Part of the problem with being a Royals fan the last 20 years is you begin to lose touch with reality.
Technically, your team is part of Major League Baseball. But in reality, your team sometimes bats Abraham Nunez cleanup and sends Mark Redman to the All-Star Game and has managers that say things like, “never say it can’t get worse.” You start to dream up ways for your team to win the division that include impossibilities like Scott Elarton winning 15 games.
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Two decades of nonsense makes it hard to keep your wits. Emil Brown once led the team with 63 RBIs. Runelvys Hernandez once won the opening day start over Jimmy Gobble through a coin flip.
How are you supposed to remember what a good baseball team looks like when shortstops lose pop-ups in the sky because their sunglasses haven’t come in yet?
The standards have been so low that during the last seven years we’ve marked progress by an actual Scott Boras client signing (2006), not finishing in last place (2008) and, most notably, Baseball America saying nice things about the farm system (2010).
So, well, yeah. Standards have been low around the Royals. But, hey, this
something. They’re on pace for their best record in a decade, with a lineup made up almost entirely of homegrown players and here’s an honest-to-goodness sign of big-league competency on the national baseball stage:
The Royals will have two All-Stars here. Alex Gordon and Sal Perez. Both legitimate. And it could’ve been more.
Ken Harvey no longer works here.
If the Royals are someday good — legitimately good, not just good for them — progress will be marked by this weekend. A franchise that most years had an All-Star only because the rules said they had to now has two players in the game for the first time in a decade.
This is worth remembering. This is a status symbol. A minor one, like upgrading from a Honda Civic to an Accord, but still, a status symbol. For the most part, dogs like the Astros have one All-Star. For the most part, competent teams have more.
Competency is coming slower than anyone would like, but it is happening. The details are (mostly) encouraging. Gordon and Perez are the faces of a strong nucleus of young players under long-term control with club-friendly salaries. Gordon is the Royals’ property through 2015. Perez signed perhaps the most club-friendly contract in baseball and is under control through 2019.
They’re joined by Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar and Greg Holland as valuable pieces under long-term club control. If the Royals are going to win, most of the faces are already here and under contract.
Every situation is different, but the Twins’ rise from irrelevance in the early 2000s is often held up by Royals officials as a model for what they’re trying to accomplish. That rise is marked, at least in part, from having the undeserving and required All-Star (Ron Coomer in 1999) to having multiple All-Stars seven times in a nine-season stretch beginning in 2001. That’s the same time they went from eight straight losing years to six straight winning seasons.
So this is the nearest rendition of a contender the Royals have managed in years. The future is under contract in Kansas City. The roster has flaws, of course, but the Royals have put together what is so far the American League’s second-best pitching staff with projected long-term production at catcher, first base, shortstop (defensively, at least), left field and designated hitter.
The bigger baseball world will see the progress up close this week. Perez and Gordon have been something like well-kept secrets, known as among the best at their positions by baseball lifers but mostly overlooked by more casual fans.
These things take time. According to the advanced metric Wins Above Replacement, Ryan Braun is the only corner outfielder more valuable than Gordon over the last three seasons. Only nine players at any position have more extra-base hits. Put another way, he’s slumping and still a worthy All-Star.
There is an old line in baseball that players who do one thing extremely well tend to get overrated, and players who do a lot of things very well tend to get underrated. Outside those who watch the Royals every day, appreciation for Gordon will probably always lag behind his production.
Perez’s rise has been much faster. Even in a loaded farm system, Perez was always the one scouts in and outside of the Royals felt most confident would become a good player. He is the rare prospect — especially in this organization — to be better than advertised.
When the Royals play the Rays, it’s funny to watch their runners cling to bases as if there’s a magnetic pull, the memory of Perez picking off two of them in his big-league debut still strong. This is his first (let’s hope) full season, and Perez is already recognized as one of the game’s best defensive catchers and is a career .303 hitter. Those comparisons to a young Yadier Molina look smart.
Gordon is 29, and signed for two more seasons. Perez is 23, and signed for six.
The best part isn’t that they’re coming here. It’s that you’d bet on them doing it again.
This is all nice, but the rotten history of this team means they are tracking their best record in 10 years but are still five games under .500 and seven behind the Tigers.
The Royals are raising their standards, but there’s still a long way to go.
Part of the James Shields trade is an acknowledgement that signs of success like this are fine and all, but the only signs that matter now are in the standings. In that context, these smaller indicators of progress had a lot more legitimacy a few years ago.
Gordon and Perez each making it here to the All-Star Game is great, but only as much as it helps the Royals win enough games that the last six years of hearing about patience don’t turn out to be a bad joke. They need help. The Royals need more like them.