KANSAS CITY— The Royals have been through fights, suspensions, numerous injuries, and yet at the All-Star break, they sit comfortably in first place by 4 1/2 games in the American League Central with a league-best 52-34 record.
This is a Kansas City team that has had four players suspended, that has had to use the disabled list 12 times and the bereavement/medical emergency list twice, and just lost arguably its best player, Alex Gordon, for two months or more because of a grade two-plus groin strain. Yet nothing seems to slow the Royals down.
Can the Royals sustain that? General manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost believe the team has enough depth and willpower to overcome whatever adversity lies ahead so it can achieve its ultimate goal -- return to the World Series in October and take care of unfinished business.
Five Key Developments
1. Moore’s offseason: If you want to know how the Royals have persevered through all their issues, look no further than the GM’s offseason additions. Incredibly, Moore hit on virtually every offseason signing -- designated hitter Kendrys Morales, and pitchers Chris Young, Ryan Madson, Edinson Volquez and Franklin Morales (with Kris Medlen coming later).
2. Emergence of Mike Moustakas: Hard to imagine the Royals would be in this good of shape without the amazing transformation of Moustakas, who altered his hitting style by trying to hit the other way in order to beat the shift. Yost moved the third baseman to the two-hole in the lineup and Moustakas responded with a .297 average, seven homers and 31 RBIs.
3. Loss of Gordon: The loss of their leader to a grade two-plus groin strain, shook the emotions of everyone on the coaching staff and in the clubhouse. But to a man, Royals players insist they will cover Gordon’s absence and keep winning while they await his return for the stretch run in September.
4. Lorenzo Cain’s growth: The Royals always knew Cain was a Gold Glove Award caliber defender in center field. Now they are seeing his growth as a hitter. Cain already has a career-high eight homers and appears headed for his second straight .300-plus season along with his first 30-plus steals season. He got to the break with a .316 average and 17 steals. Combined with his defense, this is MVP-type stuff.
5. Injury to Alex Rios: The one major Moore signing that hasn’t panned out, but you have to wonder what Rios’ season would be like if he hadn’t sustained a broken hand after a hit by pitch in the seventh game of the season. Rios crushed the ball all through Spring Training and was hitting .321 with a .785 OPS when he was hurt. But he hasn’t been the same since returning from injury and is hitting just .238. He has not homered since returning.
Five Storylines to Watch
1. Replacing Gordon: For now, the Royals say they will cover Gordon’s absence with a platoon of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando. We’ll see how long they stay committed to that approach. There are no other viable internal options, so Moore would have to work a trade if that platoon falls flat in the next couple of weeks.
2. Ventura and Duffy: The Royals are sitting in first place with 50 wins, and yet no one likely believed that was possible with their Nos. 1 and 2 starters contributing just seven of those wins. The bold move of inserting Yordano Ventura into the ace role and Danny Duffy into the second spot in the rotation has not paid dividends yet. But Moore forecasted back in Spring Training that Ventura and Duffy might struggle in the first half, but they would be strong down the stretch. We’ll see.
3. Hard cuts coming: While some writers and fans are clamoring for Moore to add a high-end starter to the rotation, the truth is that the Royals actually will have to unload some starting pitching when everyone gets healthy. Once Jason Vargas and Kris Medlen are activated, the Royals will have seven starting pitchers and only five spots. Perhaps Young or Medlen could go to the bullpen, but there isn’t room for both because only Brandon Finnegan has options. Some hard cuts are coming in the rotation and on the 25-man roster.
4. Young’s endurance: It’s no secret that Young faded last September for Seattle, and that was one of the reasons the Mariners didn’t aggressively try to bring him back. But Young (7-5, 3.00 ERA) believes he weakened last year because he threw too many innings in the spring of 2014 just to make the Mariners’ squad. He has paced himself this season and he believes he will have plenty of juice left for the Royals’ stretch run.
5. Resting Salvador Perez: In order to make the playoffs last September, Yost had to play Perez every day, and the All-Star catcher simply wore down, which was obvious to everyone. In the team’s final 25 games of 2014, Perez had a woeful .219 on-base percentage with just one homer. He was worse in the postseason, hacking tiredly at everything and drew just one walk in 60 plate appearances while posting a .509 OPS. Yost vows to give Perez plenty of rest in late July and August to keep him fresh this time around.
MVP -- Cain has a career-high eight homers, team-leading .316 average and team-leading 17 steals, and, of course, that all-word defense.
Cy Young -- Steady Eddie Volquez has a team-high eight wins with a solid 3.31 ERA. Great signing.
Rookie -- Finnegan (2-0, 3.22) has been up and down from the Minors and has been serviceable for a bullpen that doesn’t have to rely on rookies much anymore.
Top reliever -- Wade Davis: Could it be anyone else? A 0.46 ERA is ridiculous.
Players to Watch
1B Eric Hosmer -- With Gordon out, the Royals desperately need Hoz to step up.
RHP Ventura -- Royals gave him $23 million guaranteed to be their ace -- he needs to show he can be.
RHP Medlen -- He’ll be activated in a week or so and he could be a difference-maker down the stretch.