About six months ago, the Kansas City Royals' farm system was earning universal praise among baseball followers on the Internet. Even though some of the Royals’ top prospects, namely Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, were already in the majors, the consensus was that the Royals were still a couple of years away from contention.
Nevertheless, Royals fans seemed optimistic, and for the first time in more than a decade, there was a legitimate chance the Royals could make the playoffs.
On April 9, Rany Jazayerli of Grantland and Baseball Prospectus, the de facto dean of Royals bloggers, wrote: “I certainly think the Royals could win the division -– if we were setting odds on it, I’d put the Royals around 15 percent to win the AL Central, which is probably three times higher than those odds would have been in any of the last seven seasons.”
Fifteen percent might not seem like much, but when your team hasn’t made the playoffs since Perestroika, you can start talking yourself into that Royals' renaissance maybe coming a little early. With the All-Star Game set in Kansas City, the idea of a young and exciting new contender hosting the Midsummer Classic seemed like just the kind of story we’d love to see play out.
But that has not happened. And it hasn’t happened in truly spectacular fashion. With one of the worst starting rotations in the game, the Royals won only three of their first 17 games, and they've never recovered. For close to 20 years, the Royals have been both mismanaged and unlucky. Rather than watching Hosmer, Moustakas and others turning around the team’s fortunes, Kansas City fans have seen more of the same results.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles east, the Washington Nationals have done everything the baseball community had expected of Kansas City, climbing to a 75-46 record, posting a run differential of plus-108 and putting a stranglehold on the National League East. Both teams came into the season with similar expectations: develop the youngsters, and if everything goes right, you might contend this year. If not, your time will come. Let’s examine why this happened in Washington and not in Kansas City.
On April 24, the Royals completed a 12-game losing streak that brought their record to 3-14 with a run differential of minus-25, second-worst in baseball. The skid killed their playoff hopes before May 1 and, judging from the response on Twitter, sent Royals fans quickly and hilariously into madness. Since then, the Royals haven’t been as bad, with a record only one game under .500. A slightly sub-.500 season would have been somewhat disappointing, but probably acceptable to a fan base that hasn’t seen a winning season since 2003. But starting that badly not only put Kansas City seven games behind Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago right out of the gate, it prevented any sense of optimism from building up the way it did in Washington.
Speaking of which, the Nationals jumped out to a 13-4 start and don’t look like they’re going to be caught anytime soon. While a hot start doesn’t guarantee a season of success, spotting yourself nine games over .500 to begin the season sure doesn’t hurt. There’s probably something to the narrative that starting well builds confidence and helps the team play better going forward, but as Indians and Mets fans can tell you, that’s not the whole story.
The Big Names
If you’re looking for one reason why the Nationals are printing playoff tickets and the Royals are making vacation plans, this is it. The Nationals had, in Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Jordan Zimmermann, a more top-heavy core of young players. The Royals' depth, however, may put them in better stead long-term.
While Strasburg and Zimmermann have both recovered from Tommy John surgery to become a 1-2 punch to rival any in baseball (according to Baseball-Reference WAR, Zimmermann has been even better than Strasburg, though FanGraphs has the two reversed) and Harper allowed the Nationals to keep going while Jayson Werth recovered from a broken wrist, the Royals’ top prospects have not been so fortunate.
Most notably, Hosmer has taken a massive step back. Hosmer, a slugging first baseman who went into 2011 as Keith Law’s No. 5 prospect, came up as a 21-year-old rookie and posted an encouraging .293/.334/.465 triple slash line with 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 128 games last season. But through 116 games in 2012, Hosmer has been truly dreadful: .233/.304/.364 with 11 home runs and 11 steals. His OPS is roughly the same as that of Yuniesky Betancourt, whom the Royals released last week.
Moustakas and 25-year-old shortstop Alcides Escobar have both been good (102 and 113 wRC+, respectively), and left fielder Alex Gordon has still accumulated 3.8 fWAR through three-quarters of a season, a respectable follow-up to his breakout 2011.
But what about the rest of the Royals’ top young players?
Center fielder Wil Myers is still regarded as one of the best young bats in the minor leagues. As the star hometown attraction at July’s Futures Game, he put on an incredible show. But he’s still in AAA, hitting 21 home runs in 372 plate appearances while Jeff Francoeur continues to start in Kansas City.
Mike Montgomery, the team’s top pitching prospect, is in the process of bungling away his major league future. The 23-year-old lefty is in the midst of his second consecutive minor league season with an ERA north of 5.00, thanks to issues with his delivery that have relieved him not only of his command but of his spot in the rotation at AAA Omaha.
But at least he’s healthy.
The Royals bestowed a Rays-like contract extension on rookie catcher Salvador Perez before the start of the season. While the 22-year-old has posted a wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus) of 125 so far this season, spring knee surgery kept him on the sidelines until June 22. His presence in April might not have prevented the 12-game losing streak, but it would have been welcome considering that his replacements, Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero, have been more or less replacement-level players this year.
John Lamb might have factored in the big league staff this season had he not undergone Tommy John surgery in 2011, while Danny Duffy, the best of Kansas City’s pitching prospects to make the majors this year, lasted only 27 2/3 innings before blowing out his own elbow.
