Sam Mellinger

Here’s what keeps Royals officials up at night

Royals general manager Dayton Moore doesn’t appear to have the resources to pull off any major trades to help the team the way he did last year.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore doesn’t appear to have the resources to pull off any major trades to help the team the way he did last year. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The losing keeps them up at night. Sometimes, that’s phone calls past midnight or cramming the scouting reports into the early morning. Other nights, that means Royals officials waking up around 3 to the memory of another loss, the frustration and repeated setbacks driving them to pace the hallways of their homes or hotels.

Baseball men like to say they are unaffected. Steady. Consistent. Theirs is a game of failure, and they will tell you that allowing the ups or downs to infiltrate the mind is among the quickest ways out of this relentless and addicting grind.

The best — or maybe it’s just the ones who’ve been around it the longest — find ways to dull the worst pains, but they would not be where they are without taking enough of the failure and success personally. Making the Royals champions again was a lifetime achievement, but it does little to wash away the pain of a slow start to the encore season.

No two situations are identical, and the frustration around and within this particular Royals season is its own flavor. It is based on the expectations of a champion, the stakes of a club-record payroll, and the investment of a group that’s largely been together since the bus leagues.

But, here’s one element that pushes the stress and the blood pressure, the underlying reason for many of those late nights and a truism of the 2016 Royals that club officials have understood since the beginning:

There are no major fixes coming. Not from the outside, anyway. This team is the team, for better or for worse.

“I know there’s a lot of people up there working with Dayton (Moore, the Royals’ general manager), trying to figure out ways to make the team better,” first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “But especially as one of the leaders on the team, you have to make sure everybody’s focused on what’s going on in here.”

That kind of thing is easier said than done, of course. When the Royals made two major trades last July, the unanimous sentiment inside the clubhouse was that the moves boosted morale, not just talent. When the Royals put two starting pitchers on the disabled list on the same day this week, it only amplified that some of their would-be best backup plans are with other organizations now.

The Royals have some prospects other teams find attractive, but most are at the lower levels, where major deals are rarely done. Three of the four minor-league prospects the Royals dealt a year ago are now in big-league rotations.

In each of the last two seasons, the Royals knew they could improve by dipping into the farm system. This particular group of executives believes that context is beneficial beyond the tangible — the season is long, the players human, and a boost of reinforcements in July can motivate everyone.

That belief doesn’t always translate to action. Two years ago, the front office couldn’t manage some complicated moving parts. They acquired Jason Frasor two weeks before the trade deadline, and Liam Hendriks and Erik Kratz a few days before (a move that was as much about moving Danny Valencia as anything else) but did not make any major moves.

Internally, there was frustration within the front office, and disappointment in parts of the clubhouse, especially when Hosmer’s broken hand kept him out for most of August. The players rallied their way into the playoffs — largely with the help of Billy Butler, whom the Royals had been shopping as a way to add an outfielder — but some club officials maintained regret over not being able to do more to help.

That feeling drove much of the front office’s determination last summer. They began the season with the assumption they would need to add a starting pitcher, and possibly more. From opening day, they scouted each start by Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir. From early in the season, they had a collective crush on Ben Zobrist that intensified after Alex Gordon’s groin injury.

Every team out of contention in July knew the Royals wanted a starter for the top of the rotation, and a professional bat to lengthen the lineup. Those teams also knew the Royals had an abundance of what is usually the key to these deals — pitching prospects.

The Reds liked Brandon Finnegan from the beginning, and focused early on Cody Reed. The Royals backed off when the Reds asked for John Lamb, too, but after talking it over, saw it as a fair deal.

The Zobrist deal was simpler, particularly after the A’s got the young catcher they wanted by trading Kazmir to the Astros. Oakland GM Billy Beane liked Royals prospect Sean Manaea, and with his team out of contention, was motivated to make a deal. The Royals had the best young talent to offer, even after the trade with Cincinnati.

Both Zobrist (lots) and Cueto (two) had important moments in the Royals’ push to the World Series.

The outlook now, then, is entirely different. With or without hindsight, the Royals made the moves they had to make a year ago. They have World Series rings now. No regrets.

But doing those deals then meant the team had very little to offer approaching this year’s trade deadline.

That’s even truer now with Raul Mondesi’s 50-game suspension. The Royals were always going to be reluctant to deal Mondesi; now his value is presumably lowered. Other than Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer (No. 85) is the Royals’ only entry in Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list. Most of the other attractive talents — led by Bubba Starling and Miguel Almonte — are unlikely to be traded for various reasons.

Club officials knew theirs would be an imperfect team, and they knew the rotation needed to improve; they did not anticipate anything like the last two weeks.

They overspent for Ian Kennedy because he would provide the type of bulk innings the bullpen and rest of the rotation needed. Kennedy has been terrific. The front office did not anticipate the rest of the rotation’s problems would be this big.

The biggest letdown has been Kris Medlen. At worst, club officials figured Medlen could approximate Jeremy Guthrie’s good seasons — a 3.92 ERA over his first 2  1/2 seasons in Kansas City — but instead he’s been worse than Guthrie’s worst. Medlen had a 7.77 ERA and had surrendered more than two baserunners per inning before going to the disabled list this week.

The Royals also put Chris Young on the DL, and are still waiting on Yordano Ventura to consistently pitch to his significant talent. The lineup, so far at least, has more holes than expected — right field, second base, shortstop and DH have all been virtually void of offensive production.

With a deeper farm system — one untouched by last year’s deadline deals, for instance — the Royals could fill some of those holes. How much would a hitter the caliber of Zobrist help the lineup now? And as inconsistent as Cueto was with the Royals, he would be an improvement on 60 percent of their rotation this season.

A year ago, the Royals had a stronger position in the standings, and more ways to fix fewer obvious points of concern.

As it stands right now, even if the signs of progress the last few days (Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon hitting, Ventura improving) turn out to be real, the slump means they will have to earn a playoff spot from behind. And without beginning to scrape from the bone of the farm system, they’re going to have to earn it with the players already here.

That doesn’t make anything impossible. But modern baseball history tells us that winning a second World Series championship in a row is among the sport’s most difficult accomplishments.

It’s particularly hard without the ability to improve near the trade deadline.

And that’s what’s keeping club officials up at night.

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