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A Lesson for Cubs Fans from the Royals

Kansas City got to its second consecutive World Series by sticking with and transforming its struggling young foundation.

Dexter Fowler strikes out to end the Cubs’ loss to the Royals on May 29.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

After squeaking past the Mets in a 14-inning game on Wednesday night, the Kansas City Royals scored a convincing victory against New York Mets’ ace Jacob deGrom. A 2-0 lead in the World Series is hardly insurmountable, but the Royals look sharp all the way around, and won those games against two of the Mets’ three great starting pitchers.

The Royals are well positioned to win the World Series, which would end a thirty-year drought. They didn’t even make the playoffs in 29 of those years, and in 22 of them the team finished at least 10 games behind the division winner, including one epic year—2005—in which they finished 43 games out. They were a punchline—the farm team of the New York Yankees.

Watching the game last night, I was reminded of how uneasy the Royals’s road was to becoming the “new Cardinals”—an efficient, deep mid-market team known for unlikely comebacks. The team’s stalwarts throughout that process were three products of their excellent farm system: Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. Gordon was the second pick in the first round in 2005; Hosmer, the third pick in 2008; Moustakas, the second pick in 2007. Gordon debuted at the age of 23, Hosmer, at 21, and Moustakas at 22. That infusion of top young talent was supposed to establish the Royals as what they are now.

But “stalwarts” is generous. All three have been, to put it gently, inconsistent. These are two headlines from Grantland that ran within 10 days of each other this year.

And those were just six months after the team almost won the World Series in 2014.

Meanwhile, here are some lines from Baseball Prospectus, a baseball analytics site, on Alex Gordon over the years:

2008 "There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Alex Gordon’s rookie season was a disappointment… The hype returns this year.”

2009 "George Brett’s chosen heir has yet to claim the keys to Kansas City that were thought to be his birthright… Gordon needs to start translating his potential soon if any of the scenarios in which the Royals become surprise contenders in ‘09 have legs.”

2010 "With Gordon now 26, it seems increasingly likely that the second coming of George Brett will have to be one of Gordon’s eventual successors….”

2011 "The curious case of Alex Gordon remains as confounding as ever.”

2013 "Proving 2011 wasn’t a fluke, Gordon posted his second consecutive season of 4-plus WARP [wins above replacement player].”

2015 "Only five position players have demonstrated the health, production and consistency to post at least four WARP in each of the last four seasons: Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, Adrian Beltre and Gordon…. Rarely mentioned among baseball’s current greats, perhaps last season’s World Series appearance… will finally provide Gordon the attention he deserves.”

The Royals have had immense patience, more than their long-suffering fan base. As Rany Jazayerli at Grantland writes in something of an apology to the team’s mercurial, long-beleaguered general manager, Dayton Moore:

But the player whose breakthrough this season most symbolizes the team’s, and provides the most evidence that the long-maligned front office actually knows what it’s doing, is third baseman Mike Moustakas….

Moustakas had been a slugger since his minor league days, so it raised eyebrows when the Royals spent this spring trying to turn him into an opposite-field hitter—but nothing like the eyebrows that were raised when [manager Ned] Yost hit Moustakas second on Opening Day.

Both Moustakas and Hosmer transformed into more flexible and skilled hitters; Gordon, who started out as a third baseman, is now the best left fielder in baseball and the anchor of a historically good defensive outfield. A couple days ago, Baseball Prospectus’s Rian Watt did a nice close reading of Theo Epstein’s surprisingly straightforward comments on what’s to come this offseason. It’s not a surprise, watching the Royals, that two of the four priorities are contact hitting and outfield defense.

As Cubs fans are now well aware, baseball teams are increasingly dependent on young players, as teams have reconsidered when players peak and have balanced still-developing talent with the affordability that comes from youth. And youth is, after all, mercurial; it can thrill, but it can also disappoint. Should Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, or any of the other young Cubs start to falter, it’s worth remembering that it can all just be part of a player, and a franchise, growing up.


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