MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Royals strengthened by early hiccup

Leach: Royals strengthened by hiccup

Royals strengthened by early hiccup
NEW YORK -- You should never, ever say that it can't get worse. But goodness, if it can get any worse for the Kansas City Royals, you might need to start describing this season in Old Testament terms.

They've already lost their starting catcher, center fielder, closer, and one of their most exciting starters to major injuries. They endured a 12-game losing streak. They began the season with a historic stretch of home futility. If frogs started to rain down on the fans at Kauffman Stadium, it would really only be mildly surprising.

And yet even after a brutal run of cruelty from the baseball gods, the Royals are hanging in. They remain eight games under .500, but after a 3-14 start, that doesn't sound so bad. They've stopped taking on water, at least, and there's reason to think things will get better as the season goes on.

"We're still right in the middle of all this," manager Ned Yost said prior to a 3-2 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night. "We've still got guys coming back that are going to make big impacts on our club to make us a better team in as little as two to three weeks. We just need to keep treading water like we're doing right now until we can start firing on all cylinders."

Catcher Salvador Perez is on the way back, and the hope is that center fielder Lorenzo Cain won't be all that far behind. Those two additions would make the Royals' lineup just about whole. Then all they'd need on the offensive side is for the guys they have to start hitting.

That, of course, is easier written than done. While Mike Moustakas is emerging as a star and Billy Butler is showing signs of a career year, some essential hitters just aren't producing. They're expected to, but they're not. Alex Gordon had a huge breakout season in 2011, and Eric Hosmer was expected to follow suit in '12. Both have struggled thus far.

It's easy to say, and probably true, that the main requirement here is patience. Hitters, eventually, will hit. It'd be nice if that happened sooner rather than later, though.

"When you're scuffling, guys start doing things they're not used to," said outfielder Jeff Francoeur, who is showing indications of emerging from his own funk. "Start swinging early, start maybe taking too many pitches, maybe getting too aggressive. I think we've been able to get back to an approach that will hopefully get the offense going."

If that happens, and it seems likely, the question will be what it was before the season started: the rotation. There's no front-of-the-rotation horse here, no guy who's going to go seven or eight innings regularly. There are some intriguing young talents, though the loss of lefty Danny Duffy to Tommy John surgery is a major blow.

But if Kansas City makes a serious run at contention, it will do so with more help than it's gotten from the starters so far. If there's one area of need for a midseason add, it's starting pitching. The arms are intriguing, and there's more help on the way from the game's deepest farm system.

For now, though, it's an issue. At least the starters get plenty of help. Quietly, Kansas City has become a solid defensive club. The left side of its infield ranks with nearly any in the game, and the outfield is strong as well. That's the kind of thing that can help a scuffling rotation.

The best news of all, though, is in the standings. Despite the brutal early stretch, despite the home woes, the Royals stand seven games back in the American League Central. That's a significant hill, but with three-fourths of the season still to come, it's far from insurmountable. And they have plenty of chances to catch up. Kansas City plays at least 10 games each against the Indians, Tigers, and White Sox, the three teams it's chasing, in the second half.

"For us to see we're not that far behind these guys, there's definitely a lot of confidence after what we've been through already," Francoeur said. "Losing 12 in a row, you'd like to think that's not going to happen twice in a year."

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.