We're at the midway point of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, the time when, statistically speaking, we start to get a fairly good glimpse of which teams are in it for the long haul and which ones are close to mailing it in and which clubs are in the best position for a division crown and playoff spot come the fall.
One big factor baseball has going for it as we start the first month of the second half of the calendar year is that it's not just the only game in town right now, it's the only major professional sport, other than hockey and soccer, that is actually open for business. The NFL's billionaire owners and millionaire players continue to try to work out a new labor contract that would end the current lockout, and now the NBA has begun a journey down the exact same road, imposing a lockout of its own, now just a little over a day old.
For those of us who call Kansas City home, you wouldn't even have to refer to a calendar to know that, as far as our local team, the Royals, are concerned, their downhill curve started long before the 81-game mark of the current season. If you weren't that perceptive before now, all you would have to do is listen some morning or afternoon to the local radio sports talk shows or read what Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger has to say at least once or twice a week to get the message that the current edition of the Kansas City Royals, despite what we all hoped and prayed for a few short months ago, is no better than what we've seen before here for now close to a generation.
And - perish the thought - the Rs might even be worse than many of the past KC teams. After all, in the uninspiring words of all the sideline cynics and radio commentators lately, all we're hearing is that this Royals team is on a pace to lose 96 games in the current season. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that amounts to just 66 wins, or exactly twice as many as the 33 they have right now, between now and the end of September. Same old song, just another verse, right?
We're all smart enough to deduce from this that Kansas City is not one of the surprises of the 2011 season. The Royals have had their moments already this season, though, and it's been fun to see the young arms in the team's revamped bullpen perform so credibly over the first half and some of the new faces we've heard so much about out of Kansas City's highly acclaimed farm system (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustaskas, Danny Duffy, et. Al). But let's face it, there are no MLB rookies of the year in this bunch. Not yet, anyway, and it's far too early to determine if they will ultimately live up to the elite level that was anticipated for them or turn out to be just average fun-of-the-mill major leaguers.
Here are the hard, cold facts regarding the Royals, as I see them, heading into the second half of the 2011 campaign:
- The aging veterans we've had on this team in past years are gone. This is a very young Royals team, with the youngest roster in the major leagues. They have a lot of fight and determination in them, and some developing talent, but they are not better than probably 27 of the current major league teams, not on a consistent basis, anyway.
- Where Kansas City is right now in the standings is where the Rs will finish the season, in fifth place in the AL Central. You can go to the bank on it.
- As a team, the Royals have been well above average in the hitting department (4th in the AL at .263; 6th in all of baseball), but the trouble is, they are primarily a singles-hitting team, which certainly doesn't hurt the average, but they don't have any real concentrated power in the lineup and they don't get as many of the runners home that do get on base.
- Fact: The Royals have no starting pitching to speak of. It's the worst starting rotation in the major leagues. When your No. 1 starter would be no better than a No, 4 starter on most major-league teams, you have a good idea you're going to be in for a rough ride. And then there's the rest of the starting rotation - by the names of Francis, Chen, Paulino, Davies and the young Duffy. I'm not certain any of these guys would be starting for more than half of the other teams, if that.
- If you've heard that general manager Dayton Moore and field manager Ned Yost are counting on the rich pitching talent Kansas City has in its minor-league system to reverse its starting pitching problems in the near-term future, and you agree that therein lies the answer, don't hold your breath.
- Left-handed starter Mike Montgomery, probably the most touted pitcher in the Royals farm system, is currently 2-4 with a 5.83 ERA in 15 starts and 74 total innings of work at Class AAA Omaha. Another promising left-handed starter, John Lamb, is out for the year with Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Royals' management also was expecting good things from a right-handed pitcher, Jeremy Jeffress, obtained from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke trade, Halfway through his minor-league year at Omaha, Jeffress sports an unimpressive record of 2-3 with an ERA over 6.00 in 19 innings of work. Does it sound like big-time help is on the way to you?
- A $36 million team payroll, the lowest of all 30 MLB teams, is not going to get it done - not to the fan's satisfaction, at least.
Really gets you pumped up for the rest of the season, doesn't it?
There have been several big surprises to this point in the season, but for the most part they've all been in the National League. The AL division races through the first three months have gone pretty much according to Hoyle, with Detroit leading in the AL Central, New York and Boston battling it out for AL East supremacy and last year's AL pennant winner, Texas, holding on to a narrow lead in the AL West. The biggest surprise in the American League has to be Cleveland's climb to the top of the AL Central in the first half, while last-year's division-winner, the Minnesota Twins, have wallowed in the lower half of the league throughout the season's opening half.
In the NL, Philadelphia leads the NL East and defending World Series champion San Francisco is up by a couple in the NL West. Milwaukee and St. Louis are tied in the NL Central heading into the season's final 80 games. Not expected, however, was how well teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona have performed thus far in 2011.
Pittsburgh is above .500 at this point in the season for the first time since 1999, and if the Pirates keep playing as well over the next three months, they will end the longest string of consecutive losing seasons (18) in professional sports history. Arizona, which won only 65 games a year ago, has 44 wins already this season and is only two games back of San Francisco in the NL West. Excluding the Phillies, the Washington Nationals are right there in the thick of things in the NL East race. The Nationals are 40-41 through games of June 30, and are on pace to win 80 or 81 games if they continue on the same way for the remainder of the season. That's 11 or 12 games better than last season.
If you think that's no big deal, consider that the Pirates, Diamondbacks and Nationals all finished in last place in their divisions in 2010, none with more than 69 wins.
So there you have it. Everything's up to date and status quo in Kansas City. The baseball team is double-digits under .500 and alone in last place in its division, and Kansas City fans have already shifted their attention to the other team across the Truman Sports Complex parking lot and the NFL season that still may or may not happen. At this time of year, though, even that minor detail won't deter the Kansas City sports faithful.