The way the Royals walked into the offseason certainly didn’t erase the frustration and dreariness of the franchise’s first 100-loss season since 2006.
However, they went 22-20 after Aug. 15 and were 15-13 in September (their only winning month of the season). While those numbers may not shout juggernaut in the making, having played better than .500 ball down the stretch undoubtedly signals progress for a team that finished 58-104.
Late-season success especially resonates because several Royals players stepped into prominent roles or received extensive playing time in the majors for the first time last year.
For those looking for optimism or hope, the final month and a half of the season provided just enough of a spark to keep the fire burning. Now, it’s up to the players to create a carryover effect.
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“We got off to slow start (last year), but that last two months were a lot of fun,” third baseman Hunter Dozier said. “I think we’re just going to build off that. I think that’s what kept me going, that’s what kept a lot of guys going in the offseason -- how we finished.”
Dozier, who’d been a highly rated prospect in the minors for several years, batted .280 in the month of August, and hit seven of his 11 home runs and drove in 22 of 34 RBIs after the All-Star break. He explained recently that he felt like he “found” himself late last season.
“You’ve got to feed off it,” Dozier said of the team’s finish. “I know it was a long time ago but when all the guys get back in here like today, you can start feeling it. We just want to get off to a good start, have a good spring.”
He’s not the only player who’s final months of the season created a completely different outlook on the season.
First baseman Ryan O’Hearn, who made his major-league debut on July 31, hit 12 home runs, 10 doubles and 30 RBIs in 170 plate appearances.
“That two months was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” O’Hearn said. “From the day that the season ended, I’ve been thinking about doing that all over again starting in April -- well, I guess, March 28th. I’m excited for that.”
Of course, the final month and a half doesn’t negate the disappointment of the overall season.
Infielder Whit Merrifield, who had the best individual season of his career, which earned him a new contract, described the amount of losing the team endured last season as something that “can’t happen again.”
“We put it all together about August, I guess,” Merrifield said. “We had a talented group of guys, and, like I said, we put together and started winning some games. Once we won some games, we kind of got confidence and got momentum. That’s what we were missing at the start of last year. I think if we’d got off to a good April last year, our season would’ve been drastically different than it was.”
The team’s success this season should hinge in large part on whether or not their returning core of players can sustain the sort of performances they had in August and September over the course of a full season.
For young players like emerging star and shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, starting pitcher Brad Keller, O’Hearn, Dozier and several others, they’ll also have to take the next step after showing they have the ability to play in the majors.
“As soon as you prove yourself — that you can play in the big leagues,” All-Star catcher Salvador Perez said, “now, you need to prove yourself — that you can stay in the big leagues.”
That will be one of the primary focuses of spring training for the Royals, preparing to duplicate what they did late last season while also adjusting to a league that will be more familiar with their individual strengths and weaknesses.
“These guys made great progress from the middle of August all through September, played really really good, exciting baseball and our fans really enjoyed it and got behind it,” manager Ned Yost said. “But does that mean that we’re going to automatically come in here and pick up where we left off? No.
“We’re going to have to pick up where we left. I mean we’re going to have to work hard to continue that type of improvement.”
The Royals announced on Monday that they’ve agreed to terms with six pre-arbitration eligible players: pitchers Heath Fillmyer, Tim Hill, Jakob Junis, Trevor Oaks, Glenn Sparkman and Josh Staumont.
The nine players who remain unsigned for the 2019 season are pitchers Conner Greene, Ben Lively and Jorge López, catcher Cam Gallagher, infielders Kelvin Gutierrez and Adalberto Mondesi and outfielders Jorge Bonifacio, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips.