Friday, May 31, 2013

How The Hell Did This Happen?

I have to admit: I didn’t see this coming. I realize this is not the first time I’ve written those words. It’s probably not the second or third time either.

It’s not that I didn’t think the Royals would play this poorly in the first third of the season. If you had told me back in March that the Royals would start the season 21-29 – but only be outscored by seven runs in their first 50 games – I would have said that’s quite plausible. For the season as a whole, they’ve basically played like a .500 team, with some bad luck – they’re 7-12 in one-run games. They’ve played worse than I expected, but not a lot worse. I could have foreseen this.

But I could not have foreseen this. If you had told me that they started 21-29, I would have guessed that the primary culprit was that their starting rotation had not lived up to the hype and the resources put into it. I would have guessed that Ervin Santana would have relived 2012 all over again, and that Jeremy Guthrie’s inability to miss bats would have caught up with him, and maybe even that James Shields had been ineffective and/or hurt.

And here’s the thing: if that had been the culprit in the Royals’ terrible start, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. Sure, it would have been a ton of money thrown down the drain, but Santana’s a free agent at the end of the year. Guthrie’s under contract for two more seasons, but Danny Duffy is almost back, and Felipe Paulino shouldn’t be too far behind. The Royals could chalk this up as bad luck, and start fresh in 2014. Sure, they’d be out Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi, but they could wipe away the mistakes of 2013, start fresh with another rotation makeover, and be confident that their young hitters could rake enough to put them in contention.

Instead, we got this.

Before last night’s bizarre, Matheny-aided, weather-almost-denied victory, the Royals had lost 19 of their last 23 games. That is tied for the worst 23-game stretch since Dayton Moore was hired. Yesterday was also the seventh anniversary of the date Dayton Moore was hired. So SEVEN YEARS AFTER HE TOOK THE JOB, the Royals are playing as badly as they have played since he was hired.

And let’s not overlook this point: the Royals are playing atrocious baseball even though they’ve been healthier than they had any right to expect. Of the 25 guys who broke camp with them, just one – Jarrod Dyson – has been on the DL. And while Dyson’s been missed, particularly since he was just starting to take playing time away from Jeff Francoeur, David Lough has hit .305 in his absence, so you can’t pin this all on him.

The only other absence has been Salvador Perez, who’s been on bereavement leave this week after his grandmother passed. And that’s it. The trainers are doing their job magnificently. The players are not.

Before the year started, I said that I wanted nothing more than to issue an apology to Dayton Moore for criticizing the Shields trade. Yet here we are, two months into the season, Shields is pitching a little better than expected (although Wade Davis has been a disappointment), Wil Myers is hitting a little worse than expected (although coming on strong lately in Triple-A) – and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because of what I did not foresee: a lineup filled with former top prospects, a lineup where no one has yet reached his 30th birthday, a lineup with a pair of 23-year-olds and a 24-year-old, a lineup that every scout loved and every analyst thought was overwhelmingly likely to improve…that lineup has laid a giant goose egg.

Two years ago, with the youngest offense in the major leagues, the Royals finished sixth in the AL in runs scored.

Last year, with an offense that was still the youngest in the majors, the Royals dropped to 12th in the league in runs scored. Eric Hosmer had a terrible season. Salvador Perez missed half the year. Jeff Francoeur was below replacement-level and batted over 600 times. These were all easily fixable problems. We thought.

This year, with a lineup that is still young but has two additional years of experience, the Royals now rank 13th in the AL in runs scored, ahead of only the Mariners and White Sox. The Mariners also can’t develop their hitters to save their life, and their front office is also in mortal danger. The White Sox are finally paying the price for a decade of short-term decisions.

And the Royals are trending downward. They’ve scored 82 runs in their last 24 games. After firing Kevin Seitzer, who is increasingly looking like the Winston Churchill of this organization – the one guy who understood the weightiness of the task before them – because Ned Yost wanted more power, they’ve hit two homers in their last 14 games. Jeff Francoeur’s ninth-inning homer raised that total to three in 15 games, which is still one less homer than the CUBS PITCHERS have hit in that span (thanks, Travis Wood!)

