Max and I disagreed on the deadline deal that landed the Kansas City Royals outfielder Justin Maxwell. Max championed the trade as a step in the right direction for an organization that wants its fans to know that it is for real; I thought the deal made them marginally better in the short term but didn’t further any overall vision. As of press time, they’ve won 13 of their last 15, but moved from 8 games back in the AL Central to 8.5. (The Tigers keep winning.) But the real story is that they’ve moved within 5 games of a Wild Card spot and will play meaningful games as the season pushes on. If they are able pull off a miraculous late-season run, acquiring Justin Maxwell will absolutely have been the right move (in his 6 game Royals career his hitting .417 with 2 bombs). There’s no argument he’s a solid player, but my initial assessment of the trade was based on the assumption that they were so far out of the mix that it didn’t matter. As it stands now they seem to have a shot, but they’ll need to sustain a torrid pace. So now we have to ask: Can they do it?
Let’s start with this recent surge. Beginning July 23rd, the Royals have outscored their opponents 72-35. They’ve gotten big hits from Mike Moustakas, who finally looks like he could be turning into a good MLB hitter; Eric Hosmer is keeps plodding along (he may be hitting the quietest .297 of all time); Billy Butler is showing signs of a return to relevance; and Miguel Tejada is looking like his
25 28 year old self. Granted in the past 15 games, they’ve beaten up on the likes of the White Sox, Twins, Mets, and Twins again–but aren’t good teams supposed to take care of business against lowly opponents?
The real story though is that they’ve gotten the great starting pitching for which Dayton Moore sold the farm in the offseason, and that is the real key to long term success. Jeremy Guthrie is 3-0 over the win streak with a 1.29 ERA (4-hit shutout his last time out); Ervin Santana has a 1.27 ERA over his last 4 starts; and since rejoining the rotation on July 12th, Bruce Chen has pitched 24 innings and given up just 4 runs. Perhaps the most encouraging tidbit is that James Shields, who has pitched fewer than 6 innings just twice all season, is not throwing his best right now (though he’s still been bad at 2-2 with a 4.15 over his last 4 starts).
The Royals’ bullpen has been equally as impressive, and not just over this current streak. Overall, Royals relievers have accumulated the highest cumulative WAR in the AL. They’ve done so by leading all AL ‘pens in ERA (2.82) and ER (97, the only club under 100), while ranking third in strikeouts (314) and BAA (.230). Greg Holland, Luke Hochevar (mediocre starter turned excellent reliever), and Aaron Crow might see their sparkling ERAs increase a few ticks by season’s end, but as a unit the Royals sit pretty when they hand the ball off with a lead.
But can they keep it up and make the playoffs?
If things continue as they are, the question has to be: Can the offense support the pitching over the final two months? Right now, the Royals rank 11th in runs scored thanks in part to a dearth of dingers. Their 133 long balls are last in the AL, as are their AB/HR split. The good news is that this doesn’t really make sense given the talent in their lineup, and they have good players heating up. Mike Moustakas struggled early but as mentioned earlier, his swing has come around as of late (.282 over the last month with 4 of his 10 total homers). The same can be said for Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer. This is a lineup with more good pieces than bad, and the law of averages is in its favor. Simply put, a lineup that passes the eye test this well–and is showing real signs of heating up–should be able to back up pitching this good.
So, can this team perform well over the season’s final two months? Short answer: Yes. But the biggest obstacle to post season play is not going to be in-house. To make the playoffs KC will have to catch (and pass) either the Rays, A’s, or Rangers. The Rangers just filled their biggest need with Alex Rios, the Rays are soon to get a boost with the return of Matt Moore, and the A’s are just going to keep being the A’s. And none of those teams have the black holes that the Royals have: at fifth starter (Wade Davis is just no bueno) and at second base (the platoon of Chris Gets and Elliott Johnson is sitting squarely on the Mendoza line).
This is a team that I root for. They’ve got intriguing mix of exciting young players and some of the more underrated guys in the game. I just think that next year is more likely their year if the rotation can stay intact (Ervin Santana is a free agent) and the core young sluggers can continue to mature. The Royals are 5 games back in the Wild Card and crazier stuff has happened before. Whatever happens, I just hope that the people of Kansas City are paying attention.
Question of the Day: Think the Angels want a do-over on their Ervin Santana trade? The reliever that the Royals sent to Anaheim has missed 2013 thanks to Tommy John, while Ervin Santana has posted a sub-3 ERA.