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The Royals Are Tiptoeing Around The Basement

Edward Olivares #14 of the Kansas City Royals dives for but misses the ball in the outfield during the 4th inning of the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Kauffman Stadium on June 14, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“It’s tough being the worst team in baseball," Bobby Witt Jr. observed at the end of a day in which his team had, in this order: briefly become the worst team in baseball; lost first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino to a season-ending shoulder injury; lost captain Salvador Pérez to a third-inning hand contusion; and lost a ninth straight game, this one to the Cincinnati Reds. The best way to endure the losing, the 23-year-old shortstop said, was to remember the positives. He and his teammates were living out their Major League dreams, something he would never take for granted. Nor would he take the losing for granted. Elsewhere in the American League, a last-place team had strung together seven improbable wins, including two against the league-best Tampa Bay Rays. There was hope still. "You see what Oakland's doing," Witt said. "And so, why not us?"

It's true: There is a 100-percent real baseball team regarding the Oakland A's with a kind of reverence. They see the likes of Ryan Noda, Ken Waldichuk, and Esteury Ruiz, and think, With some hard work and a little bit of luck, that could be us. Thanks to a spunky early June in Oakland, the 19-53 Kansas City Royals—losers of 12 of their last 13—have quietly put themselves in what was once a one-horse race to be the worst team in baseball. They're about as hopeless as a franchise can be sans impending relocation.

It's also true that they began the season with ambitions to be something other than the worst team in baseball. This is different than trying to win; nothing in the Royals' offseason foretold a serious run for the crummy AL Central. But it is the AL Central, and serious runs needn't be made. As of today, every team in the division sits below .500. (The last-place Boston Red Sox, 12 games back in their own division, would be comfortably in first in the Central.) Last year, I compared this division to a decrepit apartment building whose horrible residents all hate each other but must see each other every single day. Some progress has been made on that front: MLB's new balanced schedule kindly limits the interaction. So it's time for a new analogy. Life in the AL Central follows the basic plot of The Producers: A team can play long stretches of the worst baseball imaginable and find, at the end of a long week, that they've only moved up in the standings.

So even hanging around seemed like a sensible goal for the Royals. Their young group of hitters had shown promise in 2022. Witt, one of MLB's top prospects, settled in after a rough first month and finished his rookie year with one of the quieter 20-30 seasons you'll see. Pasquantino came up in the second half, hit both for power and for average, and brought much-needed patience to an aggressive Royals lineup, walking more than he struck out. (His rookie peripherals even suggested his .833 OPS was due to tick up.) Two other top-100 prospect call-ups, MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto, promised to round out the exciting power-hitting core.

But nearly every Baby Royal has regressed or stagnated this year. Before he went on the IL, Pasquantino was in a monthlong slump, likely bothered by the shoulder injury. Swing-and-miss issues have caught up to Melendez, already without much defensive value after the team moved him from catcher to corner outfield. One of the fastest dudes in baseball, Witt could be the ideal offensive player in this base-stealing environment—a runner in scoring position, no matter what. But his sub-.290 on-base percentage makes that hard, and though his approach looks much improved in June, he's been a slightly below league-average hitter so far. By wRC+, the Royals have the second-worst offense in the majors, ahead of only the Colorado Rockies. It might not be the side of the ball giving them the most trouble.

Last night, as I watched Witt launch a solo home run into the empty row of seats beside me at a Royals-Tigers game—it landed with an unpleasant thwack! on the plastic—I had the eerie feeling I was about to witness the end of the Jordan Lyles curse. The 32-year-old innings-eater entered Monday's game with an 0-11 record, and the Royals had, incredibly, lost all 14 games he'd started this season. I was caught between competing instincts: Surely the Tigers couldn't lose with an 0-11 pitcher on the mound. But also surely the Royals couldn't keep losing every game he started. Curses are hard to break. Lyles ate one too many innings, leaving the game with a 4-1 lead in the seventh but Tigers runners on second and third with no outs. The bullpen puked the innings back up, and the Royals lost their 15th straight game with Lyles starting, the longest such streak to begin a season in the modern era.

Lyles signed a two-year, $17 million deal with Kansas City this offseason, a move Royals president J.J. Picollo made to "stabilize our pitching and create a lot of competition for spots." That Lyles and his 6.72 ERA still make starts every five days says pretty grim things about the competition. Even grimmer is the number of high draft picks the organization has spent on pitching in the last four years, investments which have so far yielded no results. Brady Singer, the closest thing to a "good" pitcher the rebuild has produced, abandoned the changeup that made him a decent starter last year and has struggled with walks and consistency all season. Kris Bubic looked like he might be a bright spot for the rotation at the beginning of the year, and so, naturally, he needs Tommy John surgery. After drafting Witt in 2019, Kansas City spent first-round picks on pitchers in the next two drafts, and neither is anywhere near the big leagues. (In fact, the organization is without a top-100 prospect on either the FanGraphs or Baseball America lists.) Nineteen-year-old 2021 pick Frank Mozzicato got roughed up in his first Single-A start back from the injured list, where he landed after running into a teammate during batting practice. Their 2020 fourth-overall pick Asa Lacy profiles almost certainly as a future reliever, if even as a big leaguer. He hasn't pitched since last August, when he gave up four earned runs in a one-inning relief appearance where he threw 17 of his 37 pitches for strikes. The Royals can take credit for one homegrown star in the rotation: 39-year-old Zack Greinke came back this season on another one-year deal. He's been OK.

Winning a World Series forgives all manner of sin, and it's probably for that reason that awfully devout, devoutly awful former Royals president Dayton Moore stayed in the job for as long as he did after the 2015 season, the last winning season the Royals have played. The Athletic's story on Moore's firing last September suggested it could be "the first in a series of sweeping changes" for the team, but the new Royals front office isn't so different in spirit from the old one. Picollo, Moore's longtime assistant, took over as his replacement. This wasn't so much cleaning house as it was sorting the trash into neat piles. In late May, weeks before the team's 10-game losing streak began, Picollo pointed to unspecified "big picture" positives. “We just have to stay with that process,” Picollo said, “and play the long game rather than the short game.”

Kansas City snapped the streak in a pretty fun way this weekend: The Royals offense, the Angels bullpen—someone had to win. Samad Taylor, a Royals rookie making his major-league debut, hit a walk-off single in his first career at-bat to finish a late eight-run comeback. While the rest of his teammates mobbed Taylor, Witt sprinted all the way to the wall in center field to grab the baseball and bounded back to the celebration, a sweet, frenzied golden retriever showing off his special new toy. The Royals lost their next game, and the one after that.

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