We left them for dead. Again. There was a pulse, but the patient was on life support. Just like in 2013. And in 2014. And in 2016. And yet each time, the patient came back to life, if even momentarily.
Yet we didn’t learn our lesson. The Royals had a disastrous month of April, dropping 16 of 23 games, with a historically awful offense. Eric Hosmer couldn’t hit hit way out of a paper bag. Raul Mondesi looked overwhelmed. Brandon Moss couldn’t buy a hit. Alex Gordon looked finished. Jason Hammel and Travis Wood were disasters. The team looked old. Slow. Washed up. A former champion in decline.
And yet, six weeks later, the Royals have somehow climbed into the periphery of contention. A lot of these factors haven’t changed - Alex Gordon is still having a terrible season, Travis Wood is a human surrender flag, and wake me up when Brandon Moss climbs over the Mendoza Line. To make matters worse, the Royals are missing two-fifths of their rotation with Danny Duffy and Nate Karns out for over a month.
But these Royals always seem to defy logic. Worst offense in baseball? No problem, just win the 2014 pennant. Down four runs in an elimination game in the playoffs? No sweat, just storm back and win a championship. Six games under .500 at the July 31 trade deadline? Easy-peasy, just get me a mantis and put this team back in a Wild Card race.
So the Royals have kinda climbed back into a race of the mediocre teams of the American League Central Division. At 30-34, they certainly don’t look like a playoff team, but with just one team - the first-place Twins - over .500 with a less-than-excellent record of 33-29, the division seems up for grabs, even for teams with losing records.
I have said that if the Royals were to compete this year, it would take elite seasons from their core players. And here we are in June, and Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain are both in the top 25 in the American League in fWAR. Moose and Eric Hosmer are both in the top 25 in OPS and wRC+. The offense isn’t elite, but it may have some elite players who can carry sluggish bats like Gordon, Moss, and Alcides Escobar.
There is still much work to be done, however. On paper, the Royals still project to be a 76-win team. But no one in the division projects to be better than 88 wins. In a decidedly mediocre division, all it takes is for one team to get hot at just the right moment.
What needs to happen from here on out for the Royals to really get back in this thing? They have been beating up on terrible teams like the Padres and Giants this week, but the road gets much tougher ahead. Of their next 26 games, 23 come against teams that are one-game below .500 or better, including the Red Sox and first-place Dodgers.
The pitching rotation will have to stabilize while Karns and Duffy are out. A lot hinges on whether Matt Strahm can transition into a starting role, as Eric Skoglund has been unreliable since his amazing debut. Jason Vargas will have to avoid too much regression. Ian Kennedy has to be healthy and effective.
The bullpen needs to be a lot better. They have underperformed their WHIP a bit, and I would guess Travis Wood isn’t this bad, and Kelvin Herrera should improve, but this is certainly not going to be a top-shelf bullpen as it has been in the past. The Royals should not spend precious capital from their minor league system to make a trade, but Dayton Moore could have to use his special "finding diamonds in the rough for the bullpen" skills to find a guy off the waiver wire or in a minor deal to add some depth in that pen. Having Brian Flynn back soon could help, and don’t discount the possibility Kyle Zimmer is in the big league pen before too long.
Finally, the Royals will need the bottom of the lineup to quit being such a black hole of suckitude. Here is where the Royals rank in the AL by OPS, according to order in the lineup:
Fortunately, the leadoff spot has been fixed by putting Whit Merrifield at the top, but the bottom three spots (Whit Merrifield hit .390 from the 8th spot, so he's the reason that is as high as it is) need to step up and just be "not terrible". That may mean benching veterans like Escobar, Moss, and Gordon, in favor of younger players like Ramon Torres or Jorge Soler, who could give the Royals a boost the way Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio have so far.
Can they overcome those obstacles? There are still many forces working against them. Perhaps you are worried that this team will get just good enough to forestall a July firesale, but not good enough to actually contend. I share that worry as well. Mediocrity is probably the worst outcome for the Royals. They need to be decidedly good or decidedly bad. But there is also no reason to worry about a firesale in June. Very few teams make big deals in June. Let's let the next month play out and see where the Royals are then.
It is odd to get excited about a team that is four games under .500 in mid-June as a contender. Maybe you're not there yet. After all, it would just take one bad week for the Royals to sink to the worst record in the league. But with such a mediocre division and a flat league where no team other than the Astros has stood out, it would really just take winning 15 of their next 20 to be really in this thing. I'm a Royals fan, I've seen some stuff, man. I don't think the playoffs are the likeliest scenario or that it even has a decent shot of happening. I just wouldn't count these guys out for awhile.