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The Royals still have a chance to squeak into the playoffs

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We've seen this team come back from worse, after all.

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So far, this really hasn't been the Kansas City Royals' year.

There has been a lot of discussion about why this has been the case. In simplest terms, though, the Royals have been injured more than their last two playoff seasons, and there has been more underperformance and fewer breakouts than those last two seasons. This is pretty clearly the weakest Royals squad since 2012.

As such, an excellent Cleveland Indians team has taken an opening and has built a great team with a nice lead on the American League Central Division. But thanks to the Wild Card, the Royals have two additional chances of getting into the playoffs without dethroning the excellent Cleveland squad.

So...will the Royals make the playoffs?

Well, probably not. As I included in a previous piece, it's not actually uncommon for a defending World Series champion to miss the playoffs--six of the past ten winners didn't make the playoffs the following year. You've been watching this team, and you've seen its flaws all year. There's a reason the Royals are in third place.

But can the Royals make the playoffs? Do they have a path to squeak through?

The answer is...absolutely. The Royals have been underdog masters over the past two years, winning the highest-stakes games in the most unbelievable ways in the highest-leverage situations. Until they're mathematically eliminated, they've always got a chance. Here's how the Royals could slip into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.

Schedule

The Royals have 44 games left to play. Should the Royals go 30-14, that will get them to 88 wins, which would have been enough to get one of the Wild Card spots each of the last two seasons (there's no guarantee it will this year, of course, but it's as good of a guess as any). The Royals' best stretch this season came from May 1 to June 1, where the Royals went 18-11. Going on a 30-14 run is obviously difficult; it's ultimately why it's unlikely the Royals won't make the playoffs, but it's not impossible. From July 5 to August 29 last year, the Royals went 35-14. In 2014, the Royals went 31-13 from July 22 to September 7. And in 2013, the Royals almost achieved a 16 games above .500 run by going 36-21 from June 5 to August 9.

But most important about the Royals' schedule is this: of the 44 remaining games, 35 are against an opponent above the Royals in the Wild Card standings or against a team with a significantly negative win-loss record. Only a three game series against the Miami Marlins and six games against division leading (and probably untouchable) Indians buck that trend.

What that means is that the Royals have plenty of opportunities to nab some relatively easy wins against bad opponents with nothing to play for as well as make a direct impact on their own Wild Card chances with games against direct competitors. Of the five teams ahead of the Royals for the second Wild Card slot, the Royals still have at least one series left against three: the Detroit Tigers, the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees. Furthermore, the majority (24 of 44) of games are at Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals have already won 63% of their games.

Improvement from within

If the Royals are going to go on a run, they had better find improvement from somewhere, because their current pace isn't going to cut it. The Royals could conceivably add a minor piece still--think Josh Willingham's August acquisition for the 2014 squad--but that has no guarantee of happening at all and will only offer moderate help anyway.

Thankfully, the Royals have a plentiful bounty that might yet be harvested: their own players. Here's a list of the Royals' top ten position players by games played:

  • Alcides Escobar
  • Eric Hosmer
  • Kendrys Morales
  • Salvador Perez
  • Paulo Orlando
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Cheslor Cuthbert
  • Alex Gordon
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Whit Merrifield

Of those players, Escobar, Hosmer, Morales, Perez, Cain, and Gordon are underperforming offensively relative to their career numbers. These players aren't just underperforming relative to last year, or their peak breakout season, but underperforming relative to their entire careers.

As such, none of these players needs to even have a breakout. They just need to, as a collective, get closer to their career numbers. That's it. Anything else--like the ever-possible but ever-rare Hosmer destruction month--is just gravy.

September expanded rosters

Throughout most of the year, the active rosters for a game is capped at 25 players. In September, the active roster can feature anyone on the 40-man roster. This opens up lots of possibilities, and teams often use it to give players that normally wouldn't play some Major League experience, for instance.

But also, expanded rosters give a more adaptable toolset to teams, should they choose to use them. It means that there's less hesitation with pinch-hitting or pinch-running. Most importantly to the Royals, though, it allows them to expand their bullpen.

Here's a couple of stats regarding the Royals' rotation and their American League ranking:

  • ERA - 4.75, 9th
  • FIP - 4.92, 14th
  • Innings - 648.1, 11th

Here's a couple of stats regarding the Royals' bullpen and their American League ranking:

  • ERA - 3.34, 4th
  • FIP - 3.76, 3rd
  • Innings - 385, 6th

We've seen what occurs when a starter encounters issues in the playoffs: that starter is yanked unceremoniously at the first sign of trouble. That doesn't happen in the regular season because the 162-game slog means that the bullpen will be worn out if that continuously happens. But with a 40-man roster, that can change.

With a 40-man roster, the Royals can yank their starters with abandon, not having to worry about not having enough relievers to finish the game or pitch the next day. A somewhat aggressive callup strategy involving Scott Alexander, Brooks Pounders, Luke Farrell, Eric Skoglund, and Jake Junis would give the Royals a collection of arms, both left and right-handed, that could soak up innings and play the same-hand matchups that can give fits to opposing batters. In addition, one Wade Davis should be returning by September, pushing everyone else down the bullpen food chain.

Is it foolproof? No. Skoglund, Junis, and Farrell would be making their big league debuts, and there's no guarantee manager Ned Yost would be aggressive enough to make the strategy work. But the next time Dillon Gee or Yordano Ventura gives up four runs in the fifth inning, think about how that might look with a fresh pitcher. It's a thing in the playoffs for a reason.

***

There are lots of hurdles involved in a playoff scenario. The Royals have to leapfrog a collection of teams. They have to overcome multiple deficiencies. Their best players have to turn it around quickly. Their rookies and young players must show lots of maturity.

Again, it's unlikely this happens. Even if the Royals go on a tear, the position they've put themselves in means that we may only get another 2013--a nice 86-win season, but one where the Royals go home to watch October baseball.

Despite all this, though, the fat lady hasn't quite sung yet. The Oakland Athletics counted the Royals out in the Wild Card Game. The Houston Astros counted the Royals out in the American League Divisional Series. The New York Mets counted the Royals out in almost every game of last year's World Series. The Royals triumphed every time. Hopefully, they can do so again this year.