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Wait ‘Til Next Year: Kansas City Royals

Justin Maxwell's game-winning grand slam last Sunday was one of this season's many highlights in Kansas City. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Justin Maxwell, Royals

While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series.

Current Record: 85-75 (.528, third in AL Central)

Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 25

What went right in 2013:

The Royals ensured themselves of their first winning record since 2003 and just their second since the 1994 players' strike; with one more win, they can claim the franchise's best season since 1989, when they won 92 games. Thanks to the two wild-card format and some late-season resiliency -- including the league's second-best record (41-26) since the All-Star break -- they brought meaningful September baseball to Kansas City, rebounding from an 8-20 May to remain in contention until midway through the season's final week. For all of manager Ned Yost's tactical flaws, his ability to keep the Royals climbing off the mat when they could have thrown in the towel isn't nothing.

Kansas City's modest success owed mainly to having the league's best run-prevention (3.73 runs per game). Starters James Shields (3.21 ERA in 221 2/3 innings, with a league-high 26 quality starts) and Ervin Santana (3.24 ERA in 211 innings with 23 quality starts), both acquired in offseason trades, have put together strong years and routinely kept the Royals in games even if they did receive meager run support. Third starter Jeremy Guthrie has eaten 211 2/3 innings with a 4.04 ERA, and mainstay Bruce Chen has delivered a 3.79 ERA in 14 starts after spending the first half of the season in the bullpen. As a unit, the rotation ranks fifth in the league in ERA (3.88) and third in quality start rate (58 percent), a dramatic improvement over 2012, when it ranked 11th in ERA (5.01) and 13th in quality start rate (43 percent).

The bullpen, which had ranked fourth in ERA in 2012 (3.17), has improved to a league-best 2.56. Closer Greg Holland (1.23 ERA, 13.8 K/9, 46 saves) was outstanding, setup men Aaron Crow and Tim Collins were very good, and failed overall number one pick Luke Hochevar reinvented himself via a 1.95 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine, making his previous experience as a starter (5.44 ERA, 6.2 K/9 in) look like six years of head-beating against a wall.

The offense, which ranks 11th in the league in scoring (3.98 runs per game), 13th in slugging (.377) and dead last in homers (107), has fewer happy stories. Billy Butler (.286/.374/.406 with 14 homers), Alex Gordon (.267/.328/.424 with 20 homers and 4.1 WAR) and Salvador Perez (.287/.319/.419 with 11 homers and 3.8 WAR) have kept their heads above water even if they've fall short of high expectations. The real success has been Eric Hosmer, who after a dismal 2012 and a .261/.320/.333 line through May, has hit a sizzling .318/.368/.495 since to lift his overall line to .301/.354/.448/ with 17 homers. Deadline acquisition Justin Maxwell has hit .292/.373/.551 with five homers in 32 games, including a walkoff grand slam against the Rangers on Sept. 22 that may stand as the season's high point.

What went wrong in 2013:

On the offensive side, Mike Moustakas (.232/.285/.358, 11 homers, −0.2 WAR) has had a terrible season and looks to be even further in the weeds than Hosmer was after last year. Alcides Escobar (.234/.259/.301, 0.4 WAR) had by far his worst season with the bat, one so bad it offset his good glovework. Second base was a proverbial Gaping Vortex of Suck, with Chris Getz, the since-released Elliot Johnson, the since-suspended Miguel Tejada, late season pickup Emilio Bonifacioet al hitting a combined .230/.282/.353. Even with the work of Hosmer, the KC infield combined for the league's second-lowest OPS at 661, via a .253/.300/.361 line.

The Royals' offensive problems weren't confined to the infield; the outfield as a whole hit .263/.318/.396 for the league's third-worst OPS. Jeff Francoeur (.208/.249/.322) did nothing to merit regular playing time — let alone offset the absence of the traded Wil Myers — before drawing his release in early July. Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and David Lough all hit worse than league average, though they offset that with a combined 44 Defensive Runs Saved.

As for the pitching, Wade Davis, who was acquired along with Shields in the Wil Myers blockbuster, was rocked for a 5.40 ERA in 24 starts and six relief appearances, and Luis Mendoza, who made 15 starts and seven relief appearances, was battered for a 5.36 ERA himself. With even slightly better starters taking the ball roughly one-quarter of the time, the Royals might have come away with a wild card spot.

Overall outlook:

In his eighth year at the helm, general manager Dayton Moore went for broke in an effort to turn the Royals into a playoff team, and he nearly succeeded thanks to a much-improved rotation and a stellar bullpen. However, trading six years of Myers, the 2012 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year and now a solid AL Rookie of the Year candidate for two years of Shields was a short-sighted move that looks more costly given that so many of the teams' homegrown, affordable hitters have underwhelmed.

The good news is that by finishing with a winning record, the organization's credibility has been enhanced significantly. Depending upon whether ownership is willing to continue loosening the purse strings, the Royals will have a much better chance at attracting desirable midlevel free agents who might have shunned them before. It's not out of the question that Santana, for example, could be convinced to stay with a competitive multiyear deal.

The bad news is that a near-miss for a wild-card spot doesn't mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. Going into the final two weeks of the season with a 4.3 percent chance of making it into a coin-flip game is a low bar to clear, one that doesn't justify trading the organization's best prospect, particularly when he would have helped an impoverished offense. That trick won't work again; the Royals have to continue to improve and to challenge for division titles with a wild-card spot as a fallback, not as a longshot hope. They can't settle for yet another year of no production from Moustakas, their rightfielders, or especially their second baseman,  and they need to recognize the limitations of Gordon and Butler as building blocks — not to mention the limitations of Moore as an architect and Yost (whose contract is up) as skipper.