Royals manager Ned Yost has seen a lot in baseball, enough that he simultaneously can express surprise and familiarity with the predicament of the Red Sox’ sudden descent into a vortex.
Entering 2016, Yost and the Royals sat atop the baseball world. Over several years, the Royals had progressed from a perennial doormat to a contender to a surprise pennant winner in 2014 to finally a champion in 2015.
And so, in 2016, Kansas City was elated about mounting a title defense. The team gave no real thought to breaking up an elite core of position players, and indeed, stretched its budget to re-sign free-agent outfielder Alex Gordon to a four-year, $72 million deal.
Emboldened with the thought of repeating as champions, the Royals instead sputtered. After a slightly-better-than-sideways 29-22 start, the Royals went 13-16 in June and 7-19 in July. Yet with several players — including outfielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and closer Wade Davis — a year and a half from free agency, Kansas City elected to stand pat at that year’s trade deadline.
Even though the Royals were 8½ games out of wild-card contention on July 31, 2016, it was hard for them to ignore the allure of giving their core a chance to win again. Yet even though they played better down the stretch, the Royals’ season ended at 81-81, any echo of the previous year’s glory having been rendered all but inaudible.
“I don’t know if it was hard [to make the decision to keep the core together]. We still felt like we could get hot and win,” Yost said. “In ’14, at the end of the year we came out of nowhere and made a run all the way to the World Series. We thought we had the opportunity to do that, so we didn’t want to trade away any chance of that happening. But, it just didn’t happen.”
In the offseason, the Royals took a half-measure to reconfigure their core, dealing Davis to the Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler, but still kept the rest of the group for a last hurrah.
At the 2017 trade deadline, the front office again elected to stand pat — understandable given that the Royals owned the second wild-card spot on July 31. But they again missed the playoffs, finishing 80-82 in a season more memorable for sentimentality than on-field accomplishments.
What Kansas City did was, and is, understandable. The team’s remarkable 2014-15 run was built in no small part on the trust placed by the front office over the long haul.
Yet the consequences of the keep-the-band-together strategy — both during the slide to mediocrity in 2016-17, and a descent into 100-loss territory both in 2018 and now 2019 — offer something of a warning for a Red Sox team that faces growing questions about its future identity.
Obviously, Boston is in a different financial universe than Kansas City — the Red Sox have already reached long-term deals with a trio of key World Series contributors, Nate Eovaldi (four years, $68 million), Chris Sale (five years, $145 million extension), and Xander Bogaerts (six years, $120 million). Whereas the Royals rode out their years of control of their core with a full rebuild as a consequence, the Red Sox aren’t likely to endure such a long process given both their financial resources and the fact that not all of their core position players will hit free agency at once.
Still, the poor return on Eovaldi’s first season and Sale’s concerning 2019 performance — one year before his extension takes effect — underscores the point that the Royals demonstrated: Faith in a group’s collective accomplishments, and fear of altering what once proved a successful formula, is a dangerous roster-building principle. The magic of one year does not easily get replicated the next.
“We all found out — and I think Boston is finding out — how tough it is to defend. I don’t know why,” Yost said. “I thought for sure Boston would have a team capable of doing it. I thought Houston would have a team capable of doing it, I thought the Cubs had a team capable of doing it, and I thought we had a team capable of doing it. It’s really tough to do.”
Eventually, players on a championship club become too expensive to keep together. When that happens, a team faces a crossroad in which it must decide whether to see a breakup by design (via trades) or by default (free agency). The Red Sox are nearing such a point, potentially as soon as this winter. Whenever it comes, much like the Royals, there will be questions about whether the Red Sox waited too long to begin the inevitable.
Even though the Royals failed to repeat, however, Yost does not second-guess what his team did — or, more accurately, did not do — after 2015. When a team wins a title, it’s hard to change course and make the aggressive decision to move on from players who were the heartbeat of a championship run.
“I don’t live in retrospect. I don’t have regrets. We made a decision and we live by our decisions,” Yost said. “It was a group that came up together, did something special together, and we wanted to give them one more opportunity to do it together again and it just didn’t work out.”
It remains to be seen whether the Red Sox look back on this group with similar sentiments. There is time for the 2019 Red Sox to alter their outlook. But as Kansas City can attest, the notion of a title defense can evolve quickly from an opportunity to a trap.