Kansas City Mo. — The rotation was strong, the bullpen even better. The cache of young hitters would knock balls all over the spectacularly renovated stadium, the bench multitalented and deep.
Finally, after all those losing seasons, this was the year the Kansas City Royals were supposed to turn it around.
It seemed to be true — at least for the first month of the season.
Baseball buzzed over Zackmania as the Royals bolted to the AL Central lead, and Zack Greinke put up all those scoreless innings, creating an atmosphere at Kauffman Stadium that had been missing since George Brett kissed home plate in his final home game.
Boy, did the air fizz out of the balloon in a hurry.
Plagued by injuries, weak hitting, a porous defense and an implode-on-any-pitch bullpen, the Royals turned a fantastic start into another predictable flop. Instead of a step forward, Kansas City took 10 back from the previous season to 65-97 — another last-place finish in the American League Central and a full 21 games out of the lead.
“This is not the baseball team we left spring training with,” general manager Dayton Moore said earlier in the season. “We all felt very good about our team and our ability to compete in the Central. Some people projected us to win the Central. We felt we would be a lot better.”
The problems were rooted in injuries.
Third baseman Alex Gordon, ready for a breakout year, had hip surgery in April and missed three months. He wasn’t the same when he returned, earning a trip back to the minors.
Right fielder Jose Guillen spent time on the DL early in the season and went out for the year late due to a knee injury suffered while trying to put on a shin guard. He wasn’t effective when healthy, hitting .242 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in 81 games.
Center fielder Coco Crisp and shortstop Mike Aviles were lost to season-ending injuries. All-Star closer Joakim Soria also spent time on the DL, as did starters Gil Meche, Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister.
Half the team, it seemed, was hurt at one point or another.
“Barring injuries that we had this year, I thought we were going to do a lot more than what we did,” first baseman Mike Jacobs said. “You don’t want to say, ‘If guys wouldn’t have got hurt this would have happened,’ but it has a lot to do with this. We’ve got some good guys, a talented group.”
There were a few bright spots.
Billy Butler continued his development as a big-league hitter. He hit .301, had 21 homers and 93 RBIs, and became the seventh player in major-league history to hit 50 doubles in a season before turning 24.
Second baseman Alberto Callaspo offset some of his defensive limitations with a good year at the plate, hitting .300 with 11 homers after having none the first 441 at-bats, the longest stretch to open a career. Right-hander Robinson Tejeda proved to be a reliable reliever and spot starter, posting a 3.41 earned-run average.
Then there was Greinke.
A 13-game winner last season, the right-hander had one of the best seasons in franchise history, winning 16 games and posting a baseball-best 2.16 ERA.
Greinke opened the season by not allowing a run his first 292⁄3 innings. He allowed one run or less in 17 of his 33 starts overall and probably should have won more than 20 games, but the Royals gave him some of the worst run support in the AL and scored 13 total runs in his eight losses.
Even with a shaky final outing against the Twins, Greinke still was a favorite to win the first Cy Young Award by a Royals pitcher since David Cone in 1994.
“We knew he’d be good,” Royals manager Trey Hillman said. “We felt like he would be durable. But I don’t think anybody could have predicted the impact of his statistics here before his final start.”
Even as good as he was, Greinke couldn’t carry the rest of the Royals.
The injuries revealed a glaring lack of depth at the upper levels of the minor-league system. Single-A and below, the Royals are fine. The inability to find suitable replacements for all the injured starters shows there’s still work to be done at Triple-A and Double-A.
The defense, at times, was dreadful. The Royals led the AL with 116 errors and were second-worst in baseball in allowing unearned runs with 77.
The bullpen, a supposed strength, became a sore spot for most of the season.
Soria, despite occasional shoulder stiffness, was his usual self, converting 30 of 33 save chances with a 2.21 ERA. Problem was, the rest of the relievers had trouble getting him the ball.
Kansas City’s relievers ranked last in inherited runners scored and turned bullpen botchery into an art form after the All-Star break, losing three straight leads in the eighth inning and creating a here-we-go-again atmosphere nearly every time they took the mound.
More than anything, though, the Royals were hurt by players not living up to expectations.
Players like Guillen, Jacobs, Luke Hochevar and Kyle Farnsworth — among others — didn’t play like the front office anticipated, leaving big holes in places they expected production.
The result was the fifth 90-loss season in six years for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since winning the 1985 World Series.
“I expected us to be better,” utility man Willie Bloomquist said. “At times we played well, but I’m not pushing the panic button on this organization, just because if you look at the majority our roster we’re right there.”