The 2012 season turned south for the Royals before it had hardly begun. After starting the season with high hopes that this might finally be the year that all the young talent that general manager Dayton Moore had been grooming and developing down on the farm so they supposedly would be ready to perform and contribute at the major-league level when they were called up to the big league club would come together as one and begin turning things around for the Kansas City franchise and their long-in-the-face fans.
Then shortly after the season got under way and the Royals returned home after splitting six West Coast games, only to lose 10 consecutive games on their season-opening homestand, Moore let us in on a closely held secret that it would probably be 2014 before the talent plan would be in place and the Royals would finally put it all together on the field. So much for any hope we still held for the current season, which mercifully will come to an end next Wednesday for the Royals and 20 other major-league teams.
It hasn't been a particularly good year for the Boys in Blue, but if you really take a good hard look at the situation, it really hasn't been as bad a season as it might seem, either. Kansas City is still one win shy of reaching last season's 71-win total with just six games (three at Cleveland and three at home against Detroit) remaining in the 2012 regular-season schedule. Based on the Royals' history, the odds are that they will split the six games at best or wind up winning just two of the six games. And a lot of that, quite frankly, depends on Kansas City having a good series against an Indian team, on the road, that trails the Royals in the standings and is only one of five teams out of the 18 KC has faced this season against whom the Royals have a winning record for the season.
The Royals should be further bolstered in Cleveland, knowing that they have won two out of three each of the two previous times they have played the Indians there this season. The season-closing series with Detroit at Kauffman Stadium could be very interesting. Detroit is in a very tight race for the American League Central division title. Detroit has a two-game lead on the Chicago White Sox at the moment, but the Royals-Tigers series beginning on Monday could end up being what stands between Detroit and a second straight division crown.and trip to the AL playoffs, with Kansas City in the role of potential spoiler.
With a .449 win rate after 156 of 162 games, the Royals are on a pace to win 73 games against 89 losses, two games better than a year ago. By the record alone, you would have to say that there has been little, if any, improvement in the 2012 edition of the Kansas City Royals. That is what the record would indicate, but that is not a true assessment of the year they've had.
Yes, it will be the ninth consecutive year the Royals have finished below .500 and the 17th time in the last 19, and they haven't been part of the MLB playoffs for 27 years. The only major-league franchise with greater futility than the Royals is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are closing in on what will be their 20th straight losing season. But the Royals' 2012 won-lost record does not reflect a number of positives and progress indicators that show that the team is, indeed, moving forward and not backward and that brighter days could be just around the corner.
For one thing, unless the bottom completely falls out over the next six days, the Royals appear comfortably positioned in third place in the AL Central. Kansas City has finished that high in the division standings only once in the past eight seasons, and in four of those years the team has finished in the cellar, in fifth place.
The Royals are presently 14 games back of division-leading Detroit. A year ago, they ended up fourth in the division, 24 games back, and in 2010 they finished the year 27 games behind division-champion Minnesota Twins.
Generating offense is not an issue for Kansas City. Scoring runs, however, has been an issue. The Royals hit well in 2011 and they have continued to hit at a high league average this season. Going into Friday's games, Kansas City is hitting .266 as a team. Only three other American League teams (Los Angeles, Detroit and Texas) are hitting better this season. Designated Hitter Billy Butler is having a career year, leading the team with a .314 average, 28 homeruns and 104 runs batted in, higher in all three categories than the year earlier.
Left-fielder Alex Gordon is having another strong season at the plate, and shortstop Alcides Escobar is having his best major-league season at the plate as a full-time player. The Royals seem pretty well set for the immediate future with youngsters Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer at the corners, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson have looked good in center field, and in Salvador Perez, the Royals have one of the best all-purpose catchers in major-league baseball. All excellent signs for the coming years.
Unfortunately, the Royals have not been nearly as productive getting runners to cross the plate, and it's no secret that you can't win if you can't score. Kansas City has only been shutout six times all season, but only two other AL teams (Cleveland and Seattle) have scored fewer runs this season than the Royals.
While there are positives to be gleaned from the current season, there are also glaring problems that continue to plague the Royals and, if not immediately addressed and corrected, will forever hold the team back from ever again achieving sustained competitive success on the field.
I'm speaking specifically about the team's critical inadequacy in starting pitching. The Royals may have the worst starting rotation in all of baseball. No Royals starter has a winning record, and it is questionable if any of Kansas City's current rotation would be a one-through-three starter on any other major-league team. The relief corps has been adequate, for the most part, but as a full staff, the Royals team ERA of 4.36 is the fourth worst in the AL and ranks 24th out of 30 in both leagues.
There is no question that starting pitching is the Royals' biggest problem and should be their highest short- and long-term priority. The problem is, that's probably the hardest position need to fill, and especially if you're starting at ground zero like the Royals are.
The Royals have not been a good defensive team in 2012. The 106 errors they have committed as a team is exceeded by just two other AL teams, the Oakland A's and the Tampa Bay Rays, both of whom make up for their deficiency in the field with exceptionally strong pitching.
It's clear the Royals front office has some work to do in the offseason. The team isn't that far off from getting the engine to hit all cylinders, but it is not going to happen through incremental, nickel-and-dime type personnel moves. Something bigger than anything we've seen in quite some time with this team is going to have to happen.
To acquire a couple of front-line starting pitchers with proven major-league talent and experience - not something the Royals should do, but rather something they must do -you have to be willing to offer a competitive salary and, most likely, part with one of more of your young up-and-coming position talent. Neither of which has been something the present Royals' management has shown much willingness to do in the past.
The Royals have reached the proverbial fork in the road. Like Yogi Berra says, they need to take it.
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