There were legitimate reasons some of us were optimistic about the Royals. Those reasons were sound then, and they’re sound now.
The Royals knew there might be more tough times ahead. In fact, they warned us. Specifically, GM Dayton Moore told anyone willing to listen. He said it was great fun watching those young guys finish the 2011 season on a 33-33 run and that he was thrilled to see fans come back to Kauffman Stadium. He was also optimistic about the future, more optimistic than he’d ever been. He was equally clear about the challenges ahead.
All the Royals had really done was accomplish the first phase of the job. David and Dan Glass gave him the resources to accumulate a wealth of young talent, and Moore did just that. What was it Baseball America said about the Royals? Not just one of baseball’s best farm systems, but one of the best the magazine had ever evaluated. Again, though, accumulating young talent isn’t the same as winning at the Major League level.
Other teams have done fantastic jobs with their minor league systems. Brian Cashman’s work with the Yankees has gotten overlooked, but few general managers have done better. The Rays, Braves, Cardinals, Rockies and Mariners are among the other franchises that come to mind for their work. And Jon Daniels remains the gold standard for taking over one of baseball’s worst system and transforming it into one of the best breathtakingly fast.
But I digress.
Just getting a bunch of those young guys to the Major Leagues last season was a huge accomplishment for the Royals. They’d won throughout their sprint through the minor leagues, and to watch them go 33-33 down the stretch, spurred optimism that the Royals were ready to contend.
This is where things get complicated. First, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, etc., were going to have to make adjustments as teams looked for their weaknesses. Some players can make the necessary adjustments, but many, many more are never heard from again. There’s just one way to find out, and that’s to run them out there, let ’em play and see what happens.
Moore said last winter that as hard as it is to get minor league players to the big leagues, it’s just as challenging to keep them there, and that it’s still another two- or three-year process before they’re established as major leagues. If you looked at the Tigers or Rangers this spring, it was fairly easy to predict how many games they’d win. In Prince Fielder and Josh Hamilton and Justin Verlander and others, they have a bunch of players with long track records.
If you’re wondering why managers prefer veteran players, this is it. They like knowing what they can expect from them. To think the Royals were going to keep right on going the way they finished last season was a huge leap of faith. But the only way the Royals are going to get back to respectability is for Ned Yost to keep writing those names on his lineup card and to give them the opportunity to succeed and fail and succeed again.
This is far easier for someone like me to do than for Yost. There’s no book on when to keep challenging young players, on how long to stick with them when they’re struggling, on that fine line between setting back their careers and allowing them to learn how to swim in the deep water.
Should Yost stick with Hosmer when he’s hitting .203? Should he give him one mental day off, or several? What about sending him back to the minors for a refresher course? If you think you know the answer, it’s because you’ve never had to make these decisions. There’s no one answer, no right answer.
Moore also knew the pitching staff could have some issues. The Royals got a bunch of their position players to the big leagues last summer, but the next wave of talent is their pitching. Until that next wave arrives, the Royals aren’t going to be in a position to contend long term.
He’d hoped Aaron Crow would grab one of the sports in the rotation, but had to send him back to the bullpen after closer Joakim Soria got hurt. And Luke Hochevar, a former No. 1 pick, still is sporting a career ERA of 5.30. Moore attempted to bridge the gap by trading for Jonathan Sanchez, who has zero quality starts in three turns.
This was a bad spring for the Royals. Not only did they lose Soria for the year, but 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez, arguably the player the franchise could least afford to lose, went down with a knee injury. Those two holes would be a challenge to overcome in the best of times, but for a team still finding its way to the mountaintop, for a team without the money to fill holes in free agency, losing Soria and Perez were punches to the gut.
Still, there’s no way to explain a 3-13 start, including an 0-10 home record. Sometimes stuff happens. The Royals have been tested enough in recent years that it seems unfair they’re being tested some more. This season was supposed to be the beginning of the good times. The 2012 All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium was going to be a kind of coming-out party for an entire franchise.
The Royals are near the bottom of the American League in both hitting and pitching. Only the Twins and Yankees have had fewer quality starts. Their offense has scored three runs or more in an inning just three times in 16 games. Only the Angels have converted a lower percentage of save chances.
The Royals were baseball’s model franchise when I began covering the Orioles in 1984, and this season began with such optimism that good times were coming again. All that minor league talent means there’s a really good chance that good times still are ahead, but the Royals aren’t there yet.
Hosmer and Moustakas are accustomed to winning, and that winning attitude is something the Royals believed was important to the attitude of the clubhouse. Now they’re going to have to work like crazy to stay positive when there’s so much negativity swirling around them. They’re learning that nothing is guaranteed, that accomplishing one goal just means there’s another on the horizon. The thing the Royals still have is a reasonable blueprint. They have smart people making decisions and a bunch of gifted players in the system. In the end, that ought to be enough.