The Royals ‘flipped the switch” in 2011, bringing up a number of exciting prospects from the best farm system in baseball, but that didn’t bring automatic success as it took awhile for the youngsters to get their feet wet in the big leagues. The Royals marketing department jumped the gun in 2012 with the slogan “Our Time” that became widely mocked when the team stumbled out of the gate with the ups and downs that young players typically go through.
It wouldn’t be long before it would be time for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain to shine in the biggest spotlight of all. But it was still hard to imagine a championship club back in 2012.
Manager: Ned Yost
General Manager: Dayton Moore
Runs scored: 676 (12th out of 14 American League teams)
Runs allowed: 746 (10th)
Attendance: 1,739,859 (21,480 per game), 25th out of 30 MLB teams
Payroll: $60,916,225 (27th)
Rookies: Jarrod Dyson, Kelvin Herrera, Will Smith
Top prospect: The Royals took a gamble on being able to sign high schooler Wil Myers in the third round of the 2009 draft, and by 2012 it was looking like a huge win. Myers was dominating the upper minors, hitting .314/.388/.600 with 37 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, and was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America and USA Today.
2012 draft: Kyle Zimmer (5th overall), Sam Selman, Daniel Stumpf, Andrew Triggs, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills, Ashton Goudeau, Jake Newberry, Evan Phillips (did not sign)
All-Star: Billy Butler
Say hello to: Yuniesky Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, Jeremy Guthrie, Jose Mijares, Humberto Quintero, Jonathan Sanchez
Say goodbye to: Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francis, Jason Kendall
Best player: Alex Gordon
Best pitcher: Kelvin Herrera
Worst player: Jeff Francoeur
Worst pitcher: Jonathan Sanchez
What went right: The Royals were quickly building one of the better bullpens in the league - Royals relievers had a 3.17 ERA, fourth in the AL. Billy Butler had a career season with a high of 29 home runs. Alex Gordon was the best defensive left fielder in the game.
What went wrong: Royals starters had a 5.01 ERA, fifth-worst in baseball. Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain each missed several months with injuries, while Joakim Soria missed the entire season. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas regressed, and Jeff Francoeur fell off a cliff.
The Royals ended the 2011 season full of hope despite losing 91 games. Alex Gordon broke out with a career season, fulfilling the potential many saw in him when he was made the second overall pick out of Nebraska. Eric Hosmer had a terrific rookie season, Salvador Perez was a sensation seemingly out of nowhere in the final two months, and Mike Moustakas hit well in September after some early struggles following his MLB debut. The Royals also enjoyed career rebounds from free agent outfielders Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera, continued excellence with the bat from Billy Butler, and solid defense from new shortstop Alcides Escobar.
The holes were clearly on the pitching side, particularly in the rotation. Dayton Moore jumped on a trade immediately after the World Series, acquiring lefty Jonathan Sanchez from the Giants for Cabrera. Sanchez had a big arm that had struck out over a hitter-per-inning with the Giants, while the Royals were cashing in on Cabrera’s big season by selling high. When Sanchez was on, he was unhittable, like he was in a 2009 no-hitter against the Padres. Sam Mellinger of the Star called him “the best starting pitcher the Royals have acquired since Gil Meche” and asserted the move could make the Royals sleepers in the Central Division.
Sanchez also had a propensity to be wild, and with so many question marks around him in the rotation, he didn’t have much room for error. The rotation candidates included disappointing former #1 overall pick Luke Hochevar, an oft-injured pitcher that showed flashes after they got him from the Rockies named Felipe Paulino, lefty Danny Duffy, who struggled in his rookie campaign, and possibly moving relievers like Aaron Crow or Everett Teaford to a starting role.
The Royals instead decided to bring back veteran lefty Bruce Chen on a two-year, $9 million deal. They also put out feelers to make a big splash in the rotation, checking in on veteran starter Roy Oswalt or possibly trading for Braves starter Jair Jurrjens or Athletics starter Gio Gonzalez. There was even a rumor at the Winter Meetings that they had proposed acquiring Rays starter James Shields (who they would acquire a year later) for Joakim Soria and top prospects Wil Myers and Christian Colon. Ultimately the Royals found the asking price for top starting pitchers to be too rich for their blood.
Instead, the Royals focused on bulking up the bullpen, which had All-Star closer Joakim Soria and an emerging heir apparent in Greg Holland. Dayton Moore added former Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton as another late-inning option, as well as lefty specialist Jose Mijares.