And I hate to say this, but not only am I caught off-guard by what has happened, but I am incredibly pessimistic about what this means for the future of this organization. If the 2013 Royals were in a tailspin because they did a poor job of complimenting their home-grown talent with veterans from outside the organization – again – that would be a problem, but it would be a problem with an expiration date.

Instead, they’ve gone from sole possession of first place to sole possession of last place in 28 days because of their home-grown talent. The one thing that Dayton Moore and his front office was supposed to be good at – the one thing that convinced me to start supporting this front office again after the debacle of 2009 – looks like a fraud.

If you haven’t read it already, here’s Jonah Keri and I over at Grantland last week, talking about what happened to the Best Farm System In The History Of Baseball. The quick recap: two years ago, the Royals had nine Top 100 prospects in their farm system, including three Top 10 hitters, the safest type of prospect. Here’s what the Royals have to show for them:

James Shields – for two years.

Wade Davis.

Two corner infielders hitting .261/.321/.335 and .184/.254/.309.

Danny Duffy, who appears to be hitting on all cylinders 12 months after Tommy John surgery.

John Lamb, who is definitely not hitting on all cylinders 24 months after Tommy John surgery. (In his defense, Lamb’s velocity reportedly ticked up in his last start, and he’s on a run of 14 shutout innings. But as I’ve said many times: never trust a pitcher based on how he’s performing in Wilmington. On the road this year, Lamb has a 5.83 ERA. Unless and until he starts retiring batters at Northwest Arkansas, don’t bother getting excited.)

Chris Dwyer, who might be a #5 starter one day. Might.

Christian Colon, who HAHAHAHAHAHA

So yes, it appears that I need to offer a sincere apology for being wrong. But the apology isn’t for Dayton Moore. It’s for people like Will McDonald, and Matt Klaassen, and Scott McKinney, whose conclusion from his in-depth study on the track record of top prospects was that a farm system, even one as outstanding as the Royals’ farm system appeared in the spring of 2010, was no guarantee of future success.

I tried to parry McKinney’s findings, because I have a blind spot when it comes to the Royals, and in my defense I still think the points that I raised are valid. But I made one fatal mistake, which one should never make when analyzing the Royals: I forgot that I was analyzing the Royals. When it comes to the Royals, Murphy’s Law reigns: if anything can go wrong, it will. And when it comes to prospects, anything can go wrong.

I’m convinced that the theory was sound: great farm systems, more often than not, lead to good teams. I know it can work because I’ve seen it work. I know it can work because I’ve seen it at work all week. Look at the St. Louis Cardinals:

Yadier Molina: drafted by the Cardinals, fourth round in 2000.

Allen Craig: drafted by the Cardinals, eighth round in 2006.

Matt Carpenter: drafted by the Cardinals, 13th round in 2009. Despite never playing second base in the minor leagues, Carpenter has started 34 games there for St. Louis this year. Amazingly enough, the world did not end. Someone should alert the Royals that it’s okay to play a marginal defensive second baseman if he can hit.

Pete Kozma: drafted by the Cardinals, first round (#18 overall) in 2007.

David Freese: acquired from the San Diego Padres for Jim Edmonds – who was released by the Padres after 26 games. Freese was a ninth-round pick who had yet to reach Double-A.

Matt Holliday: acquired for three prospects named Clayton Mortenson, Shane Peterson, and Brett Wallace. Mortensen and Wallace were first-rounders, Peterson was a second-rounder – but none of them would have success in the majors.

Jon Jay: drafted by the Cardinals, second round, 2006.

Daniel Descalso: drafted by the Cardinals, third round in 2007.

Adam Wainwright: drafted by the Braves, first round (#29 overall) in 2000. Acquired by the Cardinals – along with Jason Marquis – for one year of J.D. Drew.

Lance Lynn: drafted by the Cardinals, supplemental first round (#39 overall) in 2008.

Jaime Garcia: drafted by the Cardinals, 22nd round in 2005.

Joe Kelly: drafted by the Cardinals, third round in 2009.

The Cardinals are built around farm system products, or minor leaguers that they shrewdly acquired for veterans, and the one time they traded top prospects for a veteran, they just happened to pick the top prospects who would flop in the majors.

