Sam Mellinger

Dayton Moore says ‘I believe in the fight’ of the Royals. But that belief needs proof

The Royals stink. They did not expect to win a playoff spot, but the gap between where they sit and where they expected to sit is both concerning and significant.

The gap between their current reality and what they wanted fans to think was possible is even worse.

The bullpen is inconsistent, the rotation too often overmatched, and the lineup lopsided to the point of a fatal flaw. Ned Yost, the manager who doesn’t need the trouble, is counting curse words in the dugout. Whit Merrifield, the late-blooming star who might be this generation’s soul, is both struggling and visibly frustrated.

A year ago, the Royals bottomed out with 104 losses. Right now, they appear to be digging even more — with the season’s halfway point less than two weeks away, the current pace is for 111 losses.

The Royals rank 25th in attendance, with a pace that would be their worst since 2002. TV ratings are still strong — up slightly from last year and currently seventh in MLB, according to Nielsen — but the message is clear. Royals fans still exist but are finding other ways to spend their time and money.

“We expected more wins,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “That’s for sure. I’m responsible for that.”

The Royals are approaching a level of losing few franchises have known. Entering Saturday’s game in Minnesota, they needed a 41-52 finish to avoid 100 losses. Only five franchises have lost 100 games in consecutive seasons since 1980, and each addressed the failure with a power shakeup.

Worth noting here that the Royals would be the first franchise with two stretches of consecutive 100-loss seasons in that period, but each of the predecessors changed managers or general managers at some point. All but one changed both.

Royals owner David Glass did not return messages for this column, but there is no indication from him, Moore, or Yost that any change is coming this season. This is Moore’s 13th full season as general manager. Yost has now managed the equivalent of more than nine full seasons here.

They each served important roles in lifting the Royals to the 2014 American League pennant and 2015 World Series championship, and have each held the same position for the franchise’s fall in the years since.

Yost has gone year-to-year since the championship as he considers retirement, and in the last year his status has been discussed by the front office. At least for now it appears that no significant shakeup is coming.

The same men who inherited horrendous losing and saved the franchise once will be given the opportunity to change the horrendous losing that occurred on their watch.

Internally, Royals officials express frustration and confusion that individual progress stories like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier have not translated to more on-field success.

This is largely the same group that went five games under .500 after last year’s All-Star break. Now they’re the worst team in baseball.

Externally, the scouts who spoke for this column described a similar view: a few promising pieces, but not enough to cover significant holes and a lack of depth.

“In their defense, losing (Salvador Perez) for the season was brutal,” one scout said. “But they have more going on that just that.”

There is value in losing. Bobby Witt Jr., selected by the Royals No. 2 overall in the draft, could be the best prospect the franchise has ever had. The Royals figure to pick in the top three again next year, which is expected to be another loaded draft class.

Moore has always publicly abhorred the idea of tanking, but if you’re up for it, two seemingly conflicting but nuanced truths tell an important story.

First, at least some of that is posturing. The Royals want to promote confidence in fans and, just as importantly, send a message of big league standards to the clubhouse.

Internal projections from the analytics and baseball operations staff expected around 90 losses. That’s within range of catching an all-season heater and competing for a wild card spot, but nobody would have bet even an old pair of shoes on that.

Second, the frequency of losses has staggered officials, coaches, and players. A 90-loss team and a 105-loss team are both well out of the playoff race. The difference can feel like everything.

Often, it can be the difference in employment.

This one’s hard to figure, though, because viewed in a specific way the Royals are making actual progress. Honest. Let’s talk about that.

Mondesi’s development is the single most important part of this Royals season. If he bombed, it mattered little what happened around him. Entering Saturday, he was hitting .277/.311/.457 with 26 stolen bases and tremendous defense when judged by scouts or analytics.

He is pacing to be worth 5.6 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. The list of Royals to surpass that number is basically a list of the franchise’s best players: George Brett, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, Lorenzo Cain, Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, Alex Gordon, John Mayberry and Darrell Porter.

The list of shortstops age 23 or younger to do it this century is similarly impressive: Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Correa, Jose Reyes and Corey Seager. Young and club-controlled stars are baseball’s most valuable commodity. The Royals have one.

Hunter Dozier is on the injured list but experiencing the breakout some around the game believed would never happen. Merrifield is further establishing an All-Star caliber baseline. Alex Gordon is hitting again, Brad Keller continues to show promise, Danny Duffy is effective on most nights, Jorge Soler is pacing for more than 40 home runs, and pitchers like Scott Barlow and Jakob Junis have generated at least some trade interest.

The problem, basically, is everything else.

“What’s going on?” Yost said. “What can we do to fix it? Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do every day.”

Barlow is the most notable of a group of relievers to follow a similar pattern: perform well enough to earn a bigger role, then give it up in said bigger role.

Offensively, the lineup is wickedly imbalanced with good hitters at the top and little resistance at the bottom. The precariousness of that existence has appeared to win the day in recent weeks, the imbalance amplified by Dozier’s injury, with the rest of the guys at the top of the order white-knuckling too many plate appearances to make up the difference.

Cause and effect would be impossible to prove, but strikeout rates for Mondesi and Merrifield have jumped in Dozier’s absence — up more than a third for Mondesi and nearly doubling for Merrifield.

Late last week, some coaches and officials began to see their worst fears materialize. They noticed lower energy and more frequent losses of focus, symptoms of a losing team accepting status quo.

Baseball seasons are full of tiny moments like this, forks in the road when good teams become great or mediocre and bad teams can fight for progress or give in to the grind.

This is, in some ways, the moment club officials and coaches have been waiting for. The Royals front office believes in culture and intangibles more than most in modern baseball, and together they watched a core led by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Perez drag a franchise forward in large part by a disgust with losing.

Some of those stories have been told, of Perez being plainly devastated after losses even when he performed well, and of Moustakas screaming and throwing things after games he felt they should have won. They could have funneled that energy better at times, but the front office would rather err on this side than the other. Their World Series trophy symbolizes the climb.

Some positive signs are emerging. The rotation could be stabilizing, which is allowing the bullpen to work more advantageous situations. The Royals just took two of three from the Tigers, their first series win in two months, and the details are encouraging.

Mondesi scored the tying run in the eighth after he stretched his third hit of the night into a double. The ball looked like a routine single to left, but Mondesi knew the left fielder shaded toward center and might be slower than usual to throw it to second.

He is developing a trait that stars often possess — in the midst of good games, he tends to rise another level to improve upon the last accomplishment. Mondesi scored when Soler hit a two-strike sinker into left field for a double. Soler had been hitting .119 when behind in the count. Remaining dangerous in those situations is important.

“I believe in the fight of this group,” Moore said.

This core is generally older than the championship players when they debuted, but this group remains more of a blank canvas.

That last group literally grew up in baseball together, riding buses and building friendships and winning titles together in the minor leagues. This group had a different experience. That doesn’t make their eventual ascent more or less likely. It just means we can’t know yet.

Last month, Moore took some blowback when he said the losing would help this group win. But this is what he meant. Nobody succeeds in baseball without first failing. The last group possessed talent, but that talent didn’t matter until they stared down the 2012 Our Time failure, and the 8-20 pit in May 2013, and the below-.500 record after the All-Star break in 2014.

That’s when they began to shine, after they’d been slapped in the face and kept on going. This group is being slapped in the face right now. They haven’t given in, and they haven’t bursted through. Signs of each side exist.

This is just one moment, and this is just one week. The answer will take years. Moore’s belief remains based more on hope than evidence, at least for now. His job security and that of many who work for him depend on whether he’s right.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.