It’s make or break time for Mike Moustakas and the Royals

If you’re a Royals fan, first off, I’m sorry for everything – your team seems to be under some all-encompassing curse which not only affects the play out on the field, but the decisions made off it. Your futility has reached illogical levels, to the ridiculous point where #RoyalsbeingRoyals and #Royaling are things used commonly to explain events concerning KC. If so far in 2014 you’ve got a horrible sense of deja vu however, well that’s completely rational. Because with embattled third baseman Mike Moustakas, it’s been another winter of adjustments, another hot Spring Training, and yet another terrible start to the season.

Since becoming the first pick of the Dayton Moore era in KC, the headline talent of what was at one point touted as one of the most loaded farm systems in baseball history, Moustakas has not only repeatedly failed to live up to expectations, but managed to get worse every year. After tearing up the minors to the tune of a .282/.337/.503 line, the second overall pick of the 2007 amateur draft hit .263/.309/.367 in a shortened rookie campaign back in 2011. That he was often overmatched wasn’t especially concerning, he was only 22-years-old at the time, and the world hadn’t yet been introduced to the likes of Mike Trout (who inarguably has raised the bar for impactful rookie performances to an unrealistic height). The California native would tout his occasional promise the following year, hitting 20 home runs in his first full season at Kauffman stadium, he regressed significantly in other areas, eventually posting a woeful slash line of .242/.296/.412 over 614 plate appearances. Last season however, even after a Spring Training showing that convinced many his struggles were behind him, Moustakas contrived to somehow get even worse, batting just 233/.287/.364 while seeing his power numbers sharply decline (he hit 12 home runs in his 514 plate appearances).

Once again, this year was meant to be different. After his dismal 2013, Moustakas spent part of the offseason in Venezuela, playing winter ball for Kansas City’s hitting coach Pedro Grifol, and working on his swing and his batting eye with the hope of redeeming his previously heralded status in 2014. He even carried over his hot hitting from Venezuela to Spring Training, hitting .429 ( the third-highest preseason average) with four homers and seven doubles, consistently driving the ball to all fields  – a huge development considering how often he was shifted against the year prior. And yet, 39 games into the season, it appears that to an even greater extent than in 2011, Moustakas is again overmatched; by OPS+, he’s been the third-worst hitter among qualifiers in the American League this season*, and despite being platooned more than ever to save him from facing fellow southpaws, Moustakas is hitting just .161/.226/.348. 

Once thought of as the future anchor to the Kansas City lineup, the now 25-year-old Moustakas has only succeeded in dragging down the team’s offense. Most often batting seventh, Moustakas has had men on base in just under half of his trips to the plate (60 out of 124), but has hit just .135. With over 1600 career plate appearances under his belt**, he’s become the poster boy for that mostly-failed bounty of prospects, and with such languid production, in danger of seeing his time in Kansas City cut short imminently; though he will only become arbitration eligible for the first time after this season, the Royals may be inclined to move on from him way before then – see the numerous calls for him to be demoted to Triple-A Omaha not simply in order to see if it can inspire some confidence in Moustakas, but make the KC offense better.

What might eventually reprieve Moustakas from a trip to the minors is an unfortunate reality for Kansas City fans – the club has little depth they could otherwise plug in at the position. Dayton Moore himself acknowledged on Tuesday “What’s the alternative?” and really, the Royals GM has a point; Danny Valencia played that day as part of the team’s platoon against southpaws, but is far from an everyday player. Johnny Giavotella has played much of the season for Class AAA Omaha at the hot corner, but remains a liability defensively and is currently covering for the injured Omar Infante at second base. Pedro Ciriaco is Pedro Ciriaco. Prospects Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier are still a way off from being ready for the majors. Outside of a trade, it seems like Moore can do little but pray on Moustakas eventually rounding into form.

It’s not just the man they call Moose who has underwhelmed on offense so far this season of course; designated hitter Billy Butler currently has a .603 OPS, one home run, and has contributed -0.4 WAR. After finally appearing to crack the whole ‘hitting for power’ thing towards the end of last year, Eric Hosmer has just one long ball so far in 2014, rendering his .304 average somewhat empty. Alex Gordon and his .675 OPS has contributed the same amount of OWAR (0.1) as Yordano Ventura, who has two freakin’ plate appearances. The team as a whole ranks second from bottom among AL teams in both runs scored per game (4.03) and OPS (.677), and dead last in slugging percentage (.367) and OPS+ (85). And yet, the Royals are 20-19, and trailing only perennial powerhouse Detroit in the AL Central, thanks entirely to their terrific pitching and fielding (and in spite of Ned Yost‘s absurd managerial strategies). 

Glassy-eyed optimism on the part of Moustakas, quoted recently in saying “I’m going to go out there and get four hits one day, four the next day, and nobody’s going to be thinking about this anymore,” and deflection tactics from Moore, who angrily asked reporters “Anyone want to talk about our bullpen? Or talk about our starting pitching?” a few days ago, can’t obscure what’s going on in Kansas City. This is a make or break season for the Royals, the last in which they’ll have ace James Shields under contract after mortgaging Wil Myers and a host of other prospects for a two year crack at the playoffs. Year one was promising, but ultimately unsuccessful. Year two is off to a shaky start. If the Royals are to fail in breaking their playoff drought once again, who knows what might happen – you’d have to think both Yost and Moore would be on the wobbly chair come the end of the season, and a roster shake-up would follow. 

If he doesn’t pick up some of the slack soon however, Mike Moustakas might understandably be the fall guy well before then.


* Brad Miller of Seattle, and Alejandro de Aza in Chicago, if you were interested, are no. 1 and 2.

** As pointed out by Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, “Including his signing bonus, the Royals have spent more than $5 million and waited nearly 2,500 days for him to be a good big-league player.” 

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