The Kansas City Royals and their fans suffered through nine straight losing campaigns and 17 of 18 dating back to the 1994 strike season.
Then in the early part of this decade, the club began to build up one of the top farm systems in the game.
It all came together for them at the big league level with back to back AL pennants in 2014 and 2015, and a World Series championship in 2015.
But this year the Royals slid back to the .500 mark, finishing in third place in the American League Central Division. They were 13.5 games behind the division-winning Cleveland Indians, and eight games behind the AL Wildcard pace.
It was a frustrating summer for the defending champs. But that eight game difference between themselves and the playoff teams is not insurmountable.
The Royals plan to return to that postseason contention in 2017, but is that a reasonable goal? With a few tweaks, some breaks, and not unreasonable improve performances, the club can indeed reach the postseason once again.
LINEUP LOSSES IN PLAYERS AND PRODUCTION
Kansas City lost a bunch of key players from their lineup in 2016, costing them both firepower and veteran influence.
was always likely a one-year rental, and possibly an expensive one considering good-looking pitcher Sean Manaea
went to Oakland in that 2015 trade deadline deal.
Since Zobrist was a key player in actually winning a World Series, it will always have been worth the cost. It worked out for him, of course, as Zobrist became the MVP of another World Series winner with the Cubs.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas
lost his season in May to a torn ACL. Moustakas is expected to be ready for spring training and the 2017 season when, at 28 years of age, he should be just entering his prime.
While Hosmer hit seven more homers and knocked in 11 more runs, he also roped nine fewer doubles and scored 18 fewer runs. His average and on-base percentage each fell more than 30 points.
Morales hit eight more homers but knocked in 13 fewer runs, while his average and on-base percentage each dropped precipitously as well. He will turn 34 years old in June, and ended up leaving for the Toronto Blue Jays via free agency earlier this month.
MOUND MINUSES AND INJURIES HURT
On the mound, Edinson Volquez
needed to step up this year. Instead, he stepped down. Volquez’ ERA rose nearly two full points, as did his Hits/9 ratio. He is now a free agent.
went from an 8.5 to 9.2 H/9 , allowed nine more home runs, and saw his K/9 drop from 8.6 to 7.0.
was dominating in 2015 when he pitching in a staff-high 69 games. He missed half of July and then the entire month of August due to a forearm strain this season.
had been a strong closer in 2015. But he became a free agent after that season, and then missed the entire 2016 season after needing Tommy John surgery. He is back on the free agent market, though a return to Kansas City is almost certainly not going to happen.
HOW ROYALS LINEUP COULD CONTEND IN 2017
With so many losses and question marks, how can Kansas City hope to contend in 2017?
Part of that answer comes from their own homegrown core of players in Hosmer, Moustakas, catcher Salvador Perez
, and left fielder Alex Gordon
. Every one of those players was down in some way this year. A bounce-back from those four would go a long way towards contention.
Another key player who needs a recovery season is center fielder Lorenzo Cain
. He went from nearly winning the AL MVP in 2015 to being just another guy this past season. Cain has much more talent than he flashed in the 2016 season.
From August 9 on, Jarrod Dyson
hit .321 with a .372 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases. He can be a lineup catalyst.
25-year old Hunter Dozier
re-emerged as a prospect, and then made his big league debut. If he can translate his minor league improvement into big league production, it would add another potent bat to the mix.
ROYALS PITCHING RECOVERIES ARE KEY
On the mound, the Royals 2016 Player of the Year was lefty Danny Duffy
. He will be a full-time member of the rotation next season after an outstanding summer split between the rotation and bullpen this year.
was able to return to the rotation at the very end of the season after missing most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons following Tommy John surgery. He is being counted on as a member of the 2017 rotation.
Duffy, Ventura, Vargas, and steady Ian Kennedy
would make up a group that, if healthy, can be a Wildcard-contending rotation. There are a number of fifth starter candidates who could also step forward.
In the bullpen, Davis needs to come back strong. If he can return to closing and get solid support from veteran Joakim Soria
and youngsters Kelvin Herrera
and Matt Strahm
, this can be a strong relief corps.
A few of these players will become free agents after the 2017 season, so if it doesn’t work out over the first few months, the trade deadline probably becomes time for management and ownership to make deals to replenish the farm system and try building once again.
With a smart, inexpensive free agent signing or two and the right answers from the players mentioned here, Kansas City can again contend in 2017. With the wrong moves and the wrong answers, they could find the whole team blown up just two years after winning a World Series.