Royals hope for fresh start in 2017, but championship window may be difficult to keep open

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez and relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera celebrate closing out the ninth inning for a 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays during Saturday's baseball game on August 6, 2016 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez and relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera celebrate closing out the ninth inning for a 4-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays during Saturday's baseball game on August 6, 2016 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

On Friday afternoon, as the skies turned gray above Kauffman Stadium, Royals general manager Dayton Moore stood near a railing along the first-base dugout. He wore a dark suit and pushed a cell phone to his right ear. As the Royals’ grounds crew prepared the field for batting practice before a series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, Moore fielded another call about the state of his baseball team.

The scene could have been from April, when the Royals opened this season as the reigning World Series champions; it could have been June, when Moore’s team sat in first place in the American League Central, poised for another run. If there is one virtue that Moore preaches among his staff, it is a day-to-day steadiness, a calmness in the face of a reactionary culture. So as Moore hung up the phone and took a seat inside the dugout, there was little sign of discontent or concern.

“There are a lot of things in this game that are hard to explain,” Moore said. “It’s a tough game.”

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For the last five weeks, he had watched his team free-fall in the standings, a season all but lost during a July collapse. But through it all — through offensive lulls and bullpen disasters — Moore’s public exterior had mostly remained unchanged. Four days earlier, after standing pat at the trade deadline, he spoke earnestly about making a run during the season’s final months. On Friday, as the Royals (51-58) fell to a season-low seven games under .500 in a 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays, he repeated the mantra.

There will be a day in the future, he said, when the Royals’ brass sits back and excavates this 2016 season. But for now, that day has not come.

“I’m not wired that way,” he said.

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When the obituaries are written, of course, there will be stories about demoralizing injuries and an underachieving offense and an inconsistent starting rotation. They will write of an offseason free-agent class that struggled and a nucleus that appeared worn down and tired after consecutive trips to the World Series.

They will say that this is baseball, because they always say that. But if the 2015 World Series championship marked the culmination of a decade of grinding — of scouting and drafting and developing and patience, of engineering the sort of turnaround that is nearly without match in recent baseball history — then these last three months have offered a harsh reality check. If the fall of 2015 was redemption and relief — a champagne-fueled celebration that spawned a cathartic parade in downtown Kansas City — this 2016 season has been the next morning’s hangover, all headaches and bleary-eyed exhaustion.

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“If anything,” Royals pitcher Chris Young said, “it reminds you how special those great seasons are.”

As the calendar pushes into August, and the Royals remain mired in fourth place, Moore is reticent to think beyond today. But one year after a championship, the organization forges onward, entering the early stages of a delicate transition phase. The Royals’ core will remain intact for one more season, and club officials appear focused on maximizing the opportunities for another run in 2017. The window, they say, is still open.

And yet, the front office must deal with the twin issues of a rising payroll and a ticking clock. The same problems that plagued the 2016 Royals could be present again next season. And then there is that list of looming free agents after 2017 — a group that includes Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Danny Duffy and Wade Davis and so on.

In some ways, of course, these are the problems that come with success. Yet rival executives view the Royals as an example of how quickly the landscape can shift for a small-market or mid-market team.

“I don’t know the way forward for them,” one rival executive says.

“That team, for two years, beat the odds,” one long-time pro scout says.

“I can see the Royals being competitive over the next few years,” another rival evaluator says. “Maybe even finding their way back into postseason. But what they did the last two years was magical —and magical doesn’t last.”

On a Sunday in May, the day the Royals’ season began to splinter, Alex Gordon exited the trainer’s room in a clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago and sauntered through a mostly empty room. As bags lined the floors and players pecked at a postgame spread, Gordon stopped in front of his locker and held out his right arm. His wrist was covered by a dark brace.

Hours earlier, in a 3-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox, Gordon had collided with third baseman Mike Moustakas on a harmless foul pop down the left-field line. In that moment, as the Royals packed for Minneapolis, nobody knew how bad it would get.

“Hopefully,” Gordon said then. “It’s nothing.”

It was not. By the end of the week, Gordon had been diagnosed with a broken scaphoid bone in his right hand; Moustakas was out for the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. For the defending World Series champions, a rash of debilitating injuries was just beginning. The injury bug would hit All-Stars and fill-ins; it would handcuff the bullpen and burden an underperforming offense.

By the end of July, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, closer Wade Davis and reliever Luke Hochevar would all spend time on the disabled list. Catcher Salvador Perez would miss a week with a quadriceps contusion. The Royals have been without Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, who were expected to contribute at the back end of the rotation.

Every team battles injuries, of course. Such is life during an 162-game grind. But any autopsy of the 2016 Royals will begin with the category of health. For close to two seasons, the Royals had evaded or handled major injuries. But as the bodies piled up this summer, the task was too difficult. As of Saturday, Moustakas, Cain and Gordon had combined to miss 120 games. Davis was on the disabled list for the second time. Hochevar may have thrown his last pitch in a Royals uniform.

“I feel like health is huge,” said Cain, whose injury coincided with a 7-19 stretch July. “It’s just been tough.”

