Trades have Royals in driver's seat
CLEVELAND -- Before this week, the Kansas City Royals could return to the World Series. Now they should return to the World Series. Before, they might win the title. Now, they'd better win the title.
Those are the noteworthy nuances we're dealing with here, in the wake of the bold bids for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. When a small-market club sells off a significant section of the farm system for a couple of robust rentals, it has publicly forfeited any "aw shucks, it would be nice to win one" slogan it might have once abided by, and instead embraced the "World Series or bust" feel that, fair or not, will define its identity for the next three months.
To the guys in the Royals' clubhouse, though, the transition is not nearly as significant as it might externally appear.
"We were already confident, as it is," said Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City's would-be American League MVP Award candidate in a world without Mike Trout.
It is increasingly clear that this confidence is the unweighable edge in a game increasingly evaluated statistically.
Here's one such stat: Only five times in the Wild Card era and only twice since 2002 has a team appeared in consecutive Fall Classics. It's that recent history that leads a lot of us to wonder if the Royals can prove their staying power, but Kansas City has already addressed a lot of its perceived issues.
Maybe you, like me, had questions (not doubts, mind you, but questions) about the abilities of Cain, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer to build off their high-profile Octobers and take the next necessary strides in their development. Maybe you, like me, had concerns about the wrist injury that slowed Alex Gordon's spring and now the left groin injury that has stunted his summer. Maybe you, like me, had fears the bullpen would regress enough to become less of a bankable asset. Maybe you, like me, were very much in wait-and-see mode on Edinson Volquez's ability to augment the starting staff and Kendrys Morales' capability of rounding out the lineup.
Well, ultimately, our opinions on the Royals didn't matter anywhere nearly as much as the team's opinion of itself. And now general manager Dayton Moore has made it clear that he thinks enough of the reigning AL champions to go all-in on its ability to win 11 times come October.
That's what you have to respect about Kansas City's week. So often, teams look for reasons not to do something dramatic. Young, controllable assets like a Brandon Finnegan or a Sean Manaea are often seen as the lifeblood of an organization, and teams are understandably hesitant to part with them.
And let's face it: With a comfortable cushion in an AL Central that has been weaker than anticipated and with the AL field, in general, profiling as watered-down, it would have been easy for this front office and this ownership to settle for some filler or simply stand pat, all while leaving the payroll at its already franchise-record level.
But Moore was emboldened enough by the unique window of opportunity the Royals have created for themselves to do what he's done here in the lead-up to Friday's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
"It just speaks to Dayton's character," Moustakas said. "He did whatever he could to put us in position to win by acquiring two phenomenal baseball players."
This was, of course, an acknowledgement that the Royals were not a perfect baseball team. They've handled Gordon's absence rather seamlessly so far, but Paulo Orlando's .514 slugging percentage in July did not strike anybody as especially sustainable, and Jarrod Dyson is most valuable as a bench weapon.
Zobrist, baseball's answer to the Swiss Army knife, can ably handle left field in the interim, then provide breathers for the infielders, most notably Omar Infante, who is defensively polished but has struggled on the other side.
The switch-hitting Zobrist also brings his career .813 OPS against lefties. Though Kansas City has a satisfying .716 OPS against southpaws this season, Hosmer freely admitted, "We've had our struggles against some good left-handed pitching."
Perhaps you remember how one lefty, in particular, shut the Royals down in Game 7 last fall.
To that point, maybe Cueto fills a Madison Bumgarner-like role on this club, emerging as its own October horse.
The trouble there is that we really don't have a great feel for Cueto on the postseason stage. He pulled up lame eight pitches into the 2012 National League Division Series, and the longstanding belief is that he was pitching hurt when Francisco Liriano outdueled him in the 2013 NL Wild Card Game. More pertinently, Cueto has had extra rest twice this season because of minor elbow concerns, and neither Kansas City nor the pending free agent Cueto can afford for that to become a more pronounced problem in the home stretch.
With all that said, hey, no in-season (or offseason) acquisition comes with a warranty. Give the Royals credit for identifying not just the needs but the solutions in a market short on sellers and then aggressively and efficiently acting upon them well before 3 p.m. CT Friday.
Now, it's World Series or bust.
October is no less a crapshoot than it was before these trades. But give these Royals five or six satisfying innings from the starting staff -- in which Danny Duffy has made major second-half strides and Yordano Ventura had arguably his most encouraging outing of the season Sunday -- and the bullish bullpen can take over. The lineup still delivers on defense and can still make opponents uncomfortable on the bases, and now it comes with a little added pop and, in Zobrist, a lot more versatility. Kansas City has all the pieces.
"Are the expectations higher? Yes, they're higher," manager Ned Yost said. "Are the expectations higher in our minds? Yes, they're higher in our minds. But if you look at the way these guys have fulfilled the expectations to this point, that's the good feeling. They're not overwhelmed. They know where they're going, they know how to get there and they're going out and making it happen."
And the front office and ownership are backing them every step of the way.