KANSAS CITY, Mo. >> Drop into just about any bank or supermarket or sports bar in the Kansas City metro area these days and there’s a good chance you’ll see one of several photographs from just a few years ago hanging on a wall.
It might be Yordano Ventura unleashing a fastball. Or Eric Hosmer sliding into home at Citi Field in New York. Or Wade Davis with his arms thrust high into the air, his blazing fastball having just closed out Game 5 of the World Series and making the Kansas City Royals the world champions.
More than likely, you’ll find the now-iconic photograph of Union Station, where an estimated 400,000 people turned out to celebrate the club’s first title in three decades.
Those photos are reminders of better times. And how quickly things can change.
The Royals, who were indeed baseball royalty in 2015, are now neck and neck with the Orioles for the worst record in baseball. They’ve traded off their star closer, their best players are struggling and the prospects that might one day raise them from the abyss are years away from joining the club.
“The record is what it is. The hitting is what it is. The pitching is what it is,” said Royals manager Ned Yost, who presided over the rebuild that led to back-to-back World Series appearances. “I have to continue to lead. We have to make sure this year has not been a waste.”
How did things fall apart so quickly?
To start, the Royals doled out big contracts to players that have not produced. Left fielder Alex Gordon consumes 14 percent of the payroll in the third year of a $72 million, four-year deal, but he’s hitting just .247 with five homers and 15 RBIs. Right-hander Ian Kennedy consumes 11 percent of the payroll in the third year of a $70 million, five-year deal, and he’s 1-8 with a 5.11 ERA.
The few stars that remain on the roster have likewise struggled to produce.
Salvador Perez likely will see his streak of five straight All-Star games end. The catcher, in the third year of a $52 million, six-year deal, is hitting .255 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs.
Good luck winning many games that way.
The Royals were 25-61 heading into their off day Thursday and had lost 24 of their last 28 games. They needed to go 38-38 the rest of the way just to avoid the ignominy of 100 losses.
Making things worse: The Royals are losing that many games with a payroll of about $144 million.
Another reason for the precipitous slide was year after year of poor drafts. Only one of their 13 first-round picks since 2010 is currently on the 25-man roster; Hunter Dozier is hitting .223 in 44 games as he struggles to lock down an everyday job.
“As a young guy you know you’re going to fail, and in some ways we want you to fail because that’s how you’re going to get better,” said Yost, who is going through the same slow learning process with infielder and erstwhile top prospect Adalberto Mondesi.
The son of longtime big leaguer Raul Mondesi, he is hitting .214 in 42 at-bats this season.
“We also don’t want to heap too much on their shoulders,” Yost said, “so it’s balancing act.”
Maybe that’s why the Royals have been slow to gut their roster in favor of a complete rebuild, even if that appears to be coming. They’ve already traded utility outfielder Jon Jay to the Diamondbacks and star closer Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals, getting five prospects in return that the Royals hope will help restock a farm system that remains one of the worst in baseball.
More moves could be coming, too. The Royals are hopeful of trading third baseman Mike Moustakas, who signed a one-year deal when no long-term offers materialized last offseason. Versatile infielder Whit Merrifield could land a few solid prospects, and left-hander Danny Duffy and even Perez could be made available, though both have torpedoed their value with poor seasons.
The combination of an old and bad team has been made even worse by the fact that the Royals are, well, pretty boring. They don’t hit an abundance of homers. Their starting rotation includes the first two pitchers to hit 10 losses in the majors. There are no young stars yet worth watching.
As a result, the Royals are drawing an average of 20,283 fans to Kauffman Stadium. That’s a drop of more than 7,000 from last season and more than 13,000 from their championship season.
Still, for all the gloom, the typically irascible Yost has taken a decidedly optimistic approach to this season. He’s been through these long and painful rebuilds and come out the other side.
It takes patience. It takes smart moves. It takes more patience.
“There’s a lot of things to look at that you’re happy with, even though the record is what it is,” he said. “There is progress that you’re going to see on the back end, in the light, just as we did in 2013 and 2014, when we turned the corner the last time.”