And so it comes to pass that on June 17, 2014, roughly a full month after most everyone -- current company included -- wrote the Kansas City Royals off entirely, they take a half game lead in the American League Central over the Detroit Tigers. For those of you keeping track at home, that makes your AL division leaders Toronto in the East, Kansas City in the Central, and Oakland -- the best team in baseball without much competition at the moment -- out West. It'll probably save time at this point if we just start listing the teams that aren't surprising us with their performances this year (Cubs).
Of course, baseball history is full of really funny June division leaders -- on June 17 of last year, for instance, the San Diego Padres were one game out of first place in the NL West. They'd be over eight games back by mid-July and would be looking forward to next season by the time the All-Star Break rolled around.
These next few weeks right now are the regular season at its most narratively unpredictable, because this is the decision-making moment: Are you in or are you out? Right now, about two-thirds of the teams in the league still have very viable paths to the postseason in their eyes; and while some of them will fall by the wayside much like San Diego did last year, there was another California team in the NL West last year that reached a turning point in late June... and responded by going 47-8 from June 22 to August 17, putting them firmly in control of their own playoff destiny.
It is unrealistic to expect any team to ever rip off a stretch of games like the Los Angeles Dodgers did last year, and when it does happen it's worth noting that the Dodgers have just about the most talented roster money can buy. This year's Royals aren't last years Padres or Dodgers, and whether or not they're actually the team that can give the Tigers their yearly run for the Central will depend primarily on two things: first, the extent to which they believe a lineup centered around Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and a whole lot of praying can continue to pay the bills on offense, and second, the extent to which they value James Shields.
A simple glance at the box scores will tell you the Royals of the last 14 days or so aren't the same squad from the first couple months of the season; the team's .800 OPS over the last two weeks going into Tuesday night's contest is over 100 points higher than the team's season .684 (and if you narrow things down to the last seven days, the Royals have a .900 OPS and are the hottest offense in baseball). Why? Well, who knows why. Sometimes these things just line up: Gordon, Perez and DH Billy Butler are looking like a legitimate middle-of-the-order core, while Eric Hosmer, Omar Infante, and Lorenzo Cain are more than helping the cause around them. Alcides Escobar is right there with them, making it a bit less surreal that the light-hitting shortstop has been the Royals' second or third best hitter on the season. Even Mike Moustakas is back from the minors and hitting the ball all over the field, if still not for much power.
It's easy to argue that Billy Butler -- and to a lesser extent Omar Infante -- were due. Infante's had up years and down years at the plate his entire career, and second basemen do age quickly into their thirties, but not so quickly as to turn a career .717 OPS hitter (92 OPS+) at 32 years old into a .644 OPS guy with no power whatsoever the very next year. The other guys I'm not as willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Hosmer is a rollercoaster ride himself, but the ups are "league-average starting first baseman" while the downs are "cut bait, move on." And Moustakas is Hosmer without the ups.
But this is the roster that Dayton Moore and the Royals have gone to war with, and to its credit it is a strong roster defensively with Escobar and Infante up the middle and some combination of Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain and Nori Aoki nailing down center and right field with Gordon in left. Perez has emerged as one of the better all-around young catchers in the game, and Moustakas and Hosmer can handle themselves at the infield corners. But this bunch isn't going to continue to OPS .900, or even .800; they'll be lucky if they keep this going long enough to get the team OPS over .700 on the year, even for just a little while -- and the lineup as is needs some serious improvements if the Royals are going to make a real go at this thing. That is to say: if the Royals aren't going to sell at the deadline, they've got to actively buy.
The first thing they need is a third baseman to take over for Moustakas so he can go back down to Triple-A and actually find time to grow there as a hitter, instead of the constant shuttling back and forth he gets. The lack of a back-up plan for Moustakas last year was striking, and while offseason acquisition Danny Valencia certainly can play a bit of third, he's a platoon bat who should only see action against left-handers. He's not a guy a contending team can just hand the job for the entire season, and despite what he's done over the last week, neither is Moustakas.
Kansas City could also use an upgrade in the outfield; Cain and Dyson work well as a centerfield platoon, though Cain has shown enough against right-handed pitching this year that he deserves the shot the team is giving him right now. Ideally Cain would take the starting job over entirely, Dyson would be a good 4th outfielder bench type and the Royals would get someone besides Aoki to lock down right. Complicating matters is the fact that Kansas City has spent a lot of trade chips over the past few years already, and would be well-served to hang on to most of the ones they have left, if at all possible.
No matter how much Wil Myers' poor 2014 may have emboldened the hearts of Royals fans everywhere who thought the James Shields trade with Tampa Bay was a steal, it is probably best if KC stays out of the Ben Zobrist sweepstakes. He's not an especially good fit as an everyday right fielder, and third is just about the only position he hasn't played a significant amount of in the past few years.
Buying low on Chase Headley, assuming the Padres are selling -- and they should be -- would stabilize third base for the rest of 2014. Headley gets a change of scenery and hopefully picks up the pace a little bit going into free agency, and if he stumbles and Moustakas plays his way back into the starting lineup, well… so be it. For right field, Alex Rios is having a very solid season for Texas and shouldn't be the kind of guy that costs a top-level chip. Rios immediately becomes the second or third best hitter on the team, while Headley's .630 OPS is still a decent improvement on what Moustakas has spent most of the season doing.
The Royals are lucky, in a sense, because all their entire deadline checklist involves is rehabbing the lineup into something that could credibly be league-average the rest of the way, and then rely on the pitching staff they've already assembled to do the heavy lifting.
But that brings us to our second pivot point: James Shields.
Shields is unlikely to be a Royal in 2015 even if Kansas City doesn't deal him at the deadline; there will be the usual noises about trying to find the right number of dollars and years, the exclusivity window will expire, the Royals will hit him with a qualifying offer that Shields will gladly decline and he'll go collect his $140 million or so from the New York Yankees while the Royals will nab another first rounder.
That is how things are likely to go. But I'd be willing to bet just about any arbitrary amount of someone else's money that in Dayton Moore's heart of hearts, he would like nothing more than to lock Shields up for the rest of his career. Shields is the kind of pitcher that excites the GM's particular scouting tics -- recall that for all his other faults as an executive, Moore remains one of the best pitching evaluators in the game. Moore was so convinced that Shields was the answer for his team he traded an elite MLB-ready prospect at a position of dire need to get him, willing to bet that he wasn't actually making his team worse in the short or long term.
Obviously one does not trade the staff ace when one is in first place regardless of who the ace is or who the general manager is, but soon the bats will cool down, the Tigers' pitching will stabilize somewhat and this will once again in all likelihood be a chase that Detroit leads and Kansas City follows, trying to fend off Cleveland, Chicago, and the Twins as they go. But at this point, Shields is likely not getting traded regardless of what happens in the standings between now and the deadline.
The pitcher represents not only the guy Moore wants at the top of his rotation but the urgency behind the 2014 Royals, as they face down the prospect of slipping into same amount of nothing after this year as they have all the years prior to it. Being in first place by half a game in mid-June may not mean a whole lot to some, but it's time to see if the team Kansas City spent so much time and effort putting together can get to October from here. The Royals have the best group of pitchers in the American League outside of Oakland and the AL Central is wide-open space. Slap a tire patch on third base, find one more bat you trust, and go.