I shaved my playoff beard this morning.
It would have happened either way, but there’s an inherent sadness in the ritual when it is performed after a loss. Especially a loss like last night’s.
But the beard also served as a reminder that we had a tremendous run. When I began to grow it, I didn’t expect the Royals to have a chance at getting through the ALDS. They might not have made it through the Wild Card game. Game 7 of the World Series? No chance.
But somehow, it happened. And now it’s over.
The day after the World Series ends is when the losers spend all day asking "What if…?" What if Alex Gordon had been sent home? Yeah, he would’ve been out, but what if he wasn’t? What if Madison Bumgarner wasn’t available yesterday? What if Kelvin Herrera didn’t throw one too many fastballs to Michael Morse? Lots of things could have gone differently, but they didn’t. So I’m going to ask one more question: What if it’s not over?
Obviously, "it" is over, if "it" represents the Royals’ chances of winning the 2014 World Series. But if "it" means the Royals’ chances of winning a World Series some time in the next few years, well… maybe it’s not over.
* * *
It’s easy to just immediately assume this season was our best shot at winning a championship. Going into this year, everyone said this was the last year of our "window." And that made sense. James Shields and Billy Butler will be gone next year. Nori Aoki will be, too, though he isn’t as big of a loss. Our best starter and arguably our best hitter will be in different uniforms next season. 2015 will be a return to mediocrity, right? What if it isn’t?
Think about it. Only three parts of our AL-winning team will be gone next year. That’s it. Sure, we might trade one of our key bullpen chips, but we’re not going to do that without getting something good in return that would fill another vacancy.
And what did those three players do in the World Series? Shields had a good start in Game 5, but prior to that he performed extremely poorly in the playoffs. Butler had some timely hits, but he didn’t come close to the level of production of nearly half of the Giants’ hitters. Nori Aoki was Nori Aoki: an adventure in right field and an adventure at the plate.
Those players will be replaced, somehow, in the offseason. Someone will be added to the rotation. Whether they slot ahead of or behind Ventura and Duffy remains to be seen, but regardless, the Royals will have an extremely consistent rotation. Guthrie could be a #3 starter on most teams. He’ll likely be #5 for us. Ventura, Duffy, and Vargas might all regress. Or they might not. It’s possible there won’t be an ace, depending on how much faith the management has in Ventura and whether that faith is unfounded. But we didn’t have an ace anywhere in the playoffs, either.
Then there’s Aoki and right field. It’s sad that we won’t get to undergo the Aoki Experience anymore- he was an absolute delight to watch both in the field at the plate. I know a lot of people would like Dyson to move into a starting role in center field, with Cain moving to right. I’m not a huge fan of that idea. I like Dyson as a late-inning pinch runner/defensive sub, and I’d prefer for us to get more offense out of that position. Without question, we need more power in our lineup.
I would love for the Royals to make a play for Michael Morse, who has some experience in right field but could also serve as a DH replacement for Butler and a backup at 1B if Hosmer gets hurt. Yes, his defense is awful, which is what will probably hold the Royals back. But Aoki didn’t have the best defense either. Morse will be a free agent this year and looks like he could be a good fit for the Royals, whether in the field or at DH. And yes, this is partially because Morse just beat us in the World Series and he’s fresh in my mind. But he makes sense.
Nelson Cruz is also available this offseason, if you’re looking to get power from that right field position (which I think the Royals should be). I’m not a huge fan of Cruz, but he would give the Royals a legitimate power threat in the middle of the lineup. He would, on the other hand, be more expensive than Morse.
And then there’s Butler. I’m not as concerned about finding a replacement for Butler, because the Royals should definitely be able to find someone who can replicate his 2014 production at a lower cost. Butler did not have a good year, but the Royals still managed to make the playoffs.
* * *
Even if Dayton Moore makes all the right moves in the offseason, there’s still the matter of the current roster to worry about. The Royals looked like a world-championship team in the playoffs, but in the regular season, they looked like a team barely good enough to contend for the playoffs. How can we expect the Royals to perform up to their postseason stats?
Well, the simple answer is "We don’t need them to." The Royals made it to the playoffs with those regular season stats, not the postseason ones. Any sort of improvement on those statistics represent an improvement on a team that was already in the playoffs.
The other way to answer that question is, "What if they do?" Throw the small-sample size argument out the window for a moment. I know you like it, but part with it for just a second, because there is a distinct possibility that the playoff performances of Hosmer, Moose, and Cain represent an increase in maturity for at least one of them that propels them into stardom.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that this team is extremely young and still developing. Here are the players who are over 31, played in the World Series, and will likely still be with the team next year:
· Jayson Nix Jayson Nix doesn’t count
Perez is 24, Hosmer is 25, Moose is 26, Escobar is 27, Cain is 28. This team is young. That’s not even looking at the bullpen, which is also extremely young when you take Frasor out of the picture. Getting a postseason’s worth of experience will be huge for them. It will give their domes a shot of confidence going into next year. Raul Ibanez told this team in the midseason meeting that they had the talent and that a lot of other teams were scared of them. Now, the Royals know for themselves.
You can tell me Moustakas won’t continue his torrid postseason pace into next year. But you can’t tell me that hitting five home runs and setting a Royals playoff record isn’t a good thing for him going forward.
* * *
And then, there’s most the underrated part of this playoff run, the one that will propel this team to newer and greater heights even though you don’t really think about it: us.
Well, not really "us". We’ve been fans of the Royals for a long time. I’m talking about all of the people who suddenly became Royals fans during that playoff run. I’m talking about that insane, ridiculous 58.3 rating the Royals put up during Game 7. Not all of those fans are going to stick with the team if things go south. But some of them will. And should the Royals make the playoffs again next year, Kauffman could develop quite a reputation.
Sure, the Royals might not make it back to the playoffs next year. It’s entirely possible that it may be awhile before I go through the playoff beard ritual again. But- and you’ve got 157 days until Opening Day to think about this- what if this is just the beginning?