The two leaders met on Tuesday, same as they do before every home game, to talk about theminutiae and problems and potential solutions of what by now is a fading Royals season. These are business meetings, between Ned Yost and Dayton Moore, but this is the seventh year they have worked together as manager and GM, so the conversations can drift.
“I don’t know,” Moore told his friend. “I don’t know if I can watch.”
They were talking about baseball’s playoffs, which will begin next week, and for the first time in three years not include the Royals. Even after these last two Octobers, the greatest joyride in Kansas City sports history, it still somehow feels strange that the Royals made themselves a centerpiece of two consecutive postseasons.
“It’s going to really hurt us to watch baseball in October,” Moore said. “It will be a very hurtful feeling. It’s going to be a real tough month, mentally.”
The Royals’ first world championship defense in three decades died from fatigue, injuries, injuries from fatigue, and a general inability to find the same magic that pushed them to more wins than any team in the American League the last two seasons. It’s a familiar story throughout baseball history. The year after a championship is a big drop more times than not. The Royals are the fourth consecutive champion to miss the playoffs the next year.
That doesn’t make the disappointment go away. The hurt may sting a bit less with a championship ring in a box and parade pictures on the wall, but you only get so many opportunities with a trophy-level roster, particularly in a smaller market, and the Royals are feeling one slip.
The hope centers around the belief that this roster, returning mostly intact, can compete for the division title next season. From the front office to the coaching staff to the clubhouse, there is a pervasive sentiment that the team’s chances were torpedoed by injuries.
Unprompted and in separate conversations, Moore, outfield coach Rusty Kuntz, and reliever Kelvin Herrera each said on Thursday they believe this team would be in the playoffs if Lorenzo Cain hadn’t gone to the disabled list.
That they specifically picked Cain’s injury is a partial coincidence. The Royals were 57-44 with Cain in the lineup, which is a 91-win pace, but the point those men were making was in the context that the team had so many other injuries to key players — most notably Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar.
With better health next season, why couldn’t this group be closer to what they were in 2014 or 2015? Moore said he’s never been more confident that a team could improve its record from one season to the next even without major additions.
Using advanced metrics, and depending on how much you believe Gordon has been slowed by the wrist injury — “wasn’t until the last few weeks that I heard the same sound off his bat,” one scout said on Tuesday — the Royals may be down 10 wins just from the injuries to Cain, Gordon and Moustakas.
“I feel very optimistic about next year,” Moore said. “I feel very positive. I believe in this group of players, so much. I know they want to win very badly.”
There will be changes, of course. Edinson Volquez has almost certainly pitched his way out of a qualifying offer, and his return for 2017 seems unlikely. Kendrys Morales may be playing his way into a qualifying offer, though that’s also dependent on payroll and the front office’s long-held desire to get away from a full-time DH. Plus, he can always decline the qualifying offer and search for money on the open market.
The Royals will want to add a bat, and probably a starting pitcher. But the biggest issue will be the bullpen. The Royals have to fix the bullpen, most obviously the guys between the starters and the back end of Herrera and Davis.
Joakim Soria has had a miserable 2016, but the organization is projecting confidence he can be much better next year. The general view from scouts is that Soria’s stuff is the same as his good years, but his location has been rotten, particularly in important spots. If that’s a confidence issue, Yost deserves some of the blame for continuing to put Soria in positions to fail, but no matter the problem Soria is owed $18 million over the next two years so he’s not going anywhere.
The Royals will probably need to add a reliever, but they could also help themselves by better using the pieces they have. Yost has mostly had it easy the last three years or so, with a push-button bullpen management that took no creativity or thought to cover the seventh inning on.
The Royals may have that again next year, if Matt Strahm loses a competition for the rotation and Herrera and Davis continue their world domination tour, but the most likely scenario is Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland getting innovative. The Yankees and Indians, to use two examples, have benefitted from occasionally breaking from traditional bullpen management.
That’s the extra juice on the margins, however, that won’t matter much if the bigger things don’t fall into place. Injuries had nothing to do with Eric Hosmer’s OPS falling by more than 50 points, for instance.
Even when healthy, the team never showed the form of 2015 for more than a couple series. Little things, too. They made the spectacular defensive play less often. The offense couldn’t pick up the pitchers when they needed it, and vice versa. Hosmer, Perez, Morales and Cain were never hot at the same time. Heck, it’s hard to remember even two of those guys being hot at the same time.
So none of this is a given. Hosmer is among those who need to step further into their primes, and Gordon is among those who need to still have enough of their primes left. The 2016 Royals are one more piece of proof that baseball seasons are subject to forces out of anyone’s control.
But the point is, that for the first time in three decades, imagining a Royals team improving from one year to the next requires only a memory, and not imagination.
“Hopefully we can finish (this season) over .500, make it to the playoffs next year, and maybe the World Series,” Moore said. “Three out of four years (would be) pretty good. I’ll do everything I can to do my part.”