KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Orioles can see a lot of themselves in the Kansas City Royals — teams that both endured several years of losing before recently devising a formula to win by keeping their cores intact.
While the Orioles are trying to build on that, going into Saturday's game in Kansas City with the second-best record in the American League, the Royals — who came into the weekend with the worst record in the AL — offer a reminder of how fleeting success can be.
Make no mistake, the Royals already reached the mountaintop, winning the 2015 World Series and sweeping the Orioles in the 2014 American League Championship Series to advance to their first World Series since 1985. But it's not even Memorial Day, and the Royals' early-season struggles have them reportedly considering a rebuild by trading off pending free agents for prospects.
It is a reminder of how quickly the path of a franchise can change, and how difficult it is for a club to find the right time to face the possibility of tearing a team apart to build it back up.
"Everybody has different time frames with what they're trying to do," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "Kansas City maximized their window. They won the pennant and they won the World Series. But it's hard to keep everybody together. A lot of it is timing. … There are a lot of different factors that go into it. … Most clubs will give it until Memorial Day, and if you have a bad start, your resources are under a lot of pressure. And if you have a lot of economic pressure, you can start your rebuild, but it's not ideal."
The Royals entered Saturday with a 14-21 record, but were still just 51/2 games out of first place in a muddled AL Central that currently has no front runner. But the Royals have a notable group of pending free agents, including cornerstone players such as first baseman Eric Hosmer, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman Mike Moustakas — all of whom would be attractive fits for contenders. Closer Kelvin Herrera becomes a free agent after the 2018 season.
Despite being 12 games out of first place at last year's nonwaiver trade deadline, the Royals opted to keep their core group intact and play for 2017. The only offseason unloading Kansas City did was trading speedster outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed starter Nathan Karns, and trading closer Wade Davis to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler. The team was also wrecked by the untimely death of talented right-hander Yordano Ventura.
"You always have to be thinking about down the road," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "I'm interested in the now and here and whatever, but you always have to think about how you're going to be able to maintain things. It's hard. You lose a [Matt] Wieters and other certain guys along the way, [Nick] Markakis, you better have Plan B in place. And they do. They're a good club. We can take a lot of lessons from them. They eliminated excuses. You can do it if you know who you are and who you're not. They know who they are. Many a club would trade places with them."
"We have a lot of respect for how quickly we could be [there], too. Everybody does. You have to. This game will knock you to your knees. Nobody's got it figured out. … But they're seven, 10 days from being right back in it."
While these Orioles are off to one of the best starts in club history — they entered Saturday leading the AL East by a half-game with a 22-12 record — they also face a pivotal time over the next two seasons. Right-hander Chris Tillman can become a free agent after this season, and the team will have to decide whether to exercise 2018 club options on shortstop J.J. Hardy and left-hander Wade Miley.
But the most critical point approaches at the end of the 2018 season, when third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach are all able to hit free agency. The contracts of both Duquette and Showalter also run out after the 2018 season.
Running out to a strong start as the Orioles have done dodges the kind of questions the Royals are facing for now.
"You want to start well and have a nice cushion," said right-hander Darren O'Day, whose new contract was part of the club's record offseason spending before the 2016 season. "We've all been through it. It's a long season, but yeah, being at the deadline as part of a seller is no fun. It could be fun in a few years when you get those prospects coming back. [The Royals have] had a lot of success. I think they built theirs a little differently, more through the draft and stuff, player development, and those guys are all coming of age. But I think players understand more now than ever about how the game appears to guys in terms of the lifespan of a team. In a perfect world, you can be competitive, cost effective, signing free agents, developing guys every year, but it's just not always feasible."
Under Duquette, the Orioles have always been buyers, not sellers at the trade deadline. But they did find themselves in a similar situation to the Royals in 2015 after advancing to the ALCS the previous year. The Orioles were six games under .500 on June 3 that season (23-29), but were just five games out of first place. The Orioles rallied and owned piece of first place by the end of the month. They were just one game over .500 and six games out of first at the nonwaiver trade deadline, but acquired outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Milwaukee Brewers on July 31.
The following offseason, the Orioles invested more than $240 million in free-agent signings, most notably making record deals to retain first baseman Chris Davis (seven years, $161 million) and O'Day (four years, $31 million)
"In [the Royals'] case, if you get off to a bad start like that, then it's much easier for the team to start unloading and try to start rebuilding and getting prospects and stuff," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "I think in our case, when we had that situation, I think we were right there, a borderline playoff team. And you don't want to get rid of the guys. Fortunately for us, we didn't have to and we were able to sign the guys back in the end. But yeah, that always factors in, how that season or that year is going."
Even with some uneven starts, the Orioles have added at the trade deadline under Duquette, and that's while realizing their division rivals are going to bulk up as well. And Duquette has made it clear his goal is to win over the next two seasons.
"If you're in it, you need to go for it," Duquette said. "You owe it to everyone — the fans, the ownership, the players, the staff. That's why you're working, why people are working; that's their reason for being here. A lot of times, it depends on the team, on the franchise, you know. … We're trying to win and add to the club, particularly on [July 31]."