KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The season began with the Kansas City Royals toting along the slogan, “Our Time,” a reference to the young and enthusiastic players who have slowly matriculated through their farm system.
There were expectations of the first winning season in eight years and, if everything fell right, the first playoff appearance since 1985, the longest drought in the major leagues.
Then reality hit: Injuries piled up before the season began, a 12-game losing streak forced them to dig out of a hole, and things never got on track for some of those key young players.
The result was a 72-90 season, a record not all dissimilar to years past.
“I saw a lot of good things this year,” manager Ned Yost said Thursday. “Did we finish where we wanted to finish? No. But for the first time in a long time, we finished in third place.”
That’s certainly a silver lining for another frustrating season.
Kansas City lost All-Star closer Joakim Soria to Tommy John surgery in spring training, and the injuries didn’t stop there. Starting pitchers Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino made it a trio of Tommy John casualties, outfielder Lorenzo Cain missed long stretches of time, and there were enough bumps and bruises along the way to put the training staff on speed dial.
The hope that seemed to flicker all offseason was doused in April, when the Royals lost a dozen games in a row. They made a few halting attempts to get back to .500, but they were left trying to play catch-up the entire way.
“It’s about being consistent,” said outfielder Alex Gordon, who backed up his new long-term contract with another solid season. “Having a 12-game losing streak is not being consistent. The good teams don’t have 12-game losing streaks. They find a way to even those out.”
The biggest culprit in the Royals’ failure to even things out was starting pitching.
Bruce Chen led the team in wins, but only by going 11-14 with a 5.07 ERA. Former first-round pick Luke Hochevar was 8-16 with a 5.73 ERA, and fill-in starters such as Vin Mazzaro, Everett Teaford and Will Smith didn’t fare a whole lot better.
The Royals had a 5.19 ERA among starting pitchers, better only than Cleveland, Colorado, Boston and Minnesota. The 890 innings they logged was third-fewest in the majors.
“You do it with starting pitching. Starting pitching tilts the field in your favor every single night,” said general manager Dayton Moore, whose biggest challenge this offseason will be to uncover a couple of reliable arms for the Royals’ rotation.
He certainly doesn’t have a whole to worry about in regards to his own team.
Sure, Moore will have to decide whether to exercise a club option on Soria, and there’s a good chance he’ll try to keep Jeremy Guthrie, a pending free agent who went 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA after his arrival in a midseason trade that jettisoned Jonathan Sanchez.
For the most part, though, the Royals will be free to scour free agency.
Among the first tier of starting pitchers is the Angels’ Zack Greinke, though reuniting with the Royals could be uncomfortable. The Brewers’ Shaun Marcum is another option, a pitcher from the Kansas City area who might relish the opportunity to pitch in front of family and friends.
It’s more likely the Royals will try to attract a couple starters a notch below them.
“We have to have the mindset and the focus and the understanding that there’s very few pitchers in this league that are No. 1 and No. 2 starters,” Moore said, “but the pitchers that are most successful have the mind of a No. 1 starter.”
Moore said he’s been given the green light by Royals owner David Glass to spend the money necessary to lure an anchor for the starting rotation, but he also cautioned about overspending in free agency, calling the offseason meat-market a “flawed way to build your team.”
As of Tuesday, the Royals carried a payroll of $67.8 million, topping only San Diego, Houston, Pittsburgh and AL West-champion Oakland, giving them plenty of flexibility to make things happen.
“I’ve felt all along we’ll always have the necessary resource to move forward and do what we need to do to build our team,” Moore said. “We have to make sure we’re committing the dollars and the years, and it coincides with the valuation as well, to help us win.”