The KC Royals opened the 2017 season expecting and determined to contend in the final season before several key players became eligible for free agency. But the campaign started poorly and contention suddenly seemed unrealistic.
April, it seems, is rarely a great month for the KC Royals. In the 15 seasons preceding 2017, the club lost more April games than it won eight times, dropping at least 14 games each campaign and as many as 18 twice. Of the seven winning Aprils during that span, only twice did KC’s wins exceed its losses by more than four.
Not surprisingly, three of those winning April records coincided with the club’s 2013-2015 resurgence. April of 2017 would not resemble those Aprils.
Simply put, the first month of the season was awful. The major league campaign began on April 2 but Kansas City didn’t open until the next day; because no AL Central Division games had been played the day before, the Royals were technically tied for first place when they opened against the Twins, but they would never actually occupy that position at any subsequent point. They dropped all three games in Minnesota to begin the worst month of their season. When April ended, the KC Royals were 7-16 and in the Central Division cellar.
The dismal month all but silenced postseason talk and triggered new speculation that Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Escobar and Vargas would be traded. Such conjecture was definitely understandable: some players’ values were increasing. Moose was hot with seven homers and 11 RBI; Cain was hitting .272; Vargas had a 3-1 record and 1.40 ERA. Conversely, the April performances of Hosmer and Escobar began to support moving them before it was too late–Hosmer had only a homer, six RBI, and a .225 average and Escobar was at .171.
The club’s 15-14 May record did little to rekindle playoff talk. Hosmer caught fire, though, hitting .367; although Moustakas hit only .232, he clubbed six more homers and drove in another 15 runs. Cain hit only .245 and Escobar improved slightly with .197. Vargas was 3-2 with a 3.12 ERA.
Ultimately, however, their so-so May put the KC Royals back on track. They left the month still in last place, then won four of their first six in June to climb out of the cellar and into fourth place; after losing the next two games, they won six straight, then five of seven, to move into third place and within two games of first on June 24. Unlikely as it seemed after April, and even May, the Royals were in contention.
But with contention came a dilemma–should the club keep its core players and try to add some additional help to make a run at the playoffs, a run that could prove to be the core’s last KC hurrah, or move those players before the trade deadline to maximize their final value to the club? The Royals were just three games behind, but third place wouldn’t earn them even a Wild Card; sentimentality supported a final run, but the logic and business of baseball more than justified trades.
Core player performance in June, though, made the decision hard. Vargas was superb and unstoppable–he went 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA. Hosmer homered five times with 16 RBI and a .306 average; Cain, with only two prior homers, exploded with eight, drove in 17 runs and hit .333; Moustakas added eight homers of his own to raise his season total to 21, had 22 RBI and hit .313; and Escobar batted .294, nearly 100 points higher than May and over 100 points better than April. Their numbers were good enough to keep them–and also good enough to attract trade suitors.
Dayton Moore and the Royals had difficult decisions to make. How did things turn out? Find out in Part 2, coming tomorrow on this site.