The Royals had the Best Farm System In The History Of Baseball two years ago; this spring the Cardinals just had the Best Farm System Right Now. But in two months, they’ve gotten as much production from their prospects as the Royals have gotten from theirs in two years.

Shelby Miller (#2 prospect, drafted in first round - #19 overall – in 2009) has a 2.02 ERA in ten starts.

Carlos Martinez (#3 prospect, signed from Dominican Republic in 2010) made just four starts in the minors this year before he was promoted to the Cardinals’ bullpen, where he’s allowed four runs in eight innings so far.

Trevor Rosenthal (#4 prospect, 21st round in 2009) throws 100 mph, and in 26 innings in the bullpen, has a 2.08 ERA and 39 strikeouts.

Matt Adams (#7 prospect, 23rd round in 2009) can’t even break into the Cardinals’ lineup because they’re so stacked with hitters, but is hitting .346/.382/.577 in 52 at-bats, mostly off the bench.

Pete Kozma (#13 prospect, first round - #18 overall – in 2007) looked like a rare bust for the Cardinals; his career totals in the minors are .236/.308/.344, and last year he hit .232/.292/.355 in Triple-A. But called up late in the year to fill in for Rafael Furcal, Kozma hit .333/.383/.569 and started at shortstop in the playoffs. This year, he’s hitting a respectable .263/.321/.327.

John Gast (#26 prospect, sixth round in 2010) has made three starts for the Cardinals this year, winning two of them.

And of course, the team’s #6 prospect coming into the season, Michael Wacha, who was drafted with the #19 pick last year and raced to the majors in under a year, debuting last night by retiring the first 13 batters he faced, going seven innings and allowing two hits and no walks. Meanwhile, Kyle Zimmer, like Wacha a college right-hander, drafted #5 overall by the Royals, has a 5.28 ERA. In A-ball. IN WILMINGTON, one of the best pitchers’ parks in America.

And unlike the Royals, the Cardinals didn’t feel it necessary to trade their top prospect, an outfielder considered one of the five best prospects in the game (Oscar Taveras) for a quick fix to their pitching staff. They still have Taveras in the minors, along with fellow Top-100 prospect Kolten Wong, a second baseman who’s hitting .333 with walks and pop in Triple-A. (And unlike the Royals, the Cardinals show no signs of giving up on their second base prospect. But then, the Cardinals don’t have Chris Getz.)

So you see, having a great farm system can pay dividends. It can even pay instant dividends. It just requires an organization that has some ability to convert minor league potential into major league production. The Royals have shown shockingly little ability to do so. EVERY PLAYER they placed on the Top 100 list has seen his career go backwards in the two years since, with the arguable exception of two players – Myers and Odorizzi – who are no longer in the organization.

And suddenly, you look at the Royals roster and realize that Dayton Moore has no clothes. He was hired by the Royals SEVEN YEARS AGO yesterday, and in the seven years since:

- There is NOT A SINGLE PITCHER signed by his administration who has made a start in the major leagues this year.

- Only one position player signed in the last seven years is playing every day in the majors without sucking: Salvador Perez. The only other position players who have reached the majors: Jarrod Dyson, Derrick Robinson, Mike Moustakas, David Lough, Clint Robinson, Eric Hosmer, and Johnny Giavotella.

By the way, Derrick Robinson? The guy the Royals drafted in the fourth round in 2006, paid him $1 million to sign, but never learned to hit and was designated for assignment this winter? He signed with the Reds, made their team out of spring training, and in 46 plate appearances off the bench, has hit .342 with a .444 OBP. It’s probably a fluke. But in seven minor league seasons with the Royals, he rarely showed enough ability to make you think he could muster a .444 OBP in the majors even as a fluke.

The Royals have drafted plenty of relievers, and there’s something to be said for having relievers. But two of the relievers on their team right now were taken in the first round, one with the first overall pick, one with the 12th pick. Turning Luke Hochevar and Aaron Crow into major league relievers isn’t a feather in the cap of the front office; it’s an indictment of them.

Speaking of first round picks…let’s take a closer look at them.

