For the first time in three seasons, the Royals will be at home for the playoffs. While they at least hung in the race until mid-September, the season was still a disappointment for fans accustomed to deep October runs.
The Royals were not too far off from making the post-season however. A few bounces this way, maybe one fewer injury or two, and they would have been right in the thick of the race. But those were things out of their control. With the benefit of hindsight, let’s look at what they could have done differently to make the playoffs this year.
Not re-signed Alex Gordon and Joakim Soria
When the news broke that the Royals had re-signed Alex Gordon, it was cause for celebration for many Royals fans. Not only did the Royals ink the popular All-Star left-fielder to a four-year contract, but they did so at what many perceived as at or below market value.
However Dayton Moore’s off-season was pretty much a disaster. While a strong second-half makes the Ian Kennedy signing look better, at least through one year, the rest of his signings have completely blown up. Alex Gordon has had a career-worst season at the plate, hitting .223/.318/.390, and a late run has pushed him up to 1 Win Above Replacement, thanks largely to some plate discipline and strong defense. Had the Royals let go of sentimentality and pursued a younger, cheaper player like Dexter Fowler, they might be enjoying much more production out of left field right now.
The Joakim Soria signing was panned by some at the time as an unnecessary overpay for a position of strength for the Royals. But no one expected Soria would just be flat-out bad. Soria’s overall numbers are simply below average for a reliever, but his has been historically awful in high-leverage situations this year.
The Chris Young and Mike Minor deals have also netted the Royals negative value this year, at a cost of over $6 million combined.
Begin the year with Danny Duffy in the rotation
It seems crazy now, but Danny Duffy could not beat out Chris Young and Kris Medlen for a rotation spot coming out of spring training. Duffy did not join the rotation until May 15, after Chris Young had made seven starts with a 6.68 ERA and the Royals losing five of those games.
Duffy would go on to post the best season of his career, with a 3.43 ERA in a career-high 173 1⁄3 innings pitched. The Royals won 17 of his 25 starts. The Royals were under .500 when Duffy joined the rotation, so having him begin the year as a starter possibly cost them getting off to a better start this season.
Punted on Omar Infante sooner
Ideally, the Royals would have cut ties with Infante over the off-season, after two disappointing seasons with the bat. But it is understandable for the Royals to hope he might still have something left in the tank, especially since his decline was due in part to injury.
But Infante never turned things around, and by May, it was time for him to go. The Royals kept him around until June 15, when they finally designated him for assignment him after 149 plate appearances and -0.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to Baseball-Reference. Maybe it would not have made that big of a difference, since Whit Merrifield was underwhelming after a hot start, but Infante was definitely hurting the Royals early in the year, and having someone else play those games may have yielded a different result.
Bumped Alcides Escobar from the leadoff spot
We all knew there was little correlation between Escobar leading off and the Royals winning games, but Ned Yost was adamant about keeping the lineup that had won him two pennants and a championship. The Royals had been winning in spite of Escobar’s league-worst OPS from the leadoff spot in 2015, but they won 95 games so....Boom, Yosted.
This year, the offense struggled much of the year, and they are currently second-to-last in runs scored. While much of that has nothing to do with Escobar, leading him off with his sub-.300 on-base percentage did not help matters. The Royals were again dead last in the league in production from the leadoff spot, and while Escobar has hit better lately, he has still been one of the worst-hitting regulars in baseball this year. Ned Yost finally demoted Alcides from the leadoff spot in early August, but by then the damage had been done.
Not pitch Joakim Soria in high leverage situations
The Royals have been praised for winning with a dominant bullpen. Their formula for success does not give the pen much margin for error, so it makes sense to stock the pen full of quality arms. In that respect, it made a bit of sense for the Royals to pursue a free agent like Joakim Soria.
It was understandable that Ned Yost wanted to begin the year with Soria pitching in high-leverage situations, even if it was a bit head-scratching he chose Soria to be the eighth inning reliever over the much superior Kelvin Herrera. But once Soria struggled early in the year, it should have been apparent that he needed to be kept from pitching in high-leverage situations. Yet Ned Yost’s stubbornness, and a lack of other options due to late-season injuries to Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar, put Soria in position to fail night after night. In a season where the Royals are only a few games out of making a Wild Card spot, even a fraction of the 13 games where Soria has given the other team the lead could have spelled the difference between an October run and staying home.