Over the past few years, the Kansas City Royals have been perhaps the most fascinating and intriguing team in Major League Baseball. They have never been the most powerful team at the plate, but their exceptional defense and historically tremendous baserunning brought a different element to every Royals game.

Two consecutive American League pennants and a World Series title in 2015 will immortalize this bunch of Royals. You can’t take those massive accomplishments away from those players, many of whom are still in the Kansas City clubhouse.

But, it’s over — this unbelievable, nearly incomprehensible run is over at Kauffman Stadium. A large number of the Royals’ best position players are set to hit free agency and the club finds themselves 4.0 games out of the second American League Wild Card position.

They don’t have the same swagger as the 2014 and 2015 champions of the AL did. When you watch a Royals game, it feels like they’re only out there playing because they’re paid to and 30,000 people are watching them do it. Emotions might contrast for other fans out there, but I certainly get this feeling when I take in a Kansas City game. This a completely different team.

Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are all free agents after the 2017 season. Other than former World Series MVP Salvador Perez, that is the core of the Kansas City Royals.

Moustakas is having a wonderful contract year, having tied the Royals’ single-season home run record that had stood for three decades, with a career high of 36 home runs in addition to a career-best .846 OPS. However, it’s going to be nearly impossible for the Royals to convince a 28-year-old All-Star power hitter that the team isn’t in a rebuilding phase.

The same guys for the other core players. Hosmer is asking for a hefty contract that could exceed $200 million, based on his age (28), Gold Glove defense, and consistent offensive output. Small market teams like Kansas City will naturally have issues committing to deals like that, especially a rebuilding team.

Cain leads the Royals in wins above replacement (WAR) with 4.5 added victories and has been one of the top defensive players in baseball over the past five years. Good defense generally ages well, and if Cain, 31, stays healthy, he’ll be a stellar defensive outfielder for years to come. The former MVP finalist might be in line for a long-term deal of four or five years, and to keep a player already in his 30s around that long on a team that will be in the cellar of the AL for the foreseeable future is hard to justify.

Escobar has seemingly lost a step, but the shortstop is still an excellent defender. At 31 with a career .260 batting average, he might be the most likely player to stay with the Royals, perhaps in a mentoring role for the influx of youth vital to all organizational rebuilds. Nonetheless, Escobar is a clutch player with good defensive range who could get a call elsewhere.

The Royals are still looking up at the rest of the American League despite keeping these players around at the trade deadline. It was admittedly a short-sighted move made by the heart of the front office and not by the head. To not get any value out of players who will perhaps walk out for nothing was a massive mistake and will slow the rebuild down tremendously.

Remember, rebuilds are not a death sentence. In fact, they are quite the opposite. The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs were recently the worst teams in baseball, and now each are World Series contenders. But the Royals haven’t followed the same blueprint: the Astros and Cubs sold high on their best players and got prospects in return to build the club from the ground up; the Royals hung on to impending free agents hoping for one last run at the playoffs and faltered horribly.

Darkness and despair will be all you can see at Kauffman for years to come. A fan-like attachment to assets from general manager Dayton Moore essentially put the nail in the coffin of the rebuild, and unfortunately for the loyal fans of KC, it’ll be a long one.

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