Yet if the Royals were depleted by injuries, the problems were compounded by sub-par seasons from Gordon, shortstop Alcides Escobar and designated hitter Kendrys Morales and a quiet second half from Hosmer. Gordon entered Saturday batting just .200 with a .332 slugging percentage, both well below his career averages. Escobar is on pace to lead the American League in outs. Hosmer has batted just .179 with two homers since the All-Star break.

As a result, the Royals’ offense has regressed into the worst unit in the American League. After putting up 724 runs in 2015, the Royals are on pace to score just 618 this season, which would rank last in the AL. After batting .269 with a .322 on-base percentage last season, the lineup has taken a slight step back, hitting .263 with a .312 OBP.

The real problem, however, has stemmed from two areas. A year ago, the Royals made up for average offensive numbers and poor plate discipline with clutch hitting and a historically good contact rate. In 2016, both advantages have disappeared. The Royals are on pace to strike out 1,195 times this season, compared to 973 times last year. For long stretches, they have been decidedly unclutch. They are hitting just .222 with runners in scoring position and two outs. A year ago, they hit .278 in the same situations.

The offensive struggles have confounded Moore and Royals manager Ned Yost. But as an anemic week turned into a month, Yost remained confident the Royals were poised for a rebound at some point.

“Nobody has forgotten how to do anything,” Yost said. “They haven’t lost their skills. It’s just they’re struggling altogether.”

If the struggles had been confined to the offense, perhaps the Royals would be hovering somewhere on the fringes of the playoff race. But in addition to the offensive woes, the starting rotation and bullpen have failed to match the performance of 2015.

The starting rotation, heading into Saturday, has posted a combined 4.89 ERA after logging a 4.34 ERA last season. The bullpen has gone from baseball’s best (2.73 ERA) to merely very good (3.47). The relief troubles have been personified by Joakim Soria, one of the club’s marquee signings in the offseason.

In the months after winning the World Series, the Royals splurged on a banner free-agent class, hoping to pounce on a window to compete. They handed $25 million to Soria to help bolster the bullpen. They spent $72 million on Gordon to keep the franchise luminary in Kansas City. They doled out $70 million over five years for starter Ian Kennedy and brought back Young on a modest two-year, $11.5 million deal. Now, in the early days of August, only Kennedy has been a net positive on the field — and his performance has translated to a slightly above-average American League starter.

“Obviously, we haven’t performed to the level we expect,” Moore said. “It’s been frustrating for all of us. But again, it’s the same group of players we’ve had.”

For Moore and the Royals, the hard choices could begin this offseason. As the franchise pushes forward, hoping to turn a two-year renaissance into sustained success, the financial burden will only increase.

In 2016, the Royals’ payroll surpassed $130 million for the first time. In 2017, the numbers project even higher. The club will enter the offseason owing $82.6 million to 10 players in 2017. Add in team options for Davis ($10 million) and Escobar ($6.5 million), and the number surpasses $99 million. This is before budgeting in salary arbitration raises for Hosmer, left-hander Danny Duffy and reliever Kelvin Herrera, which will likely total more than $20 million. This is before budgeting any possible free-agent expenditures.

Around baseball, the 2016 performance and financial picture leads to a rough consensus among rival executives and scouts. There is a respect and deep admiration for the Royals front office and what it has accomplished. There is also a natural skepticism that it can continue in the short term, especially with a muddled rotation and a dearth of top pitching prospects in the minor leagues.

“They’ve never been able to develop starting pitching,” one rival general manager said. “And if you look at their system, I don’t see any big-time arms coming. I know they’ve beaten the odds the last couple of years, and that’s a remarkable achievement. But I don’t know who can sustain success without good starting pitching."

For now, the Royals have Kennedy, Duffy and Yordano Ventura under contract for 2017. Left-hander Jason Vargas is returning from Tommy John surgery, while left-hander Minor could offer something after a lengthy rehab from shoulder surgery. The club could also give a “qualifying offer” to likely free agent Edinson Volquez.

“They have to upgrade their arms,” an American League talent evaluator said. “Offensively, they can compete with a return to health, but that staff is holding them back. Those guys aren’t enough for a serious contender.

“The wild card obviously [is] Ventura, but at some point, we need to stop staying that and make him what he has shown to be more often than not.”

In addition to the pitching questions, rival scouts and executives see other challengers in the long term. Among those: Rules changes in the MLB draft and international scouting system that have changed the landscape for small-market teams, hindering their ability to keep up.

In Moore’s early years, the Royals loaded up on amateur talent by over-paying for players later in the draft and being aggressive in Latin America. In the last five years, MLB has instituted a stricter slotting system in the draft and limited international expenditures.

“The spending limits don’t allow you to do that any more,” one assistant general manager said. “They’re not the only team in that bind. In some ways, it’s harder than ever for small-markets teams because the spending limits took away their biggest way to fight the imbalance.”

So what now? After the sting of 2016, the Royals will head into the offseason with their core largely intact — the same nucleus, of course, that hoisted the World Series trophy in New York last November.

They will look for ways to improve their starting rotation. And they will search for solutions on offense. And, of course, they will hope for better health. Because as the clock ticks toward 2017, much of the improvement will have to come from within.

“We all know a lot of guys are free agents after next year,” Gordon said. “We know that. But we just have to play better. We had some injuries. Every team goes through that. We can make all the excuses in the world for why it hasn’t worked this year. But in the end, we just need to play better.”

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