Sep 18, 2013, 10:45 AM EST
Well, it’s Sept. 17 … and the Kansas City Royals have a shot at the postseason. It’s a bit of a longshot, sure. They are 2 1/2 games behind Texas in the wildcard standings right now, which is hardly insurmountable (especially the way the Rangers are playing). But they also have Cleveland and Baltimore ahead of them, and the Yankees tied with them. That makes the math difficult.
Basically, when you play it out, the Royals are something like a 24-to-1 shot to reach the postseason. But, hey, when you look at the Royals the last 25 or so years, a 24-to-1 shot on Sept. 17 is a bleeping miracle.
Anyway, even assuming they do fall short, it really doesn’t change the headline. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable season.
I’ve written this before: It was Jason Kendall who finally broke my spirits. Well, not Kendall himself — Jason was a really good player as a young man — but the idea of him. The Royals signed Jason Kendall on December 11, 2009. Not coincidentally, that was the day I became convinced that the Kansas City Royals would never, ever do anything right.
Kendall was about to turn 36 when the Royals signed him. His slugging percentage the previous two seasons was .313. I want to repeat now — that was his SLUGGING PERCENTAGE. The Royals were coming off a 97-loss season weighed down by a bunch of 30-something veterans spreading the presence all over the place. Forget that the Royals did not learn any lessons from another dreadful season. They did not seem to even know there were lessons to be learned.
Kendall was only the latest in decades of bafflement. The Royals had given Jose Guillen $12 million a year for reasons that, I assume, are locked in a secret file somewhere in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium.* They had not only traded for Yuniesky Betancourt, they brought him back later. They signed Chuck Knoblauch when he was done, Reggie Sanders when he was done. Juan Gonzalez. Jose Lima, Mike Jacobs, Ross Gload, Sidney Ponson. On and on and on and on.
*The “Why KC signed Guillen” file is only one page long and has but one word written on it — “RBIs!”
And then … Kendall … it was the pitch that broke the camel’s bat. Kendall was typically gamey, he showed up ready to play, he refused to sit, and in the 490 plate appearances he managed before finally expiring, he did not hit even one triple or home run. It was all hopeless. The Royals were lost at sea. Of course, they had been lost forever. The despairing part was they seemed to have no particular desire to be found.
And here we are, less then four years later, and the reason this Royals team has been so enjoyable is not only that they are winning more than they are losing. That’s great. It’s not only that they are mathematically alive for a playoff spot. That’s great too. It is that the Royals, for the first time in almost two generations, are heading toward land. I don’t just feel good for them. I’m oddly proud of them.
At the start of the year, it looked to be a typically miserable year. The Royals made the controversial Wil Myers for James Shields trade, which looked pretty bad when they made it and, I suspect, will look progressively worse as years go on. They penciled Jeff Francoeur into the starting lineup. They thrust young Eric Hosmer into the coveted third spot in the lineup though he was coming off a dismal season. They seemed serious about returning Luke Hochevar to the rotation though he had proven pretty conclusively that he would never be even an average big league starter. And then, after getting off to a quick start, they went into this death spiral where they lost 19 of 23 games and descended into the abyss of last place in the American League Central. For way too long, they were leading off Chris Getz. Manager Ned Yost seemed to be overmatched. Another year in Kansas City.
Only, there was something different. I didn’t like the Shields for Myers deal … and still don’t. But there was something CALCULATED about it. Something LOGICAL about it. The Royals had determined that with a couple of good starters, they could take a leap forward. I was just talking about this with Arizona reliever Brad Ziegler, who grew up in Missouri, and he said this: “Look, we all know that Wil Myers is going to be a superstar. The ROYALS knew it. But James Shields is amazing. He throws eight innings every time out.”
It’s not quite that … but close. Shields leads the American League in innings pitched. Take away one dreadful start against Detroit, he has a sub-3.00 ERA. His 25 quality starts — no matter how you may feel about that stat — is second-highest for the Royals since the strike, behind only Zack Greinke’s absurdly good 2009 Cy Young season. Truth is, Shields really has pitched better than I thought he would. He has pitched just as well as the Royals thought he would. He has been exactly what the Royals hoped he would be — a metronome for a team learning how to keep time. Do I think that was worth Wil Myers? No. Do I think they will regret the deal longterm? Yes. But the Royals made a calculated decision to step forward now. And they are stepping forward.
