2017 Royals: What goes up comes down

Up next: Josh Staumont can throw triple digits without a decimal point, but he’s less sure of where it’s going than Chiefs coach Andy Reid is of how to use his timeouts. ESPN said “control is an issue” and Baseball America says “command remain spotty,” which is like an astronomer saying Pluto is far away. It’s stating the obvious. Staumont can throw hard like few major-league pitchers, but it’s harder for him to throw strikes than almost all of them. He’s walked 136 in 163.1 minor-league innings, a ratio that makes Ryne Duren look like Greg Maddux. It seems inevitable Staumont will end up in the bullpen, but the Royals have started him in 30 of his 47 appearances, including 15 of 18 in Class A Wilmington, where he was 2-10. Staumont has fanned 225 and allowed just 125 hits (only five of them homers), the kind of hard-t0-hit and hard-to-throw-strikes numbers that could project him as a Kyle Barraclough-like major leaguer.

What he said: “. . . these guys are pretty good, man. Just name them. There’s not one that I’ve looked at and said, ‘Meh, why is he here?’ ” Royals manager Ned Yost on his team’s young pitchers. What he meant: “Johnny Cueto and Wade Davis were better.”

Outlook: Yordano Ventura won 38 games in the three-plus year he pitched for the Royals, and like many a high school sophomore, he flashed equal parts talent and immaturity. He endeared himself to teammates and infuriated more than one opponent, but even those of the latter — like Baltimore’s Manny Machado — communicated condolences to Royals Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez upon Ventura’s death in a car crash this offseason.

No matter how the Royals fare this season, it will be attributed to their reaction to Ventura’s death: if they do well like 2014-15, it will have inspired them, and if they stumble like last year it will have demoralized them.

We’re just waiting for the season to fill in the narrative.

There’s no way for those of us not in the Royals’ clubhouse daily to know how they’ll react to tragedy. This was already shaping up as a tumultuous season, but much of what seemed to matter — contracts, commitments, organizational direction — has been tempered.

“You get through these things like this — these types of tragedies — you get through them together as a group,” manager Ned Yost said as the team reported. “And it takes time. But I think our guys are really focused on just being here with each other.”

Maybe the perspective will help the Royals through what promises to be, on the field, a difficult year. Without committing the kinds of contracts the Tigers have, the Royals always had a short span to contend, and if 2016 is any indication, it’s already lapsed.

The Royals dropped 14 games to .500 last year, and were lucky it wasn’t more. They lost as many games as they won despite being outscored by 37 runs; they were 13th in offense in the AL and ninth in pitching. Since then they’ve traded Wade Davis and replaced Ventura with free agent Jason Hammel, neither of which will make their staff better in 2017. Quite the opposite.

It’s only the recency of their World Series triumph that would make anyone think the Royals are a threat to the Indians in the AL Central; as constructed they seem a lot closer to a losing record than a playoff berth.

Trading Davis for  Jorge Soler, an outfielder of seemingly equal parts skills and shortcomings, seemed to confirm that. Davis was dealt not just because he was hurt at times last year, but because his contract expires this year.

He’s not alone. Virtually the entire infield — except for second base, where the Royals have options, although not good ones — will be free agents after this year. So will outfielder Lorenzo Cain, an MVP finalist in 2015.

The Royals have already agreed to pay Alex Gordon $72 million through 2019 and Danny Duffy $65 through 2021, but it will take a lot more where that came from to re-sign Hosmer, shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and/or Cain.

The Royals aren’t necessarily wrong if they don’t pay; keeping their core position players seems a sure way to win 85 games for as long as they do. Gordon’s signing was like betting with the heart instead of the brain, attempting to keep the ’15 champions as intact as long as possible. He hit .220, and age 32, got hurt.

Hosmer is a first baseman with a .763 career OPS, Moustakas a third baseman coming off an ACL tear with a career .707 OPS, Escobar a shortstop with a career .297 on-base percentage and .642 OPS, and Cain an outfielder who will be 32 on Opening Day 2018 with a career .753 OPS and a bad wrist.

How many millions, individually or collectively, does that group sound as if it’s worth, no matter the size of your market?

All are more than able defenders, and Hosmer and Moustakas are in the 27- 32-year-old prime. But without the kind of pitching the 2014-15 Royals had, are they worth the investment?

Those Royals won with far more defense and pitching than these Royals have. The 2015 Royals had a bullpen so deep that Ryan Madson  (2.13 ERA, .573 OPS against) was its fourth reliever, and when closer Greg Holland was lost for the season, he wasn’t missed

This year’s Royals bullpen has lefty Mike Minor, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014, and Chris Young, who had a 6.19 ERA last year and threw 28 home runs in 88.2 innings, or nearly once every time through the order.

The Royals may still be clinging to 2015, but the Series triumph of that year has already loosened its grip on them.

Team song: Count Basie: One O’Clock Jump

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