I tried to write the day it happened. I couldn’t write anything that made any sense. Mostly I sat and stared. I told myself when the Royals made the Wild Card, I’d be happy with whatever happened, because it was postseason baseball for the first time in 29 years.
But as they kept hanging on and steamrolling opponents, I got greedy. And it’s hard to feel guilty for getting greedy. Because I don’t know when this will happen again.
Here’s something non-Royals fans may not understand: In those 28 years between postseason appearances, the Royals managed winning records eight times. No postseason glory–just winning more games than they lost. By comparison, the cross-state St. Louis Cardinals have been to the postseason 14 times in that same timeframe. The notorious Chicago Cubs have been to the postseason five times. Royals fans are jealous of Cubs fans.
While the crazy October of 2014 was going on, I actually had to ask a Cardinals fan a couple of times if this was what winning was supposed to feel like. I didn’t remember.
The Royals have a core set of players who are about to get expensive. James Shields, their fading ace, isn’t worth what he’s going to ask for in free agency but the Royals arguably couldn’t afford to keep him even at his 2014 salary. He’ll go sign with Boston or San Francisco or New York, be their #3 starter, and go to the postseason another four or five times before he retires with $100 million in the bank. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Billy Butler will probably walk because the Royals don’t want to pick up his $12 million option next year. He doesn’t look like he’s worth the money, but I don’t know if the Royals get anyone better for $12 million either. For that kind of money, you usually get a guy in his late 30s with nothing left. At least the Royals do. See: McReynolds, Kevin. Guillen, Jose. Gonzalez, Juan.
And the Royals tried to get another aged .230 hitter last year, flirting with Carlos Beltran. Fortunately Beltran got greedy and signed with the Yankees, saving the Royals from wasting the money, but I don’t think the Royals have really learned their lesson. Already there’s talk of going and getting Torii Hunter or Melky Cabrera for next year.
Here’s my nightmare: The Royals sign a mid-tier free agent to replace Billy Butler to play right field or DH, and trade one of their prize relief pitchers to plug the other hole. Then neither of those guys hit their weight and the Royals make due with replacement-level players in their spots. Meanwhile, one or more of their young starting pitchers struggles and the Royals end up having to patch together their rotation with waiver wire acquisitions, signings out of the independent league, or something worse. Then their overworked bullpen loses effectiveness.
Sounds like a recipe for 100 losses, doesn’t it?
But the Royals will be under enormous pressure to try it, because they can afford to keep Gordon, Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar, and Perez together for about two more seasons before they have to sell one or more of them off or let them depart via free agency. If they keep their three power relievers and Ventura, Duffy, and Finnegan are healthy and effective as starters, they can probably have a couple of good seasons. Maybe more if another pitching prospect pans out. But they aren’t a team that can afford to have more than about two things go wrong.
Last week, when reflecting on the Royals’ journey, the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski asked where the writers filling his old slot at the Kansas City Star were when the Royals had Jerry Spradlin closing out games. He was trying to be funny. I wanted to laugh, but it seems less funny now. Three things have to go wrong for Jason Frasor or Scott Downs to be the Royals’ closer of the future.
Much has been said about the Royals trading Zack Greinke away for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar–and Greinke getting to watch them play in the World Series when he still hasn’t himself. But many Royals trades yielded nothing of value. Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants relief pitcher who pitched the middle innings of Game 7 is an example. The Royals traded him for a first baseman who managed to play a grand total of 169 games in the majors. He couldn’t hold down a job on a Royals team that lost 93 games.
Jeremy Affeldt was worth more than that, as we saw in the 2014 postseason.
When they’ve traded their stars they can’t afford anymore, usually they get utility players. They intend to get big-league regulars, but they don’t pan out as regulars and end up filling in until they wear out their welcome. So when Eric Hosmer decides he wants to make big money, it’s not a guarantee they’ll receive fair value for him in trade.
There’s help on the way in the minors, but the help is probably a couple of years off, so it’s hard to say how much of today’s core will still be there. The Royals had a formula for building their farm system fast, but then Major League Baseball decided it wasn’t fair for the Royals to take advantage of the system and changed the rules on them, so that cupboard isn’t brimming the way it once was. The Royals have enough problems on their own, but Major League Baseball likes to change things just as the Royals are starting to turn a corner.
Take a look at the strike zone the umpires were calling when the Royals were pitching versus their opponents for another example. Kelvin Herrera wasn’t bad in Game 5, but if he threw a pitch belt-high, they were calling it a ball. He was dealing with a strike zone so tiny he had to groove pitches to get strikes, while Bumgarner’s zone was so large the Royals couldn’t afford to be selective. If it wasn’t a pickoff throw, they had to swing because it would be called a strike. If the strike zone had been consistent, Games 4 and 5 wouldn’t have been blowouts at all, and Game 7 isn’t a one-run game either.
San Francisco fans can say all they want that the Royals will be in the thick of it for years to come. But the Giants have more cash to dangle than the Royals ever will. They don’t play the same game. If a prospect doesn’t pan out, or someone gets hurt, the Giants can write a check and plug the hole. In the same situation, the Royals have to make due with scraps.
If everything goes right and the Royals stay the course with pitching and defense and speed and add a little plate discipline and stay healthy, the Royals will indeed be back. If something goes wrong, it could be another 29 years.
And that’s why this hurt. It’s not just 2014’s pain. It’s the pain of all those 100-loss seasons that led up to this letdown, and the prospect of the 100-loss seasons to come before another chance comes around.