July 1, 2013

At season’s crucial point, the Royals’ path to improvement ‘lies within’

What’s next for the Royals? A turn of the calendar to July shows a club still within arm’s reach of mounting a serious postseason push for the first time in a decade — particularly if an attack, recently tweaked, can find its footing.

What’s next for the Royals?

A turn of the calendar to July shows a club still within arm’s reach of mounting a serious postseason push for the first time in a decade — particularly if an attack, recently tweaked, can find its footing.

“We’ve never lost confidence as an offense,” first baseman Eric Hosmer said after Sunday’s 9-8 slugfest victory at Minnesota. “We’re going in there and swinging. That’s part of our offense. We’re aggressive.

“We know we have the potential to have days like this. We just need to score some runs because we know how good our pitchers are.”

The Royals possess the American League’s best earned-run average as they enter Tuesday’s series opener against Cleveland at Kauffman Stadium.

Their defense, viewed through the prism of advanced metrics, also ranks among the league’s best — if not, in fact, the very best.

It is their underperforming attack that explains their 38-41 record, although there are hopeful signs in scoring nine runs in two of their last three games. They also hit seven homers in the four games against the Twins.

“We haven’t really hit our offensive stride all year long,” manager Ned Yost said, “although we feel we’re getting closer to hitting it. We haven’t hit our power stride either. That’s coming.”

Yost points to third baseman Mike Moustakas raising his average 38 points over the last three weeks and first baseman Eric Hosmer hitting six homers in his last 66 at-bats after hitting just one in his previous 223 at-bats.

Those aforementioned roster tweaks include steady time for outfielder David Lough, who raised his average to .314 by getting four hits in Sunday’s victory, and the promotion of second baseman Johnny Giavotella.

Both are key elements because the Royals are entering what projects as the decisive point in their schedule. They appear to have no other major in-house moves available as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches.

“Part of what we’re doing right now is looking internally with Johnny,” general manager Dayton Moore said Saturday after the Royals summoned Giavotella from Class AAA Omaha.

“We’re in constant contact with all of our people and looking for ways to improve our team, but I’m not sure there’s a player or players out there now who are available, and who we can get, who can help our team.”

That could change, of course.

July is, in many ways, the cruelest month in the baseball season because it is when clubs typically must make the tough decision as to whether they are a legitimate contender or a likely also-ran.

The choice becomes one of being either a buyer or a seller in the days leading up to the trade deadline. (Deals can be made after July 31, but the players involved must clear waivers — often a weighty impediment.)

“You look in that crystal ball and try to see what’s going to be available,” Moore said. “It’s hard to predict. It’s not like there’s three or four hitters out there on the market who you can definitely say are going to be available.

“There’s not a clear vision out there of who is going to be available. So our guys just have to produce. The improvement of our team lies within. It’s just predicated on the group of players we have producing.”

In effect, what the Royals have now might be the club going forward — at least through the end of the season. The regular lineup, in particular, is one Moore and his staff drafted or signed and developed.

Eight of the club’s top 10 position players are homegrown. The other two, shortstop Alcides Escobar and outfielder Lorenzo Cain, arrived in the December 2010 trade with Milwaukee for Zack Greinke.

Further, the decision to promote Giavotella effectively probably represents the last homegrown non-pitcher who is capable of making any meaningful contribution for the foreseeable future.

Some scouts and industry analysts speculate the Royals might deal right-hander Ervin Santana, a pending free agent, if the return provides a longer-term benefit.

That seems unlikely unless the Royals fall from contention, in part because neither Danny Duffy nor Felipe Paulino, each recovering from Tommy John surgery, appears close to handling regular duty in the rotation.

“Ervin Santana is, arguably, as good as any pitcher we have on the team,” Moore said. “The way he’s performing right now, I don’t see any reason (to make a move). There’s nobody who would take his place.”

That, too, could change.

“You certainly come to a point in time in the course of the year,” Moore acknowledged, “where you have to evaluate whether you’ve got a strong chance to win and be in the playoffs.

“Right now, we’re in a mode where we’re doing everything we can to improve our team because if our offense gets going the way we think it can, there’s no reason we can’t get on a good run and do well.”

That positions the next three-plus weeks as, perhaps, the key to the season. The Royals play six of their next 13 games against Cleveland, which shares first place with Detroit in the American League Central Division.

The Royals also play three games against Oakland and four games in New York against the Yankees prior to the All-Star break. Play resumes with a seven-game home stand against Detroit and Baltimore.

Should the Royals hold their own over those 20 games, they are likely to look hard over July’s closing days at potential short-term acquisitions in hopes of getting a boost over the season’s final two months.

If not, they seem likely to start shopping Santana, and maybe other players, in an effort to shape their roster for 2014.

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