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Royal rebuild: 2015 title provides hope, goal

Fans should never forget Kansas City's recent championship
MLB.com @williamfleitch

The Royals are probably not going to be very good this year. Just how bad it gets depends a little on your perspective. For example, FanGraphs projects them to lose 93 games. I have them losing 98. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Jason Vargas all left as free agents, and Mike Moustakas could be next, assuming someone other than Kansas City signs him. Alex Gordon, one of the key holdovers from the Royals' glory years of 2014-15, hit .208 with nine homers in 541 plate appearances in 2017 and is owed $20 million in each of the next two years.

And there isn't much reason to feel optimistic about the near future, either: MLB Pipeline doesn't have a Royals prospect in its Top 100 rankings, and the team hasn't even really started the boom-and-bust cycle we've seen work around baseball. In all likelihood, it's going to be a long, hard climb back up.

The Royals are probably not going to be very good this year. Just how bad it gets depends a little on your perspective. For example, FanGraphs projects them to lose 93 games. I have them losing 98. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Jason Vargas all left as free agents, and Mike Moustakas could be next, assuming someone other than Kansas City signs him. Alex Gordon, one of the key holdovers from the Royals' glory years of 2014-15, hit .208 with nine homers in 541 plate appearances in 2017 and is owed $20 million in each of the next two years.

And there isn't much reason to feel optimistic about the near future, either: MLB Pipeline doesn't have a Royals prospect in its Top 100 rankings, and the team hasn't even really started the boom-and-bust cycle we've seen work around baseball. In all likelihood, it's going to be a long, hard climb back up.

But this is OK. This, in fact, is how it's supposed to work. The Royals aren't good, but they were. They went all in on being good, and it paid off in the most fantastic way possible. Kansas City went nearly 30 years without playing a postseason game, and then when a window cracked slightly open for the Royals to compete, they floored it.

Remember, Kansas City was a Deadline dealer in 2015, acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in trades that paid off handsomely in the postseason. (And didn't really cost the club much, either: Does it really miss Brandon Finnegan or Aaron Brooks?) And the result was the ultimate prize: A World Series title that season, a year after they came within one mad dash against the Giants of winning one. The Royals did nothing for 30 years, made two World Series appearances, won one and gave their long-suffering supporters the greatest gift a fan can receive. What a gift it was, too. Let us never forget that parade. There were 800,000 people there!

Tweet from @srpatterson1988: Tomorrow's @KCStar A1. This city really turns out for the #Royals pic.twitter.com/uuHXun9iCs

Royals fans will ever forget that, and no one can take that away from them. Grown adults will remember that championship on their deathbeds. Children who experienced it will carry it with them for decades to come. It will live on forever.

A KC of blue! Massive crowd, Royals rejoice

And more to the point, it lives on right now. The lengths the Royals had to go to in order to win that title -- emptying out the farm system to improve the roster, hanging onto impending free agents rather than trading them away for prospects even though they knew they wouldn't be able to re-sign them, generally acting as if recorded time and history ended at the end of the 2017 season -- were always going to have consequences.

The consequences are now here. The hangover has arrived, and it is going to be a rough one. Roger Ebert once wrote "if an ordinary person woke up in the morning feeling the way a drunk feels with a hangover, he would call an ambulance and check himself into the emergency room." That's the sort of hangover the Royals are facing right now.

But hey: A hangover means there was a party at some point, right? At least Kansas City got to have a party.

* * * * *

Even with all this, the Royals might not be the worst team in the American League Central this year. The Tigers are in roughly the same place as their rivals; Detroit is a team that hung on a little too long as its core players got older, more expensive and less effective. The Tigers attempted to hold off the future as long as they could, but you can't: The future is undefeated. It will always catch up with you. You will never age backwards.

So now the Tigers are starting over, just like the Royals, and their fans are going to have to grit their teeth and bear it, the way fans of certain teams in baseball (and in every sport) have had to learn how to do in this new age of "competitive cycles."

But Detroit has no championship parade to remember. The Tigers' recent competitive era began in 2006 -- the year they hired Jim Leyland, only three years after they lost a staggering 119 games -- and ran, essentially, through '16 before it all finally bottomed out last year. It was a heady decade: They made it to the playoffs five times, suffered only two losing seasons and reached the World Series twice. They spent millions, gave their fans all sorts of giddy moments (that Magglio Ordonez walk-off!) and sold a bunch of tickets. But Detroit never won a title. Now it has to tear it all down and start over. The Tigers went for it; They just didn't make it.

Video: OAK@DET: Ordonez's AL Pennant-clinching homer

It can be difficult to accept the window is nearly closed when the World Series title never came. This is what Toronto is going through, right? The Blue Jays reached the AL Championship Series two years in a row -- including the super team of 2015, a club I still can't believe didn't win the whole thing -- but clearly don't have that sort of talent on hand anymore, particularly with the Red Sox and Yankees muscling up.

But the Blue Jays can't just walk away and shut it all down: They were so close. So Toronto is hedging one more year, cobbling a few pieces together, seeing if it can catch lightning in a bottle. The Orioles, the Mariners and the Mets are all somewhat similar to this. (The Giants are too, though they at least have three title rings to stare at if it all falls apart.) You understand the impulse. But if you hang on too long, you turn into the Tigers.

Video: New-look OF looks to help Blue Jays run in 2018

The Tigers are sort of the nightmarish scenario in this -- going all in, never breaking through, ultimately having to hit reset from the bottom anyway -- but at least they did go all in. The cautious approach can backfire, as well. One of the reasons the Pirates' trades of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole were so difficult for many Pittsburgh fans to stomach was because, to some, it never felt like the team floored it the way the Tigers, Royals or Blue Jays did.

The Pirates reached three straight National League Wild Card Games, only won the first one, never made a massive free-agent signing or huge Deadline trade to supplement the roster and then, that was it. Now they're back at the beginning, leaving a lot of fans wondering how you can throw in the towel when there was never an actual peak.

This is the scary part of this new, completely rational and logical trend of teams being constantly aware and planning for these competitive windows. (This isn't just a small-market thing either: The reason the Yankees are in the enviable position they're in now is they had less urgency to win than usual from 2013-14 and could thus build for this moment.)

Video: Judge, Stanton could lead Yanks to back-to-back mark

It makes sense: Teams are being prudent, and fans, more knowledgable and savvy with access to more information than they've ever had before, have shown a greater willingness to be patient. But the problem is that not all of these teams retooling and rebuilding are ultimately going to win a World Series. Most of them won't.

It is one thing to look long-term acquiesce to a rebuild. It is quite another to look backward and realize your patience and faith was not rewarded. If you start over and end up never winning, what was the point of starting over?

Which is why, as difficult as an upcoming year as the Royals may have, their fans should still be happy. This hangover was always coming. But your team went for it, and they succeeded. This down period was always guaranteed to arrive; it's the championship that wasn't assured.

The Royals got theirs, which makes them, all told, the envy of all the teams currently retooling, and a model for all to emulate. I do not know if this will make it easier for the Kansas City faithful to accept Jorge Soler as the club's No. 5 hitter and to watch Alcides Escobar bat 600 times in 2018. But know, alas, that maybe it should.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

Kansas City Royals