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The historically awful Royals and Orioles can teach us something about baseball

Four years ago, these two teams met in the ALCS. What happened?

On Oct. 10, 2014, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, the Royals had the bases loaded and no outs in the top of the ninth inning. The score was tied, 5-5, Zach Britton had thrown 10 straight balls, and the world was on fire. The Camden Yards crowd was 47,124 strong, and roughly 47,124 of them wanted to throw up.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter left Britton in, and on a 3-2 pitch, Eric Hosmer grounded into a forceout at home. A pitching change and seven pitches later, a double play ended the inning. The threat was over. The crowd was as delirious and loud as any in baseball that year.

It was still raucous in the bottom of the ninth, with the Orioles having a chance to walk off, except Wade Davis was at the peak of his powers. The untouchable Royals setup man struck out the side on 11 pitches, with each strikeout coming on a swing and a miss.

The buzz turned into a murmur, and it would all end shortly after, but everyone there and everyone watching at home was thinking the same thing: What a baseball game. What an incredible baseball game.

What a beautiful, perfect baseball game these Royals and Orioles are playing right now.

The Royals and Orioles are playing a series this weekend, and there’s a strong chance that an outfielder will swallow a rosin bag on a pickoff attempt. There won’t be anyone on base at the time, but the inning will end when the batter swings at the pickoff attempt.

The Royals and Orioles weren’t always historically awful. There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that they were merely awful.

For years and years, one right after the other, both teams were reliably bad. The mechanical precision was almost admirable. From 1998 to 2011, the Royals and Orioles combined for three third-place finishes, 15 fourth-place finishes, 10 last-place finishes, and exactly one season over .500. The average record of the two teams during those 14 seasons was 69-93. They were bad. Predictably bad. Over and over again.

And then they weren’t. There was a moment when both of them were beautiful, glistening dragonflies. The Royals and Orioles weren’t just watchable — they were fearsome, talented teams playing each other for the chance to go to the World Series. It was as if both teams were a part of the same inspirational movement, pulling themselves out of the muck and the mire and screaming, “No! We have had enough! We will not be your punchlines anymore!” The montage was filled with dudes in suits mumbling different things in a draft war room, and it wasn’t very exciting, but the results were unexpectedly thrilling.

That was 1,415 rotations on Earth’s axis ago, which is approximately 41 years in baseball time. Now we’re in a brand new era. The Royals and Orioles aren’t just bad; they’re as bad as they’ve ever been. They’re as bad as anyone has ever been.

This is the search for how this happened. How can two teams meet in the ALCS, at the top of professional baseball, then just four years later be on a collision course for 220 losses? How can two teams climb a perilous mountain for more than a decade, reach the summit, and then tumble down almost immediately? How, how, how?

According to SB Nation’s research, between 2014 and 2018, the Royals and Orioles each made a series of transactions that made their respective rosters substantially worse.

Alright, yes. Technically, that’s what happened.

But the details, man. The details. Consider that neither team was willing to embark upon one of the major rebuilding efforts that were so trendy. Both teams puttered around and added veterans here and veterans there, while never trading their younger, more valuable players. They kept trying to add. They kept thinking they were contenders, and sometimes they were right. Kind of.

Let’s start with the offseason after the 2014 campaign. Both teams almost reached the summit. Both teams fell just short. Their respective fan bases were energized like they hadn’t been in two decades. They had stars and fan favorites on the roster, and everyone inside and outside the building was hungry. There was never a better offseason to pounce.

The Royals pounced.

The Orioles napped.

The Orioles looked at their roster after making it all the way to the American League Danged Championship Series, slapped Travis Snider on it, and called it a winter.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s every acquisition they made between the end of the postseason and Opening Day, 2015:

What the Orioles did after 2014

Transaction 2015 playing time 2015 WAR
Transaction 2015 playing time 2015 WAR
Traded Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley for Travis Snider 236 PA 1
Signed Paul Janish as a free agent. 36 PA 0.2
Signed Chaz Roe as a free agent. 41.1 IP 0.2
Signed Delmon Young as a free agent. 180 PA 0.2
Signed Oliver Drake as a free agent. 15.2 IP 0.1
Signed Osvaldo Martinez as a free agent. 0 0
Selected Alex Hassan off waivers from the Oakland Athletics. 0 0
Purchased Scott Barnes from the Cleveland Indians. 0 0
Signed Eddie Gamboa as a free agent. 0 0
Drafted Sean Halton from the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2014 rule 5 draft. 0 0
Drafted Logan Verrett from the New York Mets in the 2014 rule 5 draft. 0 0
Signed Matt Tuiasosopo as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Wesley Wright as a free agent. 1.2 0
Signed Cesar Cabral as a free agent. 1 IP 0
Signed J.P. Arencibia as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Dane De La Rosa as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Mark Hendrickson as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Julio Borbon as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Jayson Nix as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Elih Villanueva as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Pedro Beato as a free agent. 0 0
Purchased Audry Perez from the Colorado Rockies. 0 0
Signed Rey Navarro as a free agent. 30 PA -0.1
Purchased Jason Garcia from the Houston Astros. 29.2 IP -0.1
Signed Steve Johnson as a free agent. 5.1 -0.1
Signed Chris Parmelee as a free agent. 102 PA -0.1
Signed Nolan Reimold as a free agent. 195 PA -0.1
Selected Ryan Lavarnway off waivers from the Chicago Cubs. 32 PA -0.3
Signed Everth Cabrera as a free agent. 105 PA -0.9

If you add up the rWAR, you get zero on the nose. Not 0.1, not 0.2. Zero. The Orioles made a flurry of transactions, but they might as well have taken the whole offseason off. It was all replacement level anyway.

Can we call the Orioles apathetic if their commitment to apathy takes an extreme level of effort? What a paradox. The Orioles absolutely had to try very hard to come up with an offseason that underwhelming. Delmon Young is on the above list, but he was re-signed, if that helps you appreciate the inactivity even more.

In 2014, the Orioles had the 15th-highest payroll in Major League Baseball. In 2015, with newly entitled fans who had sipped from the bejeweled goblet of success and begged for more, they pushed that payroll all the way to 17th.

Compare that offseason to the one that the Royals enjoyed:

What the Royals did after 2014

Transaction 2015 playing time 2015 WAR
Transaction 2015 playing time 2015 WAR
Signed Edinson Volquez as a free agent. 200.1 IP 2.6
Signed Chris Young as a free agent. 123.1 IP 2.6
Signed Kendrys Morales as a free agent. 639 PA 2.4
Signed Ryan Madson as a free agent. 63.1 IP 1.1
Signed Franklin Morales as a free agent. 62.1 IP 0.8
Signed Yohan Pino as a free agent. 19.1 IP 0.3
Signed Joe Blanton as a free agent. 41.2 IP 0.3
Signed Kris Medlen as a free agent. 58.1 IP 0.2
Traded Liam Hendriks to the Toronto Blue Jays. Received Santiago Nessy 0 0
Signed Joe Paterson as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Ryan Roberts as a free agent. 0 0
Traded Kyle Bartsch (minors) to the San Diego Padres. Received Rey Fuentes. 0 0
Purchased Ryan Jackson from the Los Angeles Dodgers. 0 0
Signed Jason Frasor as a free agent. 0 0
Traded Aaron Crow to the Miami Marlins. Received Reid Redman (minors) and Brian Flynn. 0 0
Purchased Jandel Gustave from the Boston Red Sox. 0 0
Traded Johnny Giavotella to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Received Brian Broderick. 0 0
Signed Roman Colon as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Mitch Maier as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Alex Liddi as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Brian Bocock as a free agent. 0 0
Signed J.C. Boscan as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Jose Martinez as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Casey Kotchman as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Ramon Castro as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Rafael Furcal as a free agent. 0 0
Signed Luke Hochevar as a free agent 50.2 IP -0.1
Signed Dusty Coleman as a free agent. 5 PA -0.2
Signed Alex Rios as a free agent. 411 PA -1.1

The Royals added about nine wins above replacement to their roster. Considering that the Orioles finished 81-81 and neither wild card team above them won more than 87 games, you can see how they might have been better off with a few extra wins.

That apathy wasn’t just an offseason thing, either. During the season, the Royals made trades that helped improve their roster, adding Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist at the deadline, even though they were eight games up in the AL Central.

The Orioles were a game away from the second wild card spot at the deadline, and all they did was trade for Gerardo Parra (who was, to be fair, having a fine season). He became the team’s biggest transaction for the entire season.

The Royals won the World Series.

The Orioles did not. And it really didn’t seem like they were interested in the chance.

If I ended right there, that section would have been a corker of a column to drop before the 2016 season. The Royals tried. The Orioles did not. So simple.