2006: Luke Hochevar (#1)
2007: Mike Moustakas (#2)
2008: Eric Hosmer (#3)
2009: Aaron Crow (#12)
2010: Christian Colon (#4)
2011: Bubba Starling (#5)
2012: Kyle Zimmer (#5)

First off, that’s an utterly breathtaking stretch of horrible play – the Royals had a top-five pick SIX TIMES IN SEVEN YEARS.

And what do the Royals have for those picks? A pitcher with a 5.39 career ERA as a starter, who might find some success out of the bullpen. A pair of corner infielders who have suddenly lost the ability to hit. Another college starter who had to be converted to relief before he even reached the majors. A shortstop-turned-second baseman who’s hitting .246/.297/.341 in Triple-A, and is already 24. A tools-laden outfielder who’s hitting .209/.291/.368 in low-A ball, has struck out in over a third of his at-bats, and turns 21 in August. A starting pitcher who, in his first full pro season, has a 5.28 ERA in a fantastic pitchers’ park in high-A ball.

I’m not going to spend too much time on the 2006 pick, both because no one wants to take credit/blame for it, and because the player that most deemed worthy of that #1 pick, Andrew Miller, is himself a failed starter trying to hold on as a lefty reliever. But in 2007, the Royals chose to go the long route, selecting a high school hitter over the best college player in the draft – and picked Moustakas over Matt Wieters. In 2008, the Royals chose to go the long route, selecting a high school hitter over the best available college player in the draft – and picked Hosmer over Buster Posey.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with selecting a high school hitter over a college hitter – the study I did back in 2006 showed that the advantage college players had enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s has pretty much disappeared. But you have to get it right. The Royals, to this point, haven’t got either pick right.

In 2009 the Royals took Aaron Crow, and given the options on the board, it wasn’t a bad pick. While the Cardinals got Miller at #19, Crow is probably the best player that was taken between picks 11 and 18. But they then panicked after he had one bad year as a starter in the minors, turned him into a reliever, and now are too dependent on their crutch to ever try him in a more significant role. In 2010 they finally took a college player – only this time it was a compromise pick that was made at least in part because shortstop was, at the time, a position of need. They almost took Chris Sale, but they did not. I wanted Yasmani Grandal, and while it’s not clear how good he’ll be – at least in part because he failed a steroid test and missed the first 50 games of this year – he’s a damn sight better than Christian Colon.

In 2010, easily the deepest first round since Moore was hired, the Royals took Bubba Starling, ignoring the fact that Bubba was nearly 19 years old. Sure, they wanted one of the four pitchers that were taken ahead of him – but that’s a weak excuse when the four players taken after Starling were Anthony Rendon (can’t stay healthy, but hitting .330/.473/.625 in Double-A and has already played in the majors), Archie Bradley (just 20 years old, promoted to Double-A this year, has a 1.01 ERA and 80 Ks in 63 innings), Francisco Lindor (Gold Glove-caliber shortstop hitting .313/.385/.438 in high-A ball, is just 19), and Javier Baez (shortstop – future third baseman – hitting .264/.299/.487 in high-A ball, just 20).

And that doesn’t count #11 pick George Springer (tied for the minor league lead with 16 homers), or #14 pick Jose Fernandez (made the Marlins’ rotation out of spring training at age 20), or any of a dozen other guys taken in the first round that the Royals would gladly trade Starling for straight up – and get turned down in a heartbeat.

I’m not going to pass judgment on Kyle Zimmer yet – Zimmer, at least, has struck out 29% of the batters he’s faced this year. But despite drafting in the top five of the draft SIX TIMES, the Royals haven’t hit on a single player yet. Not one.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned Allard Baird, hampered from his first day to his last by financial constraints that Moore hasn’t had to worry about in the draft, hit on three of his five first-round picks – Zack Greinke, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon. Only Gordon was a top-five pick (although Baird also whiffed on Chris Lubanski, taken fifth).

There’s still plenty of time for Hosmer and Moustakas to turn things around, Alex Gordon looked like a bust a couple of years ago, yada yada yada. The point is that despite more drafts, despite far more elite picks, despite substantially more financial resources than Allard Baird, Dayton Moore has yet to come close to Baird’s success. And Baird was chased out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob five years after he got the job.

