Wait ’til next year: Kansas City Royals
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the postseason, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that didn’t make it that far, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Final record: 72-90 (.444, 3rd in the AL Central)
Mathematically eliminated: September 23
What went right in 2012: Though they posted their 17th losing season out of the past 18 — humor us by overlooking that part for a moment, sheesh — the Royals increased their win total for the third straight season, and finished higher in the division than at any time since 2003. Billy Butler (.313/.373 /.510) set career highs with 192 hits, 29 homers and 107 RBIs. Alex Gordon followed a breakout campaign with another strong one (.294/.368/.455), with his 57-point drop in slugging percentage reflected in a league-high 51 doubles against just 14 homers, down from a 45/23 balance in 2011. Defensive whiz Alcides Escobar (.293/.331/.390) took a big step forward with his offense, and catcher Salvador Perez (.301/.328/.471) made a strong return from a springtime knee injury. Luis Mendoza made a credible showing in the rotation, delivering a 4.23 ERA across 25 starts and 166 innings, while midseason acquisition Jeremy Guthrie (3.16 ERA in 14 starts) softened the blow of Jonathan Sanchez’s collapse (7.76 ERA in 12 starts). Despite the loss of closer Joakim Soria to his second Tommy John surgery, the bullpen delivered a 3.17 ERA, fourth-best in the league, with Jonathan Broxton bouncing back to net a couple of live arms at the July 31 deadline, Greg Holland showing he was up to the task of closing thereafter, and Aaron Crow, Tim Collins and Kelvin Herrera all turning in strong seasons in higher-leverage duty.
What went wrong in 2012: Seventeen losing seasons out of 18 is still an abysmal track record, and third place is nothing to write home about in a division so weak that it hasn’t produced three winning records since 2006. The Royals stumbled to a 3-14 start, closed the season 2-9, and while they went 67-67 between those two skids, no amount of selective endpoint gymnastics can hide the fact that they fell far short of what was expected of them given their promising young nucleus assembled by general manager Dayton Moore. A team that was expected to have a strong offensive core instead finished 12th in the league in scoring at 4.17 runs per game, much lower than one would expect given ranks of fourth in batting average (.265), eighth in on-base percentage (.317), and 10th in slugging (.400); the whole was less than the sum of the parts thanks in large part to the league’s worst walk rate (6.6 percent). Eric Hosmer (.232/.304/.359) and Mike Moustakas (.242/.296/.412) flopped after promising debuts in 2011, and Jeff Francouer (.235/.287/.378) turned back into a pumpkin after a career year last season. Lorenzo Cain lost more than half a season to a groin strain, and Moore allowed manager Ned Yost to play the no-upside Yuniesky Betancourt and Chris Getz, not to mention organizational soldier Irving Falu, while Johnny Giavotella tore up Triple-A.
None of which even gets to the bigger problem: the rotation. As a unit, its 5.01 ERA ranked 11th in the league, its 43 percent quality start rate and 890 innings both 13th. The two starters to make more than Mendoza’s 25 starts, Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, were both bombed for homer rates of at least 1.3 per nine en route to ERAs above 5.00. The latter’s 5.73 ERA was a drastic letdown for a former No. 1 overall pick who had shown signs of turning the corner in the second half of 2011; he now has the second-highest career ERA of any starter with at least 125 starts (5.39). A high-upside pair of pitchers, Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino, combined for just 13 starts before both needing Tommy John surgery, while Sanchez made for a terrible return on the Melky Cabrera trade. None of the pitchers got much support from a defense that ranked dead last in the league in defensive efficiency at .673, 21 points below league average.
Overall outlook: The beatings will continue until management improves. Six years into his tenure as GM, Moore has rounded up an enviable collection of young talent via draft and trade, but he’s shown little aptitude in assembling competitive big league rosters, and his youngsters have failed to flourish under Yost and predecessor Trey Hillman. Their lineups continue to reflect an impatient, contact-oriented approach that’s out of step with today’s game, and the organization has nothing in the way of ready-to-go frontline pitching, though Jake Odorizzi, one of the key pieces in the Zack Greinke trade, did debut in September after a strong season split between Double-A and Triple-A. There’s plenty of talent still under club control or in the pipeline, but at best, this is a team that’s still not close to competing for the AL Central flag.