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There’s light at the end of the Royals tunnel

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They have to win again eventually, right?

New York Mets v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals won their 2015 championship on the back of a decade-long tank. Whether on purpose or through sheer incompetence, they managed to go nine-straight years without a winning record prior to their emergence in 2013 and back-to-back World Series runs the following seasons.

Their, um, efforts netted them Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Mike Moustakas in the first round in a string of excellent drafts. All three played pivotal roles in their championship, and all three were drafted within the first three picks of their respective drafts. Not exactly difficult choices to make, but they also drafted Lorenzo Cain in the fifth round and signed Salvador Pérez as a 16-year-old. They definitely deserve credit for making the right choices, even if they were put into relatively easy positions.

Since their World Series win over the Mets, though, they’ve nosedived straight back into tanksville. A pair of .500 seasons followed their victory parade, and they won a combined 117 games over the last two seasons. They’re starting to run up against an issue that most championship teams find themselves facing in the years following a championship: How long does the good will last?

It’s hard to argue with consecutive World Series appearances culminating in a win, but eventually, you have to figure it’s time to start winning another one instead of reminiscing about the past. Could you imagine being a fan of a team and constantly fantasizing about an eighth-inning, game-tying home run in Game 7 of the World Series that briefly changed your whole world before THE RAIN DELAY RUINED EVERYTHING AND NOW MY LIFE IS IN SHAMBLES.

I sure can’t.

If the Royals are going to get back to their winning ways, it probably be in 2020. PECOTA projects them to win around 67 games with, shockingly, a 0% chance of winning the AL Central. A nine-game improvement over last year, but not much more than a casual nod in the right direction.

That doesn’t mean they are completely void of talent, though. Whit Merrifield is a great second baseman/outfielder/whatever who has been a consistently above-average bat and be counted on for solid defense where he’s put in the field. ZiPS and Steamer each have him contributing 2.1-or-more wins in 2020 with 14 home runs. He would have looked mighty good in an Indians uniform, but it looks like that ship has sailed.

Merrifield is 31, though. Whenever the next round of Royals winning comes, he probably won’t be there. Unlike, say, shortstop Aldaberto Mondesi has put up two-win seasons the last two years without even playing full-time. Last season in 102 games he slashed .263/.291/.424 with nine home runs and one of the best gloves at short in the game. Similarly, 28-year-old outfielder Jorge Soler put on an absolute gun show last season, hitting 48 home runs and playing a part in every single Royals game. He finished the season slashing .265/.354/.569 for a wRC+ of 136 — projection systems don’t see him slowing down.

The last remnants of their 2015 team are still clinging to baseball life but probably won’t factor in much. Kansas City just can’t seem to quit Alex Gordon, even as his defense slips and offense continues to drop well into his 30’s. Danny Duffy is still a decent starter, but hardly the No. 1 pitcher he’ll be propped up as in 2020. Greg Holland departed for Colorado following the 2015 World Series and returns as a non-roster invite looking to make a bullpen that had the second-worst ERA in the majors last season. Salvador Pérez, the contact-machine of a hitter who never walks but still hits 20 home runs every year is somehow only 29 and not a free agent until 2022.

Pérez missed all of 2019 after damaging his UCL and requiring Tommy John Surgery. But in 2018, he was still hitting the ball as hard as ever — in the top 8%, according to Baseball Savant. I always thought his defense was highly overrated in the Royals’ championship years, and now that we have advanced measurements of everything a catcher does, it’s clear he’s not a great framer, but he does have excellent pop time behind the dish.

Quality pitching is sparse in Kansas City, but their reliance on college pitchers in the 2018 draft means we could be seeing a new wave of arms hitting the AL Central sooner rather than later. Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Jonathan Bowlan were all drafted that year, and one or more of them could debut as early as this season. Their top prospect, 2019 second-overall pick Bobby Witt Jr., is still a few years away from debuting as he works his way up from rookie ball as a 19-year-old shortstop.

When the Royals are ready to competing again, they’ll have an influx in cash thanks to new owner John Sherman, who last year took his $1.5 billion net-worth and left Cleveland to purchase his hometown Kansas City Royals. They’ll also be entering a new era without their longtime coach Ned Yost, who retired in the offseason and was replaced with Mike Matheny.; a lateral move at best.

The Royals are still in the trench of a deep rebuild, but the first rays of a winning team can maybe be seen in the distance if you squint hard enough. Right now, though, they are not much more than fodder for the Big Three atop the AL Central.