Though the plight of Pirates fans has been far better-documented, fans of the Kansas City Royals have endured pain and suffering that rivals that of Pittsburgh. Their World Series victory in 1985 was followed a decade of mediocrity; from 1986 to 1993, they failed to make the playoffs, with win totals ranging from 72 to 92. Then, following the strike, the team slipped from mediocrity to utter ignominy. The team’s power structure shifted, as General Manager John Scheurholz departed for Atlanta and beloved long-time owner Ewing Kauffman passed away. The new ownership, headed by Wal-Mart executive David Glass, was seemed less willing to hold on to young talent as it got expensive, and thus, the Royals went from perennial contenders to constant cellar-dwellers. In fact, from 1995 to 2012, the team finished out of 4th or 5th place just 4 times, and posted just one winning season (in 2003, when their pythagorean record indicated the talent of a 78-win team).
In 2006, the Royals brought on a new GM, a disciple of Schuerholz in Atlanta and lifelong Royals fan Dayton Moore. Moore, a scout who had worked his way through the Braves organization, announced that he had a plan to rebuild the organization through scouting, trades, and smart free agent signings — a plan he called “The Process.” But The Process stalled; Moore’s farm system failed to produce major league talent, and his biggest free agent signing, a 5 year, $55 million deal for starter Gil Meche, was ridiculed both at the time and in retrospect, as arm problems forced Meche into retirement at 31. At the end of his first half-decade at the helm, it seemed Moore had made little progress towards restoring the Royals to their former glory.
But while Moore continued to struggle with major league personnel decisions (see the 2 year, $13.5 million extension for Jeff Franceour, worth -3.8 bWAR over the life of the contract), the farm system began to pay dividends. After a rocky start to his major league career, Alex Gordon became the all-star befitting his first-round pedigree. Homegrown talent such as Salvador Perez, Billy Butler, and Eric Hosmer blossomed into bona fide major league players. And in the offseason before the 2013 season, Moore finally decided to cash in some of the talent in the farm system for a chance to win now. In a move that looked controversial then and now, he traded mega-prospect Wil Myers, along with top-100 pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, to the Rays for two years of proven starter James Shields.
While the deal has been widely panned from the Royals perspective (especially after 2013, when Myers lived up to his top-prospect billing and won AL Rookie of the Year), there is little doubt that the acquisition of Shields made them a better team in the short-term. Shields was far and away the best pitcher in the KC staff, leading the team’s starters in innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA, FIP, and fWAR. As a result (and due to the bounceback season from Ervin Santana, a cunning Moore acquisition), the Royals’ team ERA dropped over a run from 2012 to 2013 (5.01 and 3.87 respectively). Additionally, Moore had assembled a bullpen that put up the best ERA in the American League, anchored by closer Greg Holland, who racked up a Royals record 47 saves. The offense regressed some (Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar were especially disappointing), but the remarkable pitching turnaround was enough to improve the Royals’ record by 13 games, as they posted an 86-76 record, their best since 1989, and stayed until the playoff hunt until the last week of the season. But can the Royals repeat their success in 2014, and maybe bring postseason baseball back to the barbecue capitol of the world?
Well, the initial results look promising. The team recorded 86 wins, and their run differential indicates a team with 87-win talent. In a world with two wild cards, where 90 wins is generally enough for a playoff spot, the Royals have but a small hill to climb. One area that seemed in dire need of improvement was at second base; Royals’ second basemen put up a 64 wRC+ last year, worst in the American League. The Royals addressed this need in a big way through the signing of Omar Infante. The 32-year old Infante, who got a 4 year, $30 million deal, is by no means a star. But he fills the biggest hole in the Royals’ infield; he plays solid defense, and his 117 wRC+ last year was the best of his career and 5th-best in baseball (min. 450 PAs). Additionally, the Royals can look for improvement on the left side of their infield; Escobar’s career OPS+ before this year was 80 (as opposed to the putrid 53 OPS+ he posted this year), and Moustakas, despite lackluster career major league numbers, is just 25 and thus has the potential to improve (his career minor league OPS was a very solid .840).
On the other side of the ball, the Royals may be primed for a little regression. There is no chance they re-sign Santana; they have already replaced him by giving Jason Vargas a 4 year, $32 million deal. But Santana posted 3.0 fWAR last year, better than Vargas’ career high — in fact, over the last 3 years, Vargas has averaged only 1.5 fWAR. Additionally, the bullpen seems likely to regress, as their 81.4% strand rate was tops in the American League, often denoting a lucky season. But the Royals, who haven’t developed a true major league starter since Zack Greinke, seem to have some reinforcements coming from the farm. Yordano Ventura, who can hit 102 on his fastball, struck out 11.5 per 9 in AAA last year, and made a solid major league debut. And Shields sitting at the top of the rotation, as he will for one more year before heading to free agency, gives the team much needed stability in the form of a true ace, the kind they have lacked since Greinke’s 2009 season.
The Royals have suffered through decades of mismanagement and futility. But they finally have a chance to put it all behind them, and give the city of Kansas City the winner they have sorely lacked but so desperately deserve.