I've been thinking a bit about this year's Royals and what looks like another inevitable last-place finish in 2012, and wondering if we're reaching a critical point in this team's life cycle. As disheartening as this season has been (primarily for the past month), I do believe that the team has most of the pieces in place to make a significant turnaround as soon as next year.
As I think everybody knows, the few pieces that we still need are perhaps the most important and hard to acquire: starting pitching. Replacing Francouer and Betancourt would obviously help as well, but I am highly confident that Francouer will be a Royal next year as the starting RF. So, that sucks, but it can be overcome.
What I wanted to do is look at some recent examples of worst-to-first turnarounds, if for no other reason than to make myself feel better, and to see if there is a narrative that fits where the Royals are at and where they might end up.
2007-2008 Tampa Bay: In 2007, Tampa finished 66-96 and last in the AL East. The team was 15 games under .500 at the halfway point and had the same identical record in the 2nd half. The 2008 team primarily improved via run prevention, dropping over 150 runs allowed and by adding Evan Longoria. Shields and Kazmir were both good in 2007 and 2008, but the team traded for Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson (another trade acquisition) took a big step forward in his development, and Andy Sonnanstine replaced Jason Hammel, delivering an ERA 2 runs better than Hammel.
How this could be similar to KC: Myers replaces Francouer, the team makes one trade for a legitimate #2-#3 starting pitcher, and Odirizzi (another trade acquisition) fills one of our other rotation spots. Hochevar takes a big step forward, and someone like Will Smith replaces Chen and takes a big step forward in 2013.
Likelihood of all of these happening: fairly small, as I already mentioned that I believe Francouer will be our starting RF until his contract is done, Chen is not going anywhere either, and I don't anticipate Hochevar being any more than he already is. Trading for one starting pitcher and bringing up Odirizzi are fairly plausible occurrences, in my opinion.
2011-2012 Pittsburgh Pirates (I know the season's not over, but humor me): Last year, Pittsburgh finished 72-90 but were very competitive through the first half of the season, with a 41-40 record at the halfway point. From that point on, the wheels fell off. The 2011 Pirates actually had decent starting pitching but absolutely could not score. However, in the offseason, they traded for A.J. Burnett and signed Erik Bedard to a 1-year contract. The 2012 team got a little bit better on offense (on pace for about 40 more runs scored, still not great) and about 100 runs better in run prevention.
How this could be similar to KC: The Pirates didn't really get any significant upgrades on the offensive side from what I could tell, but James McDonald (another trade acquisition) made significant improvements, and Burnett has been very good for them. For the Royals, again adding Odirizzi, making one trade for an ace, and finding another pitcher as a reclamation project.
Likelihood of all of these happening: This could actually be doable, if Chen and Hochevar are your holdovers and at the back of the rotation. Our luck so far with reclamation projects has been mixed to poor, but if Mendoza fills that role, we trade for one guy and then put Odirizzi in the rotation and he sticks, there you go.
1993-1994 Cleveland Indians: This is not a perfect comparison as the team had a couple of marginally competitive years in 1992 and 1993 before taking off in 1994 and never looking back. However, what the Indians did in the 1993 offseason could be a blueprint for what the Royals could do. The 1993 Indians had a rotation that included Jose Mesa and had one starter with an ERA below 4.50. For 1994, the team signed Dennis Martinez and Jack Morris (who was not good for them), brought up Charles Nagy, and traded for Mark Clark, who had an 11-3 record with an ERA+ of 122. Despite the Indians' reputation as a bunch of mashers, the team actually scored fewer runs in 1994 (679) than in 1993 (790). Again, run prevention.
How this could be similar to KC: The Indians nearly completely overhauled their starting rotation in a variety of ways, while the young core of hitters came together. Adding one free agent pitcher, calling up Odirizzi, and making a trade (Mark Whiten was a young player when he was traded in the 92/93 offseason and was putting up basically a league-average OPS).
Likelihood of all of these happening: I think this is actually a relatively likely scenario for what the Royals need to do...one FA acquisition, one trade, and one promotion. They could pull this off without breaking the bank or crippling the minor-league system. I believe that Dayton will work hard to make some significant transactions this offseason to bring in pitching talent.
So, only three examples, and of course there are more, but there is at least some precedent for what the Royals need to accomplish between now and opening day 2013.