Bruce Chen Bruce Chen

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Wednesday night, despite a strong performance by not-quite-a-Red-Sox Bruce Chen, the Royals lost their 91st game of 2011, ending the season with a 71-91 record, their 13th worst record in team history.

And yet, I’ve had more fun following this year’s group of players than, perhaps, any other (with 1989 and 2003 in the discussion).  Maybe I’m a sucker. Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I felt like tides were shifting in the second half of the year and the developments of this season could carry into next year and beyond.

As usual, the Royals played well in September (and I still don’t know why this is the pattern), and as a bonus, most of the lineup was comprised of rookies.  That’s a source of hope for next season and beyond.

But we have to wait until next year to see more Royals baseball. Unfortunately, that’s a long wait.

In the meantime, the focus shifts to the 2012 Royals and what route to take to improve the next Royals team.

It’s been stated over and over, but starting pitching must be a priority this winter. Dayton Moore wants to find candidates for the starting rotation in the following order: 1) internally – either by promoting from the minors or converting a reliever to a starter 2) finding a pitcher in a trade or 3) going through free agency.

There are many in-house options, from Aaron Crow to Mike Montgomery who could fill in a rotation spot next year, but the only way the Royals can get a pitcher with a track record of success, rather than putting someone in who “has potential”, is by looking outside the organization. It comes down to how close the Royals feel they are to contending. If they think the solid offense will get them close to contending, they might be more willing to make a move.

The free agent market is somewhat thin, and I would hope they won’t make a trade just to get a pitcher who might end up having two years on a contract. If the Royals are going to build on the success of 2011 and around their nucleus of young hitters, they have to do so with other players who they can keep rostered for a handful of years.

The moves to improve have already begun, as bench coach John Gibbons and pitching coach Bob McClure were let go.  Chino Cadahia, a former catcher, will sit alongside Ned Yost next season. The Star pointed out that the Royals were after someone with a Latin American background to help their trio of catchers – Brayan Pena (Cuba), Manuel Pina and Salvador Perez (both from Venezuela) – continue to adjust to the big leagues and to provide guidance and help with communication.  Cadahia is from Cuba, himself and was Bobby Cox’s bench coach for four seasons.

McClure hasn’t been replaced yet, but Yost said he wanted a guy who had “pitched in the big leagues for a long time with mediocre stuff“, which sounds like sarcasm until he expanded saying that those are the pitchers who have to do all the other things right – preparation, selection, refining their delivery – to survive.

The search is on, both for enhancements to the pitching staff, and the coach to guide them. Then, once winter arrives, the real fun begins as free agent and trade rumors build.

Until then, though, it’s time to lament another losing season, but one with silver linings. Eric Hosmer might win the Rookie of the Year Award. Mike Moustakas hit as well as anyone in the last two months. Sal Perez looked even better than advertised behind and at the plate.

And hey, we finished above the Twins for a change. Who’d have thought that would be the case?

(Also, for a fun, informative and graphical look at the Royals season, check out what Aaron Stilley did over at I-70 Baseball.)

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