The Kansas City Royals are the Seattle Mariners of my youth, and it is just something to which I have sadly come to grips. The Mariners had some good players that stick out to me–Alvin Davis, Jim Presley, my Missouri guy Phil Bradley–but they were perpetually striving to just get to contention. It wouldn’t be until 1991 that they reached their first winning season as a franchise.
One of my childhood memories is perpetually seeing the Mariners play the Royals near my birthday in early June. For example, this game in 1984 was played on my birthday, and I’m pretty sure I was there. There were a few other times when the Royals and Mariners played in the week after my birthday. I would wager that I saw the Mariners more than any other team. The Mariners are relevant to the Royals now, by the way, because they represent the outer bounds of outcomes for a truly bad expansion team.
The fans in Kansas City are getting restless, as a promising season at the outset in the Midwest has turned again to a similar story. You will forgive Royals fans for being pessimists–it’s not pessimism if it is realistic. The Kansas City Royals have not been in the postseason since 1985. They have not had a winning year since 2003, a season that has sad significance in Kansas City, and is spoken of in somewhat reverential tones. It was one in which the Royals faded badly, but by gosh, they were still within 7 games of the Twins at the end (and were leading in July). Before that, you have to go back before the 1994 season ended prematurely. 2003 still stands as a sorrowful beacon on a gloomy baseball landscape, one not deserved by what is actually a pretty good baseball town.
This year’s Royals team started 17-10. Now, after another stretch of bad losses, that promise has already begun to fade. A normal person might look at it and say that 21-23 isn’t so bad at this point, but Royals fans have seen this too often. We are seven years into the Dayton Moore era, and the best players were on the roster before he got here. When is enough enough?
Dayton Moore said the team is not going to panic in the aftermath of the losing stretch.
“You know how people panic?” he asked. “We’re not going to panic. We’re not panicking. We are not panicking. I’m not going to make excuses for young players. I’m just not.
“I’ve seen a lot of them come up and do well. But we do have a lot of them in the lineup … We’ll be all right.”
Certainly, just a couple of games under .500 heading to Memorial Weekend isn’t a cause for concern in and of itself. The problem is that when you look deeper, the early start was a bit of a fluke, and many of the indicators you would hope to see for long term progress just aren’t there. Moore has also preached patience and bizarrely said the fan base seeks instant gratification. Let’s compare the Royals era to all others where a team had three straight years with fewer than 70 wins (or its equivalent in a shortened year). That is the situation that Dayton Moore took over when he became general manager.
Since 1961, there have been 21 other stretches where a franchise won fewer than 70 games for at least three straight years. Eight of those were expansion teams in their first three years of existence, and we probably want to separate those out. If we start the clock running on the other 13 immediately after the third straight year of fewer than 70 wins, we can see how long it took each to get to a winning record.
The median result? Half of the teams had a winning record by two years later. If the Royals’ compatriot in post-1994 futility, the Pittsburgh Pirates, parlay their 29-18 start into a winning record, then all except one will have posted a winning record by year 6. Dayton Moore is in year 7 now. The only exception was the Detroit Tigers from 1994-1996, who took a decade to get to a winning record, maxing out at 79 wins in the years that followed that rough stretch.
Kansas City’s high, meanwhile, is 75 wins in the Dayton Moore era, and that came in year one, when his development and input would have had less impact than six years later. That’s the lowest of any of the previously existing franchises.
What if we compare the Royals to the expansion teams? Kansas City’s farm system was in rough shape, no doubt, but certainly, between the existing roster and farm system, was at least better off than your typical expansion team that struggled out of the gate. All of the expansion teams that won fewer than 70 games in each of their first three years took time to get going. Toronto was the earliest to post a winning record, four years later. Kansas City fans are a patient lot, and I think four years would have been a very positive outcome to produce a winner in Kansas City when Dayton Moore took over. Doable, but aggressive.
The median time to a winning record for our expansion teams that struggled early? Year seven. That’s right, this year for the Dayton Moore era. Only one went past year eight. That, of course, is those Seattle Mariners of my youth. Even compared to expansion teams starting from scratch and trying to build up, the Dayton Moore era Royals compare, at best, as a slightly below average team.
So the Royals front office wants to again preach patience. Meanwhile, they went with a slogan of “Our Time” last year, and went out and traded for James Shields this offseason. Shields has been fine, but has a 2-5 win-loss record despite a 2.49 ERA because the offense is dreadful. The issue with the trade is that–like when the Oakland Raiders traded picks for Richard Seymour to the Patriots, the team not as close to winning traded the future for the present. Shields will be long gone from KC and a GM preaching patience sure didn’t act like it.
Meanwhile, the heart of this team is still Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, two players who preceded the Moore era. Gordon has been great again, but is largely wasted. Meanwhile, there are four batters in the lineup with an OPS under .620. Two of them are Moore favorites who inexplicably keep getting opportunities year after year; two were supposed building blocks for the future. Chris Getz, with his .586 OPS, led off the game last night. Jeff Francouer was so good that Wil Myers was expendable, and again is the worst right fielder in the league (.259 on base percentage, .321 slugging). Mike Moustakas is struggling mightily, and Alcides Escobar has predictably regressed as a hitter after a surprising season, though the issue there is hitting him 2nd. I didn’t even get to Eric Hosmer, who has been a disappointment so far, but isn’t even near those others in terms of struggles.
So the Royals are seven years in. Maybe they bounce back this year. There are still no homegrown pitchers to build for the future already at the majors, and the draft picks have been underwhelming. The only thing present, seven years in, is still hope and promise.
At some point, the Royals need to actually be less patient. That doesn’t mean trading for re-treads in win now mode. It does mean not tolerating undetermined promises of the future, when the present has already underwhelmed what even the most underachieving of expansion franchises accomplished.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]