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The Unbeatable Kansas City Royals

Mar 6, 2013, 9:23 AM EDT

Eric Hosmer Reuters

SURPRISE, Ariz. — When I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I would write an annual column where I predicted the Kansas City Royals to win the division. It wasn’t quite an inside joke … and it certainly wasn’t a serious prediction. It was, instead, my best effort to capture a little bit of spring hope in a baseball town that had been beaten up over the years. It’s that time of year for baseball hope. Every player is in the best shape of his life. Every manager is thinking pennant. Every fan is imagining that this will be the year this guy hits 25 homers and that guy strikes out 200 and the other guy gets 30 saves.

I think that’s the whole point with March baseball. The season — and grim reality — will come soon enough.

Well, the problem with writing the Royals’ hope column in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s was simply that it was really hard to come up with an even remotely  plausible scenario where Kansas City won anything. They always needed so many crazy things to happen. They would need Chad Durbin and Jimmy Gobble to become stars. They would need Reggie Sanders or Juan Gonzalez to hold off the hands of time. They would need to win every single one-run game they played and to suddenly become a great fielding team and to magically start getting on base more.

After a while, I referred to it as “hitting on 20 in blackjack” hope. If you hit on 20 in blackjack, you might — MIGHT — draw the ace and win. It could happen. But it’s no way to go through life.

This year — warning: I’m about to break one of my major rules about baseball analysis and quote a spring training statistic — the Royals are unbeaten. They tied their first game of spring training (which, in itself, tells you how meaningless this all is) and they have won every game since. They pounded a split-squad Oakland team on Tuesday — battering the shell of Bartolo Colon for four runs in the first inning — to make it 10 victories in a row. “Everybody’s contributing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said after the game. “That makes it fun.”

Now, let me make this clear: I believe this 10-game spring training winning streak means almost exactly nothing. It means about as much as an NBA player making 20 three-pointers in a row during warmups or an NFL kicker making a 68-yard field goal in pre-game. It might buoy the confidence a bit. It might sell a couple more early season tickets. It might help create a more positive atmosphere in the clubhouse. But that’s it. The Royals began last year by losing their first 10 home games in the regular season — THAT means something.

But … hey winning 10 in a row is better than losing 10 in a row. And there is something exciting about this team. That exciting thing is, paradoxically, something kind of boring: For the first time in what seems like forever, the Royals don’t enter a season needing miracles. They don’t need some crazy-good year from Emil Brown or Dan Reichert, they don’t need supernatural comebacks from Chuck Knoblauch or Jose Lima, they don’t need for anybody to transform into one of the Avengers. Few are expecting the Royals to really compete for a playoff spot this year … and they might not. But for the first time in forever, they COULD compete without an inconceivable series of magic tricks and freak occurrences and James Bond luck.

For one, the bullpen should be dominant — especially in the eighth and ninth innings. The eighth is held down by Kelvin Herrera, whose name might not ring a bell yet, but who had the fastest average velocity in American League last year at 97.1 mph. He has already hit 100 this spring — he’s in shape early for the World Baseball Classic — and he dominated most of last season. The ninth is owned by Greg Holland, another new name to many, and he struck out 91 batters in 67 innings last year, and the league hit .194 against him after he became the closer. They have other guys in the bullpen — Aaron Crow, Tim Collins among them — who consistently throw in the mid-to-high 90s. “Where do the Royals get all these guys?” one American League scout asks.

The starting rotation has questions, certainly, but James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie all have been above average major league starters over their careers — and all have had good seasons in the not-so-distant past. Wade Davis was really good in the Tampa Bay bullpen last year and could be a very good fourth starter. The last time the Royals went into a season with just three starting pitchers who you might reasonably expect to be average or better was probably 1994.

*Kevin Appier, David Cone and Tom Gordon … to give you an idea how long ago it has been.

The lineup is young — which makes it both volatile and exciting. Alex Gordon is one of the better players in baseball, even if few people have caught on yet. Billy Butler hit .310 with 32 doubles and 29 homers last year. Young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were Top 10 prospects and have All-Star talent, and catcher Salvador Perez is probably the best throwing catcher in the American League at age 22 and he has been an offensive wonder in limited time. Of course, it can go bad — Hosmer had a shockingly bad 2012 season and Moustakas wore down and Perez was injured and hasn’t established himself yet. But, pretty much across baseball scouts love those three players. As the American League scout above said, “I’d start my team with those three right now.”

