2011 was supposed to be a relatively easy year for Ned Yost and Dayton Moore.  The minor league system was loaded with talent and the major league team opened the year with exactly zero expectation for success.   All they had to do this summer was ride out the losing, the national satire that might occasionally pop up, and let their prospects gradually feed into the majors.   Next year the Royals would be better and in 2013, they would contend.

Then something rather unsettling happened:   the 2011 Royals started winning.

Sure, 18-16 is not exactly ‘stop the presses’ type winning, but in a division where the White Sox are imploding, the Twins are hobbled, the Tigers look very average and the Cleveland Indians, of all teams, have led all season, that record is enough to get fans and front office alike interested in this year.

In some respects, Moore went into 2011 with some inkling that this team might be better than people thought.   How else do you explain moving one of the organization’s top pitching prospects and former first round pick Aaron Crow from minor league starter to major league reliever?   If one did not believe your team had a chance, why carry a pinch runner extraordinaire in Jarrod Dyson on the major league roster?  Those are roster moves that contending teams make to put them over the top, not developmental moves to make your 2013 team better.

Now, with Lorenzo Cain playing centerfield in Omaha and Derrick Robinson doing the same in Northwest Arkansas, you can make the argument that the major league roster was as good a place to stash Jarrod Dyson (who most people generally believe will never hit major league pitching with any reasonable success) as any.   You can also make the argument that putting Crow into the major league bullpen, while not a particularly conventional way of developing young pitchers anymore, is simply a different way to move him along.  

I think, however, that Dayton Moore had a thought that IF the starting rotation could be just good enough and IF the rookies in the bullpen could be very good and IF Alex Gordon came around and IF and IF and IF….   Well, then, maybe this year’s Royals could be, if not contenders, decent.   A team seldom goes from bad to good without being decent in between.   If Crow and Dyson could help Kansas City get to ‘decent’ sooner, then so be it.

Of course, then the American League Central happened all over itself.   No one, including the Indians themselves, believe that Cleveland is going to run away and hide and the teams that were supposed to be good have us all wondering why we thought they were going to be good in the first place.   Truly, any team that thinks it can get to 85 or 86 wins has to believe that will put them in the thick of a September pennant race.

Is it realistic that the Kansas City Royals could get ten games over .500?   I don’t know, but I cannot fault the effort to try THIS year.

Damn Super Two, boys, full speed ahead!

As Craig pointed out last week, the Royals could have avoided a year of arbitration with Eric Hosmer had they waited three weeks to call him up.  The consequences of starting the arbitration clock (different from the free agent clock, by the way) could well end up costing the Royals a total of $10 million between end of the 2013 season through 2017.    Not chump change by any means, but not the type of money that should force Kansas City into organizational paralysis either.

You can take the organization’s line that ‘Hosmer was just ready to move up’ however you want, but no one believes that if Kila Ka’aihue was hitting .300 and/or the Royals were ten games under .500 that this move would have been made last Thursday night.    The call for Hosmer was made, quite simply, because the Royals are in contention right now and might not be there three weeks from now.

Even with the addition of Hosmer, the Royals will have a difficult time navigating their way through the May schedule.   Should they falter and find themselves 10 games out and buried below the .500 mark on May 31st, then this early call-up will quite certainly be a costly misstep.

What if Eric Hosmer ‘is who we thought he was’?  What if the Royals hit May 31st and are still three, four or even five games over .500?   Surely the Indians will not continue to play .667 ball through the month and hopefully the Tigers don’t catch fire.   More ‘ifs’ I know, but what if?   At that point, calling up Hosmer might well be money well spent.

It is a gamble to be sure – a $10 million gamble actually – but I give Moore credit for not being afraid to make the call.  At our Royals Authority gathering this spring at The Well, I wondered if Moore might be hesitant to call up his prize prospects for fear of failure (see Escobar, Alcides circa 2010) and this tells me that he is not.   It also tells me that Dayton Moore, like all of us, is tired of ‘waiting for next year’.

The logicial question, of course, is what’s next?   Wait – that’s what.

One player becoming a ‘Super Two’ is livable, two or three is a problem.   For that reason alone, the Royals likely will not make a move to bolster the starting rotation until month’s end.   Yes, Kansas City starters gave up six runs in 22 plus innings this weekend, but Oakland is a bad, bad offensive team.   While the performances of O’Sullivan, Hochevar and Francis were encouraging, they need to be tempered with the A’s ineptitude in mind.

Everyone, including my 3 year old son, knows that Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery are next in line to get the big league call.  Duffy who has 41 strikeouts and 7 walks over his first 32 innings is likely number one on the list, with Montgomery close behind once he masters enough control of his secondary pitches not to walk 19 batters in 33 innings.   Right now, either one is likely better than Kyle Davies.

If the Royals reach the 1st of June within in hailing distance of first place, you can pretty much count on Duffy getting the call.    Unless innings become a major concern (and they might well be), Montgomery probably won’t be far behind his Omaha teammate.

That is kind of the rub of this whole ‘contention equation’:  teams in contention generally don’t get younger to compete, but that is exactly what the Royals would likely do.    With Lorenzo Cain, David Lough, Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella all in Omaha as well, one could make the case that a 51-45 Royals team could replace veterans with rookies (or near rookies in the case of Cain) in the heat of a pennant race and actually become more potent.

There is something to be said for bringing up young players to play in games that matter as opposed to have them slipping into the lineup late in the year on a team that is 52-70.  Even if the acceleration of The Process ends up with Kansas City falling out of contention as August turns to September, the experience gained by Hosmer, Duffy and a couple of others will be invaluable.

Now, this could all blow up in the Royals’ face.    Hosmer could struggle mightily, Duffy could replace Davies and look a lot like Kyle Davies, Montgomery might never get his walks under control and Ned Yost might continue to bat Chris Getz lead-off 70% of the time.   By mid-June you might well send me a ‘you were an idiot back in May’ comment and I might not have much of a defense.

If the question is do you try to contend in 2011 or 2012, then my answer is you contend when you have a chance.   Maybe it is just May 9th and maybe this team is just two games over .500 one-fifth of the way through the regular season, but that is closer to contention than the 2012 team might be at the same point in time.

Eric Hosmer was ready for the show and, it turns out, for better or worse, Dayton Moore was ready to make run now, not next year.