The Royals were flying high. They were winning games in exciting, walk-off fashion with a lineup that featured six players age 26 or younger. And it wasn’t just a good week of play, it was two months of .500 ball, exceeding expectations. Baseball America ranked five Royals in their top 100 prospect list. The youth movement was starting to pay dividends and the future looked bright. The year was 2000.
That team featured future All-Stars like Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, and Johnny Damon as well as other promising young hitters like Carlos Febles and Mark Quinn and a late bloomer in Joe Randa. The lineup set a franchise record in runs scored, one of only two times the Royals have finished top five in the American League in that category in the last three decades (2003 was the other season).
But the pitching turned out to be dreadful, finishing second-to-last in runs allowed and dead last in home runs and walks allowed. The bullpen blew 26 saves and the team finished 77-85. The Royals would trade Damon that off-season, and Beltran and Dye shortly after that. Chad Durbin and Jose Rosado got hurt and the five top 100 prospects - outfielder Dee Brown, and pitchers Chris George, Kyle Snyder, Dan Reichert, and Orber Moreno - didn’t pan out.
Just over a decade later, another youth movement began. They played .500 ball over the final two months with a few exciting walk-off wins in September. The lineup featured six players age 26 or younger. Baseball America ranked five Royals in their top 100 prospect list. That year was 2012.
Their pitching staff was just slightly below league average, but thanks to acquisitions and a dominant bullpen, the Royals would allow the fewest runs in the league the following season. The young hitters - Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and Billy Butler - would become household names in Kansas City, eventually winning a pennant, and later, a championship. Three of the five top 100 prospects - Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, and Jake Odorizzi - would be used to acquire pitcher James Shields from the Rays.
A decade later we find the Royals in yet another youth movement. The Royals have played .500 ball since mid-June with a 26-25 record in their last 51 games. They have done so again with a lineup full of youngsters, typically with six hitters in the lineup age 25 or younger - Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, Michael Massey, and Kyle Isbel or Nathan Eaton. Last week against the Red Sox, the Royals had a game in which all 12 runs were driven in by rookies. Mike Matheny summed up the vibe shift the entire organization and fanbase has been feeling:
“We’re quickly, all of us and the whole fan base, falling in love with them.”
The new energy the young players have brought is refreshing and gives fans hope for the future. But the hope needs to translate to wins down the road - will this youth movement be more like 2000 or 2012?
The differing denominator in those movements was, of course, the pitching. The 2000 Royals wanted it, but never got it. The 2012 Royals didn’t necessarily have it, but in one year they were able dramatically improve thanks to some shrewd acquisitions - James Shields, Ervin Santana, Jeremy Guthrie - and a dominant homegrown bullpen.
There are signs this youth movement may be the one to actually develop homegrown starting pitchers. After some early struggles, there are signs the young arms are turning the proverbial corner. Here is what they’ve done in the last two months.
Young Royals starting pitchers since June 15
Look, it’s a small sample size and we’ve all been fooled by hot stretches of play before by the Royals. The run differential over the last two months still isn’t great. Of the 26 wins since June 15, seven are against the Tigers and A’s, the two worst teams in the league.
But the difference now is that the good play is being done by young players who have room to improve, not declining veterans sputtering out one last month of good play like fool’s gold. And it’s fun. If you’re not enjoying Nick Pratto being mobbed by his teammates following a walk-off home run, or MJ Melendez circling the bases with swagger after a dinger, or Vinnie Pasquantino lifting Nicky Lopez for the “Simba-cam”, then I don’t know what to tell you. The kids are playing and they are fun. Let’s hope they can continue to be good as well.