What a Run These Royals Had

If this is it for a chunk of the Kansas City Royals’ core, it’s the end of a fantastic era–one that a generation and a half of fans would’ve never expected. 

Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have accomplished a lot together. Amongst them, there’s over 30 years of service to the Kansas City Royals, five straight seasons of plus-.500 baseball, almost 50 Baseball Reference (bWAR) WAR, six All-Star Games, a division title, two playoff trips, two pennants, two ALCS MVPs, and most importantly, a World Series trophy. This group helped break a 29-year playoff drought and closed a 30-year gap between titles. They made a winner out of a team that was a loser for a generation and a half of baseball fans.

Now, that portion of their core, those four, are up for free agency together. The end of the definitive Royals collective in three decades has finally come, as promised. Nothing lasts forever–especially in baseball and particularly in Kansas City–where a team heavily relies on arbitration talent for production. Barring under-market value contracts (“hometown discount” is the salesman’s term), it’s unlikely they’ll return for 2018 and/or beyond. After two straight pennants, this group’s run ends with two straight postseason misses. Like all good things in sports, it might’ve been over before it officially was.

And if it officially is, what a run these Royals had.

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Kansas City’s free agency quartet came together well in advance of their ascendency. Over four years, General manager Dayton Moore filled out the modern Royals zeitgeist: drafting Moustakas in 2007 and Hosmer in ’08, trading for Escobar and Cain in the same 2010 deal.

Those moves didn’t necessarily confirm Kansas City’s rise on their own. Just a year before their first winning season in a decade, Escobar, Moustakas and Cain were average-starter quality, and Hosmer posted a negative bWAR for the season. There were some good signs: Alex Gordon was reaching a level he was expected to miss, a very young Salvador Perez was making strides and their bullpen ranked top-three by FanGraphs WAR (fWAR).

But it was the winter of 2012 that signaled their intent, even if that intention was hardly believable. That offseason, Moore traded heralded prospects Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis. It was a win-now move—leveraging prospects for known commodities—by a team that needed their young players to make major strides in order to meet the goals the trade suggested.

The deal was derided (mostly outside of baseball, as Baseball America pointed out), perhaps because by then, the Royals had the reputation of a farm-to-majors team, an incubator for prospects, not a trade market/free agency participant of any note. Myers was adored for his unrealized upside. Their young crop of potential stars was one of the most promising groups ever assembled, by reputation if nothing else.

When some of those guys failed—and a lot of them did—Kansas City failed at the only thing at which they were allegedly good. It was as if they needed to take care of their home first, crumbling with every letdown of their shiny young talent, like a house built with gilded cardboard, before adding a finished product pitcher. Guys like Myers, Odorizzi and Montgomery were highly valued reinforcement, even hedges should the first wave continue to underwhelm. It didn’t matter that, in 2012, their frontline pitching was Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar. Moore’s prospect bet was a steep one.

In reality, a three-pronged strategy to end futility was finding its sharpness. The youth movement, the bargain hunting and the big trade meshed for a two-year run that any baseball aficionado who checked in to the game after 1985 could never fathom.

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Between 1986 and 2013, every baseball team still in MLB made the playoffs at least twice. With the exception, of course, of the Kansas City Royals.

Two playoff trips, two World Series, and one championship may not seem like much when compared to, say, the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but when compared to their own history, these Royals had a dynasty.

The free agency quartet were in the thick of it.

Hosmer and Cain hit over .400 in the 2014 ALCS, with Cain sporting a ridiculous 1.255 OPS en route to a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. He deservedly took home LCS MVP that year. In the World Series, Escobar, Cain, Hosmer and Moose accounted for just under half of Kansas City’s hits, runs and RBI over seven games. It took 21 stellar Madison Bumgarner innings to keep them from winning the World Series.

The following year, they finished the job. Escobar hit .478 from the leadoff spot against the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS, and with Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas, the quartet again accounted for nearly half of Kansas City’s hits in the six-game series while driving in 60% of the team’s runs.

Against the New York Mets in the 2015 World Series, Kansas City rallied in the eighth inning or later in three of their four wins, with the quartet a part of every comeback. In game one, Escobar scored the winning run in the 14th. In Game 4, Moustakas drove in Cain in the eighth inning to take the lead, while Hosmer scored later in the same frame to extend it.

And in the decider, Escobar and Cain iced the series in the 12th, but it was Hosmer’s unreal hustle play in the ninth to tie it up with one out to go that became an indelible image for the series and the franchise.

And to a generation and change of baseball fans, one of the least successful teams we’d ever known was now world champion.

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If Alcides Escobar leaves, he’ll leave with the 10th most games played in a Royals uniform. If Lorenzo Cain leaves, he’ll leave as one of the best defensive players in franchise history, and one of the 10 best Royals by WAR all-time. If Eric Hosmer leaves, he’ll leave in the top 10 of hits, doubles, home runs, total bases, runs, and RBIs. If Mike Moustakas leaves, he’ll do so as the all-time franchise leader in single-season home runs.

No matter how you dice the record books, the free agency four are all over them. As important pieces of a tremendous run, they’ll be a part of Royals lore wherever they go. In and out of Kansas City, they’re entrenched, as a group, in baseball history.

Khurram Kalim is a staff writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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