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With half the season left, can KC find a way up the AL Central?



The halfway point of the season is here, and the Kansas City Royals could really use this All-Star break. The franchise has been snakebitten with injuries and endured a 12-game skid, but at this writing the boys in blue are within striking distance of first place in the American League Central, a few games behind the Chicago White Sox.

To mark the midway point and reflect on a visit from Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, The Pitch asked the experts to grade the team's performance and evaluate its second-half chances. We polled national sports reporters Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports) and Sean Keeler (Fox Sports) as well as respected Royals bloggers Rany Jazayerli (Rany on the Royals), Michael Engel (Kings of Kauffman), Bob Stalder (Pine Tar Press), Bill Ivie Jr. (I-70 Baseball), Jeff Zimmerman (Royals Review), and Craig Brown (formerly of Royals Authority, which merged into Royals Review).

Read on for their reasons that Royals fans should feel optimistic (or the opposite) about the weeks between now and October.

Biggest Surprise of the Season

Jeff Passan: I didn't think Mike Moustakas would be this good this quickly. It's like he's gone from zero to getting it on a much steeper learning curve than most guys his age do. He slumped as a rookie and he's been fantastic this year.

Craig Brown: Mike Moustakas has been a revelation at third with the glove. It's strange to refer to him as a "surprise" since he's been one of the club's top prospects, but after he struggled in his debut last season, the speed with which he's become a really solid all-around player has been the best story of the year.

Sean Keeler: Jonathan Broxton. Closing games is about attitude as much as anything else, and the big guy still has plenty of moxie left in the tank.

Michael Engel: The way the Royals didn't let a 12-game losing streak sink them. In the past, that would be the nail in the coffin right away, but they've fought back.

Bill Ivie Jr.: Mike Moustakas' consistency at the plate.

Bob Stalder: Mike Moustakas has shown more defensively for me than I thought he was capable of. Tim Collins has been tremendous this season out of the pen. At the time I write this, his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is .096, and the league is hitting .171 off him. He is also third on the team in strikeouts, even though he is not a starter, with 49 K's in 34.1 innings. That is truly phenomenal.

Jeff Zimmerman: How good Alcides Escobar has hit. He seemed to be lost while hitting at times last year.

Rany Jazayerli: Mike Moustakas is not only excelling offensively but defensively. He's been a valuable performer at the plate all year, and in the field he's been a revelation — he showed up to spring training in shape, and he's making plays no one expected him to.

Biggest Disappointment

Passan: Injuries. Felipe Paulino blew out his arm ... and he's having Tommy John surgery. That makes four guys on this staff — Joakim Soria, Blake Wood, Danny Duffy and now Felipe Paulino — who are going to have Tommy John surgery within a four-month span.

Keeler: Eric Hosmer, obviously. Although Jonathan Sanchez somehow seems to make that Melky Cabrera trade — a deal that made perfect sense in the fall — look worse with each start.

Engel: I think long-term he'll be among the best ever in franchise history, but Eric Hosmer has struggled in a few ways.

Brown: The putrid offense. This team is the second-worst in the AL in runs scored per game. Last year, with roughly the same lineup, they ranked sixth best in the league. If I have to point fingers, I'm looking at you, Mr. Hosmer.

Ivie: The slow start for Eric Hosmer.

Stalder: Eric Hosmer has disappointed me in his ability to lay off pitches that are down and in and has contributed to his slide this season. Pitchers have a book on him now, and he has finally started to make some adjustments to see the ball better. I think he will have a much better second half of the season.

Zimmerman: Keeping Jeff Francoeur instead of Melky Cabrera. It's rough seeing one struggle in KC and the other thrive as a possible All-Star in San Francisco.

