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The Royals, the Nationals, and What it Takes to Keep Winning

Two of the Cardinals’ most recent opponents have one thing in common, yet seem to be worlds apart.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Cardinals keep winning, which means there are plenty of good, fun things to write about.

For me, I’ve been thinking, in light of the last couple series we’ve seen, about what it takes to win, and more importantly, keep winning. The Marlins don’t really figure into this column, as that Miami situation is such a mess that I essentially don’t include that franchise in any reasonable discussion of baseball teams. However, the Royals and the Washington Nationals both very much do.

See, there’s an interesting parallel between the Royals and the Nationals: both have been disappointments this year. Specifically, they’ve each been disappointing relative to expectations, even given wildly divergent expectations for each club. Up until recently, the Cardinals absolutely fell into this category as well; a club that, relative to what was expected of it, and what was seen as possible, had been a major disappointment. As we sit here this morning, the real disappointment now would be to see the Cardinals finish just short of a postseason berth, seeing as how much of a roll they’re currently on, but that’s really neither here nor there. Or perhaps it is either here or there, but we’ll come back to that later on.

Obviously, the expectations for the Nationals and Royals coming into the season were very, very different. The Nationals were staring down the last season of the Bryce Harper era, and potentially their last ride on the contender’s train for a bit. Or, at least, their last season of being the dominant force in what had been a brutally awful division for several years but looked close to a turnaround. The Phillies were nearing the end of their rebuild, the Braves looked close to coming out of theirs. The Mets had the pitching to be dangerous, and just enough offense to back up the arms, the thought process went. The Nationals were still going to be the big bullies on the block in 2018, but it would probably be the last season they would occupy that position.

The Royals, on the other hand, already saw their last hurrah come and go. That upstart club that thrilled the baseball world in 2014 and ‘15 was gone. The last, desperate attempts to hold on to that club had netted a couple unsuccessful runs at contention in ‘16 and ‘17, all the while keeping the club from being able to sell pieces off and try to rebuild. The Royals had kept the band together, and whether you admired the attempt or not, it was clear they had failed in trying for one last run at glory. The 2018 Royals were going to be a bad team, and there was basically nothing they could do about it.

Fast forward to mid-August, and both clubs have been disappointments. The Nationals are struggling just to keep themselves in Wild Card contention, as the rest of the division arrived early and Washington is having one of those periodic car crash seasons they’ve become somewhat infamous for. Harper himself is having a very frustrating season, with a slightly elevated strikeout rate and a BABIP fully 50 points below his career rate combining to tamp down his offensive value in what was expected to be a gigantic walk year performance. (To be fair, the fact Harper is seen as having a hugely disappointing season in a year when he’s likely going to end up in the 3.5-4.0 win range by the end is indicative of both his talent and also perhaps the lack of perspective a lot of people seem to have regarding Harper himself.)

Max Scherzer is going to win another Cy Young award, and is looking more and more likely to be Cooperstown bound, but the bullpen has basically torpedoed the Nats’ chances of pushing for a championship before Harper leaves. They’re a full seven games worse than their Pythagorean record would suggest they should be, but even 67-53 would feel a little light, considering the kind of talent the Nationals have had to build around.

Meanwhile, the Royals have been...bad. Which, yes, I said up above they were expected to be bad, so how could they really be that much of a disappointment? Well, because the Kansas City Royals coming into the season were expected to be bad, but like, garden-variety bad. Not historically, all-time bad, which is what they have been. The Royals of 2018 are one of the worst baseball teams you will ever see, period. If it weren’t for the dumpster fire that is the 2018 Baltimore Orioles, the Royals would be in a class of their own as far as futility goes. That they are not a bigger story than they are is sort of miraculous, honestly.

So here we have two clubs, both recently beaten up by the Cardinals (though the final tally in the Washington-St. Louis series is still TBD, obviously), both of whom have been big-time disappointments this season relative to what was expected of them. And yet, we also have two clubs that really couldn’t be further apart in terms of how they are perceived around the game right now.

The Royals are, as stated earlier, just now entering into the darkest part of a long, long rebuilding period. The farm system was nearly barren coming into the season, and is only a little better now, thanks in large part to getting a couple of very notable college pitchers in the draft this June. Those bullets won’t be enough to expedite the process all that much, though; the Royals simply let too many assets walk away without getting anything in return, and did a terrible job of replenishing their pipeline of minor league talent when they weren’t picking at the top of the draft. The good news there, of course, is that it looks like they will now be picking at the top of the draft again for quite a while, so they’ve got that leg up on the league again.