They moved Luke Hochevar to the bullpen. If you are not a Royals fan, this will mean nothing to you — Hochevar struggled, OF COURSE they moved him to the bullpen, right? Big deal. But, you see, that’s not how the Royals work. The Royals have simply refused to move on from their mistakes. This is a team that gave Kyle Davies start after start after start in the hopelessly misguided belief that something would kick in. Davies made 99 starts for Kansas City — his ERA was 5.34 for those starts. Hochevar — who flashed good stuff and was also the first pick in the 2006 draft* — seemed to have Supreme Court job security.
*Ahead of — I’ve done this list so many times I can do it in my sleep — Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum and Max Scherzer, to name only a few. Soon, I suspect, we will have a trivia question: In the first round of the 2006 draft, three Cy Young winners were selected. Who was the FIRST PICK of that draft?
But, the Royals moved Hochevar to the bullpen, where — as an added bonus — he has been brilliant. I think that was really the first time I looked at this team and thought: “Hey, wait a minute, Dayton Moore and the guys might have figured some things out.” My last line in that Hochevar post was this: “The Royals aren’t doubling down on their mistake. And that, I think, is a good sign that things are really changing in Kansas City.”
They got rid of Jeff Francoeur. Again a seemingly obvious move — Frenchy was hitting .208 at the time — but obvious moves have befuddled the Royals for years. Everybody loves Francoeur, and so the Royals of old would have stuck with him in a naive hope that his good attitude and consistent effort would help him hit baseballs. The Royals went into their system and pulled up a longtime minor leaguer named David Lough and let him play. Lough is a tough guy, can play all three outfield spots and play them pretty well, can offer a little something with the bat, it’s like the Royals finally grasped the concept of replacement players.
They moved Eric Hosmer to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. I’ve written about this before and don’t want to make too much of it because lineup stuff tends to be ridiculously overvalued — but this move also cut against the Royals decision-making history. Hosmer is a big first baseman who is supposed to have outrageous power … the Royals have been constitutionally opposed to hitting a guy like that second. But they did it with Hosmer when he was struggling, and (I suspect) told him to just relax, not worry about home runs, see the ball hit the ball, let his natural talents take over. Whatever the reason, Hosmer is having a wonderful rebound season — he’s hitting .302/.356/.448 after a dreadful start — and you can begin to see the outline of the star the Royals and scouts have expected Hosmer to become.
The bullpen is a spectacular array of golden arms the Royals have acquired through the years. This is the Dayton Moore philosophy of stockpiling great arms at work. Moore had hoped it would materialize in the starting rotation more quickly (though Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura offer exciting possibilities for next season and beyond). Instead, it has come to life in the bullpen — the Royals might have the best bullpen in the league. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any question. The Royals bullpen has a 2.54 ERA and 451 strikeouts in 426 innings.The league is hitting .220 against this bullpen. It’s electrifying.
And the bullpen is almost all homegrown. Closer Greg Holland (43 saves, 1.33 ERA, 94 Ks in 61 innings) was a 10th round pick out of Western Carolina. Hochevar (1.64 ERA, 76 strikeouts, 16 walks) we’ve talked about. Kelvin Herrera, who has struggled at times this year but throws 100 mph and can be absurdly dominant, was signed by the Royals in the Dominican Republic as a 16-year-old.
Little lefty Tim Collins came over in the Rick Ankiel trade (yes, for once the Royals were trading someone like Rick Ankiel AWAY), Will Smith came over in the Alberto Callaspo deal, Aaron Crow was a first-round mistake (sheesh, Mike Trout was RIGHT THERE) but the Royals did not compound the mistake by trying to make a starter out of him. He’s a pretty good reliever with a a power arm. Louis Coleman was a fifth-round pick out of the marvelously named Pillow Academy. He has an 0.35 ERA in 23 appearances.That’s right. One run allowed all year.