If Montgomery had bounced back, Hosmer had joined the slugging elite, and Duffy and Perez had played a full season, it’s all but certain the Royals would be less than 11 games back of the division lead at the moment.
Going into the season, the National League East was supposed to be one of the toughest in the game, and apart from the reigning champion Detroit Tigers, the American League Central was perhaps the worst.
The Nationals might have had trouble dethroning the Phillies, who were returning most of a team that had won five division titles in a row. Even then, they’d have to deal with a Marlins team that had added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell in the offseason. They were also counting on improvement from their own rising star, the newly-rechristened Giancarlo Stanton. Then there was Atlanta, which had finished second in the division two years in a row without making much noise at all.
The Royals, on the other hand, had to contend with Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and the Tigers, sure, but could beat up on the feckless Twins and Indians. If they got the better of the White Sox, whose curious roster moves in the offseason had led to questions about the sanity of the front office, they could make a fight of it with Detroit.
Or so the argument went.
The Indians made almost as much early-season noise in 2012 as they had the year before. The Tigers recovered from a spring swoon to get back into the race by the trade deadline. And the White Sox proved that GM Ken Williams might know what he’s doing after all, as he and rookie manager Robin Ventura have landed the team in first place in late August.
Meanwhile, the Braves have been more or less as advertised, but the Phillies and Marlins have fallen well short of their preseason hype. As it turns out, the Nationals have had the easier run of it in the division by far.
The Big Pitching Acquisitions
This winter, the Nationals waited out the free agent starting pitching market and, perhaps against previous plans, signed Edwin Jackson to a one-year deal worth $11 million. At the same time, they traded four middling prospects to Oakland for lefty Gio Gonzalez. In Jackson, Washington managed to pounce on a solid mid-rotation starter who was left standing when the music stopped in the free agent market.
But in Gonzalez, the Nationals landed a gem. He performed like a true ace for the first few months of the season and to date maintains a slight lead over Strasburg in fWAR (FanGraphs' version of WAR). According to that statistic, Gonzalez is the most valuable player on the team at any position. Add in the surprisingly good Ross Detwiler and the Nationals have as good a rotation, Nos. 1-5, as any team in the league, making up for an average offense and a bullpen that’s better at making fans sweat than preserving leads. The Nationals’ two big pitching acquisitions came off as well as could have reasonably been expected, if not better.
Broxton saved 23 games and posted a 2.27 ERA, if you care about such things, but his strikeout rate plummeted from his glory days with the Dodgers, and he outperformed his FIP by more than a full run. Out of the race, and with no need for a proven closer, Kansas City shipped him to Cincinnati for two minor leaguers. Whatever. The Royals got 35 pretty good innings from Broxton (to say nothing of hilarious photos of multiple teammates standing in his pants) as part of one of the best bullpens in the game. Nice pickup, if not a game-changer.
The Cabrera-for-Sanchez trade, which looked at the time to be a pretty even swap of useful, but frustratingly flawed players, could not have gone more wrong. Cabrera was in the midst of a career year before it came to light that he was doing a decent impersonation of the East German women’s swim team, with an elevated testosterone level. Nevertheless, he could still win the batting title, and the 4.5 fWAR he gave the Giants this season remains on the books even if his season ended 45 games early.
Sanchez, on the other hand, was kind of like Gonzalez, a lefty whose ability to miss bats was undermined by a predilection for giving up fly balls and having some rather startling control problems. Sanchez posted a run of seasons for the Giants where he’d post a FIP around 4.00 and outperform it some by pitching in AT&T Park. He wasn’t a game-changer by any means, and the Royals knew that, but it’s really difficult to contend when your best starting pitcher is Bruce Chen.
Unfortunately, Sanchez was absurdly bad, having the "Spiderman" musical of meltdown seasons. In 12 starts for Kansas City, he posted an ERA of 7.76 and walked more men than he struck out. Before he was released in mid-July, Sanchez was a disaster of Biblical proportions this season, making Luke Hochevar look like Kevin Brown.
Neither move was going to produce the positive impact of Jackson and Gonzalez, but the Royals were capable of spending slightly more to get a better pitcher, and their failure to do so was going to hurt even if Sanchez didn’t turn into literally the worst pitcher in baseball.
There are other differences as well. For instance, Davey Johnson has outmanaged Ned Yost. Ian Desmond is having a surprising good season. But overall, the Nationals have been unexpectedly and crucially fortunate, while the Royals have been the opposite.
What does this mean? The Royals' performance since their 12-game losing streak in April represents encouraging progress long-term. So once again, it’s time for the Royals to look to the future, expect some growth out of what is still one of the best collections of young players in the game and maybe make some more prudent veteran acquisitions in the future. If they catch some breaks, we could be talking about Kansas City as a contender next season.
Or we could be right back here, counting down the reasons why it went so wrong.
Michael Baumann writes for Crashburn Alley, the SweetSpot Blog Network’s Philadelphia Phillies affiliate. You can follow him on Twitter at @MJ_Baumann.