Back Where I Started With the Royals and Sporting
I am travelling to the airport in Barcelona after two glorious weeks in Europe, enjoying the disparate delights of the urban beat of the major Spanish city with the peaceful joys of the wine country of southeast France and its tiny villages. I return to see that the fortunes of our two active sports teams aren’t in much different places than a half a month ago, which is mostly not good news, but not entirely.
Tuesday, the Royals tried to adjust the narrative of their season which has been consistent through the first forty games of the season, meaning extremely bad results in the win-loss category, with encouraging sidebars. They are trying to add a different storyline with the promotion of Nicky Lopez, who can hopefully lengthen out a schizophrenic lineup. If you were told before the year that the Royals would have five regulars with an OPS over .800 (the same as the 2015 title team had), you certainly wouldn’t think that would be part of a 14-27 record.
But the Royals have been typical of a bad team, they find ways to lose, and they do it consistently. Wins are just an occasional snack for a very hungry man, Kansas City has not won a series in a month. Early on, some potential for a .500ish team were submarined by a catastrophic bullpen, then the starting pitching faded after a good start.
Basically, every Royals box score looks the same. There are lots of numbers at the top, and lots of zeroes at the bottom, and I don’t mean the box reserved for pitching. Lopez hopefully provides an elixir for the worst decision of the offseason, the signing of Chris Owings, who fit into a Royals idea of roster flexibility through versatility. Unfortunately, the Royals saw Owings as a Walmart Whit Merrifield. Instead he hit like a pitcher, and that is probably an insult to them.
Inserting Lopez, who was scalding hot in AAA, as the regular second baseman, is certainly a warranted move given the circumstances, but it is not without its downside. Making Merrifield a full-time outfielder, a role he certainly can handle, diminishes part of his value. His production as a primary second baseman is far more telling than as an outfielder, and his ability to play multiple positions now is basically gone as an attribute.
The positives for the team have stayed pretty consistent. Alex Gordon continues to look as if his renaissance is a reality, as does Hunter Dozier’s emergence. Adalberto Mondesi still has some issues to address, but they are certainly outweighed by his age, and his upside attributes. Jorge Soler has flashed enough power to make up for an alarming strikeout rate. That is a team-wide issue, which must grind Dayton Moore’s gears, seeing as one of the main attributes of his best teams was their pesky contact.
The negatives have also been consistent. Owings, Billy Hamilton hitting like he always has not how they hoped, and Martin Maldanado hitting a bit less than his usual marginally acceptable level. But, likely the biggest disappointment has been the work of Brad Keller and Jacob Junis. Keller is walking batters at a rate that makes success almost impossible. Junis can’t avoid the long ball and the big inning. The good thing is that a quarter of a season is less telling than for an every day player, with the sample size not even ten starts.
In whole, besides the record, which certainly matters even in a season where contention was not realistic, there have been more things to indicate a coming turnaround, rather than years of misery. That doesn’t make it any more fun to be the team with the second worst record…
Sporting Kansas City’s issues are more dire, more complicated, but easier to see a way out of. Winless in eight straight games, and ravaged by injuries, Peter Vermes team is digging a hole for themselves which in my mind creates this scenario for the 2019 team. Hope to get healthier, improve while doing so, try to squeeze into the playoffs, and be dangerous then.
That is a tough road to negotiate, but at least they have the man for the job in Vermes. Having ten potential regulars hurt is almost absurd bad luck. Once Sporting was finished with the Champions League, the deeper roster which they had built for multiple competitions should have been enough to absorb a regular amount of injuries. But being several players short of a full roster as they were against DC United is in no way regular. There is no person less attuned to make excuses than Vermes, but even he has noted the unprecedented-in-his-career roster carnage.
No matter what the circumstances, bad results kill confidence. Even if they aren’t necessarily his fault, a goalkeeper like Tim Melia will feel the strain of watching the net bulge behind him. Defenders will stare blankly at each other, and then the pressure comes to make every opportunity count on the other end. When it doesn’t, as when on Sunday Kristian Nemeth didn’t even put a golden game-tying opportunity on frame, he will feel the strain.
Fortunes in soccer can change rapidly. Three points for a win, with a few strung together, can get you rolling up the table pretty fast. But that is easier said than done. There is no guarantee that just because they have had bad injury luck so far that they will have a clean bill of health going forward. No one is going to feel sorry for Sporting, and the opponent is getting paid to perform, too.
But Sporting has pedigree, an outstanding coach, and one of the top home field advantages in MLS. They need all three and likely a little bit more to keep this from being a star-crossed and disappointing year.