You know what else Allard Baird had during his five years as the Royals’ GM? A winning season. Sure, it was a stone-cold fluke, and yes, the Royals lost 100 games in each of the other four seasons in which Baird was GM on Opening Day. But still: at least he had a winning season once in his five years.

Dayton Moore doesn’t. And he’s had seven. And this winter, he traded one of the most significant prospect packages this century in order to jump-start the rebuilding process and win in 2013. And the Royals are 22-29. A year after they went 71-91, two years after they went 70-92, they’re on pace to go…70-92.

So I think it’s time we acknowledge the elephant in the room, and stop worrying about who the hitting coach is. Yes, Jack Maloof deserved to get fired – if not for his performance, than for his ridiculous comments to Jeff Flanagan in this column, comments that I said on Twitter ought to end his career, and – shockingly – actually did end his career. (Although in retrospect, given how fast the move was made, I wonder if Maloof already knew he was being let go and decided to go out with a bang.)

And look, I’m thrilled that George Brett is the new hitting coach, if for no other reason than it’s a blast to see him in uniform during the season for the first time since I was 18. And I’m genuinely curious to see whether he can have an effect. It’s a no-lose situation for him; if the hitters hit, he’ll be hailed as a genius, and if they don’t, they were already broken when he got here.

But the problems with this team go deeper than the hitting coach. They go deeper than the manager, which is why I don’t understand why everyone is focusing their frustrations on Ned Yost. Is Yost a great manager? No. But he’s not as terrible as everyone thinks either. Just by way of comparison, did you see how the Royals ended their eight-game losing streak Thursday night? (Well, not the very end – only the crazies stayed up until 3 AM to see that.) Here’s what Cardinals manager Mike Matheny did:

- With a 2-1 lead to protect in the top of the ninth, and closer Edward Mujica unavailable because he had pitched four games in a row, Matheny turned to…Mitchell Boggs. Boggs came into the game with a 10.43 ERA, having allowed 20 hits and 14 walks in 15 innings. He was the worst pitcher in the Cardinals’ bullpen, and maybe in any team’s bullpen.

- After Boggs gave up a game-tying home run to Jeff Francoeur, and walked Alex Gordon, Matheny replaced him with…Victor Marte, who had just been called up from the minors, and had a career 7.09 ERA. Worst of all, Marte was a former Royal. Marte let the next two batters get on base even though both guys were trying to sacrifice themselves – he hit Alcides Escobar with a pitch, and then threw wildly to third base on David Lough’s bunt.

- Matheny ordered an intentional walk to Chris Getz. I don’t care that it worked (four hours later, when Miguel Tejada just wanted to put a pitch in play and get the game over with). He intentionally walked Chris Getz.

Mike Matheny, it should be noted, managed the Cardinals to the playoffs last year. I see no evidence (and not just this game) that Matheny is a better tactical manager than Yost. But he has the horses. Yost doesn’t have the horses.

Yost doesn’t have the horses because his GM hasn’t given them to him. And now fans want Yost fired, just like they wanted the manager that Yost replaced, Trey Hillman, fired. Well, at some point you have to ask yourself if the problem is the manager, or the guy who hired him, and who hired his predecessor, and allowed them both to fail?

I’m not calling for Dayton Moore to be fired quite yet, for a couple of pragmatic reasons:

- The draft begins next Thursday, and as you’ll recall, the only thing worse than having your draft run by a GM no one has any confidence in, is having a draft run by no GM at all.

- On the morning of May 6th, the Royals were 17-10 and in first place. As horrible as this month has been, I’m not sure it’s fair to go from signing a GM’s praises to axing him on the basis of barely three weeks of data.

Having gotten the Royals into this mess, it’s fair to give Moore another couple of weeks to see if he can get them out of it. But if he can’t…it’s time to acknowledge the reality that it’s time to make a change in the GM’s chair. Because it will also be time to acknowledge that it’s time to make a change with the roster, because the roster just isn’t good enough. It will be time to administer Omaha therapy to Moustakas and Hosmer. It will be time to send Crow down with them and tell him he’s a starting pitcher again. It will be time to trade Ervin Santana for the best possible package, and it will be time to, yes, at least entertain offers on James Shields.

