Sam Mellinger

The Royals lost again but here's how this can be a good season even if the losses continue

The Royals' Alex Gordon walked back to the dugout after striking out in the second inning of Tuesday's game against the Brewers at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Alex Gordon walked back to the dugout after striking out in the second inning of Tuesday's game against the Brewers at Kauffman Stadium.

They stood and applauded for 39 seconds, long enough for a hug and a helmet wave and a big smile even by Lorenzo Cain's standards. Later, he'd get another standing ovation — his fifth of the night — for homering against the home team.

You can take this as a sign of the loyalty Royals fans feel for their own, and there's some of that here, but also a chunk of cold truth about where the Royals are right now.

Because those ovations came from an announced crowd of 16,555 fans, who have so little expectation in this season that they're willing to cheer for the other side. Last year for a similar Tuesday game, the Royals drew 20,083. Two years ago, it was 26,889. Fans aren't showing up, and those who do openly cheer for the past.

The Royals are whole again, at least in one sense, with Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon back in the lineup, but they are whole again only by the fractured standards of 2018.

"It's time to go," Perez said, and he undoubtedly believed it in the moment and you might've believed him then too because he has this way, but who are we kidding here?

This is a dutiful group of ballplayers, saying all the dutiful ballplayer things, then competing dutifully and after all but five games so far talking dutifully about another loss. The routine repeated itself with a 5-2 loss to the Brewers on Tuesday. The record is 5-16. Only the Reds have fewer wins.

Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez returned to the team on April 24, 2018, and was ready to play against former teammate Lorenzo Cain and the Milwaukee Brewers.

Perez and Gordon bring familiarity back, perhaps a reason to come to the ballpark or keep the game on TV an inning longer but fundamentally insignificant to the trajectory of this awkward season.

This is a throwback to the years hope died before May 1, and this is said without malice or joy. Only honesty, because the next paragraph is also true:

This season is more interesting and potentially fruitful than previous flops, even if it's in an odd way, even if it takes a little compartmentalization.

The front office is compartmentalizing, anyway. Dayton Moore has been defiant about trying to win and rebuild simultaneously, but the Royals general manager may reach his breaking point this summer.

The team you see now will be fundamentally different than the one you should expect to see in August, and this is good for both the players involved and fans staying at home.

The lie you might hear is that this Royals season is going poorly. It is not. This Royals season is going fine, in fact, better than most possibilities other than a playoff spot, which was never much of a possibility.

Because, look around. Mike Moustakas is having the start of his life. Kelvin Herrera has not surrendered a run, and his stuff is sharp as ever. Danny Duffy is walking too many, but his pitches look fine and his strikeouts are high. Ian Kennedy has been effective, or at least he was before taking a line drive off his foot in the third inning.

Each of those men could be most valuable to the Royals' future as trade commodities. Whit Merrifield could be added to the group, depending on the calculus between his five years of club control (including 2018) and age (29).

What's also true is that Jorge Soler could be part the future, and for three weeks has been the combination of power and plate discipline the Royals have hoped for. Jakob Junis is a mesmerizing combination of ordinary stuff and extraordinary confidence. Maybe Brad Keller can be part of the Royals' next great bullpen.

Look, the Royals are losing because their offense is stuck in the mud and the bullpen is a tire fire. But much of the lineup and the worst parts of the bullpen won't be back next year.

Here's how this can work. The Royals are hopelessly out of it by the summer, and along with four picks in the top 40 of the draft begin to build their dilapidated farm system with a boost of talent through trades.

(If they're really serious, they'll make Perez available, knowing that his body won't be the same when the Royals are ready to win again, but that's a column for another day.)

This is helpful on another level, too, because truly embracing a rebuild will mean giving regular opportunities to Adalberto Mondesi, Jorge Bonifacio, Richard Lovelady, and Josh Staumont. The Royals will also push Bubba Starling and Hunter Dozier.

If two become productive, that will help. If it's three, that's a foundation. Anything more and the outlook starts to change.

Moore already built the Royals from the bottom once before. He's been adamant that he wouldn't do it again, that a winning culture is the best way to build for tomorrow, but that's never been realistic in Kansas City without an owner willing to eat major operating losses.

This specific team may leave Moore no choice but to take the final few swings with the sledgehammer. Sentimentality is gone now, and besides, Moore and other Royals officials have had it wrong in one specific way.

Part of the hesitation of another rebuild has been asking fans to wait through another run of losing seasons. But few cities in the country have a better example of a rebuild that worked. Few fan bases in baseball will more enthusiastically embrace young talent and claim it as their own.

Because those ovations weren't just about scoring from first on that single, or leaning back on those home runs, or catching everything against the Orioles in the ALCS.

They were also about watching him grow up, from raw minor leaguer to the best player on a world champion.