The team also looked to add a veteran infielder with some versatility, with rumors suggesting they could sign Carlos Guillen. Instead, it was much-maligned infielder Yuniesky Betancourt inking a one-year deal to return to Kansas City. He would only last until August, when the team let him go for grumbling about playing time.
Ned Yost was optimistic going into his second full season with the club, confidently telling reporters “playing .500 has never entered my mind,” adding “I think we’re going to play much better than .500.” After years of a rebuild, there would be higher expectations in Kansas City.
“But who knows? These kids all have to perform. They all have to continue to develop and grow, but I think we’re at a stage in our development as an organization that these kids are ready for (increased expectations).
“I think they believe they can win, and it’s time to really start focusing on doing whatever it takes, each and every single day, to win a baseball game.”
The Royals committed to their future by signing two of their young players to long-term deals that off-season. Alcides Escobar signed a four-year, $10.5 million deal with two club option years in March, and 21-year-old catcher Salvador Perez signed a five-year, $7 million deal with three club option years, despite having played just 39 Major League games.
But just weeks after inking his deal, Perez learned he would miss the start of the season after tearing his lateral meniscus in spring training warmup, an injury that would keep him out until June. The Royals got more bad news in spring training when they learned closer Joakim Soria would need his second Tommy John surgery, ending his season. The Royals would end up declining his options due to the injury, and he would pitch for the Rangers, Tigers, and Pirates before returning to Kansas City in 2016.
The Royals also lost reliever Blake Wood to Tommy John surgery that spring, and before the end of the season, pitchers Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino would also have to undergo the procedure. In the first week of the season, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain made a jumping catch at the wall in Oakland, but in doing so injured his groin, keeping him out of action until just after the All-Star break. Second baseman Chris Getz even broke his thumb trying to bunt. The injury bug had spread throughout the clubhouse.
The Royals held their own on a 3-3 West Coast road trip to begin the year, but when they returned to Kansas City they could not buy a win. They lost the home opener against Cleveland, then lost in extra innings the next day. Cleveland swept them, then Detroit and Toronto came in town and did the same. The Royals lost all ten games on their homestand, then their first game of the next road trip, an eleven-game losing streak in all that would bury them in the standings before the season had really begun.
The Royals would right the ship a bit with a winning record in both May and June and actually pulled to within six games of .500 by the start of July. But the starting pitching was an absolute mess with Luke Hochevar continuing to disappoint and Jonathan Sanchez walking everyone in sight. The Royals were also reckless on the bases, giving away outs with “small ball” in a vain attempt to jumpstart the offense.
One bright spot in the first half was third baseman Mike Moustakas who was garnering attention to potentially be the Royals representative for the All-Star Game to be held in Kansas City. Billy Butler was also enjoying his best power season and would eventually be the Royals’ rep in front of Royals faithful (although he was passed up for the Home Run Derby, earning boos for Derby captain Robinson Cano, who had agreed to choose a home rep).
The decision to extend Jeff Francoeur while trading Melky Cabrera looked like an awful one by mid-season when Frenchy’s performance cratered and Cabrera was named All-Star Game MVP. What made the trade worse was Jonathan Sanchez putting up a 7.76 ERA in 12 starts. Thankfully, the Royals found a trade for him, sending him to Colorado for Jeremy Guthrie, whose flyball tendencies were getting killed in the thin air of Coors Field. Guthrie found life better at sea level and was fantastic for the Royals down the stretch with a 3.16 ERA in 14 starts.
The Royals lost 19 of 26 in July to dash any chance of a winning season, but they finished the season winning half of their final 60 games, giving fans hope that the youngsters were on the right track. Alex Gordon led the league with 51 doubles and won his second Gold Glove Award. Billy Butler hit a career-high 29 home runs, finished sixth in RBI, ninth in OPS, and won his only Silver Slugger Award. Lorenzo Cain returned to have a solid second half, and fans were surprised when his understudy, Jarrod Dyson, stole 30 bases and put up 1.5 WAR in a part-time role. Salvador Perez would return from injury without missing a beat, hitting .301/.328/.471 with 11 home runs in 76 games, while flashing Gold Glove-caliber defense and an infectious smile that would make him a fan favorite. Moustakas had a terrible nosedive in the second half, and Eric Hosmer floundered much of the season with the “sophomore jinx”, but there was still a promising future for both. It was also becoming clear the Royals had a group of very solid young relievers - Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, and Aaron Crow were all 26 or younger with an ERA under 3.50.
But the starting pitching was still a mess, and it became clear that the Royals had to make a big move. That winter, Dayton Moore would make the biggest gamble of his career, trading for Rays pitcher James Shields, and the trajectory of the franchise would be altered forever.