Jul 20, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Elliot Johnson (23) at bat during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
At this point last year, the Royals were 41-55 through 96 games. This Royals team has improved to 45-51. A four game jump.
It’s progress, but only technically.
There have been some unlucky games. The offense has been bad most of the year. Sometimes the two conspire and the Royals have lost a winnable game as a result.
As the season goes on, though, it’s starting to look more and more like this team will have to catch some breaks to get to .500. Forget the playoffs. Just breaking even would end up as an accomplishment.
It’s a disappointing but realistic assessment of where the team is right now. Sure, they could get hot and go on a stretch of wins. Maybe we can set the montage to some Stevie Ray Vaughan a la Major League. The offense wakes up all at once. The starting pitching gets right. The bullpen returns to being automatic.
But this isn’t a movie, and the Royals would have to go 45-21 from right now to the end of the year to reach 90 wins and pass the Tigers (who, at 54-44 are on pace for 89 wins). Impossible? No. But given the way this season has transpired so far and the personnel in place, it’s about as likely as George Brett grabbing some pine tar and pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas.
Think about Major League again. Who played second base for the Indians? Left field? Who was their #3 pitcher? Shortstop? I couldn’t tell you. I know the stars – Rick Vaughn, Pedro Cerrano, Willie Mays Hayes – but the rest of the team? No clue. And that’s about how the Royals are right now. They have two starting pitchers with an ERA+ above 100 in James Shields and Ervin Santana. They have four regulars with an OPS+ above 100. Everyone else is below average. There’s a handful of stars (or players cast in that role) and a flimsy supporting cast.
Now, players like Lorenzo Cain (89 OPS+) and Salvador Perez (95 OPS) contribute in other ways and are close to average with the bat, so they aren’t drains on the lineup, but there’s still a full third of the lineup that continuously drags down everyone else. Effectively, every third inning is nearly given away.
Jul 19, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) reacts to striking out with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of the game against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Sam Mellinger tweeted this out on Monday, but there have been four teams in the last ten years to have two players with an OPS+ or 70 or lower receive 500 or more plate appearances. Over ten seasons, that’s 300 different rosters, so just over 1% of teams have put up with that awful level of production. With Mike Moustakas (70 OPS+ entering Monday) and Alcides Escobar (63 OPS+), the Royals have their candidates. If you combine the revolving door at second base, you can basically count a third.
Dayton Moore acquired Escobar and saw him put up a 74 OPS+ in 2011, then a 98 in 2012. It seemed like he might be ready to break out. Be average or better with the bat and strong with the glove and that’s a nice player. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Moustakas was drafted and came up through Moore’s development system. He was making some progress during his first two years but has struggled all year. Other than Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, this is Dayton Moore’s team. And they still have too many holes in the lineup.
Again, it’s not the movies. Relying on just a couple of players doesn’t work out. You have to have something in the other spots of the lineup. They don’t have to be stars – an average player is just fine and has a lot of value for a team. In three spots in the lineup, the Royals can’t muster that. Moore’s players haven’t done it, and what’s even more damning, he’s had no other options to turn to because there aren’t other players capable of jumping in. I think Moustakas and Escobar can turn things around. Moose could be a big power guy but without a high average, and Escobar could be a low walk but good contact hitter. But more and more, that’s based more on faith and hope than any realistic evaluation.
So it’s not fair to expect the team to suddenly wake up. They’re young, so it’s not all doom and gloom, but with each passing day, it’s a bigger sample size to judge and a bigger picture to look at. It’s not enough for the Royals to simply expect the younger players to turn into stars. They have to find backup plans.
I’m not giving up, but I have to recognize that a realistic scenario at the end of the year has Moustakas still struggling, Eric Hosmer still underwhelming (save a few stretches), and Alcides Escobar making outs. The Royals got a nice job out of David Lough when they needed to replace Jeff Francoeur, but they don’t have other options who are ready or who they’re willing to try over another player to get some on-field production.
It just comes down to having no options developed. Chris Getz is at second because Johnny Giavotella couldn’t beat him and because Christian Colon can’t force their hand. What does it say that Elliot Johnson (career OPS+ of 68 and 45 so far this year) nearly had a real shot at the full-time second base job? Mike Moustakas stays at third despite a good case for a demotion and a break, because the only options to replace him are 30-year-old career minor leaguers. Jeff Francoeur stuck in right field for two months because David Lough never jumped out until he was simply not Francoeur. The Royals had to trade Wil Myers because they couldn’t develop Mike Montgomery or Chris Dwyer and because Danny Duffy and John Lamb got hurt and because Aaron Crow couldn’t cut it as a starter. Wade Davis is on shaky ground. Luis Mendoza has already hit a wall and been replaced by Bruce Chen.
Dayton Moore has an eye for talent, but when it comes to developing and preparing talent for the big leagues, the system can’t produce enough quality players to fill those gaps. So Moustakas will enter 2014 after a lost season. Escobar will be at short, hoping that his hitting comes back to 2012 levels. The Royals will still likely have to go out and get pitching from another team or by spending money, rather than pulling from their own stores (at least to open the season). It’s sobering, but it’s reality. They can’t just get by with bit players. Changes will be necessary – in development, in personnel, and in approach, or the same problems will plague next year’s team.