The Royals are not a great team. They are hopelessly powerless — their 104 home runs is 29 fewer than any team in the American League. They are 11th in the league in runs scored, and they have players in their every day lineup with OPS+ of 55 (Alcides Escobar), 76 (Mike Moustakas), 83 (Lorenzo Cain) and whatever dreadful numbers their second baseman is putting up. Their starting rotation barely goes three deep — and they’ve basically been saved by the left-handed stylings of Maestro Bruce Chen.
But they are a good team. And there is reason to believe they will be a better team. There is young pitching coming. The minor league system is still pretty stocked. Guys like Salvador Perez and Hosmer are just entering their prime, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon should still be in it. They play great defense. They are athletic. They have a direction and purpose.
And — man is this a great thing to say — they finally seem to know what they’re doing. It’s not that I agree with everything they do — I don’t. I’m not sure Ned Yost is the manager to take them to the next level. I’m not sure how the rotation will come together (right now, they’re counting on FOUR thirty-somethings). I don’t know if the bullpen can be this great again. I don’t know if they will hit enough … and, because of that, I do think the Wil Myers trade will look worse and worse if he becomes the MVP type hitter he just might become.
But, none of that is the point. The last couple of weeks could be a lot of fun if the Royals can win a few games, but that’s all gravy. The point is the Royals are finally pointing North. Yes, it has been a thoroughly enjoyable season.
Dec 8, 2013, 10:50 PM EST
Though Chase Headley‘s name has been found in trade rumors every now and then, you can expect him to stay in San Diego for the time being, writes Bill Shaikin for the L.A. Times. Headley is eligible for arbitration for the fourth and final time and is expected to get a bump over last year’s…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:55 PM EST
Speaking to the media earlier today, Mets GM Sandy Alderson said he expects to start the 2014 season with Ruben Tejada at shortstop, tweets Jorge Castillo of the Star-Ledger. The Mets were reportedly interested in Jhonny Peralta before he signed with the Cardinals. With Stephen Drew leading the class of remaining free agent shortstops, the…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:00 PM EST
You’re never too old to start learning how to play first base. Delmon Young, shockingly only 28 years old, has never played a single inning at first base in his entire professional baseball career, but he has been working out at the position lately in order to make himself more attractive as a free agent,…
Dec 8, 2013, 8:10 PM EST
CC Sabathia was among the many observers shocked to learn that second baseman Robinson Cano will be donning a Mariners uniform, rather than Yankee pinstripes, when the 2014 regular season begins. Sabathia had been Cano’s teammate for five years, ever since he signed a seven-year, $161 million contract to join the Yankees on December 11,…
Dec 8, 2013, 7:35 PM EST
Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times caused a bit of a stir after publishing a scathing takedown of the culture within the Mariners’ front office, quoting various former employees. Among them were ex-manager Eric Wedge and former special assistant to the GM Tony Blengino. In the report, Baker writes that Blengino prepared a job application…
Dec 8, 2013, 7:00 PM EST
If you thought the Mariners were going to call it an off-season after signing second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten-year, $240 million contract, think again. They’re only just getting started. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports tweets that the Mariners could use some of their young talent, such as middle infielder Nick Franklin, to bolster…
Dec 8, 2013, 6:05 PM EST
The list of players who are able to justify a roster spot at the age of 40 is relatively short. The list of 40-year-olds to bash 29 home runs is remarkably shorter. Maybe that’s why free agent Raul Ibanez, now 41, is still drawing interest. He finished 2013 with 29 dingers and an adjusted OPS…
Dec 8, 2013, 5:11 PM EST
Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena had a showcase this weekend in the Dominican and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo spoke to a scout who was there: “He’s what you’ve been reading. He’s a very good defensive player. His glove is very close to the big leagues. The bat, you kind of think he’s one of those guys who’ll…
Dec 8, 2013, 3:58 PM EST
Brett Gardner trade rumors are all the rage at the moment, but he’s not the only Yankees outfielder on the block. This comes from beat writer Chad Jennings of New York’s Journal News: According to one rival executive, the Yankees have also mentioned Ichiro Suzuki’s name in trade talks. There’s no indication that any sort…
