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Is this it for the Royals?

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Is 2014 the last best chance the Royals have at winning a pennant or the World Series for a while?

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

Part of the reason the postseason is so exhilarating, why it grips fans so tightly, is that no one knows when their favorite team will be back again. It's easy to believe that every playoff club has a solid foundation on which they can build, that more meaningful Octobers are in their future even if this one goes awry. That's not the case for all teams, however -- ask the 2013 World Champions about that -- and Royals fans might know this better than anyone. In 1985, they were on top of the world when they won their first World Series by defeating the Cardinals. It took 28 years for them to make it to the postseason again, in spite of the '85 core, in spite of all the established big-league Royals in the interim, in spite of all the prospects and promise and front office turnover and process.

Don't take that to mean the 2014 Royals won't see the playoffs again until 2043, so they have to win it all now to compensate. They stand where they are, though, somewhat against the odds:

  • They came away with one of the two wild cards in the AL despite a multi-month run as one of the worst hitting teams in the majors.
  • The Royals withstood down years from Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, and weathered yet another awful Mike Moustakas campaign.
  • Their rotation stayed healthy, with four of their starters making at least 30 starts, and the fifth 25.
  • The Royals' bullpen was fantastic, which was in part planning, but also part luck.
  • Kansas City won Baseball Thunderdome by defeating the A's in a one-game playoff, then swept the AL's top seed, the Angels.

It's important that we don't conflate "against the odds" with "undeserving." The Royals absolutely deserve this shot at the AL pennant, because the rotation and bullpen were tremendous, the defense helped justify the existence of some of the hitters in the lineup, and the A's and Angels had equal shots at advancing just by showing up in October, but didn't do so. Every pennant run, every World Series championship is against the odds. The regular season is long, grueling, and unfair, and the postseason is the same, only shorter.

That's why, at any time, it merits wondering whether the last best chance for a team to win is when they're close to doing just that. In the Royals' case, though, there are reasons on the horizon that make it obvious this question has even more weight to it than usual. James Shields, who threw 227 innings of 127 ERA+ ball, is a free agent after season's end, one the Royals likely can't afford even if they'll make a show of trying to. Shields has averaged 223 innings per season since 2007, and replacing just those frames with even a league-average arm will be both difficult and expensive. Betting on Jason Vargas to be well above-average again is a good way to lose money: he's a useful arm for rounding out a rotation, and that's something past Royals teams have lacked, but he's not the number three caliber guy he looked like this season. Jeremy Guthrie might rebound a bit, but the wear and tear of a full major-league season could start to show on previously untested youngsters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura... you can see a lot of ways where the pitching could take a significant nosedive.

Shields
Enjoy the image of Shields in a Royals' uni while it lasts. (Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports)

The hitting should be better to compensate for anything that goes wrong in the rotation, but that's something you can say about the Royals every season. Alex Gordon is one of the better players in the game, but Hosmer is inconsistent, Butler appears to be on the downturn in his late-20s, and batters like Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar are decent enough bats for their position, but nothing more. Norichika Aoki, a free agent, is one of their lone sources of on-base percentage. Kansas City is locked in to a defense-first lineup, and that's fine, but there are no guarantees it works a second time in a row, and it leaves little room for anyone to slump.

They'll have some money to play with to either add another bat or fill the Shields-shaped hole in the rotation, at least. Luke Hochevar comes off the books, freeing up over $5 million, and Shields is another $13.5 million. A few other minor pieces like Jason Frasor, Josh Willingham, and Scott Downs are free agents, and all told the Royals will have just $48 million committed to 2015. That figure shoots up in a hurry before they even add anyone, though.

Greg Holland made $4.7 million in his first year of arbitration, and will see a significant bump in year two. Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain will be arb-eligible for the first time, and after Cain's productive 2014, he's going to get a couple million more than he the league minimum. A total of 11 players will be arbitration-eligible, and those figures are going to add up in a hurry. Holland might make about $7 million on his own, Aaron Crow might pull in about $1.5 million again if he's tendered a contract, and Tim Collins could see a little more than that: There are still another eight players, and if they all make roughly a million each, that's about $20 million already spent on top of that $48 million.

Throw in that Wade Davis is going to get a raise from $4.8 million to $7 million when the Royals pick up his 2015 option, and the Royals are already at about $70 million even after losing Shields, Hochevar, and so on. That will mostly just make life on free agency hard for them, however. Kansas City can still use their farm system to make trades -- as they did when they brought in Shields, Aoki, and, previously, Ervin Santana. They reportedly have some more money to play with after finally producing a playoff team, and they could turn around and reinvest it in a lineup that could use the financial assist. And, of course, they could see additional improvement from the likes of Ventura. Hosmer could rebound and finally give the lineup three useful hitters at the same time. Brandon Finnegan, drafted in 2014 and currently throwing fireballs out of the playoff bullpen, could force his way into the starting rotation in much the same way Ventura did a year ago. If not Finnegan, someone else from the farm -- Kyle Zimmer, Christian Colon, Christian Binford -- could be the rookie highlight.

There are ways for the Royals' road ahead to be a dark one, and fans of the team who have seen it all before can be forgiven if they believe this is now or never for Kansas City. There's enough talent, youth, and -- in a Royals first, maybe even money -- for them to still be in a good position regardless of 2014's outcome, though, and so long as the front office is finally starting to understand what the team needs in order to stay relevant, then their future position isn't much different from that of any other team capable of playing into October.