The Nationals, in contrast, while disappointing in the moment, certainly, are still very much seen as within their window of contention, even with Harper likely leaving after this season and Scherzer moving into his mid 30s. Why? Well, because they’ve done a fantastic job of continuing to pump out talent, that’s why. Now, admittedly, part of why they’ve been so good for so long is that they stayed bad just long enough to pull in a few extra high draft picks (Anthony Rendon sixth overall, anyone?), and also because they just happened to have the first overall pick in back-to-back drafts with generational talents at the top. When you’ve got Harper-Strasburg-Rendon-Zimmerman around which to build, you can do some things.

But more than anything, what the Nationals have done is invest wisely in a few big pieces here and there, such as Scherzer in free agency or Trea Turner in that bizarre three-way trade that netted the Rays Stephen Souza, the Nats Turner, and the Padres...Matt Kemp. Every once in awhile, really dumb things still happen, everyone. Just remember that.

The Nationals’ window is still open after this season — even with the road admittedly getting tougher due to the division getting better, as acknowledged earlier — because they’ve done things to make sure their talent doesn’t drop off a cliff after Bryce Harper rides off into the sunset.

And one other thing: the Nationals have gotten lucky.

See, Washington currently features one of the most amazing stories in all of baseball in nineteen year old Juan Soto, notable for both his incredible hitting prowess — wRC+ of 158, strikeout to walk ratio approaching 1:1 — and the fact he is, you know, nineteen. He got to the big leagues faster than anyone since Alex Rodriguez, and may be the greatest teenaged hitter of all time. Juan Soto is the sort of player that makes it possible to lose Bryce Harper and still have your window of contention propped open, even if not quite as wide as before.

So while the Royals are heading down into a deep, dark abyss, the Nationals are likely entering a bit of a transitional period, but doing so featuring a franchise cornerstone player already in place, the best pitcher in the National League under contract for another three seasons after this one, another franchise-level player in shortstop Trea Turner just entering his prime seasons, and one of the most stealthily great players in baseball in Anthony Rendon still under club control for 2019, at least.

Now, admittedly, part of the reason the Nationals are in so much better shape than the Royals is because of their willingness to spend, whereas Kansas City is somewhat notorious for running their club like the Wal-Mart stores their owner made his money from. Then again, that narrative is, while not entirely unfair, somewhat off the mark, as the Royals did, in fact, spend money when their window was open.

In 2014 and ‘15, the Royals ranked 19th and 13th in year-end payroll, respectively, which isn’t all that high, but they didn’t really have to push payroll that aggressively when so many of their needs were filled by relatively cheap internal options. But did you know that last season, when the last ride for glory was in full effect, the Royals pushed their payroll by the end of the year all the way to $185 million, eighth-highest in the sport? No, I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that either, but that’s what Cot’s has for their end of season payroll. A top ten payroll for a club trying to make one last run at a title makes sense, and is basically exactly what you would hope to see from an ownership group dedicated to making that last run. So the difference in direction between Washington and K.C. can’t be chalked up entirely to spending. (For the record, the Nats ended last season with a payroll just over $200 million, ranked fifth in baseball. So they did still outspend the Royals, but a ~10% difference isn’t enough to completely alter the fortunes of a franchise.)

No, what really happened is this: the Nationals were smart, the Nationals were aggressive in replenishing their pipeline, and the Nationals got lucky. They inserted themselves into the Tampa-San Diego trade and pulled out the best player anyone in that deal received. They made an incredibly aggressive move to lock up Max Scherzer when he was a top 5-7 pitcher in the game but before he became, you know, this Max Scherzer. And they got lucky by plucking a skinny outfielder with amazing bat-to-ball skills out of the Dominican and watched him turn into a phenom.

They Royals, meanwhile, got their World Series, which gives them one up on Washington, but they did basically nothing to plan for life after that historic run of prospects that got them to the summit all moved on. There were no investments in players who would be great beyond Eric Hosmer’s final season wearing blue. They made no trades that moved aging assets for young talent, preferring instead to hold on to the entire squad, hoping for a last miraculous run. In fact, they traded a large amount of assets to go for the gold when they had the chance, which is admirable, but made no corresponding moves to restock the systems. They got unlucky in the one long-term deal they did sign, as Alex Gordon proved to be one of the worst investments in baseball essentially the second he put pen to paper on his four-year contract.

