Sunday, June 1, 2014

Year Nine.

I may not have the time to write about the Royals nearly as often as I used to, but when the Kansas City Star asks me to write for the Sunday paper 1200 words of hot fire (TM, Sam Mellinger) on the developing nightmare that is the 2014 season, I’m there. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so here. I hope you like it.

Because newspapers are not printed on scrolls, I didn’t have the time to expound on every little detail about the Royals; fortunately, that’s why I have this blog. Let’s talk about some those other issues.

- To be completely fair, it’s a little early to characterize this season as a disaster quite yet, which is why I stepped just short of the line of calling for Dayton Moore to be fired this instant. The 2014 AL is just crazily compressed, more than I can ever recall a league being at the beginning of June. 

Yes, the Royals are in last place in the AL Central as I write this, but they’re also just two games out of second place. They’re in 13th place in the American League (!), but just 3.5 games out of the wild-card spot. Call it the 15-out-of-20 rule, in honor of Moore’s drop-the-mic moment from last year: so long as the Royals can reasonably expect to lead the wild-card race if they win 15 of their next 20 games, it’s premature to give up on the season – and the front office – entirely.

But I am becoming more and more skeptical that such a thing is possible by the moment. It’s not just that the longer the season goes on, the more likely it is that Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler and the newly-returned Mike Moustakas are not just in an epic early-season slump, but that this is simply who they are. It’s not just that the longer the season goes on, the more likely it seems that the Royals may in fact finish with fewer home runs than Barry Bonds hit by himself in 2001.

For one, there’s the schedule. As I wrote back in early April, the Royals actually had one of the easier early-season schedules in baseball, easy enough that it was entirely reasonable that they would be 34-22 at this point. Instead, they’re 26-30, and now it gets harder – with the necessary caveat that it’s not entirely clear which teams are good and which teams are bad this year. They’ve finished their entire season series with the Astros, for instance – and didn’t that go well! – but have yet to play the Yankees or Red Sox at all. If you believe the current standings, that doesn’t sound so bad. If you believe that there’s some relevance to the Red Sox being defending world champions, it doesn’t.

They just played a Blue Jays team which looks like it will be a force in the AL East all season, and were lucky to get a split – if Jose Reyes simply completes a routine throw from shortstop to end Thursday night’s game, the Royals would have lost three of four. From now until June 30th, the Royals play the Cardinals, Yankees, Indians, White Sox, Tigers, Mariners, Dodgers, and Angels. There are no patsies in that bunch. They could easily repeat their 12-17 May with a 12-16 June, in which case they’ll be 38-45 and the pressure will be on the front office to sell as the trading deadline approaches. Specifically, the pressure will be on them to trade James Shields. For a lot less than they acquired him for. It’s a lot to ask your general manager to make a move that almost by definition will acknowledge that the signature transaction of his tenure was a mistake.

Beyond that, there’s the stark reality that there ain’t no cavalry coming from the minors this season. While the farm system is pretty good overall, let’s not mince words: most of the Royals’ prospects have been disappointing this season, and the best of them are still in A-ball. The one who hasn’t, Yordano Ventura, gave us all a frightful scare last week, and while reports couldn’t be better – he might well be back on the mound this week – the reality is that the Royals are 26-30 with Ventura, and his availability the rest of the season is not entirely certain.

Kyle Zimmer, who was supposed to lead the cavalry, may not be on a mound until August after a strained lat muscle further delayed his recovery from “minor” arm soreness – and once again raised the question of whether the Royals are being entirely straight with us. Who else can the Royals call on? We’ve already seen their options in the lineup – Johnny Giavotella, Jimmy Paredes, Pedro Ciriaco – which are collectively so appealing that when Danny Valencia had to go on the DL today, the Royals brought Mike Moustakas back after eight whole games in Omaha and declared him fixed. (And it speaks volumes that through all this, Christian Colon – who’s hitting .280/.333/.372 – is the one guy we haven’t seen in Kansas City.)