Dec 8, 2013, 2:44 PM EST
John Axford was non-tendered by the Cardinals earlier this month, but the 30-year-old right-hander won’t have trouble finding a new place to pitch. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Cubs, Orioles and Mariners have all expressed interest in Axford since the Cardinals let him go. And those teams may even offer him the opportunity…
Dec 8, 2013, 1:31 PM EST
Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana spoke to the Japanese media this weekend about MLB and NPB’s new posting system, which puts a $20 million cap on posting fees. The Golden Eagles own the rights to the hottest international free agent on the market this winter, Masahiro Tanaka, and were hoping to cash in like…
Dec 8, 2013, 12:25 PM EST
Another thing to monitor at the Winter Meetings … According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the Royals are expressing interest in free agent second baseman Omar Infante and will try to beat out the Yankees for his services. The two clubs engaged in a biding war for outfielder Carlos Beltran — which the Yanks…
Dec 8, 2013, 11:39 AM EST
From Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com: More than 15 teams have called to express interest in free agent reliever Andrew Bailey, MLBTR has learned. The 29-year-old had season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in July, and the Red Sox declined to tender him a contract earlier this month. Barring setbacks, he…
Dec 8, 2013, 10:47 AM EST
Free agent right-hander A.J. Burnett has said publicly and privately that he will either pitch for the Pirates in 2014 or retire from baseball for good. The Bucs want him back and are prepared to commit a significant portion of their budget to the cause, but the 36-year-old has not made an official decision about…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:58 AM EST
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — Greetings from the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, deep in the dark recesses of the happiest place on Earth. I have been down here with my children since last Tuesday, doing battle with a mouse. The mouse is a worthy adversary. Much respect for him and his hyper-efficiency at separating…
Dec 8, 2013, 8:53 AM EST
If you read one thing today, make it this Seattle Times profile of the Mariners’ front office. Geoff Baker, the author of the piece, talked to former M’s manager Eric Wedge, former special assistant Tony Blengino and scouts who are still affiliated with the team. What he found wasn’t pretty. A taste: One of those…
Dec 7, 2013, 11:00 PM EST
First baseman James Loney had a career rebirth of sorts in 2013 with the Rays and the team would like to bring him back, but not at his current asking price, reports Mark Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Loney is currently seeking a three-year, $27 million deal. If the Rays have to search for…
Dec 7, 2013, 10:10 PM EST
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball recently agreed to a new posting system, altering the way Major League teams pursue Japanese talent. One of the changes capped posting fees at $20 million, meaning that if multiple teams are willing to pay the fee, the player can negotiate with them all, with only the winner…
Dec 7, 2013, 9:15 PM EST
After Carlos Beltran signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees, we learned he had actually been offered more money by the Diamondbacks but declined in order to return to New York. Still looking to fill their corner outfield void, they are showing interest in Angels slugger Mark Trumbo, tweets Bob Nightengale of USA…
Dec 7, 2013, 8:10 PM EST
Per Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says he has made multiple offers to Juan Uribe, but have yet to hear back. The 34-year-old free agent has spent a majority of his playing time at third base since joining the Dodgers in 2011. Uribe had a career year in 2013, finishing…
- Tony Blengino says recent report on Seattle front office is “just the tip of the iceberg” 22
- Rakuten Golden Eagles appear likely to allow Masahiro Tanaka’s departure to MLB 44
- 2013 Winter Meetings Preview 21
- Matt Kemp remains “in play” for the Red Sox 56
- Robinson Cano “didn’t want to play” for Joe Girardi 106
- Robinson Cano agrees to $240 million deal with Mariners (260)
- Yankees agree to seven-year, $153M contract with free agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (160)
- Report: Mariners willing to offer Robinson Cano a 10-year, $240 million deal (143)
- Report: Yankees have agreed to a three-year deal with Carlos Beltran (125)
- Brett Gardner is drawing “significant” trade interest (111)