Last Sunday, as I often do, I turned on the American Top 40 replay from the 1980s on our local soft rock station. The countdown was from this week in 1985, and I caught it just in time to hear the #1 song from that week, John Parr’s “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)”. First thing first, whether you approach the song with irony or earnestness, it’s a damn fine song. I enjoyed every second of it, as I always do.
But I also felt a touch of melancholy. That song became one of the unofficial theme songs for last year’s Royals, as it both celebrated their team speed and the pressure they put on other teams and harkened back to their first World Series title in that fall of 1985.
Sadly, it looks like there will not be October baseball for the Kansas City Royals this year. Royals fans will not be singing “St. Elmo’s Fire” out of pure joy and completely free of irony this fall.
Intellectually, most fans have known this for some time. That epically bad July pretty much sunk their playoff hopes. A scorching August made us start thinking it was possible for this group to pull off another miracle, this one over the course of two months instead of a few innings. But a thoroughly mediocre start to their September and the math of games left vs. games behind means that it’s time to face reality.
On one hand, it’s kind of amazing they are still, theoretically, in the Wild Card race. Two-fifths of the starting rotation turned to shit before May 1. Another key part of their rotation has been terrible since July 1. They’ve battled major injuries all season. They’ve hit like shit much of the season. And over the last month the venerable bullpen seems to have finally regressed after three years of magic. Yet, while I think the past few come-from-ahead losses have dashed our dreams of another October run, they could still go on one of their 15–4 runs and sneak in. The problem is, there are only 18 games left. There’s just not enough time.
So this October is going to feel a lot different than the past two. Which, in a way, could be a good thing. For one, my blood pressure will hopefully remain normal as I’m not watching brutally tense baseball games for four hours each night while quadrupling my normal sodium intake as I go through a bag of sunflower seeds every two days. I won’t be drinking 3–4 beers every night, so I doubt I’ll put on the 5–10 pounds I’ve put on the last two Octobers. I’ll get more sleep.
Mostly, though, missing the playoffs will be a reminder that the last two Octobers were insanely glorious. I still, a few times each week, flashback to some moment in the ’14 or ’15 runs and just chuckle that any of it happened. This October would have/could have been special on its own. But coming up short this year will make me appreciate the last two years even more.
As I’ve given up hope over the last week, I’ve also been thinking ahead. Next year is, famously, the final year in the Window of Opportunity for this core group of players before they begin departing to bigger markets who can afford their next contracts. There are no guarantees in sports, but this team feels fairly well positioned for next year.
Danny Duffy turned into a stud in the second half of the season. Ian Kennedy and Yordano Ventura solved many of their early season issues and steadied themselves. There’s always the chance Ventura finally cracks the code as Duffy did this year and harnesses his full potential. But as he is now, he’s not a bad #3 option. Jason Vargas will be back next year. I probably have too much faith in him, but I still think he’s going to be a solid starter. That leaves just one spot to figure out, and the Royals have plenty of options for it, both old and young. I’m cautiously optimistic about the starters.
Hopefully the offseason will fix whatever is wrong with Wade Davis without him needing major surgery. Might Greg Holland be ready to pitch again, and willing to re-sign with the Royals? Will Luke Hochevar be able to bounce back from his late-season surgery? There are a lot of questions in the bullpen, but given that group’s track record, there is also a fair amount of confidence that they will figure things out.
I don’t see any big surprises in the lineup. We pretty much know who all of these guys are. Maybe, MAYBE, Eric Hosmer finally takes that superstar turn he so often seems close to taking but can’t quite seem to do. Maybe Alex Gordon doesn’t hit .200 for three weeks at a time four times a year. Maybe Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar learn how to only swing at strikes. But I doubt all that.
The biggest offensive key is keeping Lorenzo Cain in the lineup for 140+ games. He doesn’t always have to be hot for the team to be hot, but he does have to be in the lineup. Even when he’s battling bumps and bruises, he gets on base and makes things happen.
What do you do with the DH spot? Kendrys Morales has had a true Jekyll and Hyde season. When he’s not hit, he’s been awful. But when he does hit, he’s been as good as any DH in the league. Does that balance mean he will sign at a number the Royals can afford? And if so, do you take the risk on two more years of the risk he completely falls apart? Or do you let him walk and figure Mike Moustakas and Cheslor Cuthbert can platoon at third base and DH? Moose seemed to finally becoming the player he was supposed to be – a guy who hits about .270 but hits around 30 bombs and gets on base at a decent clip – before his injury in May. Cheslor did an amazing job filling in for Moose, but has cooled considerably at the plate over the last month and has shown issues in the field as well. Or do you trade one of them?
The Royals always have a pretty low margin for error. I don’t think that changes next year. Inconsistency on the mound, another tepid year at the plate, or just a couple key injuries could turn 2017 into a long, sad season as the free agents to-be get traded in July. But I also think there is a really good base in place. A little luck with injuries, a few players performing closer to their career averages, a smart signing or two in the winter, and they can absolutely be a team that makes one more post-season run before it’s time to start rebuilding.
I’m giving up on the 2016 season, but I’m not giving up on this team.
- Edinson Volquez. Crazy that same guy pitched amazing in games one and five of the World Series just last year. ↩
- The idea of moving Joakim Soria to the rotation has been kicked around for years. Given his complete inability to deliver in the clutch out of the pen this year, maybe it’s time to give that a shot? ↩
- Is he fighting an injury? He was damn near flawless in the field until a couple weeks ago and has been kind of a mystery since. ↩