And on the pitching side…um, did you see Aaron Brooks’ start on Saturday? Actually, maybe it’s better if you didn’t. If you’re thinking of jumping someone from Double-A, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals are 18-36, so don’t. (Actually that’s not fair – Angel Baez could be the Royals’ next fire-breathing reliever, and it’s entirely possible that Orlando Calixte could be the Royals’ best option at third base by September. But no one's going to help right now.)

Realistically, the only way this roster is going to be upgraded is from outside the organization…which means doubling down on trading future prospects for present talent. That’s a fine thing to do if the Royals are in the thick of a wild-card race. Right now, it’s Russian Roulette with only one chamber that doesn’t have a bullet.

Making this season particularly frustrating is that, once again, the Royals can’t blame injuries – they’ve been pretty healthy ever since Luke Hochevar went down with Tommy John surgery. Lorenzo Cain has been on the DL, but that’s what you get with Cain, and the Royals are well covered there with Jarrod Dyson. Omar Infante has been on the DL, but that’s what you get with Infante, and the Royals got him back as fast as they could. And now Valencia is on the DL, but if the Royals’ chances come down to a healthy Danny Valencia, they might as well pack it in right now. And on the pitching side, Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno were on the DL, and Bruce Chen is on there now, but that’s it – the Royals’ #5 starter and two situational relievers.

Maybe the Royals’ individual players will show improvement, but that improvement is likely to be counteracted by injuries to core players. Losing Ventura for just one start showed how little pitching depth the Royals have right now. The Royals didn’t make much of it, but Danny Duffy’s velocity was way down his last time out, and forgive me if I don’t accept Ned Yost’s excuse of a “dead arm” until I see that velocity come back. And if Gordon or Alcides Escobar or Salvador Perez goes down for an extended period of time…God help us.

So I’m not convinced that the Royals can play that much better than they already have – and I’m fairly convinced that given their schedule, they’ll have to play better just to maintain their disappointing record so far. They’ll have to play a lot better to get back into the wild-card race, because eventually one of the other nine teams ahead of them will get really hot. The Tigers and A’s will almost certainly win 90 games; I think the Blue Jays have a good chance to get there too, particularly if they make a move to pick up a pitcher (you may have heard that James Shields would look awfully good there). The Angels strike me as a team that could get hot awfully fast, especially now that Josh Hamilton is ready to re-join their lineup. That just means one team – the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers all seem like good candidates – needs to go on a tear, and the Royals will be left in their wake.

Even if it takes just 88 wins to make the playoffs in the AL this year (it took 92 last year,) that would require the Royals to go 62-44 the rest of the season. I’m not saying it can’t happen – they did go 43-27 after the All-Star Break last year. I’m saying that betting on another second-half rebound is betting on hope. And as the Royals have demonstrated year after year after year, hope is not a strategy.

David Glass doesn’t have to make any decisions now. He shouldn’t, quite frankly; the draft starts in a couple of days, and you might recall that Moore was hired just before the draft the last time around, and the lack of clear leadership in the war room led to Luke Hochevar #1 overall, and (nearly as damning) not a single major leaguer of note drafted between Hochevar and their final pick, Jarrod Dyson. For that reason alone the front office should be left alone for the next week or two.

But I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that if 2014 was the make-or-break year for Moore, then June is his make-or-break month. If the Royals can climb back to .500 by month’s end, then maybe the grim reaper should be held back for a little while longer. If they get over .500 and are a serious threat in the wild-card race, maybe it will even be best to let the season play out, even if it means holding onto Shields and taking the draft pick the way the Royals did with Ervin Santana last year.

But if the Royals aren’t any higher in the standings at the end of June than they are at the beginning of it, it’s time for the owner to do what only the owner can do. I was 30 when Moore was hired; I turn 39 in two weeks. I’ve come to the realization that I may have wasted my 30s rooting for a payoff that never came. I have no intention of wasting my 40s the same way.