The Royals had floundered in the first four full seasons under new General Manager Dayton Moore, failing to win 75 games during that time. The 2011 season would not be any different in that respect, but it did mark a new era of Royals baseball as the farm system produced a new generation of Royals players. The fans may not have known it yet, but the foundation was being set for a championship ballclub.
What went right: Short-term contract gambles on Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur paid off big. Only the Yankees got better production from their outfield in the American League than the Royals, whose outfielders collectively hit .292/.347/.468. Young rookies like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Pérez, and Greg Holland were productive players. The club went from the worst baserunning team in baseball and second-worst defensive team to middle of the road in both categories.
What went wrong: The starting rotation had a 4.82 ERA, second-worst in the American League. The Royals were dead last in walks drawn and had the fourth-lowest home run total for their hitters.
How they started: The Royals had three walk-off wins in the first week and were 10-4 to start the year, but a six-game losing streak got them under .500 before the month of April was done.
Best game: May 10. Eric Hosmer was playing in his second MLB game ever, in Yankee Stadium. He would smack a fourth-inning home run into the second deck for his first ever dinger. The Royals would tie the game in the eighth to make it 2-2, and would take the lead in the ninth, before Joakim Soria would cough up the lead in the bottom of the ninth.
With the game tied in the tenth, Chris Getz would open with a walk. Alcides Escobar sacrificed him to second, and Jarrod Dyson would single him to third. Eric Hosmer’s sacrifice fly would score him to give the Royals a lead they would not relinquish. In many ways, the game represented a new era of Royals baseball.
Worst game: May 16. Kyle Davies left the first inning of his start against the Indians with shoulder inflammation, and Ned Yost did not want to burn through his bullpen. He brought long reliever Vin Mazzaro in for the third, and Mazzaro got through the inning without a run scoring. The fourth inning was a different story. The Indians hung ten runs on him, to make the game a 13-0 laugher. But still, Ned Yost kept him in the game.
Mazzaro would give up three more hits and a walk in the fifth - all of which would score, before Yost mercifully pulled him. In all, Mazzaro had given up 14 runs in relief, one of the worst performances ever. The Indians won 19-1.
The 2011 Season in Review
The Royals were coming off a 95-loss season in 2010, with a lineup full of fringe Major Leaguers like Wilson Betimet and Mitch Maier, and stop-gap veterans like Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall. Of the nine players in their 2010 Opening Day lineup, just four were under contract with the Royals for 2011.
That number went down to three, when at the beginning of the off-season, the Royals traded outfielder David DeJesus to the Oakland Athletics for minor league pitchers Justin Marks and Vin Mazzarro. DeJesus had drawn plenty of trade interest that past July with the Royals talking with the Red Sox, but the Red Sox had balked on moving outfielder Josh Reddick, instead offering outfielder Ryan Kalish. DeJesus broke his wrist in late July, nixing a trade during the season. With his club option year remaining, the Royals shipped him to Oakland in November.
That left Billy Butler, Chris Getz, and Yuniesky Betancourt as the only returning starters from Opening Day. Alex Gordon had come up from Omaha mid-season after a demotion to learn to play left-field, and had played reasonably well enough to be penciled into the starting lineup for 2011. But the club needed two more outfielders, preferably right-handed hitters with Maier, Gregor Blanco, and rookie Jarrod Dyson on the roster.
The Royals pounced on a pair of young former prospects who had been non-tendered - Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur.
"We targeted Jeff and Melky months ago as players we felt were not even at the prime of their careers yet, haven't peaked....There's upside there. Guys who were going to play with energy, guys who were going to be enthusiastic."
Cabrera had been a bust with the Yankees, and didn’t do much better with the Braves before they let him go. Frenchy was the one-time Sports Illustrated coverboy whose career had gotten progressively worse each year. Both signed one-year, “make-good” deals with the Royals, a last chance to save their careers.
Looming over the off-season, however, was the request by star pitcher and 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. Tired of losing, Greinke requested a trade to a contender, and General Manager Dayton Moore tried his best to fulfill the request. He found plenty of interest from the Rangers and Blue Jays, but was unable to pry the top shelf prospects he was looking for.
Eventually, Moore had a deal on the table with the Washington Nationals that included pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen and infielder Danny Espinosa. But Greinke had a limited no-trade clause, and playing for the 93-loss Nationals did not seem any better to him than playing for the Royals.
Undeterred, Dayton Moore eventually worked out a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, and even that required Zack Greinke to be persuaded to accept the deal. The Royals would receive rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar, minor league outfielder Lorenzo Cain, top pitching prospect Jake Odorizzi, and minor league pitcher Jeremy Jeffress.
“There are no potential stars in the group. Not one. Oh, someone like Cain could emerge as a star, but it would be a surprise. “
Four major-league baseball personnel men, reached on Sunday, rated the Royals’ return on a 1-to-10 scale, with 5 being average. One said 5, one said 6 and one said 7. "If you’re comparing it literally, the Royals didn’t make out great," the fourth said. "But if you’re considering what the Royals wanted and what they have and what position they’re in, I’m impressed."
What was considered at the time to be an underwhelming haul for two years of one of the best pitchers in baseball turned into one of the best trade packages in the last decade. Escobar would solidify the shortstop position for the Royals, earning a Gold Glove and winning 2015 ALCS MVP. Lorenzo Cain would become an All-Star, one of the best defenders in baseball, and was instrumental in their run in 2015, finishing third in MVP balloting that year. Jake Odorizzi would be one of the primary trade pieces in landing James Shields, part of their 2014 ballclub that won the pennant.