Jazayerli: The flip side of Moustakas is his buddy Eric Hosmer, whose struggles are almost incomprehensible. We've seen prospects come up and struggle before, but never a young player who seemed as can't-miss as Hosmer. And Hosmer wasn't a prospect — he established himself last year and was third in the Rookie of the Year vote. If you want an optimistic comp, Carlos Beltran had a terrible sophomore season after winning Rookie of the Year honors, and he turned out OK.

Reason for Hope

Passan: This team has perseverance, and I say that because you don't find many teams that lose 12 games in a row early in the season, that start off 3 and 14 and blow every bit of goodwill that they engendered going into the season. You don't see them coming back and flirting with .500 very often.

Keeler: On June 26, the Royals were just five games back of first-place Chicago. That number isn't all that sexy unless you put it in some context: Between 2000 and 2011, on June 26, the Royals were, on average, 13 games out of first. After that brutal April, these guys could have folded the tent early. They didn't. And the American League Central, as a whole, has looked pretty brutal thus far. The Royals have, as of June 25, 15 games left with the White Sox and 13 left with the Tigers. So no matter how you slice it, Kauffman Stadium is going to have a say in the eventual division winner.

Brown: Sal Perez! It's strange to say this about a 22-year-old with fewer than 200 major league plate appearances, but he's the heart and soul of this team.

Engel: Alex Gordon is heating up. Mike Moustakas is showing no signs of stopping. Alcides Escobar has had nearly three great months at the plate. Billy Butler seems to be hitting for more power than at any point in his life, and the bullpen is lights-out nearly every night. Get some better, consistent starting pitching, and things could be interesting.

Reason for Dread

Brown: Is Jonathan Sanchez still on the roster?

Passan: They don't have any starting pitching. I think the two names that we can say had certainly a role on this team going into the future were Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, and they're probably not going to pitch until 2014. Pitching on the free-agent market costs money, and it costs more money than David Glass is willing to spend, so in the end it comes down to developing your own guys, and the Royals haven't shown any ability to do that.

Keeler: This pitching staff still needs help. The rotation is down a couple of arms for the season already, and while the bullpen has been outstanding, it's also on course to burn out in August. Four different relievers are on pace to appear in 75 or more games.

Jazayerli: No bullpen can be this good forever. The Royals have put together maybe their best bullpen ever, but relievers are unpredictable from one year to the next, and the Royals can't expect them to stay at this level next year, or even the second half of this year.

Notable Stat

Passan: Relief innings pitched. The Royals lead baseball, and it's not even close. But even though they've been shuttling guys between Omaha and Kansas City, I still worry about the long-term viability of these guys' arms. I just hope that Ned Yost understands that he's got to ease off the throttle a little bit.

Brown: The Royals have made 32 outs on the bases, worst in the AL.

Keeler: As of June 26, the Royals had posted a 4.18 team ERA — not brilliant but not too far off the American League average of 3.98. The bullpen's put out more fires than Smokey the Bear.

Engel: The Royals are 14-23 at home but 21-19 on the road.

Ivie: The Royals are again on pace to register a ton of doubles. Seven players currently have 11 or more.

Stalder: The team is on pace to challenge the season mark of 335 doubles that was set in 2006. I know it's not much to cheer about, but it's something to track. The bad news is, they are also challenging for the most strikeouts in a season that was set in 2009. The record is 1,091 strikeouts in a season, and at the Royals' current pace, they will strike out 1,060 times.

Zimmerman: Hitters' batters-on-base is 7 percent, last in the AL.

Jazayerli: Tim Collins has struck out 49 batters in 34.1 innings, or 12.84 K's per nine innings. That's easily the highest rate in Royals history.

Underreported Stat

Passan: Eric Hosmer is missing cookies. On pitches in the middle of the strike zone — at the belt, bisecting the plate — he is batting .200 and has swung and missed eight times. Those are pitches every hitter, and especially the one in the cleanup spot, must pummel. A second: Alcides Escobar, of all people, leads the Royals in line drives.

Brown: Eric Hosmer has a .219 batting average on balls in play. League average is generally around .300. Last year, his was .314.

