- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Nothing resonates with the modern-day baseball fan like a good prospect vigil. George Springer was all the rage before the Houston Astros took the plunge and summoned him from Triple-A Oklahoma City in mid-April. Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco is still working on some things in Indianapolis. But once the Super Two deadline passes, Pirates fans might storm the team’s administrative offices en masse demanding that he appear.
It’s an immutable and less uplifting fact of baseball life that the shuttle runs both ways. Prospects fail to make the necessary adjustments against top-flight competition, or lose confidence, or fall into a spiral that no amount of cage work, video or positive visualization can overcome. Suddenly you look up and yesterday’s savior has a chance to be tomorrow’s Omaha Storm Chaser.
Before Tuesday’s 5-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals brass spent some time in question-and-answer mode over the prominent question du jour. Sam Mellinger, a respected and thoughtful columnist for the Kansas City Star, helped kick-start the day’s events when he wrote a piece beneath the headline, “It’s time for Mike Moustakas to go to Omaha.” Presumably not because Moustakas has a fondness for steak.
Moustakas has 16 hits all season and an OPS of .536, which ranks 174th among 181 qualifying hitters. (The really bad news, if you’re a San Diego Padres fan, is that Will Venable, Jedd Gyorko and Yonder Alonso are among the seven players who are worse.) Combine that with the Royals’ crying need for an offensive lift, and it was only natural that manager Ned Yost and general Dayton Moore faced a barrage of inquiries about their struggling third baseman.
Moore and Yost presented a united front, saying positive things about Moustakas while throwing a figurative arm around his shoulder and assuring him that he’s their man. “He’s a guy that’s going to help us win a championship,” said Yost, who noted that Moustakas continues to play exceptional defense and “can change a game with one swing of the bat.”
Finding an answer to Moustakas’ woes is a pressing issue because the Royals are no longer in development mode. They were a fashionable pick for an AL wild-card team in spring training this year on the basis of a solid rotation, a killer bullpen and an athletic defense with Gold Glovers at catcher (Salvador Perez), first base (Eric Hosmer) and left field (Alex Gordon).
Those three elements of the team have generally performed to expectations. But the offense has been a noticeable drag on Kansas City’s ambitions, and a lack of pop helps explain why the Royals rank 14th among the 15 American League teams in both runs scored and slugging percentage.
The Royals hit a mere 16 homers in their first 37 games, the lowest total for an AL club since the 1993 Boston Red Sox hit 16. At the end of the year, Mo Vaughn led that Boston lineup with 29 homers, and Mike Greenwell and Andre Dawson (the creaky-kneed, 38-year-old version) were tied for second with 13 each.
Lorenzo Cain and Perez went deep Tuesday night, which made for very good news in Kansas City’s win over Colorado. The not-so-good: Both homers came against Rockies starter Franklin Morales, who fidgeted, stepped on and off the rubber and otherwise nibbled his way through a five-inning, 99-pitch evening.
Oddly enough, speculation about Moustakas’ short-term future is swirling even as he’s tied for the team lead with four homers. It’s the singles and doubles that have been elusive. Moustakas is an amazing 0-for-25 while hitting a ground ball or “short line drive” against a shifted defense this season. According to Baseball Info Solutions, opponents have employed a shift against him 62 times already this year, compared to only 23 times for all of 2013.
In his first two or three years with the Royals, Moustakas developed a reputation for flinging helmets, breaking bats and churning inside over oh-fers. By acclamation, he’s become better at rolling with the tough times. But it’s never easy for a young player entrusted with carrying a team to the next level. In March, resident Royals icon George Brett raved about Moustakas’ all-fields approach and predicted he was in for a “breakthrough” year at the plate. Two months later, Danny Valencia can expect to get more at-bats against lefties at third base, and the people in charge in K.C. have to wonder when the nurturing approach should end and a refresher course in Omaha might be a more palatable option for Moustakas.
It’s not all on Moustakas, by a long shot. Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon have a combined three homers in 433 at-bats. But Hosmer had only one homer on June 12 of last season and finished with 17, so he’s shown that he can dig himself out of a power rut. He has 15 doubles and a .429 slugging percentage, and he’s hit the ball hard in 18 percent of his at-bats this year. That’s identical to last season, when he logged an OPS of .801.
Gordon, fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance, still needs to find his swing against left-handers. He’s batting .200 (9-for-45) with no home runs against lefties, compared to .307 with eight homers last year.
For all their issues, the Royals have time to figure this thing out. Other than Milwaukee, Detroit, San Francisco and Oakland at the top end and Houston, the Cubs, Arizona and Tampa Bay at the bottom, most big league teams are within a few games of .500 one way or another. “Check the standings and it looks like the NHL,” said a National League personnel man. Kansas City is 19-19 with a run differential of plus-4. In the current climate, mediocre doesn’t look half bad.
The Royals also have hit four home runs in their past two games, and they take some comfort in extenuating circumstances. They’ve played a lot of games in cool weather, and the ball figures to fly more when summer arrives. Then again, Kauffman Stadium is a challenge for both home and visiting hitters; just ask Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, who crushed a ball to left field Tuesday night and wound up jogging back to the dugout. There’s no doubt it would have landed in the seats at Coors Field.
Teams can win without crushing the ball, especially in this era of more stringent PED testing and a ban on amphetamines. The 2012 San Francisco Giants hit an MLB-low 103 homers and won a World Championship.
But that approach is going to put an awful lot of pressure on James Shields and the rest of the Kansas City pitching staff. If the Royals can’t find a way to generate more offense or win a lot of games by the score of 3-2 or 2-1, Mike Moustakas isn’t the only one who’ll need some encouraging words.