But we’re here in the future, where we know that the Royals and Orioles are still trapped in the same mess, even though the Royals tried and briefly succeeded to not be the Orioles. So something must have happened in Kansas City, too.

It’s easy and predictable to blame both teams’ problems on money. After all, Kansas City is one of the smallest markets in baseball, and Baltimore wasn’t a behemoth even before the Expos moved 35 miles away. The Royals couldn’t afford to keep all of their fan favorites, and when the Orioles made the mistake of committing to Chris Davis, they limited what they could do with their roster for years.

But money doesn’t explain why these teams are so bad.

Here, pretend the Royals spent this offseason. Pretend they kept all of their free agents from last season. Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain are back for a cool $175 million (hometown discount). And because those two are back, the Royals don’t bother trading Mike Moustakas or Kelvin Herrera at the deadline. Because they’re contending, see, in this little alternate reality.

Are current AL Central leaders Cleveland Indians scared in this alternate reality? Oh, buddy, they are not. Let’s say that replacing the merry-go-round of yuck in center field with Cain gives the Royals a cool ten wins. Give them another four for Hosmer replacing Lucas Duda, even if that’s wildly optimistic, and slap on a few more for improved morale and the continued employment of Moustakas and Herrera.

Let’s say all that happens: The Royals are still about a dozen games under .500, give or take. Not only are they still out of contention, but they’re saddled with onerous contracts that will hurt their ability to reinforce the team when they are contending.

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

The Orioles are a slightly different story. They could have used some well-targeted spending coming off that ALCS, but we also can’t assume they wouldn’t have ended up with, say, Pablo Sandoval and James Shields if they went on a spending spree. But there was a way to turn that 81-81 season into a wild card berth.

Focus on this year’s team, though. Give the Orioles two of the top free agents in each of the last four offseasons. Pretend that Jeff Bezos bought the team and didn’t say something dumb about space being the only way to spend his billions. Pretend they have twice the payroll of the second-most expensive team after this wild spree.

Are they scaring the Yankees and Red Sox this season? Oh, buddy, they are not. The Orioles are still a mess in this scenario, and now they’re saddled with the silliest contracts imaginable.

So fault the Orioles for not spending when their window was open. Fault them for spending on Alex Cobb when the window was closed. Dumb birds have a way of flying into closed windows, after all. But don’t pin all of their problems on an unwillingness to be a top-five spender. Don’t pin most of their problems on that. This goes for the Royals, too. Or any team, really.

The Royals and Orioles might be small-market teams (or act like it), but that’s not even close to a primary factor in their march toward a billionty losses.

The best way to explain the decline and fall of the Royals and Orioles is by reverse-engineering how they contended in the first place. The Royals built a lineup with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Alex Gordon, all of whom came in the draft. They augmented that with Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, both of whom came when Zack Greinke — another draft success — was traded away. The easiest and most accurate way to explain the Royals’ renaissance is simply by pointing to the draft. They had a run of success that most teams don’t see for decades. The Padres are still waiting for something like it after 50 seasons.

The current Royals haven’t had have anything close to a run like that since. Whit Merrifield is the only current contributor who was drafted since Hosmer was selected in 2008. Other players are still contributing somewhere (Wil Myers in San Diego, Sean Manaea in Oakland), but the post-Hosmer draftscape has been startling dry. The Royals this season are historically bad instead of regular bad because they’ve received almost zero help from their drafts.

If you’re feeling overly generous, you can explain the lack of recent draft success away as bad luck. If you’re feeling rightfully cynical, you can look back at how the Royals built their championship team and realize something disturbing: All of those good players were picked near the top of the first round, and it’s possible that they were so talented, they were Royals-proof.

That isn’t to take away the Royals’ successful development — some of it painfully methodical — of Gordon, Moustakas, and Hosmer. In a different organization, perhaps they don’t succeed in the same fashion. Still, Gordon was a second-overall pick, as was Moustakas. Hosmer was a third-overall pick. If you trace Cain and Escobar back to Greinke, the most successful Royals draft pick since George Brett, you’ll note that he was selected sixth. The Royals needed to pick in the top of the first round to find success because they sure weren’t getting a lot of help from their second-, third-, or 10th-round picks.

And if the Royals had whiffed on those high first-round picks, like they did with Bubba Starling, Christian Colon, Kyle Zimmer, and Hunter Dozier? That’s the kind of thing that can lead to 100 losses by the second week of September, apparently. It might be unfair to suggest that Gordon, Moustakas, and Hosmer were a mirage, players so talented they succeeded despite the Royals and not because of them.

