From the outside looking in, anyway, the idea was audacious and more wishful than realistic.
Staring at a crucial crossroads in the franchise’s fortunes after the 2016 season, the Royals essentially executed the unwitting wisdom of Yogi Berra:
When you come to a fork in the road … take it.
Defying what has become the accepted logic in the game, again contradicting convention in favor of fashioning their own path, they would try to have it both ways.
With potential free-agency looming over many key players, a flood of those budding debts to come due after the 2017 season, the options seemed to be dig in for one last go before an impending exodus or discard for prospects to retool for the future.
Instead, they straddled what seemed a curious middle ground.
They conceded some of their self-imposed economic boundaries with transitional moves that surely would diminish the team in the short haul (Exhibit A: trading Wade Davis for Jorge Soler) while holding tight to the nucleus that had grown up together and before your eyes.
This strategy could have — and still might — leave the Royals stranded in an untenable place that neither provided for a meaningful 2017 season nor maximized what they might have obtained for the future.
But as they approach the halfway point of the season with their 81st game scheduled Sunday, here’s a tip of the cap to general manager Dayton Moore for a stance that took courage and is reaping benefits … at least in the here and now.
In mostly holding instead of folding, in not panicking after a 10-20 start that was followed by a 30-19 encore and contention after winning the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Moore has sent a message to players and fans that has become entirely credible:
A precious window of opportunity remains open, not slamming on your hands, for a team that found itself after a wretched April and early May.
This is why you don’t have a premature fire sale with a proven core that there was no reason to think suddenly became lousy, a group that has demonstrated for a few years it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Because in the span of weeks, the Royals have gone from most likely to recede — and re-seed — to becoming potential buyers before the trade deadline on July 31.
Because in the span of weeks, the calculus both short- and long-term looks and feels a little different.
Per The Star’s Rustin Dodd, Moore the other day in Detroit expressed an intriguing and seemingly emerging new view on present and future considerations that include the pending contract realities of stars Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.
“I suspect that we’ll have the opportunity to bring a lot of our players back; I don’t look at it as this is the last chance,” he said. “That’s just not how baseball works. It’s a very unpredictable game, and the Kansas City Royals have just as much of a chance to sign free agents as anybody else next year.
“And we’re fine with competing for free agents. We’ve had a lot of success doing it. I don’t look at it as one last opportunity. I look at it as it’s this opportunity.”
(Competing for the right free agents, of course, is another matter.
The Royals hurt themselves by not re-signing Kendrys Morales, who hit 30 home runs last season and has 15 with 44 RBIs for Toronto this year as replacement Brandon Moss (for millions less) has sputtered with 10 home runs and 16 RBIs and a .190 batting average entering Saturday night.
Substitute their productions this season, and the Royals likely would have a handful more wins.)
Now, the Royals also will have more peaks and valleys ahead, and they are lucky to be playing in a water-treading American League Central.
And none of this is going anywhere if they don’t fare far better in the second half against American League Central rivals Minnesota (3-7 entering Saturday’s nightcap of a doubleheader), Chicago (2-5) and Detroit (2-4).
But they are a team transformed from the one that started the season so poorly as to create a groundswell of popular demand for dismantling.
Count the ways:
Because Soler suffered an injury to his left oblique that messed with his anticipated debut in right field and apparently hindered him before his recent recall from Class AAA Omaha, because they insisted on force-feeding Raul Mondesi Jr. at second base before he was ready, they had woeful production from those two spots.
But Whit Merrifield, who should have started the season with the team, has been a spark-plug at second. And rookie Jorge Bonifacio has put up numbers (11 home runs, 27 RBIs in 60 games) befitting anything that might have been expected from Soler, who now will get a shot to share DH time with Moss in the spot that remains the Royals’ biggest void.
Remember when Eric Hosmer just must have forgotten how to hit (.195 average, one home run, five RBIs as of April 25) … only it turned out it was, oh, a slump? Entering Saturday night, he’s hitting .306 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs.
Then there was starter Jason Hammel, who was so off-kilter that he looked like a bad signing —only to make some tweaks and not allow more than three earned runs in his last four outings of June.
Even while still contributing in the field, Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar seemed to have disintegrated at the plate.
Escobar had nine hits in the last seven games entering the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader and raised his average from .177 to .226 in three-plus weeks.
And while Gordon puzzlingly still isn’t what he was even a year ago, when he hit 17 homers in 128 games — he had his first three-RBI game of the season in Detroit last week and a three-run homer Saturday afternoon against the Twins — was a part of recent late rallies and showing some positive signs.
Meanwhile, Cain, Moustakas (22 home runs) and Sal Perez (16) basically have had pop in their bats all season.
Add it all up, and this is why a team that mustered 10 runs in eight games in April could score nine in one inning during a June highlighted by comebacks (the Royals now have 24 come-from-behind wins).
Moreover, a bullpen in some flux has generally gelled.
And perhaps most encouraging of all for the Royals and their followers, they’ve asserted themselves at a time they’ve largely been without the injured two-fifths of their original starting rotation: Danny Duffy, who along with Jason Vargas is their best pitcher, and Nate Karns.
Each should return in the next few weeks, bolstering a team that is flawed but has reminded us remains plenty capable — both with its resurgence and winning record against all three AL division leaders (5-4 vs. Cleveland, 2-1 vs. Boston, 4-3 vs. Houston).
Just like the way they play, including being baseball’s most impatient team at the plate, perhaps this doesn’t really add up.
But if we’ve learned anything the last few years, it’s that the convergence of this leadership team — from Moore to manager Ned Yost and their numerous colleagues and assistants — and this particular core of players have a way of flouting the odds and creating their own reality.
So, maybe this is a Pollyanna view.
Maybe trying to have it both ways will ultimately backfire over the last 81 games, and on into the future.
And, yep, you’d sure rather have Davis and Morales along for this part of it.
Just the same, this road less traveled — both forks and all — has led to one worth seeing through.