Royals first half: How we got here and what it means

Kansas City rookie Eric Hosmer is giving Royals fans a reason to be pumped up about the future. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Royals are in last place again, and I’m not all that bothered by it. Are you? Sure, it was a fun spring – the Royals were 10-4 on April 16, and a full month later they were still above .500. We were happy it was baseball season. The high point might have been Eric Hosmer’s promotion to the majors, which signaled the organization’s belief that winning the division was possible this season. But here we are at the All-Star break and the Royals are in last place. They are on pace to lose nearly 100 games.  But here’s a question: Does that even matter? No, not really. Not right now. But here’s what does.

They are who we thought they were … kind of

You already know why this last-place thing doesn’t feel too depressing. We’re used to it. Numb to it. But there’s another reason, too: We knew what was in store before of the 2011 season even started. We knew we had a team with poor starting pitching and not enough power. The free-agent signings didn’t look great, and the image of the team was a bunch of guys thrown together to fill out the uniforms until the next generation of prospects arrived and brought real hope.

Now, in the present, how much of that has changed? Yes, those are still the storylines that are defining this season. The pitching is last in the American League, thanks to the starters. They’re fourth-worst in hitting homers. When you listen to the opponent’s broadcast crew, all the chatter is about the farm system and the future. But this year’s team has also exceeded many of our expectations. They’re plenty entertaining and when you look around the diamond, you can start to see some things to really like. That’s why, when counting down our top three first-half stories, the first two are … positive? That’s right.

3. Kansas City’s slugging outfield

The strength of this Royals team is the outfield. Jeff Francouer, Melky Cabrera and Alex Gordon have produced more than any of us would have thought. Who would have expected all three outfielders to be in the top 12 in the league in slugging? (Slugging percentage is total bases per at bat for those who don’t know). Really, no other AL team has an outfield like that. They all have comparable production and if you ask me each one of them deserves an All-Star nod more than rookie reliever Aaron Crow. This outfield catches the ball, too, and they throw guys out.

In case you are wondering (and you should be) about the future of this group, here’s the contract situation: Gordon and Cabrera will need new deals after this year in order to remain in K.C. and Francouer (currently the highest-paid) has a mutual option with the club for next year. The system’s best outfield prospect, 20-year-old Wil Myers,  is hitting about .270 with three homers through 50 games with double-A Northwest Arkansas.

2. Hosmer, Escobar and the young bullpen

I don’t need to tell you that the prevailing theme of 2011 has been youth. You’ve heard it for a while now, even in the national media. Mostly, we’re tired of hearing it. But when you watch Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar, realize these guys are the real deal. Hosmer has the look of a dominant baseball player and he has exceeded some very high expectations.  As for Escobar, his defense has been as good as any shortstop’s in the game. His level of play has been that of a multi-Gold Glove winner and I’ll talk a .250 average with that defense any time. Mike Moustakas probably deserves a mention here, too. And there it is.

Meanwhile, youth has prevailed in the bullpen as well. The list of contributors is long — Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, Blake Wood, Louis Coleman, Nate Adcock, Greg Holland, Everett Teaford. All of these guys are young and they’ve put pitched extremely well in the first half. Clearly, the Royals can feel good about moving forward with a group like this. These guys won’t all have great careers, but it’s a nice situation for a team at the developmental stage the Royals are at.

1. Luke Hochevar and the starting pitching problem

This is where we look big-picture. This is the reason why the team’s record means nothing, and the previous two subjects mean very little. This is why it is so hard to believe in the Royals as contenders long-term. It’s the starting pitching. Where will it come from? I singled out Luke Hochevar for good reason.  He was a first overall draft pick five years ago and the team’s opening-day starter. Now here he is at 5-8 with an ERA of 5.46 (career: 24-40, 5.56). We’ve seen some good with Hochevar, but enough bad to call him the most disappointing player of 2011. There are other offenders, too, but their dead-last ERA and the mere existence of Kyle Davies on a major league roster tells you enough. And I really respect Davies.

Because of their place in the free-agent pecking order, the Royals will be forced to rely mostly on the development of their current prospects moving forward. There is a lot of talent— Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Dwyer are all names to know. But can they become the guys that pitch this franchise back to glory, or near it? If the answer to that is no, then nothing else matters.

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