It will be time to blow up the entire roster, in other words. It will be time for the Royals to take yet another stop backwards in order to take two steps forward. Dayton Moore can’t take that step, nor should he be expected to – if the Royals are going to take a step backwards, Moore won’t be there when they start moving forward again.

But they need to take a step backwards. And so they need a GM who can focus on the long term without having to worry about his job security in the short term. It’s not fair to anyone, least of all Moore, to ask him to do his job when doing his job right may cause him to lose it.

I hope this doesn’t have to come to pass. If the Royals go 18-9 in June and get back over .500, maybe we’ll look back at this as a bad dream. But right now, with an offense that can’t score and a rotation of guys who are, frankly, pitching over their heads, I think the Royals are more likely to go 9-18 than 18-9.

And if they do, then it’s time. Seven years is long enough. The Best Farm System In The History Of Baseball was a nice fantasy, but it’s looking like that’s all it was: a fantasy. If that’s the case, then the notion that Dayton Moore can ever be a playoff-caliber general manager is a fantasy too. And so it will be time to give someone else a chance to be that guy.

Monday, May 27, 2013

What The Hell Happened?

Well, for the first time in ten years, the Royals didn’t have a six-game losing streak by the middle of May.

Instead, it took all the way until Memorial Day. So I guess they have that going for them. Which is nice.

That’s now ten straight years in which the Royals lost six in a row by Memorial Day; if that’s not a record, it should be. But really, this six-game losing streak just ties a pretty bow around an utterly remarkable three-week stretch for the Royals. Really, prior to today they had played about as poorly as it is possible to do without a six-game losing streak. This stretch started with the Royals losing six of seven, and prior to this afternoon they had lost 9 of 10.

And in the span of three weeks, the comparisons to 2009 went from being a funny joke to being somewhat alarming to being eerily similar to being terrifying to being, if anything, hopelessly optimistic.

In 2009, you may recall, the Royals started the season 18-11. They then lost six in a row (check!), and after winning three of four, then lost 13 of 15. This year, the Royals started 17-10, then lost six of seven, and after winning two of three, have lost 10 of 11.

The 2009 Royals went 5-20 after their 18-11 start. The 2013 Royals have gone 4-17 after their 17-10 start.

The 2009 Royals lost 97 games, and to this day people like our good friend Sam Mellinger describe it as the most disappointing season in Royals history. I have no idea how many games the 2013 Royals will lose, but I can tell if you if they lose anywhere close to 97 games, it will lap 2009 in terms of disappointment.

At the end of the 2009 season, Dayton Moore was punished for his team’s failures with…a contract extension, as I discussed here. If the 2013 Royals finish anywhere close to their 2009 counterparts, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Moore won’t be getting another extension.

I don’t think the Royals will lose 97 games. I’m somewhat confident – perhaps “hopeful” is a better word – that they won’t lose 87 games. But I have absolutely no confidence whatsoever that the Royals can turn things around and make a run for the playoffs.

It’s not simply that they’re well under .500 and playing in the same division as the Tigers, although that’s certainly part of it. Clay Davenport’s playoff odds – not including today’s loss – had the Royals’ odds of winning the AL Central at 2.5%, with a 7% chance of nabbing one of the two Wild Card spots. (And Clay’s numbers are optimistic – Baseball Prospectus has those odds at 0.9% and 2.9%, respectively.) My lack of confidence is predicated on the fact that playoff-caliber teams simply don’t have stretches as bad as the Royals are on right now. Not in April, not in May, not at any point in the season.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter saw my research on the last team that had overcome a 4-15 stretch to qualify for the playoffs. There wasn’t one last year, or in 2011, or in 2010, or in 2009. In 2008, finally, I found a team – the Milwaukee Brewers, who woke up on the morning of September 1st with a 80-56 record, 5.5 games ahead of the pack for the Wild Card. They lost 15 of their next 19 games, and after the end of play on September 20th were 84-71, 2.5 games out of the Wild Card spot.

