Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

The Two Most Important Royals in the Second Half

If the playoffs started today, the Royals would be sitting at home. Granted, the playoffs don’t start today, and most of the Royals are still sitting at home. Also, if the playoffs started today, several teams would not be able to field a full squad of players, because a bunch of them are hanging out in San Diego. That seems like poor planning on the part of MLB. Wait, don’t leave, I do have a point here.

That point: the Royals are a few games out of a Wild Card spot, and a few more games out of the division lead. The teams ahead of them have mostly been playing well, so the boys in blue will need to significantly step up their game to make a second-half push. They’ll need better performances from quite a few players, but more specifically, I see two players who will have the biggest roles in deciding how the rest of the Royals’ season goes: Alex Gordon and Yordano Ventura.

Before going further, I should point out that those two aren’t the only guys who will determine whether or not the team makes the playoffs. Obviously a major-league roster contains several more players who will appear in the next 74 games, and many of those players may do enough to push the Royals to their third straight postseason. At the same time, even MVP-like numbers from those two don’t guarantee anything if the rest of the team collapses. But considering the context, Gordon and Ventura are the most crucial keys to the Royals’ second half.

Offensively, Gordon has yet to find his groove in 2016. He was struggling in the first two months of the season before colliding with Mike Moustakas, and since returning from that wrist injury, he’s hitting below the Mendoza line. He’s still been drawing some walks, but a spike in his strikeout rate has caused his on-base percentage to hover just north of .300. That’s certainly not what the team was hoping to see when they signed one of the best players in franchise history to a record-breaking contract this winter.

The effects of Gordon’s dropoff are obvious. As a team, Royals’ outfielders have a .723 OPS, which is tenth-best in the league. They have gotten some nice production from Brett Eibner, but no other Royals outfielder is hitting at an above-average clip. Paulo Orlando got off to a hot start, but the BABIP Fairy has not been kind to him recently. Lorenzo Cain is set to come off the disabled list soon, but he had just been going through a rough stretch in June, prior to his injury. And Jarrod Dyson hasn’t done much offensively in the chances he’s been given.

Because of all those struggles, there has been quite a bit of speculation about the Royals targeting an outfielder in a trade. While it wouldn’t hurt to have another productive bat in the middle of the order, the Royals would likely prefer to not have to acquire one from outside the organization. They would prefer adding that production without adding another player, and Gordon can provide that.

Beyond the outfielders, the team’s offense has been, well, let’s just say it’s been bad, because this is a family-friendly website. They need offense from somewhere, and Gordon is easily the most likely candidate to supply that offense. There are other areas for improvement, but there is no bigger gap between “potential production” and “actual production” than the left field position. If Gordon returns to form, the offense is going to take a big step forward, and they probably don’t need to worry about adding another hitter at the deadline.

Good Gordon can also have a huge effect on the lineup construction. If he’s getting on base like he’s done in the past, the Royals are going to have an excellent leadoff hitter. And while the leadoff hitter is only guaranteed to lead-off once per game, that one time is an important one, as the Royals have been outscored 62-45 in the first inning this year. That may say a lot about the starting pitching, but the offense certainly can do better, just as they can do much better in the third inning, which is when the lineup typically starts to turn over.

In the third inning this year, the Royals are hitting .230/.282/.341, and they’ve scored 24 runs in those 88 innings. You can probably guess who’s gotten the most plate appearances in that frame, and sure enough, Alcides Escobar has a .333 OPS in those 55 plate appearances. That’s his on-base percentage plus his slugging percentage,  and for the uninitiated, that number should be larger than .333. It should be much, much larger than .333. Now that he’s not at the top of the order, however, the Royals could start to do more damage when the pitcher starts to see their lineup for a second time.

It’s a similar story in the fifth inning, where Escobar’s gotten 51 plate appearances, 16 more than the next man on the list. That’s another opportunity for the Royals to improve, if they have the Gordon of old slotted at the top of the order.

But if Gordon isn’t hitting, he may not be at the top of the order, and if he’s not at the top of the order, someone else will be. That someone else probably won’t have the on-base skills of Gordon, so the team’s potential ceiling is lowered. While they don’t need him to necessarily carry the offense on his shoulders all summer long, if there’s a guy capable of carrying something on his shoulders for three months, it’s Gordon.

Likewise, the Royals don’t need Ventura to pull the rotation to the playoffs with his right arm alone, but if there’s a Royal capable of doing amazing things with his right arm, it’s Ventura.

The rotation is already hurting, with a 4.99 ERA in 472.1 innings. Even if Ventura does turn things around, the Royals are going to need a fifth starter for the second half, since they have yet to get anything resembling a respectable performance from that spot in the rotation. Chris Young is surrendering dingers at a pace not seen before. Dillon Gee has given up 34 hits in 23 innings as a starter. And literally every other potential starting pitcher in the entire organization is injured. Maybe not literally, but it’s close enough.

If the Royals do decide to buy at the deadline, their first priority should probably be to get a starting pitcher. If Ventura can’t right the ship, they’re probably going to need to get two of them.

This assumes the rest of the starters pitch better out of the gate in the second half, of course, which is far from a certainty. But I do feel comfortable with Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy, and Edinson Volquez, outside of The Start, has been basically what you would expect as a mid-rotation guy. The rotation’s results in the second half will depend largely on which Ventura shows up consistently.

In 94.1 innings, Ventura has a 5.15 ERA. He’s had a few really good starts recently, but they were sandwiched around two dreadful ones, along with that whole suspended-for-being-a-knucklehead thing. He simply hasn’t been able to string enough good starts together to outweigh the bad ones.

And that’s a problem. When the rotation is already dealing with one veritable black hole, along with some blowup starts from the rest of the pitchers, they need a guy who is capable of delivering some consistently good innings every fifth day. The Royals have a great bullpen, but their depth will continue to be tested if they have to throw a reliever for five innings so frequently. It’s just not a feasible path to the playoffs.

It’s going to take the 2014 version, or the second half of 2015 version of Ventura, to help get the rotation back on track. They need someone who can be counted on more than once or twice a month.

We’ve seen Ventura dominate for months at a time, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if he throws fire after the break, but if Dayton Moore still sees the 2016 Royals as a playoff contender, he’s going to need to move quickly if Ventura continues to struggle. You’ve probably heard they don’t have much in the way of premium prospects to trade for premium pitching, so even acquiring one solid starter may not be easy. If they need two of them, that’s an even bigger price tag.

Of course, if Ventura does struggle, or if Gordon never quite finds his timing this season, the Royals could find themselves 10 games out of the playoff race, and the discussion of “to buy or not to buy” will be moot. On the other hand, if one or both of them can start to reach their potential, the team should find itself right in the middle of contention, without having surrendered more of their future to get there.

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