The Kansas City Royals came up short in the 2014 World Series against the Giants, but followed through on their goal the following season against the Mets to clinch their first championship since 1985 completing a long and tedious rebuilding process that started nearly a decade before. The question entering the 2016 postseason, one that will not include the defending champs, is could the Indians be this year's version of that Royals squad?
Aside from the obvious comparisons of them both being from the same division and having resided in the top spot in the standings for most of their respective seasons, the 2016 Indians do possess a number of similar qualities as last year's Kansas City club. A good place to start is in the front office and the team-building philosophy that set the wheels in motion years ago for the rosters we see today. While Royals GM Dayton Moore gets a ton of credit and deservedly so for reviving the old-school rebuilding philosophy through player development, a system that brought him the likes of Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and others, Chris Antonetti has been implementing that process in Cleveland almost as long bringing up talents such as Jason Kipnis, Danny Salazar, Francisco Lindor and Cody Allen.
Both GMs also have proven their worth on the trade market with Moore bringing in Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi for Zach Greinke and James Shields and Wade Davis for Odorizzi and Wil Myers. Antonetti has brought in his fair share of talent with ace and Cy Young winner Corey Kluber coming in for Jake Westbrook; Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw and others for free-agent-to-be Shin-Soo Choo, Tony Sipp and Lars Anderson; and, of course, Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rogers.
Last season, the Royals homegrown talent had a combined WAR of 21.0 and compiled a 98.2 career WAR entering 2016, which easily ranks among the top clubs in the majors. The Indians' home-grown players weren't far behind, however, checking in with 19.4 WAR last season, but only a 43.2 career WAR, which isn't surprising given the Tribe was a year or two behind the Royals in their development.
Building through the draft and farm system wasn't the only thing that the Royals made cool again. In a throwback effort, Kansas City centered their formula for success around lineup depth, speed, athleticism and a shutdown bullpen. After seeing their dominance in the regular season and postseason last season, some GM's were looking for ways to manipulate their roster to align more closely with Dayton Moore's philosophy. Brian Cashman tried to recreate the Royals' shutdown bullpen in the Bronx by bringing in Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to go with the electric arm of Dellin Betances in the Yankee bullpen.
For the Indians, Chris Antonetti and new GM Mike Chernoff, the focus was finding the right mix of veterans to go with their young core and complement their dominant rotation. Enter Rajai Davis to help in the speed and athleticism department and Mike Napoli to lengthen the lineup. Even with the loss of arguably their best hitter in Michael Brantley for the vast majority of the season, the Tribe went from 11th in the AL in runs scored, 10th in wRC+ at 97 and 7th in offensive WAR at 20.9 last season to second, fifth and second in each respective category in 2016. They also lead the league in baserunning with 132 steals and a 17.2 BsR rating, according to Fangraphs.
Even the championship Royals of 2015, as good as they were, didn't even finish in the top five in any of the aforementioned categories except for stolen bases, where they finished second in the league with 104, and offensive WAR, posting the third best mark in the league at 23.7. The two teams also posted comparable on-base numbers with last year's Royals putting together a .322 OBP while this year's Tribe has a mark of .329 thus far.
Another area of comparison comes in the form of the moves each team made at their respective trade deadlines. Both teams and GM's proved willing to make the blockbuster moves to put them over the top with the Royals acquiring Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist at last year's deadline and the Indians going after Jonathan Lucroy (unsuccessfully) and Andrew Miller. Cleveland also brought in a lesser-known platoon player that has proven to be an ideal fit for the roster in Brandon Guyer. Even with the Lucroy trade falling through, the moves made by Antonetti and Chernoff have paid dividends up to this point with Miller becoming a key part of the roster following injury losses in the rotation. You could even argue that the Tribe made out better than Kansas City in those deals with Miller, Guyer and even Lucroy under team control for multiple seasons.
Speaking of bullpens, here's the final comparison between the two clubs as the addition of Andrew Miller has lengthened the Tribe 'pen significantly. The 2015 Royals bullpen was anchored by setup man/closer Wade Davis, who posted a 2.0 WAR and a 10.43 K/9, which was actually down from his 3.1 WAR and 13.63 K/9 marks from 2014. Between the Yankees and Indians, Miller has posted a 2.8 WAR and a sensational 14.88 K/9 and has been just as lights-out, if not more so, since coming to Cleveland.
With Miller joining forces with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero, the Indians boast a back end of their bullpen comparable with Davis, Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson and potentially better in some respects with the 2015 Royals bullpen overall posting a 5.0 WAR and 8.38 K/9 while the Indians relievers have posted a 4.5 WAR and 9.02 K/9 so far this season.
Of course, ultimately, the only thing that matters is championships and unless the Tribe goes on to win this year, the 2015 Royals will hold that over them. However, the Indians have done a lot to follow the defending champions' model whether intentionally or coincidentally. If fully healthy, Cleveland may have been arguably the most dangerous club in the postseason with dominant starting pitching to go with the speed, athleticism and bullpen dominance. Since that is not the case, though, the Tribe will have to follow even closer in Kansas City's footsteps relying on their offense and bullpen to carry them.
Can it be done? Are we asking for lightning to strike twice? With the fickle nature of playoff baseball, who knows. But the Indians have overcome a great deal of adversity already and still have many of the right pieces in place for success as Kansas City did a year ago. Plus, these guys believe. As corny as it sounds, anyone in that Royals clubhouse will tell you that faith in their ability to win was a driving force in their World Series run. Maybe another championship parade could be in order for Cleveland this year.