Allow yourself to take a mental journey. Back to a simpler time when the Royals were full of hope. That time was May 1, 2016. The Royals won that day by a margin of 4-1 over the Seattle Mariners to push their record to 13-11. They were four games back (trailing the White Sox) in the division, but that was no worry. There were 138 games left to play and they were the World Champions. They’d figure out a way. Mike Moustakas started at third base that day and hit second. He went 0 for 5 with two strikeouts, but his season line was still strong at .258/.317/.548. Why May 1? It wasn’t Moose’s last start, but it was the beginning of the end.
You see, he had injured his thumb on a slide earlier on the road trip and was playing through it. He ended up sitting the next day, pinch hitting the day after that (and driving in two to tie a game in the ninth) and then starting the day after that before finally being placed on the disabled list. He missed 14 games. In his stead, a young Cheslor Cuthbert played third base, but he hit just .255/.269/.373. The Royals went 7-7, but the Royals felt they needed more offense, so after just two rehab games for Northwest Arkansas, Moustakas was activated from the disabled list and Cuthbert was sent back to Omaha.
The reports from Moose’s rehab stint weren’t great. He was still rusty and needed to get some timing back. After striking out 10 times in 105 at bats before going on the disabled list, he struck out three times in four at bats in his first game back. I remember commenting at the time that it looked like he came back too early. And then came doom. A popup was hit in foul territory down the left field line. Alex Gordon came in. Moustakas went out. They both went down. Moose was out for the year. Gordon was out for five weeks. That’s the season right there.
That will be my biggest “what if”, I think, from the Royals 2016 season. More than anything else, the decision to bring Moustakas back to the big leagues before he was ready to come back hurt the Royals in a way that nobody could be blamed for and nobody could imagine. What if they had just let him stay in Northwest Arkansas for a few more days? It’s a chain reaction that probably didn’t keep the Royals from the playoffs, but you never know.
First, let’s take a look at the good that did come from it. From May 24th through the end of August, Cuthbert had the chance to show he at least belonged. He hit .294/.334/.444 with nine homers and 21 doubles. It looked like he hit a wall in that final month of the season, but combined with his strong start to the season in Triple-A, we found out that there’s at least a competent replacement for Moustakas if he either gets hurt again or leaves as a free agent after the 2017 season. So that was nice. But it also may have actually ended up hurting.
You may not know this, but the Royals have a glut of third basemen now, if you still consider Hunter Dozier a third baseman. Cuthbert was having such a fantastic season in Triple-A that I think you’d expect that to continue to some extent. Sure he’d had his struggles in the big leagues in limited action, but he’s young and has development time remaining. I think there’s at least a chance that Cuthbert would have been better trade bait coming off a great year in Omaha rather than a slightly below average year in the big leagues. This is a small thing, but not an insignificant thing because the Royals have holes to fill on their roster, and the way to do it for them is likely to be through trade. He hit .333/.402/.624 in 24 Triple-A games. Let’s say he finishes the year in Omaha at .300/.370/.530. That’s pretty marketable for a 24-year old third baseman. I feel like that might pull more weight in the trade market than .274/.318/.413 at the big league level with questions of if he was figured out.
After the collision, left field was manned by Jarrod Dyson, Whit Merrifield, Brett Eibner and Reymond Fuentes. Fuentes posted a .364 OBP in 44 plate appearances. Eibner showed power. Merrifield showed his value to the big league club. Dyson has been a mainstay with this team for years. But none of them is Gordon. Yes, he was off to a very slow start before the injury, but we all know that he is capable of getting white hot for weeks on end. Dyson had a better overall season than Gordon. So did Merrifield. But still, you can’t tell me you’d rather have either of them playing left every day than a healthy Alex.
So now I invite you to play a game of “what if” and think about what would have happened if the Royals had said they could deal with Cuthbert’s substandard bat (at the time) for a few more days while Moustakas got his timing back. He spends a full week or so in the minors, accumulating 25-30 plate appearances and ends up rejoining the Royals on May 30. In the final 113 games, he plays 110 of them and hits .272/.344/.516 with 25 homers and 70 RBIs. That puts him at a season line of .269/.339/.520 with 32 homers. You think the Royals score more runs with that and win more games? Yeah, I’d think so.
Oh and let’s not forget that while Cuthbert made some nice defensive plays at third base, he’s still not a defensive wizard. Moustakas, on the other hand, well no, he’s not a wizard either, but he’s pretty darn good at third. Both the eye test and the metrics tell you he’s at least above average defensively. How many extra runs does he prevent over Cuthbert? Defensive runs saved tells us that it would probably be about 15-20. Let’s call it 15 just to be conservative. That’s a win and a half right there. Add that to Moustakas probably being another two or three wins better than Cuthbert offensively and you have a four to five win swing right there.
On the Gordon side, we just don’t know if he would have come out of his funk, but we can probably safely assume. He did hit much better as the season ended. He still wasn’t to his typical level, but I find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t have found his swing much earlier without having a wrist injury to deal with. But look at it this way. Since his breakout in 2011, the lowest WARP he’d posted in a season was 2.9 in 2015 when he played two-thirds of a season. He was at -0.3 this year. Let’s just be conservative and add two wins. Now with those two in the lineup for most of the season, we’ve already added six wins to push them to 87 rather than 81.
But wait, there’s more. And no, this isn’t an infomercial. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think one of Eric Hosmer’s biggest issues this season as he had his ridiculous slump was that he was missing help in the lineup. He was hitting .311/.367/.522 before the collision and just .250/.314/.401 after it. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I doubt it. And there’s all sorts of other things. Maybe the Royals offense is staying afloat in September with a healthy Moustakas and a thriving Gordon and Hosmer, so Lorenzo Cain doesn’t have to push to come back and test out his bad wrist before it’s ready. And then maybe he can make it back to play the last 12-14 games and maybe he gets red hot and can carry the Royals to a win or two that they didn’t get otherwise. Adding offensive weapons could do any number of things to help the team get an extra win here and there
The point is we don’t know. It’s the butterfly effect in baseball. As we’re set for the beginning of a Cubs/Indians World Series, it’s fair to wonder what might have been had Moustakas just spent a little more time on his rehab assignment. It’s not that far-fetched to think the injuries cost the Royals eight or nine wins this season when you start to put it all together. Of course, baseball has a funny way of working things out no matter what, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. But it’s hard not to think about what might have been.