Back to the Future

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Well, for at least a few days, Reagan is meeting with Gorbachev again, Sly Stallone is boxing Russians and looking for POWs, Madonna is a material girl. For a few days, the Commodore 128 is cutting-edge technology, Coca Cola tries a new recipe and the worst rock song ever recorded, Starship’s “We Built This City,” makes our ears bleed. It is 1985 again. The Kansas City Royals are in first place.

True, they could be out of first place as soon as this weekend. But they are in first place now, and providence demands that small miracles be noticed and cherished. The Royals have been, almost without exception, a nightmare team to love since 1985, when a scrappy bunch of kids and veterans won a World Series. The dreary years since are well-covered ground. And for the first two months of this season the Royals gave every indication that this would be as disappointing and disheartening a season as any of them.

Then they won 10 in a row.

And now, for this moment, they’re in first place.

That’s the wonder of baseball. No other sport offers this chance to go from a nothing team to a thrilling one in just 11 days. On June 7, the Royals were in last place in the uninspiring American League Central. They were three games below .500. They were last in the league in home runs, in slugging percentage, in OPS and, most importantly, in runs scored.

They were so thoroughly out of ideas that they canned hitting coach Pedro Grifol — that’s what the Royals ALWAYS do when they can’t hit. Grifol was the fifth hitting coach to disappear in three years. May in Kansas City is that time of year when hitting coaches (and, occasionally first-base coaches) are best served hiding under beds because they often spontaneously combust or have bizarre gardening accidents the authorities decide are better left unsolved.

So, yes, the Royals’ season was playing out like normal, the longest running tragic opera in America. You would have to say that, the Royals actually were AHEAD of their usual pace — hey, three games under .500 in June is almost parade-worthy in Kansas City. But it felt worse than normal because the Royals had been pointing to 2014 for a long time.  This was to be the year it all turned around, the year their almost unprecedented crop of prospects blossomed, the year the Royals finally gave Kansas City a real pennant race to enjoy and endure.

Eleven days ago, that seemed impossible.

Today, at least, it not only seems possible but very real.

Yes: The wonder of baseball. The Royals have had brief moments of sunshine before –particularly back in 2003 when Tony Pena was handing out “We Believe!” T-shirts and the late Jose Lima was floating change-ups past the world. The Royals were in first place into late July that year. But it was different — 2003 was this strange oasis between 100-loss seasons. That team wasn’t any good, and everyone knew it wasn’t any good. The season was spent waiting to see how long it took the players to figure it out (answer: September 1).

But this Royals teams IS good, or at least they have some good young players. The sluggish start was particularly painful because there had been real hope entering the season. The Royals signed pitcher Yordano Ventura for $28,000 when he was 16 years old — six years later, he’s a rookie throwing 103 mph. The Royals had high hopes for a left-handed pitcher named Danny Duffy, and then one day a few years ago he called up the Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo and said he was quitting baseball. He came back and, not long after, blew out his elbow. He came back again and this year has been mostly fantastic.

The Royals drafted Greg Holland in the 10th round out of Western Carolina — he was a 5-foot-10 non-prospect. Best I can tell, he never once made Baseball America’s list of the Royals top THIRTY prospects. The last two years, he has 67 saves, a 1.25 ERA and he has struck out 143 in 93 innings.

And so on. Once promising starter Wade Davis has become the Incredible Hulk as a setup man — he has struck out 49 batters in 30 innings and, you won’t believe this, has not allowed an extra-base hit all year. Veterans James Shields and Jason Vargas have been very good. Like I say, this team IS good, or as good as Royals teams get, and when they were stuck in last place and playing uninspired baseball, it felt like a new way for them to cause suffering.

Then again, you notice all the players I mentioned above are pitchers — the Royals’ lineup was unbearably awful. For two months they did almost nothing well. The only skill they displayed the first two months of the season was the ability to avoid strikeouts — a skill that doesn’t add up to much when you spend most of your effort grounding balls to second base.

Then, for the last 11 days, the Royals have started crushing baseballs. It’s just a small sample, of course, but it happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that it’s worth celebrating. Since June 7, they have 13 homers in 10 games. They have scored 24 runs in their last three games against top dog Detroit — Tuesday night they crushed last year’s Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. Catcher Salvador Perez keeps on hitting. Their best hitting prospects of the last few years, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, finally started hitting. Hey, maybe firing the batting coach worked this time.

And a few words should be written about Alex Gordon. He’s only 30 but he has lived a full baseball life. In 2005, the Royals drafted him with the second-overall pick — it’s hard to describe how much excitement he triggered. Gordon was not only the top college hitter in the America, he was a true Midwesterner — born and raised and college-educated in Lincoln, Neb. — and he grew up in a Royals family. One of his brothers was actually named after George Brett. Even more , Gordon’s swing was obviously patterned after Brett’s. Everything seemed so right, and then Gordon had a brilliant season in the minors — he was named Baseball America’s minor-league player of the year — and stardom was assured.

Only, it wasn’t. Gordon came up to the major leagues and, for all the calm he tried to display for the masses, he was entirely spooked. He was hitting in the .170s in early June. His defense at third base, which was expected to be solidly average or above, was frightening Royals management. He was the all-but unanimous preseason Rookie of the Year, but instead he hit .247, struck out 137 times. Gordon was only moderately better the next year.

Then the injuries began, and whatever confidence was left seemed shattered. The Royals sent Gordon down to the minor leagues to learn how to be a left fielder. Through age 26, Alex Gordon was hitting .244/.328/.405 and was basically unplayable at third base. It could not have looked more dire.

Then Gordon did what very few can do. He rebuilt himself. He embraced the role of a left fielder, he worked hard on finding his swing. In 2011 and 2012 he was a great player. He hit .298/.372/.478 those two years, led the league in doubles in 2012, won well-deserved Gold Gloves for his play in left field. People had more or less stopped noticing him, but Gordon had become one of the best players in the American League.

This year, he’s again up there, having a quiet MVP-type season. At the moment, the Website Fangraphs puts Gordon’s Wins Above Replacement at 4.1 — second in the league behind only Mike Trout. People feel all different ways about the WAR stat but the point is not the number but that Gordon is doing everything well — he’s hitting, he’s throwing in a little power, he’s one of the best baserunners in baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he’s playing spectacular defense. Gordon has been the best defensive left fielder in baseball for a while now. These days, he’s making a case for best defensive player in baseball PERIOD, any position. According to John Dewan’s fascinating “Runs Saved” statistic, Gordon has saved the Royals 16 runs this year with his defense. For the moment, he has saved more runs with his left-field defense than Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons or Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Look, you don’t have to tell Royals fans that all this can disappear in a moment. There are stats that suggest the Royals have had a lot of luck this season, and luck rarely lasts all the way through. There are reasons to believe the Tigers are much better than the Royals, and that the Royals’ bullpen will not continue to dominate, and that the lack of power in the Royals lineup will lead to some bad stretches and that the starting rotation won’t hold up. You don’t have to tell Royals fans any of that because they’ve been living it for almost 30 years.

But right now: The Royals are in first place. They are wearing their raspberry berets and listening to the cheers and going back to the future. You don’t question these things in Kansas City. You relish in them. Maybe it’s a dream. But if it is, let us sleep for a little while longer. But, yes, please do wake us up before you go go.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.