Keeler: As of June 26, the Royals were scoring 3.97 runs per game — the second-lowest average in the American League. We thought this would be a bad-pitching, good-hitting bunch, and it's looked like a mediocre-pitching, bad-hitting club instead.

Engel: Alcides Escobar is second on the team in base hits, with 70 as of June 21.

Ivie: Eric Hosmer has 32 RBIs as of June 18, which is third on the team, despite his slow start.

Stalder: Billy Butler's gradual ascension up the all-time ranks in Royals offense. He has already moved into the top 10 in most categories and is on pace to enter the top five in the next couple of seasons if he continues playing with the Royals. His doubles mark far surpasses that of George Brett at the same point in his career.

Zimmerman: The Royals are on pace to have the 13th-highest number of innings thrown by their relievers since 1974, at 43.2 percent.

Jazayerli: The Royals are dead last in the league in walks drawn. I can't overstate the importance of this. The Royals have refused to draw walks for pretty much the last 30 years, and that trend shows no sign of abating.

The Best Thing Dayton Moore Has Done

Brown: The minor league system was in shambles when he arrived in Kansas City, an absolute disaster. He's done a world-class job in building one of the best in the game.

Passan: Dayton Moore is a scout, and he brought aboard really good scouts, guys who were able to identify talent that either others didn't or others undervalued. When you have a farm system that produces Hosmer and Moustakas and Wil Myers, and they didn't draft Jake Odorizzi but brought him onboard in the Greinke trade, and when you can go out and get Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain, and you can develop Salvador Perez — a lot of these things most franchises can't do. They're going to have almost an entirely homegrown lineup by the time all of their big guns come up, and that's pretty damn impressive.

Engel: He's been aggressive in Latin America and in the draft at going after the types of promising players the Royals never got since John Schuerholz left. He's added academies in the Dominican Republic, added additional rookie-level teams to get players on the field, and he's taken risks in the draft and shelled out big bonuses to get upside guys into the organization.

Ivie: Patience. He has not panicked. He has put together a club built on youth and the farm system and waited for it all to mature.

Stalder: His ability to sign players out of high school by paying them over-slot draft money has not been the most ethical thing to do, but if it gets the Royals top-flight talent to stock their farm system, then so be it. And the scouts for this organization do not get the credit they deserve for the last few years of top talent secured via the draft.

Zimmerman: Rebuilt the farm system.

Jazayerli: Moore really did put together the best farm system — maybe not in baseball history but certainly in Royals history.

The Worst Thing Dayton Moore Has Done

Passan: Two words: Trey Hillman.

Brown: His failure at evaluating major league talent has held this organization back while the minors have flourished.

Engel: I'm not the first to say it — rumors are, a lot of executives say it often — but Moore is not good at constructing and leveraging a major league roster. He'll sign players with similar attributes and skill sets to fill one spot, or he'll overpay to get a subpar player in and then feel obligated to stick with him.

Ivie: Bringing back Yuniesky Betancourt. (I kid. Kind of.)

Stalder: Trading Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez is a key one for me.

Zimmerman: Fallen in love with crappy players — Francoeur, Davies, Betancourt, etc.

Jazayerli: The Royals still emphasize tools over skills with established major leaguers, frequently ignoring a statistical record that says Player X just isn't very good. This also has led to the Royals not valuing plate discipline at all.

Player to Watch

Passan: I hope Wil Myers comes up.

Brown: Can't wait to see what Wil Myers has to offer once he gets here.

Keeler: Luke Hochevar. It drives everybody up a wall, I know, but he's their guy, and they're gonna ride that horse till a leg falls off. The rotation will go as he goes, for better or worse. His peaks and (often painful) valleys kind of sum up where this franchise is right now.

Engel: Eric Hosmer can only get better, and he hasn't been too bad in June.

