“Hope springs eternal”
It’s a phrase from the poem An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope. Mr. Pope may have thought you could rhyme “know” with “now” but he otherwise gave us this lasting tidbit. For once, it means exactly what you think it means; humans are prone to always hope for the best, even in the face of adversity. This includes even long-suffering Royals fans who made it to the promised land for two straight years before unceremoniously being kicked out with no promise of ever returning in our lifetimes.
Dayton Moore has hope that the Royals can compete this year. I’ve mocked him pretty mercilessly for that stance but... What if they could? I’m old enough to remember when Joe Posnanski wrote for the KC Star and had an annual column about how the Royals could be competitive in a given season. I’m gullible enough that I didn’t realize they weren’t usually serious until years after he left. We’ve had at least one article on Royals Review, now, comparing the Royals to Cleveland’s baseball team and pointing out how even a reduced Ohio club is still more than a match for the Royals.
But, of course, the Royals don’t have to catch Cleveland in order to make it to the post-season. They just have to be the second-best non-division winner. Put that way, with so many teams equally unwilling to spend to compete, it doesn’t sound quite so impossible, does it? Cleveland, New York, Houston and Boston all seem primed to claim four of the playoff spots. That leaves one spot that could potentially be stolen by Royal speedsters. The odds aren’t in the Royals’ favor. But they never will be. There are only ever 3 possible playoff spots that they can occupy with 12 other teams to compete against. So, if we callously disregard that caveat, what competition do the Royals face, next year?
As previously noted the Yankees and Red Sox seem likely to take two of the spots. The Rays were better than most people assume, last year, but they’ve still got to match up against those two juggernauts an awful lot. Toronto and Baltimore both figure to be approximately as weak as KC.
The Mariners have been selling. The Rangers aren’t noticeably improved from their 67-95 campaign in 2018. The Angels have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani but precious little else they can rely on. The Athletics made the wild card game last year and I still can’t name five of their players so you have to assume anything between a division win and 100 losses is in play for them.
Of course the Twins have a lot of promise, but they kind of fell on their faces last year. Detroit has an aging Miguel Cabrera and some good-looking younger guys but precious little experience and also lost 98 games with roughly the same roster, last season. The White Sox seemed poised to break out with a bunch of prospects last year but raced with the Royals to the bottom of the division for much of the season before settling on losing only 100 games. If the Rays’ path is that much more difficult because of their division rivals you can see a world where the Royals’ path is much easier for having theirs.
The Royals lost 104 games last year but dagnabbit if they didn’t have a winning September to avoid the worst record in team history. You can kind of squint and see how they might compete, too. What if Ryan O’Hearn is for real? What if Danny Duffy and Jorge Soler stay healthy? What if Brett Phillips can stop striking out so much? What if Adalberto Mondesi gets even better and Whit Merrifield doesn’t fall off at all? What if some combination of Brad Boxberger, Richard Lovelady, Drew Storen, Jake Diekman, Ian Kennedy, and Josh Staumont fix the leaky bullpen? What if Kyle Zimmer joins the rotation, stays healthy, and lives up to his potential?
That’s a lot of what ifs, I know. But... what if. No one outside those top four teams seem like strong candidates in the American League. You don’t have to convince me that the Royals probably won’t be good enough, next year. All else being equal the odds would still be stacked against them and all else isn’t equal. But, well, it’s spring training. Who knows? Once upon a time a catcher pulled a pitch 20 feet outside of the strike zone down the third-base line for a game winning single in one of the most exciting post-season games ever played. Once upon a time a baseball spun exactly the right way to bounce past a pitcher and a shortstop to allow the Royals to continue a comeback that ultimately led to them winning a World Series. Once upon a time a first baseman did the equivalent of stealing home on a routine groundball to third. Stranger things have happened.
What if they do compete? Wouldn’t that be cool?