The Royals had a good week, taking five of seven from division-rivals Cleveland and Chicago, and this followed a bad week in which they were swept by the stumbling Red Sox. This has been the Royals season in a microcosm. However, after all the inconsistency, all the disappointing performances, they still find themselves 53-51, just two games back of a Wild Card spot.
Thursday is the non-waiver trade deadline, the last real opportunity for the Royals to either make a meaningful move to improve this ballclub for a post-season push, or sell-off assets to look forward to next year. This piece will argue the Royals should take the former option, and push for their first playoff appearance since 1985. First, let's look at the standings:
|Toronto Blue Jays||56||50||.528||---|
|New York Yankees||54||50||.519||1|
|Kansas City Royals||53||51||.510||2|
1. The Wild Card game is worth fighting for
The Royals trail Detroit by five games which isn't an insurmountable hill to climb, but Detroit is a much better club by any metric, and unless the Royals get red hot, their focus should be on a Wild Card spot. With the Angels playing even better than Detroit and holding the first Wild Card position, the Royals are playing for the second Wild Card spot.
Mike Petriello writes that fighting for a chance to take on the Angels on the road in one "winner-takes-all" game is not worth it. Bollocks! The fact the Wild Card game is a one-game, winner-take-all format is precisely why it is worth pursuing. A one-game format lends itself to more randomness, less predictability, and less of a chance the dominance of the Angels allows them to steamroll an inferior opponent. The game is essentially a coin-flip. Indeed, the road team has won three of the four Wild Card games since the new format was introduced in 2012.
The Royals have split their six games against the Angels this year, so they haven't been dominated by the Halos. The fact the Royals tend to play low-scoring games, relying on pitching and defense, increases the chances the score is low and close, allowing for randomness to play more of a factor. A lucky bounce, and who knows?
2. The playoff odds are not stacked against us
Fangraphs projects the Royals as having a 10.7% chance at making the Wild Card which doesn't sound great, but of course, at this points its not great for anyone. Here are the playoff odds for the second Wild Card contenders:
|Toronto Blue Jays||16.8||15.2|
|Kansas City Royals||10.7||10.3|
|New York Yankees||9.3||9.9|
Even the projected standings, in which the Royals are projected to finish exactly 81-81 only have the Royals finishing four games back of the projected Wild Card winner - the Blue Jays. The Royals looks like a mediocre, flawed team - but so do all the teams they are competing against.
This isn't some pie-in-the-sky pipe-dream, we're in the mix. We're not the favorites, and its a big challenge to this many teams in front of you, but the Royals are absolutely in the mix.
3. The schedule is pretty easy
Just 20 of the Royals remaining 58 games are against teams with a winning record. Central Division rivals Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota make up 23 of their remaining games, and the Royals have gone 19-15 against those opponents. Toronto's last 13 games are against teams fighting for a playoff spot (their last 16 games, if Tampa Bay somehow gets back into it). Seattle has 31 games left against teams with winning records, including the Blue Jays (7), Athletics (6), Angels (6), Tigers (3), Nationals (3), and Braves (2), some of the best teams in baseball. The Yankees have 28 games left against teams with winning records, having to run the gamut against fellow Eastern Division teams still in the running. Cleveland has a fairly easy schedule, but 23 of their remaining opponents have winning records (plus 3 against the .500 Reds).
4. The Royals project to have good WAR numbers
I have written before on how the Royals offense will appear to improve simply by regressing to the mean. Fangraphs seems to like the Royals position players going forward, projecting them to have the most WAR among all second Wild Card-contenders. Fangraphs projects the Royals to get decent performance out of all their positional starters - even Nori Aoki and Billy Butler, making a big trade for a bat a misallocation of resources. Even if you don't believe Aoki will turn things around, Shaun Newkirk has already made the argument that simply playing Jarrod Dyson everyday would be a much better option than trading for a Marlon Byrd or Alex Rios.
Where the Royals should expect negative regression, however, is in the pitching staff. Fangraphs expects the Royals to get just 3.7 WAR out of the pitching staff the rest of the way, the worst total out of any American League contender other than the Angels. While it may seem counterintuitive, the Royals pursuit of more pitching actually makes a lot of sense. Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas project to be pretty close to replacement level the rest of the way. The Royals still have zero depth beyond their regular starting five (sorry Joe Saunders). Adding a starting pitcher like Ian Kennedy would mitigate the regression by the pitching staff and give much needed depth while providing a starting pitcher to replace James Shields next year.
Even if the Royals decide not to trade for pitching, a depth move on the hitting side could help improve their WAR, whether it be by going big and trading for a valuable player like Ben Zobrist, or making a smaller move for a right-handed platoon bat like Jonny Gomes or Justin Ruggiano.
Are the Royals favorites? Not at all. All I argue is that the Royals are in a post-season race, and have a serious chance at making the post-season. Not a "squint your eyes, you can kind of see it, maybe if four-thousand things go right"-type chance, but a real chance.
It may not be a good enough chance at a championship to go ALL-IN with a franchise-destroying move, but the Royals should not be looking to sell and they should absolutely look for ways that can improve the club short-term that don't do too much damage to their long-term prospects.