Bud Selig’s tenure brought some of the most revolutionary changes in baseball history, starting with the Wild Card playoff system and Interleague play, the rule change regarding home-field advantage in the World Series, and the passage and after-effects of the Steroid Era. While his legacy will be a matter of detailed study years from now, we can’t deny that his office helped MLB transition into the new millennium by making it more marketable in many ways. His two final big initiatives before stepping down came in form of expanded instant replay, and adding a second wild-card team to the playoff mix. While the former is still a work in progress, the latter has been a defining aspect of each season since its inception.
The idea of adding an extra playoff team in each league has shifted expectations, roster construction, and made every fringe team a potential contender just by sheer logic. While it used to be common for teams getting a good idea of their place in the pecking order, now it seems that only until something really bad happens or it is too late in the season, a franchise can give up on a season and start thinking about brighter days ahead. The other big consequence of the second wild card has been the advent of new contenders, as now it seems that every season we can see a previous non-factor becoming a force.
The rule change has been especially beneficial for two franchises that were mired in decades of futility before getting a chance through the expanded playoff format. Over at the National League, the Pirates won the inaugural NL Wild Card playoff and came close to advancing to the NLCS, only to make it again in 2014 and establish themselves as serious contenders in 2015. In the AL, the Kansas City Royals broke nearly three decades of October-less baseball last season, and used their dramatic win in the AL elimination game as a launching pad towards the World Series.
While the Pirates are certainly a prime case study for how to turn a franchise around, today we are focusing on their AL reflections, as the Royals have quickly gone from perennial loser to the biggest favorite to winning it all.
As the trade deadline approached, there was probably a short list of 5 players who were almost certain to be moved and could become a big factor down the stretch. In a matter of 72 hours, the Royals got two of them, as Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist were acquired by a franchise who was mostly known for dumping big contracts in late July. Suddenly, the team with the AL’s best record and biggest divisional advantage got that much better, in a clear demonstration that coming up just short in 2014 was just motivation to take that extra step.
It may be hard to remember now, but the last time the Royals went for broke in a big trade, they were initially mocked to no end. Sending mega-prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis was seen as a desperate ploy by Dayton Moore and his front office, but instead it turned into the tipping point for a franchise that was used to bad choices. The goodwill brought by 2014’s memorable run has given Moore the chance to go all-in this time, and these two trades are now considered bold statements in spite of being deals for rentals that will probably be out of Kansas City’s price range when the season ends.
Despite their lofty record, it was not hard to see that the Royals were a somewhat flawed team that excelled in two areas, bullpen and team defense, but could really use some improvements elsewhere. Royals starters are 14th in WAR and 13th in FIP, relying just too much on the elite gloves behind them, and with no clear-cut ace to headline the staff. Also, while their offense as a whole has produced at a top-10 level, their collection of second basemen has been a disaster, with a combined -0.4 WAR for the year. Acquiring Cueto to be the team’s #1 pitcher and Zobrist to man second (and many other positions, presumably) addresses these pressing needs and then some.
With Alex Gordon sidelined but ready to come back before September, the Royals can now present an October lineup that goes 9-deep with versatile, above-average hitters, who can excel in several aspects of the game. Having a bat like Zobrist’s also promises to ease some of the burden from the likes of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, who have cooled off after a torrid start to the season. With the Royals having almost a sure spot in the ALDS (Fangraphs likes their odds to win the Central at 95.9%), the rest of the year can be used to mix and match to find the perfect lineup balance and give the occasional needed rest to some players – an area where Zobrist’s positional availability will also come in handy.
Over at the rotation, Cueto is primed to get from 10 to 12 starts during the regular season, but all the focus will come when he gets the ball in October. Before his arrival, the Royals probably would have considered erratic Yordano Ventura as their #1 option, followed by a combination of Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, and Jeremy Guthrie, all of which can be solid but are not exactly shutdown pitchers. Now, having Cueto adds a layer of quality that should be enough to warrant the fear of any opposing lineup. After years of being one of the NL’s most underrated hurlers, he now joins the defending AL champion with a serious chance of making it back.
With the aforementioned Wade Davis anchoring the league’s best bullpen, and the ultimate defensive outfield catching everything in range, now the Royals have seemed to become the only team in all of baseball without a glaring weakness, albeit one with few stars that really stand out. Still, that formula has worked wonders for the Giants in recent seasons, which is why the Royals have now emerged as the clear-cut favorite to win the Fall Classic.
It is also hard to remember now, but almost a year ago (on July 21st, 2014), the Royals were 48-50 and lagging behind in the AL wild card race. All that has been followed by a 102-61 mark in the regular season (.625), and an 11-4 postseason run that left them with the winning run at the plate in Game 7 of the World Series. So yes, it has been remarkable, but now the franchise has the chance to go even further and bring a title back to Kansas City for the first time in 3 decades.
The recent trades and their position in the standings have made the Royals the biggest betting favorite in Vegas, with their 9/2 odds being almost a mile better than the second place in the American League (Yankees at 10/1). Even as betting odds are less prediction than educated guesses, they can give us a good idea on how the public perception has shifted on the Royals, and why their fan base has many reasons to be optimistic.
It may be weird to see Cueto in blue and gold, and Zobrist may be wearing a completely different uniform next Spring Training, but none of that matters for the Royals and their fans. For the Royals, the time is now.