Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals: Reviewing 2013, Anticipating 2014

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

The Royals were hot out of the gate in April, punch-drunk and shuffling in May, untouchable after the All-Star Break, and a dollar short in the end, like they were destined to be. The Royals 2013 season has officially ended as the most successful since the Royals won 92 games in 1989.

In bittersweet symmetry, it also adds another year to longest playoff drought in professional sports. Lots to love here. Plenty to regret.

Most Royals blogs predicted that the team would win between 84 and 88 wins, missing the playoffs by around three games. That’s more or less what happened, except the Indians’ weak schedule allowed them to take the first wild card spot with 93 wins.

The second wild card spot required 92 wins, which was probably never within the Royals’ reach. Too many lucky things would have had to happen to win that many. Objectively, the scuffling first half for the Royals doomed them to miss the playoffs and there was nothing they could do about it.

The team limped into the All-Star break after getting swept by the Indians, finishing off the first half with a .467 winning percentage. From then on, the team did everything in their power to pull themselves back into contention. Their winning percentage was .614 after the break, which was better than the A’s, the Rays, Red Sox, Indians and Tigers. Playing under .500 for half a season and then playing better than every AL playoff team in the second half underlines the schizophrenic nature of the 2013 Royals.

They lost 19 of 24 at one point in May and looked like the worst team in the American League. They won 20 of 24 after the break and looked like the best team in the league. With such wide performance variance, it leaves us wondering how good the Royals will be next year. Will we see a legitimate contender in 2014 or will we see a team snared in a quagmire of regression?

For the first time in years, the Royals had a top-notch pitching rotation. Headlined by James Shields and Ervin Santana, along with a solid supporting performance from Jeremy Guthrie, the team had the fifth best rotational ERA in the league.  The Royals haven’t had a rotation in the top half of league ERA since the 90s. By keeping Luis Mendoza, Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, the Royals guaranteed pitching depth and, indeed, ended up replacing Mendoza with Chen before the return of Danny Duffy, who, himself, would replace Wade Davis.

It was a fresh diversion from the years of scraping together replacement-level starters who rarely lasted until the sixth inning. The 2013 staff had three starters with more than 200 innings. That hasn’t happened since 1997.

Having depth was essential for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation and will be just as important next season. The Royals might lose Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen to free agency, leaving at least three holes in the rotation. The Royals will probably have enough raw arms, but those arms don’t look tough enough to handle an MLB workload.

Yordano Ventura had a respectable 3.52 ERA in three starts, but never threw more than 86 pitches. Danny Duffy made some progress, but was used cautiously after coming off Tommy John surgery rehab. He has still never made it to the 8th inning of a professional baseball game and didn’t make it through 5 IP in three of his five starts this year.

Bruce Chen threw 100 or more pitches in just two starts, because he quickly falls apart when facing a lineup for the fourth time. His deceptive deliveries can only protect him for so-long against big-leaguers.

Wade Davis’s pitch count bloated to over eighteen pitches per inning before he was removed from the rotation. Without Santana’s plow horse durability, the bullpen might have to pitch three to four innings in a game, several times a week.

The Royals have a great bullpen. Great. They led the league in ERA with 2.55, which makes it the best bullpen the American League has seen since 1990. They led the Majors in  K/BB with 3.07. They led the league in K/9 with 9.6. They led the league with a 1.133 WHIP. The Braves’ bullpen had a slightly better ERA that would probably be worse in the American League.

Altogether, the ‘pen only hit ten batters–tied for least in the majors. The Royals have one of the greatest bullpens of this generation.

However, its efficacy will degrade with considerable additional use. It could conceivably fall back to 2012 levels. It would still be very good, but not dominant enough to keep the lead in as many must-win games. It will also put considerable strain on Ned Yost because he must squeeze more innings out of his starters, but hook them before they blow the game. It is a delicate balance and Royals fans will have to rely on Ned Yost’s gut. This is not a position we want to be in.

Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Wade Davis, Felipe Paulino, Will Smith, Yordano Ventura, Kyle Zimmer, and Danny Duffy will all get a hard look for a rotation spot in spring training. The Royals have a nice little pool of starting pitchers to browse, but none of them look capable of throwing 200 quality innings at the major league level. The team might re-sign Chen, but maybe not.

The bottom line is that the Royals need another innings-eater like Ervin Santana. Dayton Moore has frequently stated his distaste for the free agent market, but if he can’t re-sign Santana, he needs to clench his jaw, suck it up and crash the market like a wrecking ball, throwing offers and deals, wining and dining, shaking hands, slapping backs and whatever else he must to get another effective starter.

He could, of course, trade away valuable minor league commodities, but after the Wil Myers trade left a distinct bad flavor in the mouths of most Kansas Citians, he should at least try the free agent market first. Besides Santana, Matt Garza, Phil Hughes, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Hiroki Kuroda, and A.J. Burnett are on the prowl for a deal.

The Royals led the American League in ERA  in 2013 in large part to the team’s defense. Since Defensive Runs Saved (Rdrs) was first introduced in 2003, no team has saved more runs according to that metric than the 2013 Royals. The Royals also lead the league in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) by a whopping 28.8 runs. They have the most range. They have the strongest arms. They make dazzling highlight plays.

Alex Gordon is probably a deserving lock for his third straight Gold Glove. He led the league in outfield assists and only made one error. Alcides Escobar once again ranked in the top 10 for most ESPN web gems. Lorenzo Cain was ESPN’s July defensive player of the month.

Salvador Perez. The man. The myth. The legend. He was voted an All-Star because of his work behind the plate. He’s in the league’s top five for gunning down base stealers. In most defensive categories, he ranks behind only Yadier Molina and Russell Martin. That makes him the best defensive catcher in the AL. If the 2013 Royals didn’t make so many errors, they’d have a legitimate case for the best defense in the modern baseball era.

The Royals would have had a real chance at the playoffs if it weren’t for the offense, who continued their seemingly endless collapse that began last season. With the same core lineup, the team scored 4.51 runs per game in 2011, 4.17 runs per game in 2012, and 4.0 runs per game in 2013. Alex Gordon and Billy Butler both cooled off after setting track records for excellence.

Royals second basemen combined for an embarrassing .600 OPS (.709 league average). Lorenzo Cain’s SLG dropped by 71 points this season. Right fielders combined for a .696 OPS (.741 league average).

Mike Moustakas has been an shameful disaster thus far. Alcides Escobar ranked dead last in OBP, OPS and OPS+ out of 140 qualifying hitters in MLB. He was 22% worse than the next-worse hitter in the American League. This can’t continue. With the exception of Hosmer at first base and Salvador Perez at catcher, the Royals need more production out of everyone else.

This year was a tale of two teams, a team that lost 75% of its games during one 20-something game streak and won 80% during another, a team with three All-Stars and three players who were too terrible to keep as regulars. The offense remained unsure of its footing all year. Pitching dominated. It was aggravating. It was exciting. In the end, the Royals were a team that kept us interested until the very end, which is a massive improvement over anything we’ve seen in a decade…or two.

Tags: Alex Gordon Eric Hosmer Kansas City Royals Mike Moustakas Ned Yost Salvador Perez

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