The second half of the Royals’ World Series championship title defense needs to be much better than the first half or the franchise will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Those words are one more sign of the Royals’ still-new place in the baseball world, that missing the playoffs is now a disappointment. The implied urgency is also an acknowledgment of the ticking clock on the Royals’ control of much of their core.
They are 45-43, a pace of of 83 wins, one of 11 teams holding or within 5 1/2 games of an American League playoff spot. They remain in the race because of talent and depth. They currently have just the ninth best record in the league because of underperformance and injury.
Unlike the past two seasons, the Royals must not just win games but navigate significant external factors beyond that are making the pursuit of another postseason more difficult.
Most pressing, they are highly unlikely to make the type of blockbuster deals that brought Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto for last year’s championship push.
Some of that is the uncontrollable market forces that are leaving the Royals without the kind of natural trade partners that surfaced last season.
Some of that is because the Royals traded so much of their system depth last season — including four pitching prospects who have since made big-league rotations — and will be hesitant to cut deeper.
And some of it is because of the team’s inconsistent and at times uninspired play. The Royals played every game last year with a fury that figured to be unsustainable, except they sustained it (save a brief lull in September) through Game 5 of the World Series.
That was a decade of hard work coming together, and even with the Royals a virtual lock for the playoffs by last July, the passion and focus and success from the clubhouse demanded something be done by the front office.
This year, not as much.
Alex Gordon, in the first year of a $72 million contract, has been hurt and unproductive. That has to change for the Royals to move up the standings. Yordano Ventura has to be better. Same with Chris Young and Edinson Volquez. Wade Davis and Lorenzo Cain have to be healthy. Eric Hosmer has been very good, but the Royals could use more extra-base production from their most talented hitter.
Those internal improvements are particularly important because the Royals are unlikely to make a major trade. Club officials should and will take every step to explore ways to improve the roster, but the perspective and motivation is different when a team is hovering around .500.
For the Royals, a deal would almost certainly need to bring back a player who would be under club control for at least a year or two beyond 2016.
If the Royals were to go all-in at the deadline again, Reds outfielder Jay Bruce could make sense. He is an established power hitter having an All-Star season, whose left-handed swing would help balance the order, and has a $13 million team option for next year.
However, there are scouts who believe Bruce is a terrible fit for Kauffman Stadium — the bigger ballpark could expose his defense and limit his home-run power.
Other possibilities include Rays pitchers Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi, the latter of whom was part of the deal that brought Davis and James Shields to Kansas City. Moore is scheduled to be a free agent after next season, and Odorizzi after the 2019 season, so both could be fits for the long-term.
The problems here include both having underwhelming seasons — Moore has a 4.46 ERA, while Odorizzi is at 4.47, each with meh peripherals — and unlikely to be the difference between a playoff spot in 2016.
A factor in all of this is David Glass’ track record of refusing to pick up salary in midseason trades. This is not a direct criticism of Glass; he is not alone in this, particularly among small-market owners. But it does make trades more difficult to pull off, in at least two significant ways.
The first is the most obvious. It means the club has to overpay in prospects — the Royals lose the deal if another team presents an equal package but is willing to pay salary.
The second is more indirect. Last year, the Royals probably could have kept John Lamb or Cody Reed out of the deal with the Reds if they would’ve paid the approximately $4 million owed to Cueto the rest of the year. If they did that, they would have one more attractive prospect for a trade offer this year.
Or — and it should be noted that both Lamb and Reed have struggled in the big leagues so far — the Royals would have one more young pitcher for themselves this season. This year, the Royals’ competition in the trade market would likely include richer teams willing to take on money.
Either way, the schedule makes the next few weeks particularly important. The Royals’ first nine games — and 12 of the 15 before the trade deadline — are against teams above them in the standings.
If they can advance in the standings, the trade calculus could tilt more toward making a deal. But if they lose ground, the naturally aggressive baseball men in the front office could be convinced to go against their typical instinct to take advantage of a seller’s market.
If that happens, they have three upcoming free agents to offer — a power hitter (Kendrys Morales), veteran pitcher (Volquez) and proven reliever (Luke Hochevar).
Do that, and the Royals could bolster next season’s roster while saving some money (assuming the trade partner took on salary) to use this offseason.
It’s all there in a second half with far-reaching consequences. Not just the pursuit of this postseason, but beyond.