Ivie: Salvador Perez. He will have a lot to prove as he comes back from the DL.

Stalder: If you want a specific team to watch, then watch the Idaho Falls Chukars short-­season team. A lot of top-quality prospects on that team: Brickhouse, Kyle Smith, Hernandez and Mondesi, etc.

Zimmerman: Tim Collins. He is turning into a strikeout machine.

Jazayerli: Salvador Perez. His defensive skills have long been above average, but what's so extraordinary about him is that three years ago, he couldn't hit .200 in A-ball, and last year he hit .331 in the majors. Now that he's back, we're going to find out whether his bat is for real.

Moneyball Move You'd Make

Passan: I would spend every last dime that I could, every dime that I had, trying to keep my pitchers healthy. I don't know if Tampa Bay figured it out necessarily, but they do a really good job. They grow their pitchers from within, and they do not get injured. It's a pretty staggering thing to see because there's a team that has a dreadful stadium because it's a terrible market. It has no business winning, and it's going out there and beating the Yankees and Red Sox every year, and it's a fascinating story. They are what the Royals can be.

Brown: Moneyball was all about tapping into on-base percentage. Have you seen some of Dayton Moore's acquisitions? The Royals haven't ever cracked that book. Let's start there. OBP is life.

Keeler: It's a fact: The Royals don't hit home runs (last in the AL as of June 26) and don't walk a whole lot (also last). There's nothing wrong with that, except that Kauffman Stadium is playing smaller this year. And that means you're not taking advantage of your primary environment. There are good contact guys, speed guys and scrappers, but this isn't 1977 — the park doesn't play that way now. The top eight contenders in the American League all have at least one thing in common: They can knock the ball out of the yard. When the three-run home run is the coin of the realm, it's hard to keep pace consistently when your answer is trying to string together three or four doubles in a row.

Ivie: Not sure it's

Moneyball, but it's time to use some of the prospect talent to bring in proven MLB winners. I'll take all the heat here and say I would be 100 percent behind trading Wil Myers for a Matt Garza-type pitcher.

Stalder: Stop bunting in the first seven innings in any game. Giving up outs early in a contest is no way to play the game.

Zimmerman: Get rid of Francoeur and Betancourt. Their OBP is killing the team.

Jazayerli: You have a crazy-good bullpen and a terrible rotation. Be creative: Go to a four-man rotation but pull your starters after five innings no matter what (they're barely averaging five innings a start anyway). That allows you to carry nine relievers, and you can overwhelm opponents from the sixth inning on with a crazy assortment of power pitchers.

Midseason Grade

Passan: To be where they are, to be within shouting distance of .500 after all of the injuries, I'd say a B minus is fair.

Keeler: B minus. Get swept at Pittsburgh, then come home and sweep Milwaukee. Struggle mightily against St. Louis, then come out and smoke Tampa Bay. One minute they're up, the next they're down — which is what young, building teams do. We know the Royals aren't bad. We just don't know yet how good they can be.

Engel: C minus. It's close to incomplete. The Royals lost their star closer, their franchise catcher, the player they thought would be their everyday center fielder, each of the players they thought would be playing at second base, and their best young starter within the first month of the season. That they aren't buried is encouraging. That they're playing better now with players returning from injury is very encouraging.

Ivie: C plus. They are young, playing well, and not as horrible as it seems. They are not, however, playing above average. They can do better.

Stalder: D plus. Bullpen has been phenomenal, but they are going to wear down if the starting pitching does not improve. The offensive output of this team is way below what they are capable of, and if they can find a way to get on a roll, they could finish third in the Central Division. A .500 record is within reach, and that would be a major steppingstone for this franchise.

Zimmerman: D

Jazayerli: B minus. They're actually right about where I thought they'd be at this point in the season. It's just that they took an awfully strange road to get here.

Brown: C. I figured the offense would be better, but they're hovering just under .500. That's where I thought they'd be.

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