two-plus months of Matt Holliday. They certainly weren’t the core.
But the Cardinals weren’t expecting these picks to comprise their core, at least not to the extent that the Royals wanted, or really needed, their prospects to become stars. Wallace was the only Cardinal drafted in the top half of the first round since 2001. Consistency means that this just doesn’t really happen. The Royals had the wrong kind of consistency, so they were able to load up.
The Royals aren’t usually lumped in with the next two World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, as teams that tanked, who were intentionally bad for a sustained period of time in order to load up on high draft picks, but the Royals benefited more in their World Series-winning campaign from top picks than these other teams.
The 2015 Royals were a direct result of their previous suffering. Their top player by WAR, Lorenzo Cain, was acquired via trade from the Milwaukee Brewers (along with starting shortstop Alcides Escobar) for Zack Greinke, a former #6 overall pick. Another player acquired with Cain, Jake Odorizzi, was packaged with others to acquire Wade Davis, the team’s #4 player. Players 2, 3, and 5 by WAR were Moustakas, Hosmer, and Gordon.
Royals fans paid their dues in rooting for an often uninspiring bunch. They had a present because they had mortgaged their past. But in gearing up for a magical 2015 run, the Royals mortgaged their future. They traded their 2014 first-round pick, Brandon Finnegan, along with John Lamb and Cody Reed, for a pure rental in Johnny Cueto. The cost for another pure rental, Ben Zobrist, proved to be even more burdensome, as the Royals had to give up now-Oakland Athletics ace Sean Manaea. The Royals could’ve started to rebuild earlier, but given that making a run with this group of players had been their plan for a decade, this would have been a matter of accepting defeat too early.
And this is a big part of why the 2018 Royals are 14-32.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals haven’t had an all-in, “mortgage the future for today” run largely because they haven’t been consistently bad enough in the free agent era. The closest the Cardinals came was from 1989 through 1991, when they drafted #6 Paul Coleman, #13 Donovan Osborne, and #4 Dmitri Young. Coleman never made it past AA, Osborne was rotation depth and nothing more, and Young was traded for a 34 year-old reliever (Jeff Brantley). The Cardinals have built consistent winners, particularly in the 2010s, on unheralded amateur players overachieving upon becoming professionals and on their high draft picks (Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Kolten Wong) developing into reliable MLB contributors.
The Royals are a curious case because for over a decade, they’ve basically done everything right. They were a bad team, and they filled their MLB roster with reliable talent so that, in several years, they would not be bad anymore. They made big moves when the time was right–the aforementioned Wade Davis trade was initially centered around James Shields, a player under contract for two more seasons who figured to provide a reliable rotation piece (which he was in 2014, when the Royals shocked baseball by nearly winning the World Series). The Royals, ideologically, did everything right. They just didn’t do everything right in terms of execution.
Every so often, somebody in the Cardinals blogosphere will recommend a rebuild–perhaps not an Astros-style gutting of the organization, but something at least veering in that direction. The upside is making a big run later on, but even if that can be assured, there is something to be said about viability. The Cardinals may or may not make the postseason this season, but if they do not, that doesn’t put their season on equal terms with the Royals, whose games are essentially meaningless in terms of chasing a championship.
And yet, the Royals should regret nothing. They did the right thing and their calculated risks paid off. But they’re now on a mind-numbing trip back down the mountain that the Cardinals have somehow managed to avoid for decades.