Flipping the Switch
The Royals felt like 2011 was the year the farm system would start producing the future stars of the franchise that would carry the team to contention. Baseball America had tabbed the Royals as the top farm system in baseball, and it was easy to see why. High draft picks, some nice late round finds, investment in international scouting, and an infusion of talent from the Greinke trade had loaded the organization with nine of the top 100 prospects in baseball.
"Next year is the beginning of the process...we're another year closer to getting those kids ready to being in the big leagues. It's going to be a pivotal year for us in terms of our development.”
However, the young future superstars were not quite ready yet. Salvador Pérez would begin his season in AA Northwest Arkansas, while Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would begin their season in Omaha. So the Opening Day catcher was Matt Treanor. The first baseman was Kila Ka’aihue. The third baseman was Mike Aviles. These guys were simply placeholders.
The Royals dropped the season opener against the Angels, but won their first game the next day with a walk-off home run by Ka’aihue. Two days later, Matt Treanor won a game with a three-run walk-off home run against the Angels. The next day, a walk-off single by Melky Cabrera. Was something going on in Kansas City?
After taking three of four from the Mariners, the Royals were 10-5 and had not lost a series yet. There was cautious optimism, but most understood the reality. It was a starting rotation held together by duct tape, featuring castoffs like Jeff Francis, Bruce Chen, and Sean O’Sullivan, and disappointments like Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies. The Royals dropped eight of their next ten, giving up 66 runs over that time and falling under .500. They would poke their head above .500 again, but in May they dropped 17 of 27 to go under .500 for good.
“There may not be a lot of people who agree with this, but the Royals are still not the caliber of big-league team that should be judged primarily on wins and losses. There are too many holes, still, too many positions and roster spots that will be filled by different men if and when the winning comes to look only at the record to judge progress.”
Meanwhile, Hosmer was raking in Omaha, hitting .439/.525/.582 over his first 26 games. Minor league coaches said he was ready. Kila Ka’ahiue was floundering, hitting below the Mendoza Line. It was time for the youth movement to come to Kansas City.
“Gene Watson, our director of professional scouting, kept asking me, “When are we going to flip the switch?””
-Dayton Moore, More than a Season
The Royals could have kept Hosmer in Omaha a few more weeks to game his arbitration clock, but they called him up on May 10 to make his Major League debut. After an 0-for-3 debut, Hosmer came up in Yankee Stadium in his second game. In the fourth inning, Hosmer crushed a pitch into the second deck. It was the kind of performance in the spotlight Royals fans would become accustomed to from Hosmer later in his career.
A week later, the Royals would call up Danny Duffy to make his Major League debut, getting four innings from him in his inaugural start. Reliever Greg Holland - who debuted in September of 2010 - was called up the next day. By June, Mike Moustakas was up, and he wasn’t too upset that his buddy Eric Hosmer got the call before he did.
"When do we start bringing championships home to Kansas City? That's the only race we're concerned about. That's how the Royals brought us up in this organization — to win ballgames and to win championships."
The gambles on Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur proved to be terrific signings, as both players enjoyed career seasons. Cabrera hit .305/.339/.470 with 18 home runs, while Francoeur hit .285/.329/.476 with 20 home runs and 22 steals. The Royals dismissed any talk of trading the players at the deadline, and instead signed Francoeur to a two-year extension in August.
General Manager Dayton Moore also downplayed the possibility of trading relieve Joakim Soria, who had struggled earlier in the year and temporarily lost his closer’s role. The Royals had Soria under control for three more years through club options, but some observers thought it was time to trade Soria for prospects. Ultimately, the only moves the Royals made at the trade deadline sent infielder Wilson Betimet to Detroit and Mike Aviles to Boston for forgettable minor leaguers. Soria would end up getting Tommy John surgery the next spring, leading the Royals to cut ties with him.
In August, the youth movement continued with Salvador Pérez promoted to take over at catcher and Johnny Giavotella taking over for Chris Getz at second base. The 21-year old Pérez had skyrocketed through the farm system, drawing rave reviews from coaches before catching the eye of Ned Yost in Kansas City.
"He's going to be an American League All-Star before too long. No doubt. This kid hasn't been overmatched yet. We've seen Moose overmatched. We've seen Esky overmatched. But we haven't seen this kid overmatched."
The young players made a big difference in the identity of the club. The Royals had been one of the worst teams in baseball in both baserunning and defense in 2010. In 2011, they improved dramatically in both areas, with new shortstop Alcides Escobar proving to be one of the best defensive players in baseball and young outfielder Jarrod Dyson showing potential as a base-stealing weapon.
Also coming in his own in 2011 was Alex Gordon. His career at that point had been a disappointment, but after a demotion in 2010 and a position change to left-field, Gordon flourished. He put up career numbers in almost every offensive category, hitting .303/.376/.502 with 23 home runs, and was so good in his first season in left field, he won the Gold Glove. His 6.6 WAR, according to Fangraphs, was the eighth-best in baseball.
But the starting pitching really held the Royals back. Kyle Davies was let go in August. Luke Hochevar seemed to be forever “turning the corner” and was shut down that month over concerns of his workload. The Royals had to start guys like Felipe Paulino and Everett Teaford in an attempt to find a semblance of a starting rotation.
Still, the 2011 Royals had about the most successful 71-91 season a team could have. Eric Hosmer would finish third in Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .293/.334/.465 with 19 home runs. The outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur had a legitimate claim to be the most productive in baseball - and they were all 27 or under. Billy Butler was hitting his stride, and he was still just 25 years old. The Royals were finally strong up the middle with Pérez behind the plate and Escobar at shortstop. The bullpen had some live arms with All-Stars Aaron Crow and Joakim Soria, “Dirty South” Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera, who earned a September callup.
The future seemed bright. But no one knew if, or when a contending season would happen. Little did anyone know, the answer would exceed anyone’s wildest dreams.