It’s up to Royals’ Moustakas how he deals with demotion to Omaha

05/22/2014 1:46 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The Royals have given Mike Moustakas room to breathe. They have demoted him only in the technical sense of the word. They have simplified his life. Eased off the gas. Turned down the heat.

They have sent him to Omaha, to the minor leagues, and if he handles this the right way it can be the best thing to happen to him in a career that still maintains promise.

Oh, it’s true that the Royals did this about 10 days too late and without much grace. They could have been swifter, should’ve been more decisive, and could’ve saved everyone involved a lot of time and trouble.

But that’s all in the past now. Nothing they can do about that now, other than hope the delay on the reconstruction of a player once viewed as a franchise cornerstone doesn’t diminish the final result.

That’s no sure thing, of course. This is a delicate situation under any circumstance, made all the more complicated by the quiet concern about how Moustakas will mentally and emotionally approach what general manager Dayton Moore is calling a “reset.”

The Royals had to do this for themselves, because a team with legitimate playoff hopes and a lineup already kept together with scotch tape cannot carry a .152 hitter who is leaking confidence. But they are also doing this for Moustakas, because this is a legitimate chance for him to fix himself.

Nobody ever kicked a bad habit without first forcing themselves to admit there’s a problem, and Moustakas doesn’t have to look far for models. The two highest-paid position players on the team he is (temporarily) leaving have had the same talk with Moore.

Billy Butler was demoted in 2008, in his second big-league season. That was more about attitude than anything else. The Royals told Butler to be confident in his ability but more humble in the way he carried himself. They drove home the point by putting him in Omaha during the minor-league club’s month-long road trip while the College World Series took over their stadium. They brought him back up at the end of June and he led the team in homers and RBIs the rest of the season and over the next four years had more extra-base hits than David Ortiz.

Alex Gordon was demoted in 2010, his fourth big-league season, just like Moustakas today. The Royals told Gordon to switch positions, partly to make room for Moustakas (who terrorized minor-league pitching that year) but mostly because they were out of ideas. Gordon nodded his head, swallowed his pride, and the next year followed up on a promise to “dominate.” His transformation into an All-Star and the game’s best defensive left fielder is among the franchise’s best successes of the last decade.

Butler and Gordon are now playing on contract extensions worth a combined $67.5 million. Each will make more than $50 million in his career.

Moustakas probably will not have a four-year run like Butler from 2009-12, and he does not have the all-around talent of Gordon. But even acknowledging his as-of-now fatal flaw with inside fastballs, it’s also true that portions of the baseball world saw Butler and (especially) Gordon as damaged goods and diminished products when they were demoted.

So being sent back to the minors does not have to define Moustakas’ career. What he does going forward in Omaha is more important than what he’s done so far in Kansas City.

There are mechanical adjustments he can make to better hit the inside fastball — which would fundamentally change the way he’s been pitched while hitting .216 since the start of last season — but this will mostly be about Moustakas’ mind.

During spring training, he and manager Ned Yost each admitted that last year’s failure began to affect Moustakas emotionally. A year ago next week, the Royals took the extreme step of talking George Brett back into the dugout as hitting coach to, in Moore’s words, “rescue us mentally.”

Moustakas is a year older and has been even worse at the plate.

Because the Royals waited longer than they should’ve to make this move, a lot of the focus and criticism has been on the organization’s awkward handling of the problem. That’s all fair and justified. But it has also overshadowed the fact that Moustakas is a grown man in pro baseball, and grown men in pro ball succeed or fail on their own merits.

This is a critical point for Moustakas, both personally and professionally. The Royals should’ve done this sooner, and he could’ve handled his most recent struggles better.

But that’s all over now. What happens from here is up to Moustakas. This is a demotion, but it’s also an opportunity.

He can approach it either way.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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