Does this mean the Royals definitely will compete in 2013? Of course it doesn’t. They still need all the things teams need — they need to stay healthy, especially in the starting rotation. They need for some young players to break through and get better, Hosmer in particular. They need for some veterans to repeat what they’ve done in the recent past. They need some luck. But these are the things all teams need going into a season. As one Royals executive said Tuesday, “This camp feels more businesslike than any I can remember.” That might not sound like much, but having been around the Royals for a long time I thought what he was really saying was: “Hey, look, we actually have good players.”

  1. proudlycanadian - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:28 AM

    If Joe says it is so then it is so. Go Royals Go!

  2. Chris Fiorentino - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:28 AM

    It’s pretty sad that in this day of parity in MLB that the KC Royals have not sniffed the playoffs in 28 years. With 5 teams making it now, here’s hoping they finally make it in 2013.

  3. chacochicken - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    If everyone give 110%, remembers there is no “i” in team and carries the momentum of spring training success into the regular season and sticks to generating runs through gritty hard-nosed sacrifice bunting and eating innings while pitching to the score this team can defy the odds get into the playoffs where everyone knows anything can happen.

    But seriously, the Royals look promising.

  4. tc4306 - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    They won’t be one of the five best teams. There are three very good teams in the West and they all get to play the Astros about 19 times. One wild card will come from there. If the East turns out to be as balanced as people seem to think, those five could beat each other up and leave the 2nd wild card open to the 2nd best team in the Central or the 3rd best team in the West. My money is on one wild card from the East and another from the West; but one from the Central is not impossible.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:55 AM

      Are you implying that the Royals have no chance to finish ahead of Detroit?

      • historiophiliac - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:48 AM

        But of course.

      • tc4306 - Mar 6, 2013 at 3:36 PM

        About the same chance I have of landing a weekend with Kate Upton.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 6, 2013 at 4:05 PM

        I understand that Kate Upton is a Tiger fan.

  5. spork04 - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Never thought I’d see the day where Joe writes about the Royals and doesn’t mention Yuni Betancourt.

    • Chris Fiorentino - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:35 AM

      Especially since he is playing for the Phillies and he could have easily snuck in some snark about the Phillies. But again…he’s new. Give him some time.

    • 2077james - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:52 AM

      Probably under doctors orders to avoid the stress.

  6. groundruledoublebourbon - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    Fun read, but I’ve been taken by the Royals too many times. Living as a (healthy & sane) Royals fan means I’m not allowed to expect my team to ever give anything back to me except disappointment and the occasional laugh. But hey, it’s March–I’m allowing myself to dream a little. By “dream,” I mean I hope they’ll sniff .500.

    • ptfu - Mar 6, 2013 at 4:50 PM

      The Royals won 72 games last season, and their run differential suggests they “should” have won 74. They need seven more wins to reach .500, and they could get them for all the reasons Joe Posnanski lists above.

      • groundruledoublebourbon - Mar 6, 2013 at 4:57 PM

        I get all of that, believe me. I understand they improved immensely on paper: (1) the rotation–the guys at the top of 2012’s rotation (Hochever/Chen) are battling for the 5-spot (2) The young guys who struggled last year (Moustakas, Hosmer, etc) can only be better (3) Perez and Cain (fingers crossed) won’t miss half the season (4) the bullpen is oustanding (5) Francoeur can’t be worse. Trust me, I see what’s happened.

        What I’m telling you, Mr. or Mrs. ptfu, is that they’re the Royals; thus, they are contractually obligated to suck to break my heart and suck to the nth degree in the summer and fall months (the late fall/winter months are reserved for Chiefs heartbreak). It’s a way of life around here.

  7. oldpaddy - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    The Royals?

  8. andreweac - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:04 AM

    Remarkable how much better the writing at HardballTalk is than ProFootballTalk. HardballTalk is my #1 news source for MLB. Despite being an NFL fan I don’t even use their feed on my iPhone as the writing is simply atrocious, repetitive and clearly SEO focused to get to the magical 300 words.

