A week has gone by, and it’s another off day, so there’s not much to do but reflect. The Royals are currently 2-5 and in last place of the American League Central.
The season is early, way too early, and that magnifies every little thing that happens. In a seven-game stretch like this in the middle of the season, nobody would be much worried about anything, but this seven-game stretch has seemed to ruffle some feathers and we’ve been getting some pretty hot takes from the baseball public (I have seen some Twitter replies calling for the firing of both Ned Yost and Dayton Moore already).
But these games do matter in a way, because after a long offseason it’s the first time we’ve seen this team on the field. So keeping some perspective, let’s take a look at three things to keep an eye out for after our first week.
The dangers of falling down a hole
For teams that are young and good, the baseball season is like shooting two free throws when you’re in the bonus: you get multiple chances to finish with a strong record and can make adjustments halfway if you need to. The 2015 Royals were a great example; they did very well in the first half of the year, but still used their position to grab Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to nail the second half and hopefully give themselves a better shot in the playoffs. The 2017 Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians are this way, too.
But teams that are old and good, or just old, operate under a different metaphor. Their season is like shooting a one-and-one: you only get to attempt a second free throw if you make the first one.
The Royals are in the latter basket (pun intended) this season. They have the 11th-oldest lineup of batters and the 2nd-oldest collection of pitchers this year. Furthermore, the Royals will lose a fifth of their 2017 opening day roster to free agency at the end of this season, those being Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Jason Vargas.
Yeah, it’s only been a week’s worth of games, but the first half of the season matters more than the second half, because it’s the first half that determines what happens in the second half. If the Royals continue to lag behind the competition, Dayton Moore may have no choice but to trade all five of those names away, kicking a full rebuild into effect that may also see offseason trades of Kelvin Herrera, Ian Kennedy, Alex Gordon, or others.
Ned Yost’s lineup and bullpen decisions
The 2014 and 2015 Royals were a ‘plug and play’ team; in other words, the team needed very few difficult tactical or strategic decisions to be made. Billy Butler and Kendrys Morales were designated hitters without big lefty/righty splits, and the Law Firm of Herrera, Davis, and Holland eliminated much late-game decision making on Yost’s part.
That’s just not the case anymore. The Royals’ only switch hitter is a guy who should still be in the minor leagues, and the lineup itself is full of guys with large platoon splits—that list includes Paulo Orlando, Cheslor Cuthbert, Brandon Moss, and even Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have pretty sizable splits themselves. Without Davis and Holland, or even Luke Hochevar and Ryan Madson, the Royals have a much more situational bullpen. Herrera and Joakim Soria can handle lefties and righties, but outside those two it gets dirtier. Matt Strahm and Travis Wood are great against lefties but pretty terrible against righties, and Peter Moylan is the opposite.
Constructing a team like this isn’t inherently bad, but it requires the manager to use it efficiently. Yost has very definitively not done so. On Sunday, Yost went with Wood in the seventh inning to face four consecutive right-handers with the rest of his bullpen rested and ready, such basic managerial malpractice as to almost seem like a troll job. Wood emphatically surrendered the lead, allowing a two-run homer and simultaneously surprising no one. Then, in the ninth inning of the home opener with the game-tying runs on base in the ninth inning, Yost let one of the best left-handed relievers in the game (Sean Doolittle) face his most vulnerable lefty hitter (Moss) with Cuthbert and Colon, both right-handers with higher contact skills, sitting on the bench. Moss, rather predictably, made the last out.
Remember, Yost was unceremoniously fired from his previous managing gig in Milwaukee after it was clear his decisions were negatively impacting the team in a playoff race, and our own Shaun Newkirk once called for his termination (echoing many other voices) after a similar series of occurrences in a playoff race in 2014. Yost can’t throw cyborg after cyborg at the competition anymore. He’s going to need to manage better, but there’s no guarantee he will.
The lower third of the lineup disaster
Seven games have flown by, and so has the lower third of the lineup through the things known as ‘outs.’ This is a broken metaphor and needs not continue, but the lower third of the lineup is possibly more broken than that metaphor.
There have been five names occupying either the seven, eight, and nine spots in the lineup: Paulo Orlando, Alcides Escobar, Raul Mondesi, Christian Colon, and Drew Butera. They have stepped up to the plate a combined 81 times. They have made an out 69 times. That is bad, like when you open a can of Dr. Pepper and instead of a glorious twelve ounces of carbonated heaven you get less than two because the can was leaky.
The combined triple slash of those five players is rather amusing and equally sad: .124/.148/.152. Escobar has two doubles, but those are the only extra base hits in the bunch.
Somebody will get hot and the line won’t remain that low for the rest of the year, but there are red flags that the bottom third of the lineup will be a sinkhole. If they do heat up, though, that would be a welcome boost, and might propel the Royals to some of those wins for which they’ve been searching.