The next sentence of this column might sound crazy, and, you know, it might be proven crazy. But its the truth as I see it and so here goes:
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
The Royals arent that far away from being good.
Baseballs 162 games are like time on a good psychiatrists couch. The truth comes out, eventually, even with stomach-turning stops and awkward starts along the way. The Royals still have a shade less than five weeks on that couch, more how-does-that-make-you-feel? questions to answer, but the picture is beginning to come into focus.
We will get to the problems and possible solutions in a few paragraphs, but muscle-memory criticisms of the Royals make it easy to miss some positives. This is still a core of young position players envied by most around baseball. Even after a 2-5 road trip to Tampa Bay and Boston, the Royals are four games under .500 the last four months. Depending on the finish, they should win more games than they did last year despite an ugly rash of critical injuries and a rotation, a player named Jeff Francoeur and a trade for Jonathan Sanchez that each turned out to be epically awful.
Royals management wears the blame for that, of course. Dayton Moore and his assistants put together the rotation, signed Francoeur to an extension, and made the Sanchez trade. But it is worth noting that if just one thing in that triumvirate of stink turned out even average, the Royals would be close to .500 what most reasonable minds expected before the season. They have a realistic chance to finish third in the American League Central for the first time since 2003.
All of which is a long way of saying the Royals grand plan isnt as far-fetched as you might think, and with at least four more seasons in it, can still sweep Kansas City into the forgotten feeling of baseball excitement with the right kind of offseason. Even after all the disappointment, this is still a roster stocked with talented position players under long-term club control with enough potential pitching to provide the skeleton of a contender in the ALs weakest division.
To do what needs doing, first the Royals need a proper ante from owner David Glass: a payroll at least in the $75 million range about $10 million more than this year to make winning in 2013 anything more than a hollow marketing push.
After that, its up to Moore to make the money matter. Nothing short of the future of the team and the reputations of Glass and Moore hang in the balance.
The starting rotation is a well-documented trainwreck, No. 28 in ERA and No. 29 in innings pitched. If the Royals 2013 opening day starter is on the roster right now, it would be a metaphorical slap in the face to fans, good reason to either no longer care or form a mutiny.
The good news is that the solution is starting to take focus, and it goes something like this: sign one starting pitcher better than anyone the Royals began this season with, trade for another one and add a bat if theres money left.
Theyll still need some luck to achieve their goals who doesnt? but this at least gets them past needing miracles.
For all the things the Royals did wrong this year, they do appear to have made chicken salad out of the Melky Cabrera trade by flipping Sanchez for Jeremy Guthrie. Small sample size warnings apply, but Guthries peripheral stats are back in line with his time in Baltimore, when he was a solid starter for most of four seasons.
If the Royals can sign Guthrie for, say, two years and $18 million with a club option thats a good start. After that, the best bet is likely a trade. Cole Hamels contract extension with the Phillies diminished an already underwhelming group of free agents. That the Dodgers took on more than a quarter of a billion dollars in salary from Boston is an indication of this winters free-agent market.
Anibal Sanchez continues to be the best fit, even with his struggles after being traded to Detroit. But with the demand of big-money teams outweighing the supply of worthy free-agent pitchers, Sanchezs price may outgrow baseballs second-smallest market.
If thats the case, the Royals need to play to their strengths and shop in the trade market where they can spend with virtually anyone in baseball.
This is the part that is always better in conversation lets get James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson! than in practice when it means giving up Eric Hosmer or Wil Myers, or even Mike Moustakas, but you have to pay to play. Nobody can be untouchable. The team just isnt good enough.
Add two pieces, and then Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen, Luke Hochevar and the other familiar faces are filling the back of the rotation instead of the front. Add two pieces, and you build a bridge to Jake Odorizzi, Danny Duffy 2.0, and minor-leaguers such as John Lamb, Kyle Zimmer and Yordano Ventura. Add two pieces, and seeing the Royals win requires only some reasonable breaks instead of a lot of imagination.
Moores last try at trading for a starting pitcher turned into a disaster, of course, but this remains the Royals best way to improve. They have to be aggressive, now as much as ever, and they know it.
A false step this offseason would set the team back.
But a failure to be bold would mean the team isnt trying to move forward.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.