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Underachievement from starting pitchers key in Royals downfall

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The bullpen doesn’t get a pass, either

Colorado Rockies v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

With last night’s loss, the Royals fell to 72-74 on the season and to 5.0 games back of the second Wild Card spot.

There are still two weeks of baseball left to be played, and this Royals bunch has done some crazy things in the past, so I’m not comfortable saying it’s completely over. I’ve learned my lesson about doing that from past experience. But if the Royals postseason chances haven’t completely flatlined, they are right on the cusp of it. And the vibe on Royals twitter last night was that of a memorial service, remembering how this group took the Royals to the promise land.

I am certainly glad that the Royals figured something out in June and July and at least got themselves into the playoff hunt. This season was much more fun than it looked like it was going to be in April and May. However, it goes without saying that the season was a disappointment.

Coming into the year, the thinking was that the Royals had shaken off the cobwebs of an injury-fueled World Series hangover in 2016 and that they would come into 2017 as motivated as ever to make one last run together. And to an extent, they did that. Not all runs end in the postseason or in a championship. But, the expectations weren’t that the Royals would be hovering around .500 and hanging around a weak second Wild Card spot.

The expectations were that the Royals would make one more real run.

And one of the reasons that many of us thought that run was possible was because the starting rotation looked pretty formidable coming into the season. It’s easy to forget just how thin the Royals were at starting pitcher from 2014-2016, and especially in 2015, when they won the World Series.

A cyborg safety net will make you ignore those things, but Chris Young was the Royals best run preventer that season. That World Series starting rotation was, quite literally, the worst in the American League. So they went out and got Ian Kennedy in the offseason, which (kinda) worked in 2016, with Kennedy being a pretty good pitcher. But Young also got extended, and he turned out to be terrible. The late Yordano Ventura was also terrible on top of Edinson Volquez’ nasty regression. The only bright spot wound up being Danny Duffy.

This leads us to 2017. The Royals had Duffy coming back as the established ace of the staff, as well as having Kennedy coming back off of a decent 2016 campaign. The Royals then signed Jason Hammel and Travis Wood in the offseason, bringing much needed depth to the staff, as well as trading for Nate Karns and having Jason Vargas fully healthy.

All indications pointed to a deeper and better rotation that the Royals hadn't been accustomed to. It wasn’t a rotation that was going to shake the world, but it seemed like one that could hop on the core’s shoulders and help to lessen the blow of losing Wade Davis and Greg Holland in the offseason.

This, obviously, didn’t happen. Kennedy has a 5.45 ERA. Hammel’s isn’t much better at 4.91. Wood’s sat at a whopping 6.91 mark before he was traded, although most of that damage came with him in the bullpen. Karns was the lone positive, looking like a back end starter with upside, logging a 4.17 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 45.1 innings before eventually getting hurt and landing on the 60-day DL. Then there was Vargas, and we all know what happened to him.

Overall, the Royals starting rotation has knotched a 4.83 ERA this season, regressing from last year's not-so-good 4.67 mark. The bullpen has struggled, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The rotation sunk the ship. And we are probably kidding ourselves if we think the ship wasn’t sinking, even as Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain and Whit were working their magic for two months.

The bullpen is on fumes, largely because the rotation has pitched the second-fewest innings in the American League this season. And a bad starting rotation leading to a gassed bullpen ultimately led to an improved offense down a road to nowhere. Now, it isn’t like the Royals have lit the world on fire. But Hosmer has had a career year, Cain stayed healthy and has been very good, Moustakas was healthy and we all know what he did. Then there is Whit, who had a breakout season out of nowhere.

The offense is scoring more runs per game than it did in 2016 and 2014, with two (maybe three) black holes in the order. The core was missing the good Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar and Kendrys Morales that it had in 2015, but for the most part, they did what we expected them to do this season.

And in large part, we expected the bullpen to struggle as well. The rotation was the fulcrum from the start and it has not only underachieved, but it has done so in a way that I don’t think anybody could have ever anticipated.