This is an article based on an unprovable hypothesis. It takes leaps of faith, makes unsubstantiated claims and arrives at the conclusion before searching for supporting evidence. In short, this is my kind of article. Hypothetical baseball is the best kind of baseball because you can just make it up. Real baseball gets a little too science-fiction for me.
In this land of infinite hypothetical scenarios, we'll make exactly one change. This change will lead to a hypothetical question. Don't worry about butterflies flapping their wings and eventually making your grandmother leave your grandfather for a circus strongman. Everything else happens more or less as it really did. The timeline snaps back into place, and we're here at the end of July, with the exact same standings around the league and the exact same rosters.
The only change is this: Jarrod Dyson doesn't steal third in the ninth inning 2014 AL Wild Card Game. Norichika Aoki flies out harmlessly. Lorenzo Cain hits into bad luck. Game over. Royals get a participation ribbon in the 2014 postseason.
The hypothetical question is this: What are the Royals doing right now at the trade deadline?
For supporting evidence, we look at what the Royals did last year, when they were 55-52 and four games back at the deadline.
July 28, 2014
Traded Danny Valencia to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Liam Hendriks and Erik Kratz.
Mmhmm. And the last time they were contending at the deadline before that?
July 28, 2003
Traded Jeremy Hill to the New York Mets. Received Graeme Lloyd.
July 31, 2003
Purchased Al Levine from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Right. Last year's inactive deadline came with Dayton Moore in charge. The one from 2003 is probably irrelevant, but helps point out just how long it's been since the Royals bullied other, less fortunate teams at the deadline. It's been decades since the Royals decided that the present was more valuable than the future. Last season was their best chance in 11 years, and the Royals were still more concerned with holding on to their future assets.
If the Royals make the Wild Card Game last year but don't make it into the postseason -- that is, the real postseason behind the velvet rope -- I'm guessing they're being very, very mellow right now. It would be a very trust-the-process deadline, with Moore excited about the Royals' chances, but not enough to trade arms of the future like Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea. Both of those pitchers were the kind of currency the Royals would hide under the mattress in past seasons.
While you might look at a list like this ...
... all the Royals' pitching prospects to make Baseball America's top-100 list in the past 20 years:
...and think something like, "Prospects will break your heart," the Royals looked at it like, "We're due to hit on one of these suckers, just wait." Trusting the process meant that there was some future date in the sacred texts when everything would coalesce. The hitters would join the hurlers, the utility player would lie down with the superstar and the prophecies would come true, verily.
This was the plan, this was always the plan, except for the one time Moore went out on a limb and traded his very best prospect for a starting pitcher. The rebuke was swift and loud, especially after it became clear that was pretty much the only move the team was going to make. And if the Shields trade netted the Royals one measly Wild Card game, it would have been natural for Moore and the Royals to crawl back into their comfortable shell.
If Dyson doesn't steal third like a wild man, my hypothesis is that the Royals are still waiting around for the roster to come to them.
But Dyson did steal third, and he eventually scored the tying run in one of the greatest wins in Royals history. From there, they won 10 more games in the postseason, looking as dominant for stretches as any postseason team in recent memory. They took the momentum into the 2015 season, and they're a fully functional death machine right now. Including the postseason, the Royals are 101-61 in their last 162 games.
Does that feel like a team built for the future? No, that's a team built for the now in a way that we couldn't comprehend just a year ago. The Royals are a team that rammed through the city walls on the back a mastodon, and they're yelling for everyone to clamber through. I'm not sure if that feeling is there without the inspiring postseason run, especially one in which the powers of an invincible bullpen were featured so prominently.
Moore talked with MLB Trade Rumors about the Ben Zobrist trade:
Certainly the play of our team and how our players have responded gives us more motivation to make moves ...
but we've always tried to do whatever we could at the deadline to make our team better for the second half, even when we weren't competing.
Well, I'm focusing on the first part because it reinforces my thesis. At least, in part. Maybe the excellent play of the Royals this season would have been enough, regardless of what happened in the Wild Card Game. Maybe it would have been obvious to any and every baseball executive that this was the season the Royals needed to go for it.
The taste of the World Series, though, that gaze into that land of wonders, is still what I'm crediting.
Regardless of why it happened, who here was ready for Moore to be so danged ready for this type of team? The team needed an ace. Moore went into the woods and came back with an ace. The team needed an infielder, preferably one who could play the outfield, too. Moore came back with the best player to match that description in the last 10 years.
As for what the Royals gave up, well, maybe they gave up a future Zack Greinke, or maybe they gave up a future Jimmy Gobble. The other teams seem happy with their new prospects. The Royals are just happy with their new, excellent major leaguers, who are here to help right now.
Five seasons ago, the Royals had the best farm system in baseball, and it wasn't especially close. The idea was that most of the top prospects would pan out, because that's the cycle of life. There were detours and plot twists, though, as there always are. When the Royals tripped into a postseason spot (by outperforming their Pythagorean record), it was fun, but it hardly seemed like the start of a dynasty.
What the Royals have done since then has made it obvious that they're relevant now and for the immediate future, enough to where it made sense to set pieces of the distant future on fire. The process produced the homegrown talent. The process caulked the holes around that talent. Look at the damned Royals right now. Maybe I should have trusted the process just a little bit more.
I can't help but wonder, though, if everything would have been the same without that one stolen base in the ninth inning of a Wild Card game in which the Royals had no earthly business coming back. It might have been -- if you're willing to squint with me and assume things you shouldn't assume -- the turning point of a franchise.
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