CENTRAL CHARACTERSby Steven Goldman The Royals last posted a full-season winning record 10 years ago. After a winter in which general manager Dayton Moore gave up waiting for homegrown pitching to catch up to his cadre of young position players and imported a professional rotation, the Royals are indeed pitching better. Even though the hitters have thus far been disappointing, the team is currently 10-7 and the owners of a one-game lead in the AL Central.
So is it all over now? Can we look at the Royals like we did the Rays after 2008 and assume they are finally off a road to recovery that began (more or less) in the 1980s? Not so fast. While the team’s current record is a welcome change from last year’s 3-14 at the same point, the team has been here before: they started 9-8 in both 2008 and 2009 and 11-6 in 2011.
In the latter year they made it all the way through April before the wheels came off, but from then until September they went 42-68. A 15-10 final month finished the season with a touch of dignity, but that neither salvaged a season in which they finished 71-91 nor served as a predictor of better results the next year. In short, this seems like a new-look Royals team now, but we might start to recognize them as spring turns to summer.
Handicapped by poor management and an owner who runs the team as if you got prizes for parsimony, the Royals now are in the grip of something much more difficult to overcome: the widely varying results of their efforts to build through the farm. Billy Butler. the team’s first-round pick in 2004, reached the majors in 2007, and took two years to turn into a top-quality hitter. Alex Gordon, drafted the next year and promoted in 2007, seemed like a huge bust after four seasons in the majors, but broke through in 2011 and since has been a strong hitter and a Gold-Glove defender besides.
The pitchers that were supposed to accompany them simply didn’t show up. Meanwhile, the second wave of sluggers has foundered. The Royals are now in year three of subsequent first-rounders Mike Moustakas (2007) and Eric Hosmer (2008), and to invoke the Thunderclap Newman hit climbing the charts when the Royals came into being, they have got to get it together now because Ervin Santana is a free agent following this season, James Shields’ contract is up after 2014, and Butler’s is done after 2015. Other prospects are on the way, of course, but the Royals revival is precariously balanced.
Not just on the cusp of something good, but already there. Shellacked a few times last April, his ERA from May on was 3.14, with 204 strikeouts in 163.1 innings (11.2 per nine) -- right-handed batters hit only .168/.202/.304 during that span. This year, Scherzer was once again a bit off in his initial outing but has dominated since then, with 23 strikeouts and two earned runs in 14 innings. With the exception of Alex Gordon, Royals left-handed hitters haven’t done much this year, so unless Scherzer has one of his increasingly infrequent off days, Game 1 could be over mercifully fast.
To date, the WAR score on the three-way trade that brought Jackson and Scherzer to Detroit is Tigers 26.2, Yankees 12.9, Diamondbacks 9.9. That’s only going to slant more in the Tigers’ direction as Jackson continues to mature into one of the game’s best two-way players. He’s been a far better hitter at Comerica than elsewhere; somehow his line drives find gaps there they don’t on the road. That’s going to change one day soon and Miguel Cabrera won’t be the only Tigers position player with an MVP award.
Now over 2,000 hits, which is impressive given that for all Hunter’s long-lived excellence, he was a late bloomer -- drafted just before his 18th birthday, it took six years for him to become a big-league regular, eight for him to be even average with the bat, and nine for him have his first truly strong offensive season. Hunter was a highlight-reel defender in his 20s, but he’s been a much better hitter in his 30s (.267/.321/.458 through age-29, .287/.349/.474 in tougher offensive conditions since). A team takes a chance anytime it signs an older player coming off of a career-best season, but if any player is going to thwart pessimistic expectations, it would be Hunter.
Moore’s folly may lie in prematurely raising Shields, which, as any "Star Trek" aficionado will tell you, can really put a crimp in your long-term outlook. Shields would be an asset to any team, but as a pricey veteran who has one year (a team option) remaining on his contract, spending a top prospect to get him made sense only if he would make a decisive difference this year or the next. What seems more likely is that Shields will finish his contract and depart, while Wil Myers will be playing for the Rays for the next 3-6 years. Hey, Royals fans, at least he’s more fun to watch than Jonathan Sanchez.
A third baseman who neither hits nor fields is moved to left field and becomes a Gold Glove-winning leadoff man? Go figure. Gordon is the exception to many rules: most busted prospects stay busted rather than turn into all-around threats. Now there’s a little hope for the hopeless, a category that normally includes the Royals and may yet include Alphonse Hosmer and Gaston Moustakas. Gordon and Butler are both doubles machines -- so why does Ned Yost fill the need to put Alcides Escobar between them like an offensive chastity belt?
Eric HosmerNear bust
Currently hitting .261/.346/.283, bringing to mind Casey Stengel’s line about Frank Howard: "How can a guy who's so big and strong hit the ball so near?" A: By making weak contact. Last season, Hosmer’s 14-percent line drive rate was tied for last among qualified major leaguers. During the offseason, the Royals fired their hitting coach and Yost boasted that they would become a power team by being more aggressive. Despite hitting four home runs in Sunday’s doubleheader sweep, they only have 10 home runs on the season. Wishing doesn’t make it so, especially when you have an enigma like Hosmer, who has a very pretty swing and very ugly results.
Catch a Tiger?
"Years ago, picking the Tigers and Royals to be the World Series of the Week would have been like some cruel joke school kids play on each other, like a contest to see who can bring the biggest loser to the dance. But in the movies and TV shows, the loser goes through a magical montage: their hair is styled, their clothes selected from the hottest designers, and all attention turns their way when they step into the hall.
Seven seasons back, the Tigers went through that transition to go from loser to homecoming king: Today, they have several of the game's top stars, a fearsome lineup and one of the best rotations in baseball. They're baseball's success story.
Coming off their ninth season below .500, the Royals have yet to complete their metamorphosis, but there's no denying that Kansas City has its best team in years. The Royals probably won't be in the division hunt at the end of September, but this series is a great chance to see where they stand today." - Kurt Mensching, Bless You Boys
"The moves the Royals made this winter attempting to upgrade their rotation were made with the Detroit Tigers in mind. Because, who else?
The Tigers are the cream of a mediocre Central crop, so if Dayton Moore and the Royals braintrust has designs on contention, they’re correct to target the Tigers as Public Enemy Number One. Their most memorable recent regular season series came at the end of 2006. With the Tigers and Twins tied for first place the Royals went to Detroit and won all three games, costing the Tigers the chance for the division title. My friend who is a Tigers fan is still bitter. Great.
For Royals fans, that series meant we passed Tampa in the race for the worst record in baseball. The following year, the Rays selected David Price as the number one overall pick in the draft. Really, who won? Besides the Rays?
Today the Royals don’t have rivals as much as they have opponents who annoy. Twins fans form an invading mob, taking over Kauffman Stadium. The Indians beat us in cruel fashion and remind us we haven’t won in forever. The White Sox are the White Sox. The Tigers? There simply isn’t much of a rivalry there. Maybe this is the year it changes." - Craig Brown, Royals Review