It might be totally accurate, though.

It’s possible that the Royals made several deft selections thanks to a mixture of providence and baseball acumen, and built a championship team because their blueprint was better than the rest of baseball’s.

It’s also possible the Royals stumbled on talented players even they couldn’t screw up.

The Orioles are in a similar developmental rut, but the reasons for their original success is much harder to explain in a sentence. They made shrewd trades for Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and Chris Tillman. They were aggressive and creative in their search for starting pitching, swooping up Wei-Yin Chen and polishing the imperfections of Miguel Gonzalez and Steve Pearce. They had a steady pipeline of valuable relievers. They picked their spots to spend, and it would occasionally work out. And, yes, they also drafted Manny Machado, which was probably the biggest move of all.

The Orioles since then have ... not done any of this. With Machado, Gausman, Zach Britton, and Jonathan Schoop gone, the most valuable homegrown player on the current roster might be Trey Mancini, who is currently rocking a -0.9 WAR. Unless it’s Caleb Joseph, the part-time catcher with a .588 OPS. Unless it’s Dylan Bundy, who has a very real chance to allow as many home runs this year as he had allowed in his career coming into the season.

Tornoto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Drafting has been a miserable failure since Machado, yes, but there’s also the strange case of the Orioles and the international market. The Orioles approach the international market as if owner Peter Angelos was told by a fortune teller that he would be murdered by a prospect from a different country. They had exactly one international free agent on their major league roster this year, Jonathan Schoop, but he was traded away in July. They aren’t just less active in these markets than other teams; they’re aggressively and strategically inactive, often trading away international bonus money so they can’t sign players.

During the 2018 international signing period, the Orioles signed exactly two players, which tied them with the Braves for the fewest in baseball. The distinction, here, is that the Braves are in a timeout, put there by MLB for being naughty. In other words, the Orioles’ international market activity is reflective of a team that’s being punished, except no one is actually punishing them.

They’ve been doing this for years and years. The Blue Jays signed 53 international players in 2016; the Orioles signed five. The argument is apparently that money not spent on the international market is money that can be allocated to the major league roster.

Which is another way of saying that the Orioles traded 214 different prospects for Alex Cobb, give or take.

It didn’t work.

The Royals and Orioles have been absolutely elite at not developing players, albeit for different reasons. If a team decides to stay in the middle of the payroll pack, they absolutely must develop fresh players. It’s how baseball is built. This is where these two teams have failed the most, and it’s why they’re accidentally chasing the 1962 Mets.

There is also the matter of creativity. As in, neither the Royals nor Orioles have any.

The Oakland A’s are contending for a lot of reasons, but I’ll list three players to prove a point: Matt Chapman, Chad Pinder, and Matt Olson. That trio, all taken late in the first or second round, could have been included in the last section as proof that it’s possible to get franchise cornerstones and low-key contributors after the top five picks of the draft. But the A’s are in this position for another reason: Those are the only homegrown players contributing to their success this year.

Normally, having just three homegrown players on a 25-man roster would be a problem. The A’s, though, have been a frantic, twitching mass of transactions. If they aren’t exchanging veterans for underpaid players, they’re sniffing around the undervalued and unwanted. It didn’t take draft smarts or money to get Khris Davis. Someone with a vision figured out a way to weaponize Blake Treinen and his Newton-disproving sinker. The fliers they took on cheap starting pitchers on one-year deals are paying off.

This isn’t to say “be like the A’s” because I’m not entirely convinced the A’s can be like the A’s next year. Instead the point is, “do something that resembles anything.” The Royals were creative after winning the pennant, but they later got lazy and slapped a very expensive Ian Kennedy onto their roster because they went to the starting-pitcher store and didn’t want to leave empty handed. Their solution as they approached the contract apocalypse with Moustakas, Hosmer, and Cain was to overpay a sprinkling of free agents and hope it all worked out. It did not.

The Orioles are a shame because they used to be creative. They were willing to take chances on dinged up players and polish them. They weren’t active at all in Latin America, but they took chances in Asia and Australia that other teams weren’t. Either they’ve stopped taking those chances, or they are unable to execute them now. I’m not sure which one would be worse news.

