The Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles are fairly similar Major League Baseball clubs. Both play in mid-sized markets. Both endured lengthy postseason droughts that covered much of the Nineties and spanned past the first decade of the New Millennium. The Royals and Orioles have both defied the odds and expectations to become consistent contenders. Both clubs have relied upon homegrown hitters, a strong bullpen, and a middle-of-the-pack starting rotation during their rise from the ashes.
The Royals and Orioles met in the 2014 ALCS. The Royals won but lost in the World Series to the San Francisco Giants. Entering the 2015 season, both teams were taken lightly as legitimate threats to return to the World Series. The Royals returned to the Fall Classic and mowed down the New York Mets quite easily. The Orioles were left at home when October baseball kicked off.
Why were the Orioles at home and the Royals back in the playoffs?
Many of the problems for Baltimore came last winter. The front office got too cute in negotiating with Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. Cruz was the team’s biggest offensive threat in his one year in Baltimore, and kept the Orioles’ collective head above water in spite of the losses of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and the year-long struggles of Chris Davis. Markakis was one of the most important leaders on the team, and while his power has greatly diminished over the past few years, his professional approach at the plate still made him valuable.
Part of the reason the Orioles got so cute in their negotiations with Cruz and Markakis was the impending free agencies of Davis, Wieters, starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, and setup man Darren O’Day. With so many players set to hit the market following the 2015 season, the offseason leading into the pivotal year turned into a “wait-for-next-year” type of year for the front office.
Waiting for next year produced Travis Snider, Alejandro De Aza, and Delmon Young. Snider and De Aza were sold to the adoring public, hungry for a World Series after getting oh-so-close, as low-cost, value alternatives to Cruz and Markakis. Hardly. Snider and De Aza both performed miserably, and both were ultimately designated for assignment. Young also caught the DFA bug. Steve Pearce, a diamond-in-the-rough unearthed in 2014, struggled with injuries all year. David Lough still has not been able to duplicate the initial success of his rookie year with the Royals.
All the outfield parts added up to one of the worst groups of hitters in the league. Baltimore left fielders turned in a .210/.287/.353 performance with 18 home runs and 53 RBIs. They struck out 147 times and drew only 50 walks. In Seattle, Nelson Cruz followed up his 40-bomb 2014 campaign with 44 more bombs and a .302 batting average. The Orioles were a little bit better in right field, but not by much, and the struggles prompted Dan Duquette to swing a deal for Gerardo Parra at the deadline. Parra was riding an unsustainable run of BABip luck, and regressed mightily after coming over to the Orioles.
Baltimore finished 81-81 and missed the playoffs. While some of the blame for the .500 season has to be placed squarely upon the shoulders of the starting pitchers, not replacing Cruz and Markakis effectively also played a major role in keeping the Orioles from realizing their full potential in 2015. The offense bogged down heavily during two key slumps in July and August, and two slots in the lineup were effectively automatic outs.
By now, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Royals?
Kansas City, like the Orioles, has to work on a budget that is not unlimited. They have key free agents to re-sign this winter, but also have big names hitting the market in the coming years. Not to far down the road, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer will get their chance to test free agency. Alex Gordon and Alex Rios, along with Ben Zobrist handled left and right field for the most part during the World Series season. Zobrist is already gone, Gordon may be gone soon, and Rios is unlikely to return. Sitting on the Royals bench are Paulo Orlando, Jarrod Dyson, and Terrance Gore.
Gore and Dyson are known for their speed and little else. Orlando is a solid late-inning defensive supersub. The 31-year-old Dyson has yet to register more than 300 at-bats in a single season. Orlando was a career minor leaguer until last year. Gore does not appear to be a complete player in any way, shape, or form. He is a burner off the bench, but that’s about it. As the Royals prepare to lose Rios and Gordon, there is already talk that Dyson will assume a position in the starting lineup.
If the Orioles showed the baseball world one thing this year, it is that you cannot hope to replace stars with budget alternatives. You can catch lightning in a bottle every few years, but that is hardly a sustainable approach to winning. The Orioles thought they could turn De Aza into a serviceable lead-off man. Wrong — he struck out too much. Snider would finally live up to his first-round potential in a hitter-friendly park. Wrong again.
If the Royals do lose Alex Gordon, they must spend to replace him with a truly viable option. Denard Span or Dexter Fowler could fit, as could Parra. Todd Frazier could be acquired in a trade. Regardless, the Orioles should have served as enough of a cautionary tale. The Royals must not get too complacent while looking ahead to a few big free-agent classes in the future. The time to win, and keep winning, is now.