Seeking their second World Series title in team history, the Kansas City Royals host a winner-take-all Game 7 against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday night at Kauffman Stadium. But the journey to the momentous game is not without losing some top talent that would be useful in the team's most important game in almost three decades.
An absence of star power in one area might be on full display by the opening pitch. Manager Ned Yost will turn to journeyman Jeremy Guthrie as his starting pitcher, but how long Yost keeps the 35-year-old on the mound is another question. Guthrie has just two appearances in the postseason, pitching a total of just 10 innings, though with a highly respectable 2.70 earned-run average. With a 4.13 ERA this season, and a 4.23 ERA over his career, Guthrie isn’t exactly inspiring supreme confidence, though Yost can turn to a stellar bullpen in case he falters.
But one bad inning from a starter can be enough to sink a team, as Giants manager Bruce Bochy can attest after Jake Peavy’s miserable outing in Game 6. At times like this, Yost, like any manager, would prefer a legitimate ace or No. 2 starter on the hill.
The Royals did, in fact, have an elite starter, who would have been ideal in this situation, and who was actually homegrown. When Zack Greinke was drafted by Kansas City in 2002 and signed to a $2.5 million bonus, his journey to the Majors immediately became a source of hope for a downtrodden organization. With perhaps the best control in the Majors, Greinke was considered one of the most valued young pitchers. He also had an exceptional season to prove it. In 2009, Greinke, who was barely 26 years old, won the American League Cy Young award with a 2.16 ERA and a 16-8 record, and with his future looking bright.
That didn’t stop General Manager Dayton Moore from dealing Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers for four players the following season. Kansas City landed a respectable collection of players for their ace: Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. The deal was made as a cost-cutting measure, with Greinke earning $7.25 million that season, and then receiving a yearly salary over $13 million for the rest of his career. In 2010, the Royals had an opening day payroll of $72.2 million (No.20 in the Majors), and in 2011 they had a $36.1 million payroll, which was the lowest in baseball.
Jeffress struggled in two seasons with the Royals, while Odorizzi pitched just over seven innings with the Royals before being dealt in a multi-player deal centered around top minor league prospect Wil Myers for James Shields, the team’s current ace. While Escobar, the current leadoff hitter, and Cain, the No. 3 hitter in the batting order, have had solid seasons and posted excellent batting averages in the Fall Classic, pitching remains a coveted commodity in the Majors, particularly in the playoffs.
To make up for some of the starting rotation shortcomings, Yost has relied on the bullpen, which has been a growing trend for most teams, though the Royals may have done it more than others. In fact, the Royals’ relief pitchers have been perhaps the most prominent reason the Royals earned a postseason berth as a wild card, and why Kansas City has thrived in the postseason.
Former Royals manager Jack McKeon described the bullpen as “outstanding,” and for good reason. Greg Holland has emerged as perhaps the best closer in the Majors, and Wade Davis was arguably the league’s best set-up man. Davis has been so good that he overshadows Kelvin Herrera, who throws 100 miles per hour and could be a closer on some teams.
Moore may have had no choice to trade his then-best pitcher given Greinke’s demeanor, and with the face of the organization seemingly forcing his way out.
"I was pretty rude on the way out," Greinke said in June 2012. "I felt like I had to in order to get out. I didn't want to have to be the bad guy, but I felt like I had to be. I liked it here. The fans were great. I don't know how so many of them come to the games when they've been bad for so long, but it's pretty impressive."
Greinke, who also played for the Los Angeles Angels since leaving the Royals, has been stellar for the Los Angeles Dodgers the past two seasons behind a 2.63 ERA in 2012 and a 2.71 ERA in 2014, the eighth best in the National League. The right hander was also excellent in his lone postseason start, when he shut out the St. Louis Cardinals over seven innings. Such a performance would come in handy in Game 7 against the Giants.
Kansas City’s long-term vision for Greinke was partnered with the possibility that he would be atop the rotation starter with Luke Hochevar, a highly coveted prospect by the Dodgers in 2005. Talks between Hochevar and the Dodgers would break down, and he would later be drafted by the Royals with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 MLB Draft. Kansas City would agree to a $3.5 million signing bonus with Hochevar, who would go on to pitch with the club from 2007 to 2013. But Hochevar would fail as a starter, and would eventually move to the bullpen in 2013, where he thrived with a 1.92 ERA. There was a great deal of optimism surrounding Hochevar before the start of this season, but he would not pitch for the year due to an elbow injury.
The combination of Greinke as a starter and Hochevar as a closer could have been devastating for Royals opponents, perhaps prompting some Royal fans to think about “what could have been" while they think about where they currently stand.
Second-guessing trades can be exhausting due to all of the factoring of the multiple scenarios and variables that go into a player’s worth, especially deals that date over four years. It also can be futile. Measuring the importance of an effective starting pitcher against a leadoff hitter and a No. 3 hitter might be able to be quantified by using sabermetrics, but it rarely tells the full story. Cain and Escobar have been inspirational leaders and have increased their production in the postseason. Without the pair in the playoffs, the Royals probably wouldn't be this close to glory. In particular, Cain's defense has been invaluable.
Not having Greinke, or any other top starter for that matter, in such a Game 7 is never ideal. But the Royals found a way to get this far with timely hitting, and a large group effort from their pitchers, and not one superstar starter. It would almost be the height of sports ingratitude to ignore the tremendous inroads the Royals have made in recent seasons. Since the Greinke trade, Kansas City increased their win total year-by-year from 67 in 2010, to 71 in 2011, to 72 in 2012, and 86 in 2013, to finally 89 in 2014, and now are just one win away from lifting the World Series trophy. The Royals have become the darlings of baseball with their patience, and their magical ability to come through when it counts.
Meanwhile, the veteran Guthrie has the ability to shine in front of a boisterous Kauffman Stadium and a television audience expected to shatter the 12 million average for the series.
"He's our guy and we have confidence in him," Yost said of Guthrie on Tuesday night.
Guthrie may not be an elite starter, but he enters Game 7 with momentum. Aside from his two strong postseason starts, he also finished the regular season with a 2.40 ERA in September, with the Royals overcoming a competitive race to win the AL wild card.
"It's not always necessarily who is your best pitcher or who you have the most confidence in,” Guthrie said. “But I think you go with your top guns in Games 1 and 2, which is what happens, and then it just so happens the Game 3 starter has that chance or responsibility of pitching Game 7.
"I feel that whatever I bring to Game 7 will be my best. Hopefully, it's good enough. All the preparation, all the work has paid off thus far, and that's what I trust, and that's what each one of those guys in there trusts. You put yourself in a position to be successful and accept the results and be grateful for the opportunity."