The best way to describe the Orioles’ lack of creativity is to note that they let Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, and Ubaldo Jimenez start a combined 76 games for them last year, with a combined ERA of 6.57. Gee willikers, it sure is a sorry state of affairs, but there was nothing they could do but keep running them out there. Wish they could do something, but their hands were tied.

One of their solutions in the offseason was to sign Andrew Cashner, which was remarkably uncreative. It was like Peter Angelos said, in a fit of exasperation, “Isn’t there anyone cheap with a good ERA?” and didn’t listen to anything the front office said after that.

A team can survive if they whiff on a few drafts or free agents or international signing periods. But they’ll have to be creative. The Royals and Orioles couldn’t create their own Justin Turners from what was left in the bargain bin, and they couldn’t draft Eric Hosmers or Manny Machados because they didn’t have top-five draft picks anymore. Their solution was to find the most sincere and uncommercial pumpkin patch and wait all night for the Great Pumpkin.

It didn’t show up.

Also, it’s important to remember that, sometimes, shit just happens. When you’re gunning for historically awful, it sort of has to. Chris Davis is having one of the worst seasons in baseball history, which isn’t something that anyone should have predicted. Alex Gordon’s complete collapse was instant and unpredictable, even after accounting for age-related decline. One of the best stories of the Royals’ season, Jorge Soler, is on the DL with a broken foot. The only relievers the Orioles have who aren’t unfathomably awful are on the 60-day DL, which is pretty impressive if you think about it.

This is what separates the 2018 Orioles from the 2008 Orioles. This is what makes the Royals worse than all of the spectacularly untalented teams from the pre-Hosmer era. Both teams are rolling snake eyes after snake eyes, even though they’re supposed to be playing a game of cards. They would have been ghastly without the worst-case scenarios. But, here, have some worst-case scenarios, just because.

If you’re going to suck, you might as well chase history. That’s what I always say.

It’s also what the Royals and Orioles say, and I can respect that.

What we can learn from these two teams, then, are three universal truths about baseball.

1. Mid-market teams absolutely must develop a steady stream of prospects

The Royals and Orioles have developed almost no one. It’s not that they’re not developing stars; it’s that they’re not developing fringe starters.

They could maybe fake a half-interesting team like the Giants with a couple of minor farm successes and silly short-term moves, but only if they committed to a top-five payroll. That wouldn’t help anybody but the agents.

And I’m not sure if I need the “mid-market” designation, here. Teams like the Red Sox and Yankees needed to spit out prospects, one after the other, so that they could spend big-market money to supplement them. Even without spending any money, though, those two teams would have been fun to watch.

2. If those teams aren’t going to develop good players themselves, they’ll need to be creative and take these prospects from other teams

The Royals and Orioles might be on this path following some white-flag trades this July. We won’t know for a couple years, though. They sure didn’t get creative and attempt to pillage other teams before this.

3. If neither of these options are available, try not to fall into the pit filled with scorpions and millipedes

I regret to inform you that the Royals and Orioles have fallen into the pit filled with scorpions and millipedes.

If there’s good news, it’s that both teams will lead off the MLB Draft next year and probably the year after that. This will get the Royals back on that Hosmer-Gordon-Moustakas plan, and the Orioles might find their next Machado. Heck, the Orioles even acquired international-signing money on purpose this deadline. They might have convinced ownership that there are occasionally good players that come out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, wild as that might sound.*

* Update: The Orioles just gave all of that international money and a whole bunch more for a 23-year-old repeating rookie ball. Welp.

For now, though, we have two of the worst baseball teams the sport has seen in a generation, possibly even worse than the 2011-2013 Astros. That specific comparison might fill you with hope, and it’s a fun one for teams looking at a total and painful rebuild. The difference is that the New Astros were built by a front office that was entirely different from the Bad Astros’ front office. There are no guarantees the front offices will be different for either the Royals or Orioles.

Here are two teams meeting in the American League Championship Series, with a pennant on the line. Here they are four years later, playing like two of the worst expansion teams of all time. It took utter neglect when it came to player development. It took a dull, contented, almost apathetic approach to roster-building. And it took more than a pinch of lousy luck.

It takes a special kind of failure to fall from the top of the sport to these depths in a few short years. The worst part might be that both fan bases are absolutely aware that this doesn’t have to end after a simple, quick three-year rebuilding plan. Both fan bases are well aware that baseball purgatory is real and awful, and they’re both aware that it can last for more than a decade.

They were just in the ALCS a few minutes ago, I swear. They were just in the ALCS, and it was great, you gotta believe me ...


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