Guthrie rewards Royals' win-now needs

After beating the Chicago White Sox 2-0 with a complete-game shutout Saturday, Jeremy Guthrie is now 9-3 as a Kansas City Royal, and that’s at a time when it hasn’t been easy to do anything of the sort wearing a Royals uniform, even with the vagaries of run support and how much a win-loss record for any one starting pitcher can amount to a series of coin tosses.

From disappointing high expectations as a top prospect in Cleveland, to being stuck as an innings-eater in Oriole irrelevance, to the brief horrors of a mile-high exile as a Rockie, Guthrie has paid his dues and deserves a good turn. That he’s given the Royals more than one in kind is one of those happy developments. With the additions of James Shields and Ervin Santana to the rotation, Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore can reasonably brag that he’s managed to cobble together a better-than-average rotation in short order despite limited supply and limited cash. Thanks to their rotation, the Royals are in that gaggle of teams fighting for bragging rights to be second in the American League to the Detroit Tigers in quality-start percentage so far -- just a tick or two below 60 percent -- even as they fight to keep up with the heavily favored Motor City Kitties in the AL Central.

One thing to always keep in mind is the separation between “how things would be if everything goes our way,” and how things are. That’s worth keeping in mind because while the Royals are 16-10, the really interesting thing about the team at this point of the season is the number of things that haven’t gone entirely its way -- and yet Kansas City is competing just the same. Anybody can win when everything you thought would happen, does, but the Royals haven’t been nearly that fortunate.

The biggest problems are to be found in the lineup, which has a number of bats that have gone MIA so far -- and for far longer than a mere month. Starting third baseman Mike Moustakas is on the wrong side of the Fermin line for OPS (which is .600, since I just made it up; Felix Fermin’s career mark was .608). If the Royals had an alternative, a punitive trip to Omaha would have been long since earned. Former Brave Jeff Francoeur, briefly a source of bragging rights for an organization run by a former Braves exec, is now a month into a second season of brag-unworthiness as an outfield regular. Catcher Salvador Perez has yet to really get on track. Overhyped wunderkind Eric Hosmer is slugging a whopping .350, which would be considered terrible if he hadn’t already slugged just .359 last year. In his age-23 season, Hosmer obviously has nowhere to go but up, but that’s just because he’s dug himself a hole; he needs to prove he isn’t merely the Midwest variation on an unslugly Justin Smoak theme for massive first-base disappointments of his generation. And after four years of ghastly production at second base, it’s time for the franchise to be honest with itself: It (Chris "Getz") better? No, no it does not, at least not for this guy.

Admittedly, this kind of caustic snapshot of an offense is easy in the season’s fifth week. If or when most of these guys start hitting -- and once the team replaces Getz with Johnny Giavotella, a move that’s at least a year overdue -- they could propel the Royals’ offense toward the top of the AL in runs scored per game, which would mean cashing in many more great games from Shields, Guthrie and Santana for wins. But Francoeur, Hosmer and Moustakas all need to rebound sooner rather than later if the Royals are going to keep alive their case for either unseating the Tigers or making a run at one of the two wild-card slots.

In the meantime, barring any major moves to fix these problems on offense, it’s going to be up to the Royals’ rotation to make sure the team can survive until its fixed, which makes for narrow margins to work with and tight games. More big games like Guthrie’s will help, but how well the rotation lasts over the next five months is an open question. After all, Wade Davis has one quality start in five turns, Santana broke hearts all over Anaheim, and fifth starter Luis Mendoza is a cipher at best or a placeholder due to be bumped at worst. Maybe Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar will have to swing back to starting, and maybe that would merely lead to more of the same after counting on them as rotation regulars the previous three seasons.*

In the big picture, it’s important to keep in mind how transient this window of opportunity being bought by Kansas City's rotation might be. Santana is a free agent at season’s end, while Shields is here for one more year if the Royals spring for his option ($13.5 million). Santana was available in part because he has been so reliably maddening; Shields was available because, like much of the Rays’ statistical thaumaturgy, not everyone believed they could reproduce the same success in their own home laboratory. The Royals were sufficiently desperate to take a chance.

Which is where the Royals are now: Desperate to deliver, and deliver now. Young talents like Hosmer and Moustakas have plenty of time to develop, but it remains to be seen if the Royals’ leadership can afford the time it will take for them to fulfill their promise. Clearly, they couldn’t wait on Wil Myers, having dealt him away to land Shields (and Davis).

The Shields trade is a reflection of win-now desperation, but one armed by the knowledge that it has never been easier to make the postseason. If the Royals finally do make it to October and buy Moore more time to deliver on whatever master plan he might have beyond self-preservation, he’ll have bought himself continued opportunity to try to make people forget that he traded away a stud prospect to land just two seasons of Shields at near-market pricing.

With so many of their remaining top talents struggling even as the Royals get off to a good start, the Shields deal might sound like a defensible exchange, but just as you can’t judge the Royals on the basis of their getting off to a good start now, it remains to be seen if the full potential benefits of trying to win now will be realized. If the Royals get more than a boost in ticket sales in June and July, good on them. If they get to sell tickets in October, good on Dayton Moore -- he’ll have bought himself another several seasons worth of tomorrrows in the Royals’ front office. The odd thing is, that might add up to hope and faith in KC for many loss-addled Royals fans after decades of irrelevance, even as it frustrates those who’d rather still have Myers and the promise of an even better tomorrow.

* Yes, the Royals have at least four guys on this staff you’d call swingmen, if you count Mendoza and Davis as well as Chen and Hochevar. But hey, if you want to stick with the current fashion and pretend nobody’s employing swingmen, by all means, keep playing make-believe.