It’s the All-Star Break. We’re about 16 days from the non-waiver trade deadline. The Royals stand 6.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. They are two games above .500. They are 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. They own the sixth best record in the AL.
They are in the thick of the Wild Card race.
When Major League Baseball expanded the playoffs to include an additional Wild Card entry, the thought was adding another spot would add more competition. Leagues always love more competition. (They also love the money that goes along with ginning up more competition in the form of expanded playoffs, but that’s another story.) With one more Wild Card team, that meant a total of five teams would play in the post season. More postseason teams, more postseason money. Win-win. An October bonanza.
Except that it’s my belief the second Wild Card spot has been incredibly damaging to small market teams like the Royals.
A few years into this new playoff scheme, teams haven’t figured how to manage the second Wild Card. It inevitably creates an illusion of “being in the thick” of the race. It’s rare when five teams create separation between themselves and the rest of the league. What it does is creates a logjam of teams, jockeying for a single position, inert at the trading deadline, and mortgaging the future for a present where the odds are stacked against them.
Just look at this year’s American League standings
There are three teams that are clearly the cream of the crop. The A’s have the league’s best record and the best run differential. The Angels are the hottest team in the league at the Break and are just a game and a half off the pace in the West. And the third team is the Detroit Tigers, who have, after a rocky June, have gotten back on track and are now 15 games better than .500.
Three teams representing two divisions. Under the old Wild Card rules, the Angels would be running away from the rest of the pack. (The Wild Card renders what would be some wonderful division battles irrelevant, but again, that’s another story.)
Under the old Wild Card rules, this race is just about over. Their division rival Mariners are hanging around, and they do still have 10 games left to play against the Angels, so while they are still almost six full games out, they could mount a comeback. Although with their offense, that seems a longshot. (Royals fans know all about what poor offenses do to quality pitching and defense.)
Looking at the standings as presented above, you would think the remaining four teams on the table: the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Yankees and the Indians would have a solid reality check. They would see the two best teams in the American League live in the Western Division and that the one team that didn’t win the division would likely be the sole Wild Card representative. The teams in the back hovering around .500 could look at their rosters, easily assess they are not of the same class as either the A’s and the Angels and they would start jockeying for position as the trade deadline approached as it pertained to the Wild Card.
In other words, those teams would be sellers.
Now, look at the landscape under the current rules:
Nothing changes at the top. The Angels (or A’s, whichever team finishes second in the AL West) remain prohibitive favorites to play beyond the regular season. By expanding the race to include a second Wild Card, the Mariners – outsiders under the old rules, by almost a week’s worth of games – are now playing the Angels in the “play-in game.” (Or whatever dumb name MLB has given the one-game Wild Card match.) And the lead has been cut by a cool 6.5 games.
By adding that second Wild Card, everyone moves forward in the line. Now, instead of finding themselves as rank outsiders, the Jays, Royals, Yankees and Indians are in the pack. They have a chance. And when you have a chance, you can’t sell. Even if you should.
This is where the second Wild Card cripples teams like the Royals. They have a handful of tradable players. James Shields has around 15 starts remaining in his Royals career. Wade Davis is going make $7 million next year coming out of the bullpen. Greg Holland is eligible for arbitration for a second time and will make more than Davis. Billy Butler has a club option ranging from $12.5 to $14.5 million. That’s just to name four players. (Although I can’t imagine any team in baseball giving the Royals anything for Butler. Although Seattle has been rumored to have interest.)
The Royals find themselves in the exact same spot as last year. They are in a cluster of teams within a few games of the Wild Card. That means they are in baseball limbo. Intertia. Paralyzed between the lure of October and the reality of the competition.
We’re heard ad nauseam the Royals are “all-in” in 2014. If that isn’t true, they are certainly “pot committed” at this point. They aren’t good enough to gain separation from the pack of mediocrity, yet they aren’t bad enough to throw in the towel on this season to look to the future. It’s an unfortunate situation. Their hands are tied. But it’s not something the Royals have done wrong. They’ve built a team designed to hover around .500. The American League is rife with average teams. This year, average gets you into the conversation. And while you’re in the conversation, you can’t punt on the season.
I see frustration from a segment of fans. Those fans want the Royals to sell. This segment feels the Royals are blind in their belief they can qualify for the postseason. While I agree that actually grabbing the final Wild Card spot seems like a pipe dream, the reality is the team is definitely in the mix. Nevermind the flaws you may see with this team. (And believe me, there are plenty of flaws.) All the teams in the Royals cohort have flaws. That’s why they are all bunched together. They just happen to have fewer flaws than the Rangers, Red Sox, Astros, Rays, Twins and White Sox. The reality says the Royals are 2.5 games out with 68 games remaining. They are at the forward of this mediocre group, meaning there aren’t six teams to leapfrog. As of this writing, they are the first team on the outside. As I mentioned at the top of this post, they have the sixth best record in the AL.
This weekend has been terribly frustrating. It’s the exclamation point on a slide that started when the Royals reached the summit of the Central for the briefest of moments. The Tigers have flipped the script, kicked the Royals ass in a four game series, winning three and now stand 6.5 games in front. I get the tendency to react to that. To say the Royals aren’t good enough. I agree. The Royals aren’t good enough to win the division.
But they are in the mix for the Wild Card. You may think this team isn’t very good. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. What matters is there is a cluster of teams that are battling for that final spot and those teams as a collective aren’t very good. As it stands, 87 wins will take the second Wild Card. Last year, it was 92 wins. The year before, it was 93 wins. It’s not often a sub-90 win team takes a Wild Card spot, but there’s a strong probability that happens this season.
Are the Royals good enough to win 87 games?
Obviously, we will find out. The Royals close out July with three games at Boston, three in Chicago before returning home to play four against the Indians and three with the Twins. All 13 of those games are against teams currently under them in the Wild Card standings. Nine of those are against teams outside of the Wild Card conversation. This is the big stretch of the season. Not the four games this weekend against Detroit. The key stretch is the first two weeks after the All-Star Break. The Royals sorely need to grab some wins against the also-rans of the AL. If they can’t win nine of these 13, making a push, then it’s time to sell.
The odds are already stacked against the Royals. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at 14 percent. Fangraphs is a little more optimistic at 21%, but those odds place them behind Cleveland. Neither scenario is ideal. But the Royals are in a position that even if they win five of the 13, they could still be in the proverbial Wild Card mix. Which would lead them to think they are still in a position to strike. Which would be the wrong conclusion to draw.
The smart teams will be the teams that figure their position relative to the league. They will make moves not based on games back for the final Wild Card spot. They will make moves based on their talent in relation to the talent found on other teams in their competitive group.
And remember: No one has ever referred to the Royals as one of those “smart” teams.
Should the Royals be sellers at the deadline? I’m willing to give the Royals the two weeks post-Break. With a favorable schedule, it’s time for them to make a move. Still, I can’t help but think this is truly a .500 team. With a target of 81 wins, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Royals finished anywhere between 78 and 84 wins. Even in a year defined by mediocrity of the second Wild Card, that’s not going to be good enough. If they reach the last couple days of July with no improvement in the situation, then it’s time to sell.
But as I mentioned earlier, if they remain a handful of games back, they won’t sell. It will be frustrating, but such is the nature of baseball in 2014 with the second Wild Card.