Its been nine days since we saw the Kansas City Royals eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since September 26, 2013.
What a ride it’s been.
Eliminated from the playoffs right as Wade Davis closed out the Minnesota Twins, as the Orioles rallied to beat the Jays, went on to lose their final four games, and finish 81-81 – their second ever .500 season – and their first non-winning season since 2012. The Royals have only had one stretch in their entire history with four or more consecutive winning seasons, that being 1975-1980.
“We didn’t reach our goals, but we never quit,” manager Ned Yost said.
All-Star MVP first baseman Eric Hosmer echoed the sentiment.
“This team never lost it’s fight. It just didn’t work out for us. We had a lot of ups and downs; a lot of injuries. We’ve been in the thick of things the last couple of years, so it’s going to be hard [watching the postseason]…We’d like to be playing a lot more baseball, but the reality of it is, we’re not. That’s baseball.”
Hosmer is right about a few things. There were tons of ups and downs (started 12-6, lost 12 of the next 16, then won 15 of 20, had an 8-game losing streak, won eight of nine, lost 4 straight, and won 4 of 5 before a 7-19 July, followed by a 20-win August – becoming the first team in MLB history to follow a 19-loss month with a 19-win month).
There were also a lot of injuries. Mike Moustakas was injured, temporarily returned, and then was lost for the season with a torn ACL before we had even reached the quarter mark of the season. Alex Gordon was hurt on the same play, went on the DL for a month, and never really got the bat going (he did hit 17 DONGS, though). Lorenzo Cain missed time twice. Top pitching prospect Kyle Zimmer was injured, again, pitching just 5.2 innings and hasn’t tossed more than 64 in any season since 2013 – the only time he’s topped 100 innings (108) in his career. Kris Medlen was bad and injured, not pitching in a big league game after the season’s fifth week. Cyborg Wade Davis appeared to be human after all, hitting the DL twice, hinting at a possible Tommy John surgery in the future. Luke Hochevar had his season ended with injury. Mike Minor never pitched a big league pitch. And then there’s Joakim Soria, who might as well had his season ended by injury, because he got worse then the games mattered most, and Ned kept sending him out there.
Both were huge factors in the team’s so-so season. Even healthy, this team was a worse team than last year. After a flawless 2015, everything was just different this year. The bullpen was good, not great anymore. The defense was good, not great anymore. The contact rate was good, not great.
That’s indicative of this team. Despite all the issues they had, all the obstacles they faced and hurdles they had to jump, here they were, in August, sitting just two games out of the Wild Card, and “in it” with a couple weeks left in the season.
Salvador Perez stated when the Royals were in midst of their 7-19 July that they were tired from the extended 2014 and ’15 seasons.
Yost however, shied away from that, however.
“Fatigue from 2014-15 didn’t affect us. It was not having Moose, Cain, Gordon, Davis and Hoch…It really affected Herrera toward the end.”
The late-summer workload – an affect, like Yost said, of the bullpen injuries – did catch up to Herrera. Entering his August 9 outing, where he entered into a tie game and agave up three runs, his ERA stood at 1.63. Then, in his next 22 outings, over 22.1 IP, he posted a 5.24 ERA with a 1-3 record, but still managed eight saves and only a 1.12 WHIP.
But this is not the end of the Golden Era. It’s not over…yet.
“We have a lot of enthusiasm heading into 2017,” Hosmer said. “Guys like Whit [Merrifield] and Cheslor [Cuthbert], who came up and made a name for themselves give us more weapons.”
In addition to the two “new” guys, the Royals also introduced top prospect Raul Mondesi, Jr – the natural shortstop, who flashed his leather at 2B, but lost his job due to his lack of production a the plate (.185/.231/.281 in 47 games) – and the top-hitter in the system Hunter Dozier, who could play role in 2017 as an outfielder. Mondesi debuted with the Royals in late July. Prior to his questionable “PED” suspension in April, the 20-year old displayed a combination of power and speed that was previously unseen in his profile, and a significant part of his long-term value comes from his defensive ability at shortstop, where he's currently blocked by Alcides Escobar.
The Royals also have almost all of their key pieces from the previous playoff runs still here. But, key players such as Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Davis and Escobar are entering their final seasons of team control. Others, such as Kendrys Morales (mutual option), Edinson Volquez (mutual option), Luke Hochevar (mutual option), Kris Medlen (team option), may not be back next year.
