Friday, April 26, 2013
Wild-card berth in reach for Royals
By Jim Bowden
James Shields has embraced the role as the Royals' staff ace.
Call it early, call it April, tell me there are still 143 games left in the 162-game schedule, but the fact is that the Kansas City Royals have developed into a legitimate wild-card contender.
They’re off to a relatively fast 11-8 start. They sit perched atop the American League Central. Some might say they’re just keeping the seat warm until the Detroit Tigers figure out their closer situation and Victor Martinez starts to swing the bat.
Well, if the Royals aren't a first-place team yet, they sure can play with the second- and third-best teams in any division of the AL, which means they’re good enough for a possible wild-card berth.
Why am I so confident that this team, which has produced only one above-.500 season since 1995, can actually make the playoffs this season? They finally have pitching.
Amazingly, they’ve had this start while most of their top young hitters have struggled. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is hitting just .154. Both first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez have yet to hit a home run; designated hitter Billy Butler, a career .299 hitter, is batting an uncharacteristic .254.
The Royals’ offense has been here before to start a season. But their rebuilt starting rotation is the main reason the Royals are in first place.
The seven-year plan
When Dayton Moore was named general manager in 2006, he quickly put a plan in place to rebuild the Royals, but he also knew that plan would take time. The farm system (outside of Butler and Alex Gordon, who were in Double-A) was basically starting from scratch. The Royals hadn't been players in the international market. He changed that and became an aggressive big spender in international signings and the draft.
Along the way, Moore’s moves offered the Royals gradual progress. Maybe not in wins, but these draft picks eventually developed into major leaguers such as Moustakas and Hosmer. Money spent on international free agents also bore fruit. And trading a Cy Young Award winner in Zack Greinke netted farmhands and young, major league-ready talent: shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who now anchor the Royals’ defense.
However, despite all these efforts, the lack of pitching remained their undoing. All the methods they had used to develop position players simply didn’t yield the elite pitching prospects that often turn struggling teams into contenders. Setbacks burned them. Prospect after prospect needed Tommy John surgery or had command issues and bottomed out.
And the continued losing had a deleterious effect on the organization, not to mention Moore's job security despite a contract extension in 2009. Look, you can win all you want in the minor leagues, but to maintain a winning attitude throughout the organization, you have to do it at the major league level. Moore was running out of time.
This past offseason, Moore seemingly hit a point of diminishing returns. He had young, World Series-winning position players at the major league level, yet the Royals still hadn't managed more than 75 wins in a single season during his tenure. With Butler and Gordon entering their seventh season and Moustakas, Hosmer and Perez all entering their third, Moore knew the window to retain his talented group of position players was closing. Soon they would be too expensive to keep together.
And with the looming specter of his contract expiring after the 2014 season, Moore knew he had to make some drastic moves.
While the acquisition of Guthrie seemed like an exchange of underachieving pitchers, he thrived after coming to the Royals from the Colorado Rockies last July. Moore had liked Guthrie when the pitcher was at Stanford and viewed him as a solid No. 4 starter. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland added a hip turn to Guthrie's delivery, which immediately gave him more deception. Guthrie had an impressive 3.16 ERA in 91 innings with the Royals. A free agent, he had other teams pursue him, but in the end, a three-year, $25 million deal satisfied Guthrie and he remained in Kansas City.
If Moustakas can ever get going, watch out.
As for Santana, though his 2012 numbers (9-13, 5.16 ERA) shouldn't have merited any interest from the Royals, two of Moore’s top evaluators -- Jim Fregosi Jr. and Gene Watson -- had watched Santana throw during the last two months of the season. Both believed that not only was Santana’s slider back, but he could bounce back all the way to his 2010 and 2011 form (when he won a combined 28 games for the Angels). And all he cost the Royals was a fringe prospect and one year of exposure to Santana’s $13 million salary. So far, so good, as Santana has a 2.48 ERA through four starts.
Shields was a different story. Moore had been pursuing Shields for months. The sticking point had always been top prospect Wil Myers. Tampa Bay Rays GM Andrew Friedman wanted both Myers and pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi for Shields. The two sides went back and forth, the number of players increased, but in the end Moore finally got Shields and Davis from Tampa Bay. The price was high, but at this point for Moore, so were the stakes.
From a GM’s standpoint, the rationale here was that you have to give up quality to get quality. Blessed with a plethora of talented position players, Moore wasn’t going to let Myers stand in the way of acquiring an ace like Shields. Shields could be counted on for 15 wins and 200 innings pitched as well as the leadership this new rotation would need.
Including Odorizzi in the deal also was significant. Acquired along with Escobar and Cain, Odorizzi tied up two major trades for Moore and his inclusion in the Milwaukee deal was key for KC. The deal helped the Royals establish the middle of their defense with Cain and Escobar.
The Tampa deal also brought Davis. Royals evaluators were split on whether Davis should remain a reliever, but top scouts Tim Conroy and Fregosi insisted he could start.
The quartet of Shields, Davis, Santana and Guthrie is a combined 7-3 with a 2.96 ERA. As their offense comes around, the Royals will convince skeptics that they are for real and the postseason is within reach. First place might not seem so far-fetched anymore.
Last season the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles boasted rebuilt rotations and two of the league’s best bullpens, and they made it all the way to the postseason. The Royals could do the same. They think their rotation will keep them in games and their bullpen can develop into the division’s best.
Incidentally, while Moore might not have been able to draft and develop elite starting pitching, he certainly has had success in the bullpen. He drafted closer Greg Holland in the 10th round in 2007, drafted All-Star Aaron Crow in the first round in 2009, traded for Tim Collins, and signed and developed Kelvin Herrera. All four pitchers have mid- to upper-90s fastballs and above-average secondary pitches.
If the emergence of the Royals rings eerily similar, it should, as it follows the blueprint of the Rays and Washington Nationals on their road to relevance. Moore’s original vision might have taken a little longer, but with starting pitching finally in hand, he also might have just bought himself a lot more time.