Sam Mellinger

For the Royals, the rest of the season is merely a prelude to the playoffs

Royals catcher Salvador Perez stood on top of the dugout to celebrate a World Series berth with fans on Oct. 15, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium afer the Royals beat the Orioles 2-1.
Royals catcher Salvador Perez stood on top of the dugout to celebrate a World Series berth with fans on Oct. 15, 2014, at Kauffman Stadium afer the Royals beat the Orioles 2-1. The Kansas City Star

On this day nine years ago, the Royals tried to win a major-league baseball game with Jimmy Gobble, Brandon Duckworth, Joe Nelson, Todd Wellemeyer and Andy Sisco pitching. Nothing personal against those guys, but it did not work.

The Royals lost to the Orioles, who weren’t particularly good that year. They fell to 33 games behind the first-place Tigers in front of 11,418 people with nothing better to do. That was July 27, 2006.

The Royals haven’t always been as bad as that 2006 team. But in the 10 seasons between 2004 and 2013, the Royals were an average of 17 games out of first place on July 27. Only twice — in 2013, and briefly in 2008 — were the Royals ever closer than 10 games out.

For a solid decade, from this point in the summer on, the rest of the Royals’ season has been irrelevant.

Funny to think about, then — the rest of this Royals season is fairly irrelevant, too.

The Star's Vahe Gregorian, Blair Kerkhoff and Sam Mellinger discuss the Royals' trade for starting pitcher Johnny Cueto and say it's a move that shows the team is looking at the World Series, not just the playoffs. Video by The Kansas City Star.

The trade for Johnny Cueto — one of the best available pitchers, and so far the season’s biggest trade — makes this truer than ever.

The context of the Royals season’s relevance is completely different, of course, and brings to mind the old Seinfeld joke about good naked and bad naked. The old irrelevance was about the Royals being a rotten team. The new irrelevance is an understanding that they’ve been so good that the playoffs are now a near certainty and the only thing that matters.

The rest of this Royals season will be played in front of mostly full stadiums, enormous TV audiences, and will remain at the front of conversations around Kansas City and the Midwest — even with the Chiefs’ season starting.

But in the traditional sense, the rest of the Royals’ season has all of the suspense of waiting to see whether Sal Perez will break up the postgame on-field interview with a Gatorade bucket.

The Kansas City Star’s Vahe Gregorian and Tod Palmer discuss the Kansas City Royals' trade for Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto, and the win by Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura over the Houston Astros on Sunday. Video by John Sleezer/The Kansas City

At the moment, the Royals lead the second-place Twins by 8 games. That is the biggest lead anywhere in baseball. The Tigers are next at 12 1/2 games back. Heck, the Royals lead the overall American League standings — the race for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, if you will — by four games.

Baseball Prospectus gives the Royals a 92.7 percent chance to win the division, and a 97.3 percent chance to make the playoffs. The first number is higher than Stephen Curry’s free-throw percentage, and the second is higher than the house edge for many slot machines.

The Royals were the betting favorite to win the World Series before acquiring Cueto, in other words, and they are certainly the betting favorite now.

Some around baseball wondered if the context may have diminished the Royals’ motivation at the deadline, so the trade came as at least a mild surprise.

In the end, the Royals were aggressive because as much as they are crushing this regular season, they had an obviously and potentially fatal flaw as a playoff team.

Yordano Ventura may very well have his mojo back, but he was also bad enough to be (sort of) sent to the minor leagues last week. That’s typically not a guy you want starting the opener of a playoff series.

James Shields remains a transformative figure in the Royals’ move from punch line to playoffs, but it’s also true that he was decidedly underwhelming in the playoffs. Some of that may or may not have been from passing a kidney stone during the ALCS, but he had a 6.12 ERA in five postseason starts. The Royals lost both games he started in the World Series.

Trading for Cueto means the Royals’ biggest weakness as a playoff contender is now a strength.

This is an oversimplification, but if the season ended today, the American League playoff teams would be the Royals, Yankees, Angels, Astros and Twins.

Dallas Keuchel, the Astros ace who started the All-Star game, is the only pitcher on any of those teams having a better season than Cueto. You might also make an argument for Michael Pineda, but that argument would be based on home-run rate and xFIP and would be boring and put everyone to sleep.

There is also a potentially crucial sub-benefit here, because putting Cueto at the top of the rotation means everyone else moves down a spot and Jeremy Guthrie is likely to be pushed out.

The Royals are very clearly in the mode of playoff preparation. They did not need Cueto to be in the playoffs, but they might need him to win in the playoffs. The next two months are about maximizing those chances, including a look at how the bullpen should be used.

Greg Holland has shown mixed signs, for instance. He has converted 21 of 24 saves, but is striking out fewer batters, walking more, and giving up an OPS that’s 157 points higher than last year. Winning the next game is always the most important thing, but a cushion gives the Royals the luxury of mixing in some development, too. Maybe it gives Holland a chance to regain his dominating form.

Already, you can see the priority on the long-term in the lineups. The most justified criticism of Ned Yost over the last few years has been his merciless use of Perez, who caught more games (including the playoffs) than anyone in baseball history last year.

Perez’s effectiveness, particularly with the bat, suffered with the overuse. But this past weekend, Perez did not play at all on Friday and was the designated hitter on Sunday.

Perez, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas all got days off this weekend. That’s something Yost did not — or could not — do last year. If this can help those men retain strength and production the playoffs, then the lack of regular-season drama could be a significant advantage.

A year ago, everything was about ending the longest playoff drought in major American sports. When the trade deadline passed without the Royals making a major move, there was frustration in both the front office and clubhouse. A difficult road was made more difficult. No days off.

The context is entirely different now. The Royals were a virtual lock for the playoffs last week, and that remains the case today. At least until Alex Gordon returns from his groin injury, the rest of the regular season is not likely to give us much that matters.

The playoffs are an entirely different thing, of course. The men in the front office and clubhouse know this.

Which is why Cueto is here.

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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