In other words, the Royals will likely be undergoing a major rebuild after 2017 with only Salvador Perez, Alex Gordon, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera remaining, along with smaller pieces like Christian Colon and Paulo Orlando. That’s a few pieces, but the window will be, even if temporarily, likely closed. So enjoy the ride, because the Royals will likely blow ass again, soon. But, it’ll be all worth it because, CHAMPIONSHIPS.
Tearing it down, and building it back up again sometimes takes 5-10 years. Sure, the Royals will have a lot of money to spend with most of these guys off the books, but they likely won’t spend money if the team isn’t in win-now mode. Dayton Moore will bring in some free agents to fill any open holes they can’t fill in-house. The Royals have a lot of young talent coming up, and as we said above, some of them are already here, or debuted, so, it’s possible the next wave can continue where this current group of guys left off. But even if all the young guys are up here, one can’t expect them to win right away. It’ll take at least a couple of years.
The future success of this organization is in the hands of Moore and this next “wave.” Sure, some of them may get traded between now and then, but, they’re progression could shorten, or lengthen however long the “rebuild” lasts.
The Golden Era will end when the “core” is broken up when 2017 is over, if not sooner.
While praising the “core,” Moore said that the front office “also recognize[s] the need to maybe mix it up a little bit.” He also that the Royals are living a little beyond their means. In other words, the Royals’ payroll will “regress” in 2017.
“This  payroll was put together with going deep in the postseason in mind,” Moore said. “That didn’t happen. Again, I’m accountable for that. It’s not going to look very good on the spreadsheet when the bill comes due.”
The Royals had a record payroll in 2016 – $135 million on Opening Day, and the way things stand now, with arbitration raises factored in, they’ll be near that, again, in 2017. But, Moore stated in the end of season presser on Monday that the Royals will have to fill out their roster from the farm, most notably power arms – current starters or relievers – in the bullpen, and via “creative” trades and that the payroll will likely be cut.
“We’ll have to re-evaluate and take some steps back,” Moore explained. “We’re going to have to look internally and in trades. We won’t be adding money. That’s for darn sure.”
This will certainly present a challenge for the Royals, who will attempt to keep Morales. But, where will the money come from? Morales, who has a mutual option, that they certainly won’t agree on, worth $10.5M. Then, the Royals COULD offer him the $16.7M qualifying offer (to earn the draft pick if he walks), and hopefully he would take it, and will fit in with the Royals going all in for one more year. But, for a guy coming off two very good seasons, big K-MO could be looking for a better deal, and that may have to happen elsewhere.
“We’d love to have him back. Don’t know if it’ll work,” Moore said. "We’ll just keep all of our options open. But he’s a player that we’re very proud of. He’s a big part of our success.”
Then, there’s Volquez, coming off a less than year, going 10-11 with a 5.37 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, .286 batting average against and 139 strikeouts in 189.1 innings. Certainly the mutual option will not be agreed upon. But, what do the Royals do with the qualifying offer? Volquez, coming off the down year, he could certainly accept the offer, and the Royals will be stuck with paying him nearly $17M. Not ideal.
There’s many other questions that need to be answered, such as who will be the fifth starter? What will happen to Cuthbert, who is out of options, now that Moose will be back (Moore confirmed that Cuthbert will report to the instructional league this fall to attempt to learn 2B – a position he briefly played in the minors in 2014, making three errors in three games)? What will happen in the outfield besides Gordon and Cain? Will Cain play CF or RF? Who will be the second baseman?
Time will tell.
Here’s to hoping the Golden Age ends in the Royals raising gold, once again.
“We’re still confident in our team,” Hosmer declared. “Let’s see if we can make another run at it.”
That’s the plan, Eric.
But, maybe the way this season went will steer the Royals in the right direction this offseason, and not standing pat like they did as defending champs. Moore said doing that last winter didn’t work out for them. The Royals will try to improve an aging, continually more expensive and wounded core, who were worth a combined 19 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2015 and averaged 140 games played each, compared to 7.3 WAR and only managed about 120 games each thanks to injuries to Cain, Gordon, and Moustakas, with limited financial resource to spend and a minor league system that is not nearly as loaded as it once was.
It won’t be easy. But, count this group out? Never.
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