KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On one hand, you’ve been watching the first Kansas City Royals team to reach July 13 with a winning record (48-46) since 2003.
On the other, there’s a good chunk of the fan base that sees a talented team, the second-best team in the American League Central, that might be underachieving and should be closer than 6 1/2 games back of Detroit at the start of the All-Star break.
"I mean, usually, we play better in the second half," pitcher Bruce Chen said. "But I don’t want to take anything for granted — because we’re a ‘second half’ type of team, we’re going to be like, ‘Oh, we’re going to win the next game.’"
Post All-Star break records under Ned Yost:
2013: 43-27, .614 winning percentage (.467 in first half)
So while it’s also accurate to say the Royals have often struggled out of the gate — Any chance they could move the All-Star Game to May? — it’s true: 2010 aside, the Ned Nine have played better ball after the break; and in the case of last summer, insanely better ball.
Can they pull off that kind of surge for a second straight season? That’s the question. And it ain’t the only one, either …
THREE QUESTIONS TO PONDER FOR THE ROYALS’ SECOND HALF
:03 … Ride out Billy Butler’s valleys with the expectations of greater peaks to come? Or start looking to cut bait?
You’ve got a career .296/.811 OPS hitter raking — or, rather, not raking — at .273/.679 with only three home runs from the middle of your batting order. Statistically, that’s the equivalent of having Jim Gantner charged with the primary task of driving in runs for your lineup.
Long-term, that dog won’t hunt.
Butler has been singled out — pun intended — several times by Yost and has noted to reporters that he’s being singled out, which may or may not help the cause. He’s a career non-fielder, a resume line that doesn’t help his trade value, but he’s still 28 — which means the regression that’s expected in the bat speed and overall numbers isn’t expected to kick in for real until after 2015. Unless, of course, it’s already here.
Either way, chances are the Royals will have to ride this one out. Which may not be a bad thing — ZiPS on Monday morning pegged Country Breakfast to hit .283/.352/.416 in the second half; Steamer projects .287/.359/.440. Phillies outfielder Marlon Byrd, the fans’ No. 1 trade target, is projected by ZiPS for a .272/.322/.454 split the rest of the way and .258/.300/.415 by Steamer.
In other words, the best power upgrade the Royals could make for the middle of their lineup right now might just be a Billy Butler who looks more like his ’09-13 self.
:02 … All righty then: Is there a viable trade option for a corner outfielder who brings more pop?
Not as many as you’d think — and the better candidates figure to come with a hefty price tag, especially as there appear to be far more buyers than sellers shopping for help right now. And do you sacrifice another cornerstone piece of the future, another Wil Myers, for the present?
The Rangers’ Alex Rios is a quality rental, if expensive (a reported $12.5 million salary this year). The Rays’ Ben Zobrist ticks several of the right boxes at a reported $7 million salary. Does San Diego’s Carlos Quentin have anything left in the tank? The aforementioned Byrd, a plugger with 18 homers at the break for going-nowhere Philly, included the Royals among the four teams in his no-trade clause, so that particular scenario might be a non-starter.
:01 … Are the Tigers really "catchable"? Or am I wiser to just stick to watching the wild-card standings for the next two-and-a-half months?
Catchable? Sure. Since 2002, four clubs that led the American League Central on the Fourth of July — a third — didn’t go on to win the division outright. One was the ’09 Tigers, who were caught and passed by the Twins in Game 163. Another was the ’11 Indians, who got lapped by Detroit. ’12 White Sox, same deal.
Now is it probable? Not especially. The Tigers have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule, in terms of opponent winning percentage, in the Junior Circuit; the Royals’ road is projected to be the third easiest, behind only the Blue Jays (No. 1) and Yankees (No. 2). The Fighting Neds have six contests left against Detroit — three away, three home, all in September — in addition to 10 against Cleveland (seven at The K) and four against the fellow wild-card chasers from the Bronx. Kansas City is done, head to head, with Seattle (a record of 2-5) and Toronto (4-3).
Plus, the Mariners’ second-half slate is an absolute beast. Which can’t hurt.
Given a fairly tame two weeks to start the second half of the season, we’ll have a better idea where to set the Royals’ postseason goals on Aug. 1. And scraping at least one victory out of this past weekend’s four-game home set with the Tigers put a little wind behind the sails — at least for now.
"It definitely helps," outfielder Lorenzo Cain said. "To definitely get a win against that type of team, to go into the All-Star break with that win, that’s huge for us."