Sam Mellinger

Five keys for the Royals in the second half of the season

Kansas City Royals pitcher Kris Medlen.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Kris Medlen. The Kansas City Star

The All-Star Game has come and gone, so it’s officially the second half of the baseball season. The Star’s Sam Mellinger takes a look at five keys for the Royals in last three months of the regular season.

Missing Alex Gordon. One of the Royals’ great strengths is depth, which is why even as Gordon is their best player he is not their most irreplaceable. That distinction goes to Sal Perez, or perhaps Alcides Escobar, but Gordon’s grade two-plus groin strain is already one of the defining stories of the Royals’ season — either way.

The early returns could not be better. Jarrod Dyson threw out a runner at the plate and hit an inside-the-park home run in the game Gordon was hurt, then started the next day and made, perhaps, the Royals’ best defensive play of the year.

Ned Yost is projecting confidence that the Royals have enough to cover an eight-week prediction on Gordon’s absence, but it’s worth noting that a common perception within the industry about both Dyson and Paulo Orlando is that they could get exposed with too much action.

Gordon is greatly appreciated by teammates and coaches, but his day-to-day contributions are more subtle. He is spectacular but also reliable in the outfield, and he is fifth in the league in on-base-percentage on a team otherwise filled with free-swingers.

This is a great opportunity for both Dyson and Orlando, and maximizes the patience the Royals will show Alex Rios. But even with Gordon, the Royals had too many stretches of slow offense. Gordon ranks second on the team in OPS. The Royals have been resilient, but this might be their biggest test yet.

Rotation. That the Royals have the American League’s best record — by 4 1/2 games — while getting three disabled list stints and a 4.69 ERA from their No. 1 and No. 2 starting pitchers is either a remarkable achievement or a sign that this won’t last.

Everything the Royals have done in the last 12 months says it’s the former, not the latter, but the point remains that the Royals expected much more from Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy.

Predicting health of pitchers is always a fool’s errand, and Ventura and Duffy both pitched significantly more last year than in 2013. Their struggles staying healthy and effective may be the hangover from pushing too hard a year ago, but if either or both can pitch to close to their potential in the second half the Royals will be in a very good place.

Though they do have help coming...

Kris Medlen. The Royals have made steady but subtle changes in their expectations of Medlen, who is coming off a second Tommy John surgery. In the beginning, they often talked of whatever they got from Medlen this year being a bonus, and likely out of the bullpen.

As time has gone on, the talk has been more certain, and more about him as a starter.

Whether that is because Medlen is crushing his rehab or team officials are reacting to a growing need on the big league club is probably a matter of perspective.

But either way, Medlen’s return will make the Royals a different and potentially better team going forward. He could be viewed as an effective trade acquisition, which might change the way the team sees itself as the July 31 deadline approaches.

Who will the Royals target? As recently as a month ago, the focus from fans and evaluators in the industry focused on starting pitchers. But more recently, the struggles of Rios and Omar Infante have shone the spotlight to other places.

The problem is typical of any team looking to improve through a trade: the acquisition costs can be incredibly high.

For instance, Ben Zobrist would figure to be a terrific fit for the Royals. He is reliable, gets on base, has some power, and can play both second base and a corner outfield spot.

But the A’s have given little indication they are motivated to trade Zobrist for anything other than a big haul, and, generally, speaking, the cost for a top addition would likely be top prospect Raul Mondesi and a piece or two off the big league team — Duffy or Kelvin Herrera, for instance.

Dayton Moore does not have a reputation for hunting big trades. A year ago, the Royals added Jason Frasor and Josh Willingham. They looked for more, but even the deals that fell apart wouldn’t have qualified as blockbuster.

Particularly if the Royals maintain their lead in the division, it would figure that Moore would be reluctant to a deal that would break up the big league roster.

The trajectory of Eric Hosmer. The highest ceiling hitting talent on the Royals has already had stretches of looking like a star and then reminding how hard it is to hit big league pitching.

On May 15, he was hitting .333 with a .410 on-base and .574 slugging percentage. He was on pace for 32 home runs and 131 RBIs. Those are, roughly, the numbers Prince Fielder is headed toward.

Since May 15, he is hitting .257 with a .303 on-base and .320 slugging percentage. Only four American League regulars have a lower OPS. Extrapolate his last 47 games over a full season, and he would hit three home runs with 55 RBIs.

Hosmer changed his approach at the beginning of the year. He was more aggressive, starting his swing earlier, and a better understanding of how pitchers attacked him helped.

Pitchers noticed, and have adjusted accordingly. They are challenging him selectively, and throwing Hosmer fewer strikes than all but two other American League hitters.

Hosmer tends to be a free swinger, but he has shown command of the zone at times, too. He is talented enough that even with a prolonged slump his OPS is well above league average, but — particularly with Gordon out for eight weeks — the Royals could use Hosmer’s best.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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