The punch line here, of course, is that on September 15th, after losing a doubleheader to the Phillies – completing a four-game sweep, their 12th loss in 15 games – the Brewers fired their manager. Ned Yost. The last team to overcome a 4-15 stretch to make the playoffs fired Ned Yost in the middle of it. Dale Sveum was hired, and after losing three of his first four games, won five in a row. After losing game 161, the Brewers sent C.C. Sabathia out there in the last game of the season, his fourth straight start on three days’ rest, and he threw a complete game victory to clinch the Brewers’ first playoff spot since 1982.

It would be easy to turn this into a Ned Yost punchline. I certainly did so on Twitter, as did the 260+ of you who retweeted me. And Yost certainly shares in some of the blame for what has happened. He persists in leading off Chris Getz (.265 OBP this year), and persists in batting Alcides Escobar (.254/.281/.333) in the #2 spot, which is why Alex Gordon had batted in the first inning with two outs and nobody on base 14 times in a 16-game stretch. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Cain (.295/.362/.404) gets relegated to batting 5th or 6th because he “didn’t look comfortable” in his three starts each batting leadoff and second.

Yost defends Mike Moustakas to the hilt, an admirable quality even if it did lead to the whole Third Base Tree meme, but defending Moose is one thing, and playing him and his .178/.252/.308 performance is another. Yost continues to play Francoeur against right-handed pitchers occasionally, and last week started him over David Lough because “When you’ve got two players you’re looking at, there are certain days you want to go with offense and certain days you want to go with defense. Today, I wanted to go with the defense.” 

That’s right – Ned Yost started Jeff Francoeur FOR HIS DEFENSE. Jeff Francoeur, who at this point in his career is essentially the Georgian version of Jose Guillen in the field. In that game, Francoeur lost a ball in the lights, and then in the eighth inning let a playable fly ball get over his head and tip off his glove for an RBI double in a one-run game.

The Royals are 7-12 in one-run games, and while the manager has only a small influence on that mark, he does have some influence.

So yeah, Yost deserves his share of the blame for what’s happened. But only a share, and frankly he is taking more than his fair share of abuse from the fan base. That’s not only a disservice to Yost, it trivializes the problems with this team. The Royals’ issues are too deep and fundamental to be solved simply by firing the manager.

As if to drive that point home, after matching the 2008 Brewers’ 4-15 slide, the Royals have lost two more games. To find a team that weathered a 4-17 stretch and still made the postseason, you have to go back farther – but only a little farther. In 2005, the Houston Astros were at the end of their run atop the NL Central, but were unwilling to acknowledge it. After starting the season 8-7, they lost 17 of 21…and after winning three straight, lost seven in a row to fall to 15-30. They were toast.

Only they then won 11 of 16, and 29 of 42 overall to inch over .500 at the All-Star Break at 44-43…and went 45-30 after the Break to finish 89-73 overall, sneaking into the playoffs by one game over the Phillies for the Wild Card. The Astros would end up winning their first NL pennant before the White Sox swept them in the World Series. Thanks to that season, the Astros would refuse to read the warning signs the next few years, figuring that a terrible start hadn’t kept them from a pennant before. But you can’t ask a magician to perform his trick more than once, and the Astros have not only never reached the playoffs again, they’ve bottomed out as one of the worst major league teams of the last 50 years.

So anyway, if you’re looking for a thread of hope to grasp onto, I guess those 2005 Astros are your thread. It’s a flimsy thread; the Astros, after all, had been to the playoffs the year before, and five of the previous eight years, and had been over .500 for 11 of the previous 12 years. They were a proven good team going through a terrible stretch. They weren’t the Royals.

I’ll get into the reasons why the Royals are where they are next time, and what – if any – the solutions are. But I just wanted to get this out there: if the Royals want to give us any reason to hope that they can turn things around, they need to do so NOW. They’ve already endured a stretch that few playoff teams have ever witnessed, and another couple of losses may well put them in unprecedented territory – I haven’t done the research, and would rather not do so unless I have to.

But with three more games against the Cardinals followed by three more against the Texas Rangers, I fear I’ll have to.