I’d call it a rollercoaster but rollercoasters are supposed to be fun
Disappointment is old hat for Royals fans by now. Anyone who has followed this team for any length of time is familiar with the feeling that the season is over before it’s even begun. We were reduced to hoping for miracles for so long that I still find it somewhat shocking that the Royals were never the subject of a Major League or Angels in the Outfield-esque treatment.
In that sense, 2021 was no different for many. Most people – rightfully, it turned out – didn’t expect much from this Royals team. But some of us dared to dream. One difference from previous seasons was that Dayton Moore had gone out and added some free agents who were a bit on the older side but were potentially still productive. Carlos Santana seemed guaranteed to be worth his money based on his eye alone, even if his bat might not keep up anymore; Mike Minor seemed like a solid bet to eat some innings or, at worst, get shifted to the bullpen. Michael A. Taylor promised speed, defense, and a revamped swing that might lead to something good. Greg Holland had just shown he had a little left in the tank for KC the year prior. Andrew Benintendi was still young and had not only a prospect pedigree but at least one season of actually being quite valuable.
And they had a core to build on. Salvador Perez was coming off his best season as a Royal. Whit Merrifield was Whit Merrifield. Hunter Dozier and Jorge Soler had shown real promise in 2019 and had their 2020s derailed by various circumstances outside their control. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic seemed primed to take steps forward. Kyle Zimmer, Josh Staumont, and Scott Barlow seemed likely to be useful bullpen pieces. Adalberto Mondesi had just had his first healthy AND productive season. Brad Keller had only improved for multiple seasons.
Then the Royals came out of the gate winning games. It might be tempting to say they were on fire, but they really weren’t. The team was winning, but they weren’t playing anywhere near their ceiling. And this is where this team separates itself from the 2003 team. That team was over its head all year long, and anyone with a better grasp of baseball than a child spent the entire season waiting for them to fall on their faces. The fact that they didn’t really get there until September is the only true surprise about that team. But the 2021 team was different; they were winning, but the rotation and the lineup were both struggling mightily. There was reason to expect positive regression from both, and if they were winning without it, some of us dreamed, what could they do with it? And, ya know, if the rotation struggled, there were reinforcements just waiting in the minors.
But then it turned out that the positive regression didn’t come. Soler and Dozier continued to not hit; every sign of a breakout was accompanied by excited articles predicting the end of their season-long slumps. Singer seemed in some ways to take a step backward but in other ways… remained exactly the pitcher he was last year. Brad Keller was bad and, when asked about what was wrong, admitted neither he nor the pitching coach had any clue. Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar were recalled from AAA in order to offer a boost to the flagging Royals pitching, and both imploded in front of our very eyes. Adalberto Mondesi injured one oblique and then the other.
None of that is shocking for Royals fans; none of that would be enough to justify calling this the most frustrating team, whether you wanted to call it the most frustrating team of 2021, the most frustrating Royals team of all-time, or even just the most frustrating team of Dayton Moore’s tenure as general manager. No, what makes it frustrating is the other stuff.
Mondesi played 10 games in between those oblique injuries. He was worth 0.7 fWAR. That’s an MVP pace over even 140 games. Jorge Soler finally started hitting home runs again a week before the trade deadline, just in time to get traded for a low-minors reliever without a history of success. Brad Keller solved his mechanical flaw just before the All-Star Break. After the All-Star Break, Daniel Lynch returned to the rotation and has a 1.89 ERA with fewer than two walks per nine innings in three starts since. Nicky Lopez finally blossomed into the best version of himself; that makes him a competent big-league player and a guy you can be excited about batting ninth in your lineup – except that he’s been the team’s most valuable player by fWAR because everyone else has floundered so much. Heck, add to the frustration that Dayton Moore finally promised to be more transactional only to see the trade deadline market flooded by Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals players, preventing him from getting anything remotely resembling good value for someone like Carlos Santana.
The 2005 Royals lost a lot of games. They were an extremely disappointing team. But you know what they didn’t have? Winning streaks. Only four times that entire season did the team win more than two games in a row, topping out at five. The 2021 Royals have had five winning streaks of three or more and topped out at six with two months to go. They’ve also bunched wins together in other ways where they’d win a couple, lose one, win a couple more, lose one, etc. The 2005 Royals never did that.
This team isn’t full of entirely hopeless players like a past-his-prime Jose Lima or a never-had-a-prime Rubén Gotay. You can look at every single player on this team, minus Wade Davis, and see a reason an honest-to-goodness competitive baseball club might have expected him to be able to contribute to their team in some manner. Still, the Royals falter.
I don’t know what the answer is for this team. That might be the most frustrating part. This isn’t like the mid-00s, where the teams were just devoid of any kind of talent. There is talent on this roster. It just isn’t adding up into wins. I’ve ragged on Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny and the rest of the Royals coaching staff for not having any answers, and I maintain that it is their job to have answers to problems like these. Still, for once, I am not even slightly jealous that they’re the ones who have to figure out what to do to fix the most frustrating team I’ve ever watched.