I knew that headline would get your attention.
The Kansas City Royals have had one winning season in the last 20 years -- 2003, when Carlos Beltran was their best hitter. Since then, they have lost 100 games three times and 90 or more five other times, including the last four years in a row.
So how is it that the Royals are in contention this year, standing seven games over .500 and just 4½ games behind the second wild card? What did they do to transform themselves from a 90-loss team just last year into a club likely to finish with a winning record, if not sneak into the playoffs? It certainly isn't because of the acumen of general manager Dayton Moore nor manager Ned Yost, both of whose abilities have been widely mocked, both here and elsewhere.
The one big trade Moore made -- acquiring James Shields from the Tampa Bay Rays for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, two other minor leaguers and a PTBNL -- was widely panned; Myers is likely on his way to being American League Rookie of the Year and Shields has been good, not great (123 ERA+, 2.1 WAR). The Royals' offense has been just okay; only three regulars (Alex Gordon, 109 OPS+, Eric Hosmer, 114 OPS+ and Billy Butler, 120 OPS+) are above league average and Kansas City ranks 11th in runs in the American League.
And then you look at the pitching numbers. The Royals enter Monday's action leading the American League in fewest runs allowed, 440, three fewer than the Tigers, who they still have an outside shot at catching in the A.L. Central (7½ games behind). And yet, beyond Shields and Ervin Santana, who have been good but not great, Royals starters (mostly Jeremy Guthrie, Luis Mendoza and Wade Davis) rank from mediocre to awful. The Cubs' rotation has been just as good, if not better.
The Royals' bullpen has been the difference. Three of their key relievers -- closer Greg Holland, and middle relief/setup men Luke Hochevar and Aaron Crow -- have been outstanding. Props to whoever in the Royals organization finally figured out that Hochevar, a complete failure as a starter, could be useful in the bullpen. This is something that the Cubs might do in the future with Jake Arrieta, though they'll surely have a look at Arrieta as a starter first.
The Royals have also done it with homegrown players. Because of their awful records after 2003, the Royals had a Top-3 pick four straight years, and three of those players are in their regular lineup: Gordon, Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. (The fourth of those picks is Hochevar, and in the years bookending those four, the picks were Crow and Butler.)
So Kansas City, from 2004 through 2009, made first-round picks who are all key contributing parts of their major-league team in 2013. This, obviously, is what we hope will happen with recent Cubs first-rounders like Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant (along with others selected below the first round, or signed as international free agents).
But look how long that's taken. Gordon, selected in 2005, had his first really big MLB season in 2011 -- six years later, and after a position change. Moustakas, picked in 2007, is still struggling at the big-league level. Hosmer, the first-round choice in 2008, has a career MLB OPS, in 1,499 at-bats through Sunday, of 103 -- just a bit over league average. Of the hitters mentioned here, chosen in the first round by the Royals, only Butler has been a consistent power bat, with an OPS+ of 129 since 2009.
Conclusion: It's the pitching, and specifically, the bullpen. As noted, this year's Royals rank first in the A.L. in fewest runs allowed. Last year, they were 10th, while ranking about the same in the league in runs (12th) as they do now (11th). The Pittsburgh Pirates (hey! another favorite meme here!) are winning in much the same way; the Bucs, like the Royals, rank 11th in the N.L. in runs (452 runs as of this writing, fewer than the Cubs, who have 461), but are first (tied with the Braves) for fewest runs allowed in the league (404). I should note that the Pirates are significantly outperforming their Pythagorean win projection -- six games better -- while the Royals are exactly at their Pythagorean number of wins. The Pirates are 18 games ahead of the Cubs, but by Pythagorean numbers almost half that deficit vanishes -- just 10 games separate the Cubs' Pythagorean win total (54) from the Pirates' (64).
The Cubs hope to have players like Baez, Almora and Bryant in the starting lineup within two years, maybe three. But the Cubs have also played much closer to a .500 team this year than their record would indicate; we've talked about this many times here, and also about the myriad of bullpen failures. The Cubs lead the major leagues in blown saves -- 24. The Pirates have 10, the Royals 14. The blown save isn't the only measure of bullpen failure, obviously, but it's a quick and easy way of seeing how fast a team can turn losing into winning.
Where are the relievers who can solve this problem going to come from? The Cubs might have acquired one of them in Pedro Strop. If Arrieta can't make it as a starter, there's perhaps another. In addition to organizational catching depth, which GM Jed Hoyer has said the Cubs will seek in the offseason, the team should prioritize major-league bullpen depth. Bring in as many possible relievers as they possibly can, and also seek, as they did this spring, guys like Kevin Gregg, who other teams decide they can't use; look at who, beyond Arrieta, might be a conversion from starter to reliever.
While the Cubs wait for the players in their system to develop -- and while we have hopes for them, like the Royals' young players, they could struggle for a while -- improving the major-league bullpen could produce a big-league team with a winning record as soon as 2014.