How does Mike Moustakas's injury affect the Royals' playoff hopes?
The defending world champions suffered a major loss on Thursday with the news that third baseman Mike Moustakas has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and is expected to miss the remainder of the season. Moustakas suffered the injury in a collision with leftfielder Alex Gordon on Sunday, one that has resulted in a nightmare scenario for Kansas City, with Gordon also landing on the disabled list with a scaphoid fracture in his right wrist. With the Royals already scuffling and struggling to score runs, the loss of two of their core hitters would seem to dim significantly their hopes of returning to the postseason.
The collision occurred when both players were chasing a Melky Cabrera pop-up into foul territory down the leftfield line in the bottom of the seventh inning of Sunday’s 3–2 loss to the division-leading White Sox. Moustakas appeared to suffer his injury when knocking knees with Gordon as they converged, and Gordon appeared to suffer his when subsequently falling backward to the ground and attempting to brace himself with his throwing hand. Incredibly, both players remained in the game, though Gordon was pinch-hit for in the top of the eighth.
Prior to that game, the Royals had begun to show signs of life. After starting the season 17–19 (and previously losing Moustakas to a fractured thumb earlier in the month), Kansas City won five of its six games before Sunday. Among those five wins were two in a three-game set at home against the league-best Red Sox and the first two games in Chicago against the first-place White Sox, the second of which saw Moustakas return from the disabled list. The Royals won their first series after the collision as well, taking two of three from the Twins in Minnesota.
Having gone 7–3 over their last ten games—6–2 in games without Moustakas—the Royals would appear to be just fine. Three of those wins, however, came against the two worst teams in baseball, the Twins and Braves, and while they did go 5–2 in the seven games prior to the Twins series, they also averaged just 3.6 runs scored per game over those seven contests.
That last gets to the heart of why losing Moustakas feels so seismic for the Royals despite the fact that they have played most of the last month without him without much change in their fortune (they have gone 14–13 with him this season and 10–9 without). On the season, only those lowly Twins have averaged fewer runs scored per game in the American League than the Royals’ 3.78, and Moustakas is a key part of their lineup. Last year, he was one of five Royals to post an OPS+ of 120 or higher, and in April, he was one of just two (with fellow corner infielder Eric Hosmer) to post an OPS+ above league average. Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez have both stepped up their production in recent weeks to help compensate for Moustakas’s injuries (Perez going .375/.403/.625 over his last 16 games, Cain hitting .356/.392/.544 on the month as a whole), but the loss of Moustakas undermines those gains. For proof, look to the fact that the Royals are still in third place and, at 24–22, just one game over .500 on the season coming out of a series against the Twins.
Thus far, the Royals’ primary replacement for Moustakas has been the fantastically named Cheslor Cuthbert, a 23-year-old Nicaraguan who is four years removed from a brief flirtation with prospect status. Cuthbert got off to a fantastic start for Triple A Omaha this season but has hit just .229/.264/.352 in 110 major league plate appearances between this year and last. Given the consistency of his production in the minors over his last two full seasons, you can assume his true level of production is at or around the .275/.339/.416 line he compiled from high A ball to Triple A over the 2014 and ’15 seasons. That’s below the major league average for third basemen (.261/.333/.435 this season), however, and likely a reach for Cuthbert as a rookie in pitching-friendly Kauffman Stadium.
There is a very real possibility, then, that the Royals will seek to replace Moustakas via trade. Given that he is also an above-average fielder, Kansas City is unlikely to replace his value fully, but there are several players who may fit the bill. Chief among them is the Angels’ Yunel Escobar, who is off to a strong start; he's largely replicating his slash line from last year but doing so in a tougher hitting environment. Since the start of the 2015 season, Escobar has hit .314/.374/.418 (117 OPS+) and played third base exclusively. He is in the last guaranteed year of his contract (with a $7 million club option and $1 million buyout for next year), and the Angels are languishing at 21–26, six games out of the second wild-card spot. It may take a while before Los Angeles—which is also desperate for offense—is willing to give up on the season, but Escobar is probably the best and most likely trade target given that the Angels greatly want to replenish a depleted farm system.
Another name that springs to mind is former Angel David Freese, who signed an inexpensive one-year deal with the Pirates in March to serve as a stopgap at third base while Jung-ho Kang was on the disabled list. Kang returned on May 6 and has been raking (.298/.364/.702); Freese has likely served his purpose in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are legitimate contenders, however, and are currently tied with the Mets for the wild-card lead in the National League. As such, they would likely demand major league talent if they were even willing to part with a player who still provides them with valuable depth. That would seem to make Freese more expensive than Escobar in present-day value despite being inferior to Escobar on both sides of the ball (he has hit .261/.328/.399 for a 106 OPS+ over the last three seasons).
Other options include the Astros' Luis Valbuena and the Marlins' Martin Prado, both of whom are in their walk years—though, again, it may be a while before either of those teams is willing to throw in the towel on their season. That may be just as well: If Cuthbert can play up to his expected level, he could be nearly as good at no additional expense. He is already 15 games into his latest opportunity, however, and the Royals can’t afford to scuffle for too much longer.
As for Gordon, his fracture was not displaced and he is expected back by mid-to-late June. From one point of view, his loss is less significant not only because of its relatively brief duration, but also because he was off to a lousy start (.211/.319/.331). More significantly, however, with Jarrod Dyson replacing Gordon in leftfield, his injury likely dooms the Royals to continue to get sub-par production out of a corner outfield spot for a third month. Then there’s the question of how quickly Gordon’s production can recover coming off that poor start and a wrist injury, or how long the Royals can expect Paulo Orlando to continue to hit .491 on balls in play and carry rightfield on his own without Dyson’s platoon support in the meantime (hint: not very long).
It's a bad time for the Royals to face these questions and problems. Thirteen of their next 19 games are against the two teams above them in the AL Central standings, Cleveland and Chicago, starting with a three game rematch against the White Sox in Kansas City this weekend. The rest of their June schedule has plenty of tough slates, too: three games in Baltimore against the team currently sporting the third-best record in the league, a four-game set against the Tigers—who are hot on the Royals’ heels in the standings—and interleague matchups against the Mets and Cardinals (totaling six games). Most of what could be a crucial month for Kansas City's title hopes, then, will be spent without two players who are crucial to the team's chances.