But there’s also the fact the Royals just didn’t have any one stroke of good luck that could have helped to sustain them. Adalberto Mondesi made it to the big leagues at 20, actually making his debut in a World Series game of all things, and looked like the sort of precocious talent that could create a new window all on his own in a couple years. Instead, he stagnated and became an all-glove, no-hit middle infielder perpetually blocked by the ghost of Alcides Escobar. Foster Griffin was a first-rounder several years ago (and a guy I loved when I scouted him, full disclosure), who could get it up to 94 with a waterfall curve from the left side. Instead of developing consistency and even better velocity as he filled out, though, Griffin lost the oomph on his fastball, topping out at 91 these days, and losing enough arm speed that the breaker no longer has much snap to it either.

And finally, of course, it’s hard to talk about, but also hard not to talk about. The Royals had their own Oscar Taveras moment, when Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic in early 2017. Obviously the baseball part is the not the most important part, but if we’re talking about what happened to see the Royals fall apart the way they have, the loss of the skinny Dominican with the triple digit fastball at 25 has to be in the conversation somewhere.

So what we have is a pair of franchises whose windows of contention opened relatively close to one another, with the Nationals having a quicker rise, but also a couple missteps along the way, while the Royals pushed into contention in 2013, then stayed there for three solid seasons before fading, even as they tried to hold things together a year or two past the expiration date on that squad.

This is where I want to bring the whole thing back around to the Cardinals. We look at where the Royals are, and the Cardinals are not anywhere close to there. The Redbirds are not a bad team, not even close, and do not appear likely to be a bad team anytime soon. Then we look at the Nationals and where they are, and that feels a little more like the Cardinals. The Nats are a team with some serious talent, that just hasn’t quite been able to get over the hump. The Cards were a lot like that, basically up until the moment the manager was replaced and the bullpen overhauled.

But it’s also important to recognise how much that stroke of luck for the Nationals, finding Juan Soto out of basically nowhere, is going to help them stay relevant and avoid a prolonged downturn following the departure of Harper. And herein we find one of the great axioms of the game I’ve been struggling to properly formulate for most of the last couple years as the Cardinals fought to remain always relevant and always competitive, even when things went wrong in such a way that most franchises would probably have been forced to capitulate and move toward at least a soft rebuild. (And maybe the Cards should have before now, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The axiom is this: attempting to never rebuild is always admirable. And it’s doable, possible, so long as you are very smart, and willing to spend, and get at least a little bit lucky along the way.

When you come up with a Juan Soto for a medium-sized signing bonus out of the D.R., or find a Matt Carpenter in the thirteenth round of the draft, you can keep pushing ahead. Be smart with the resources you have, and get a little lucky with a resource you maybe didn’t expect to have, and you don’t have to retool, and you certainly don’t have to tank. Lost your rotation anchor or future all-star right fielder to bad choices and bad road conditions, though, and just being smart sometimes isn’t enough. The line between success and failure in MLB, even on a team level, is exceedingly thin. That little bit of luck can push a club one way or the other.

If you’re lucky and smart, even if a season goes bad on you, you can look toward the days when a franchise player leaves without fear, knowing you’ve made good plans and you’ve got something coming you maybe couldn’t have planned for. Miss on the draft multiple years in a row, make multiple trades that denude your system, and have one very bad stroke of luck, and you could be staring down a long tunnel of a rebuild with basically no light in sight.

Or you can do both, and be the Cardinals, and fight much harder than maybe you had to, trying to overcome your misses and bad luck, when you could have reset a year or even two back and been in at least as good a spot as you are now, without a couple of very tough contracts on the books and having spent assets you could have invested elsewhere. But even then, if you’re smart enough, you can tread water until a little luck comes your way.

And what do I mean by luck in this case? Well, maybe your already-awesome first baseman turning into an MVP candidate, and a relatively unheralded third-round pick turning into the best defensive center fielder in baseball, and your also relatively unheralded fourth-round pick turning into a 4+ win shortstop. Those sorts of things.

It helps to be smart, and it helps to plan for the future. The Nationals were smart, and they planned for the future. The Royals were not, and they did not. One team also got lucky in a huge way, and that helps to make all that smart, and all that planning, work.

And that’s why two very disappointing teams in 2018 are so similar, yet so very different.