    • moogro - Mar 6, 2013 at 6:31 PM

      I agree. Might have to do with the kind of people would be drawn to write about football. And that there is nothing to talk about with football anyway.

  9. randall351 - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    Even with all the hype surrounding the Royals this year after mortgaging their future to get a pitcher who might make a 4-5 win difference, only still a little bitter, the only thing you really hear them talking about on local sports radio is all the off season crap the Chiefs are doing.
    I do hope they are at least less than 5 games out of a playoff spot come September, but I still don’t think they’ll crack .500, b/c it would be refreshing to have some baseball centered talk during the football season, and not just Chiefs talk at nauseum.
    Having Joe Pos on this site as really made me a happy panda, & I look forward to more posts in the future whether they are Kansas City centric or not.

  10. Caught Looking - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    The Royals are peaking in March.

  11. nategearhart - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    I have a lot of hope for this season. But as a long-suffering Royals fan, I’ve set my standards to hope for an exciting, competitive team, rather than a championship-caliber (that, hopefully, comes within a few years). I just want the embarrassment to go away. My NL team is the Giants, so I can get my championship jollies through them :).
    I’m just nervous about Shields and Santana; I don’t think they’re the “missing pieces” that a lot of people I talk to seem to think they are.
    Oh, and thanks for mentioning Jimmy Gobble, Joe! It’s always fun to see a familiar old name. :)

  12. historiophiliac - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    I hope they are still playing well for my visit in September!

  13. jkcalhoun - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    No equal time for the other team in the Cactus League that also currently has a 10-game winning streak?

  14. sportsdrenched - Mar 6, 2013 at 11:11 AM

    Ehhh. If you’re going to play games. Exhibition or real, it’s always better to win them than lose them. However, I think it was 2006 when the Royals won the Cactus League and then proceeded to have one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

    I am jaded, and pessimistic Royals fan, and I’ve learned to never underestimate their ability to set historical precedents for emberassment and futility. So save the “we’re going about our business, business like this camp” talk. After all. I remember Terrance Long saying that in March of 2004.

  15. heeterjoe - Mar 6, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    I would rather be winning the games that “don’t count”, than losing the games that “don’t count”! Go Royals! JH

  16. minibull - Mar 6, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    General baseball fan here who follows specific players – one of them being Mike Moustakas. I saw him as a young star on the rise, capable of hitting .300 with 30 homers in a couple of years. But his struggles after last years All Star break put a damper on my enthusiasm. I think this is his sink or swim season, which way do you think he will go? All Star or utility player?

  17. kcrobert10 - Mar 6, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Moose hurt his knee after the all star break. They worry me they try hard now get my hopes up then in April lose 20 in a row.

  18. joerymi - Mar 6, 2013 at 9:31 PM

    The past 3 years, the Royals have been someone’s “sleeper.”

    Hosmer and Moustakas may have been high end prospects, but they still need to prove a lot in the Majors. Hosmer’s “sophmore slump” was fairly significant. Moustakes’ power numbers improved, but a sub .300 OBP leaves much to be desired.

    Their starting rotation is actually a bit better than some are giving it credit for, but after Shields it gets a bit worrisome. Guthrie pitched well in a Royals uniform for half of the season, but hasn’t been “above average” for an entire season since 2010, which might be significant considering he will be 34 at the start of the season. Santana may have had just a bad season in 2012, but power hitters in that division are licking their chops to feel him out.

    80-82, for a third place finish.

  19. IdahoMariner - Mar 6, 2013 at 10:49 PM

    over on lookout landing jeff sullivan was talking about the Ms ten game streak (with lots of crazy home runs – at least one per game!) and looked at the correlation between the Ms success (or lack thereof) in spring training and their success (or more often, lack) in the regular season. he found that, reaching back to 1996, there wasn’t just no correlation, it was actually a negative correlation, or, as he put it:
    “Right now, the Mariners are 10-1. If we plug that winning percentage into the equation, we get a projected regular-season winning percentage of .342. At this rate, the Mariners are going to finish 55-107.”
    so, as a fan of a similar team that likely will not continue this rate of success into the season, I am just hoping for the best for both teams and their fans – more wins than we have seen in a while, and lots of good baseball to watch.

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