Finally, after all the infuriating futility, there was much to like about the 2013 Royals.
They’ll catapult into spring training next month off their first winning season in a decade, their best record (86-76) since 1989 and with most of the pitching that produced the best ERA in the American League (3.45).
Still, when general manager Dayton Moore considers the meaning of last season, he begins with a lament.
“It was obviously very disappointing because we didn’t get a chance to play in the postseason,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “So it was disappointing because we’ve come so far, especially the way we performed the second half of last season.”
That might seem a surprising opening stance for Moore, who perhaps was chastened by the words he probably wanted back even as he was blurting them out right after the season, that stuff about, “In a small way, I feel like we won the World Series.”
Yet even if his words now sound like they reflect a certain urgency, coinciding with Moore approaching his eighth anniversary with the team in June, he says he feels no more pressure to win now than the burn he always feels.
But he’s also more optimistic about the immediate scene than ever, calling this “on paper, the best team we’ve had in many years.”
“There’s a lot to be encouraged about,” he said, “and now we just have to take another step forward.”
That one small step, of course, also is a giant leap.
It will take another entire tier of improvement for the Royals to secure their first playoff berth since 1985. Much as many fans wish this surge forward had come sooner, it’s on the here and now that Moore’s tenure will be defined.
Maybe it’s not now or never for the Royals, who figure to have improved themselves by acquiring everyday starters Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante.
But it is if not now, when?
“We all have a very small window of opportunity,” Moore said in Cleveland during the stretch run last September.
He didn’t say it directly, but it was a nod to the realities of a small-market budget.
And he didn’t say this at all, but the difference between this time being window dressing or a portal to the playoffs is symbolized by pitcher James Shields:
When he was acquired in the monster trade that sent prodigious prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay, the success of the gambit rested largely on the premise that Shields would help stoke the Royals to the playoffs during the two years he definitely was under their control.
Now it’s not only Year Two of that but also a time Moore acknowledges he’s been pointing to since he took over.
“What I’ve said from Day One is 2014 is the year we ought to be able to compete from the first day to the last day,” he said, carefully adding, “I’ve never said that this is the year we’re going to be in the playoffs. I don’t make any predictions like that
“But without a doubt, this team in 2014 is one I expect to be able to compete from the first day to the last day.”
That came with a casually offered but striking point, though, that indicated an intensified level of accountability and suggests the days of patient optimism are waning.
“When I watch our baseball team play for the first 40 or 50 games in 2014,” he said, “if it will be trending one way or another in certain areas, then we’ll have to make some adjustment at that point in time.”
Small wonder Moore is sensitive to that time frame: During his seven full seasons as GM, the Royals are a cumulative 152-215 going into June, including a crippling 4-19 stretch in May last season.
To make the playoffs, Moore said, “I think for us, you have to have two really good months and then play close to .500 the rest of the way. Or one great month and play close to .500.
“To make the playoffs, you have to perform consistently, and what’s hurt us in the past is we’ve had some tough streaks, very difficult months, which have made it almost impossible to overcome.”
Moore mentioned no names as he spoke of scrutinizing the first 40 or 50 games, and it would be unfair to insinuate he meant anyone in particular.
But it’s no revelation to assume everyone falls under that umbrella of responsibility, including manager Ned Yost.
And on the field, perhaps third baseman Mike Moustakas is the most evident example of the notion that performance must now trump potential.
He is 25 now, and he’s had 1,493 big-league plate appearances. It’s time to be or not to be. And he almost certainly can’t come out in a funk (and hit .233 with 42 RBIs for the season) without the Royals, in fact, turning to Yost’s “third-base tree” or at least veteran Emilio Bonifacio or newcomer Danny Valencia.
But Moustakas is hardly the only one who has to produce more for the Royals to make a playoff bid.
“Every team that’s going to be in the playoffs is going to have to have two or three players step up and carry them that they weren’t necessarily expecting” that from, Moore said. “I believe that every single player that was a part of our 25-man roster last year is capable of improving upon 2013
“They’re all either in the prime years of their career or just entering those prime years.”
Accordingly, these Royals need to become who they are going to be. Or at least be their best versions of themselves.
Imagine the numbers Eric Hosmer might produce after finishing with 17 home runs and 79 RBIs last season if he played all season the way he did after his tepid start. Picture Billy Butler hitting the way he did in 2012 (29 home runs, 107 RBIs) instead of 2013 (15-82).
It’s not a given, of course, that the Royals can pitch again the way they did last season. Jason Vargas (career 4.30 ERA) essentially is replacing Ervin Santana (3.24 ERA last season).
And they may face some instability as they try to further cultivate the recent rarity of home-grown starting pitching, most likely in the form of Danny Duffy but perhaps, too, some Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer.
But even if those youngsters represent the future, the future is now, too.
“The only way we’re going to be able to be successful in 2014 and also long-term is by having good starting pitching,” Moore said, “and primarily pitching that we have scouted, signed and developed ourselves.”
Even with those X-factors, Moore makes an informed case that the Royals seem fundamentally capable of similar pitching prosperity, starting with returning a franchise-first three Gold Glove winners (Hosmer, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez).
“Our defense is very strong, the starting rotation is going to give us innings and throw strikes, and the bullpen has a lot of power and gives Ned the opportunity to match up,” Moore said.
Enhanced run production will be crucial. The Royals were 11th in the American League in runs scored with 648 last season, and especially early their feeble output often betrayed winning starting pitching into losses.
Moore believes that adding outfielder Aoki at the top of the order is a key tweak, both in terms of slotting a more natural leadoff hitter in place and being able to move Gordon down the order into a more appropriate run-producing spot.
And he considers Infante “another strong, high-contact guy with a very controlled approach to the game” who is “an upgrade for us at second base.”
Still, it’s an upgrade among those coming back that ultimately will dictate the difference between moving forward or not.
The notion that the team is young and inexperienced no longer is a valid explanation for any shortcomings, and Moore knows that as well as anyone.
“Quality experience is invaluable, and that’s what I believe our players were a part of last year,” Moore said. “They had a chance to experience what it’s like to be in a pennant race.”
Now it’s time to apply all that to ending the longest ongoing postseason drought in all of the four major North American professional sports.
If not now, when?