<
>

The Royals should aim for Johnny Cueto and total victory

The Kansas City Royals are going to win the AL Central. There, I said it. It might seem a little soon, but let’s reflect on where they are now, what they have going for them, and the one thing they might want to do to achieve even more than that, because last year’s pennant winners shouldn’t just have their eyes on that prize, they should be aiming to win the whole enchilada.

Here’s where we’re at: After Sunday’s walk-off win, the Royals are 4½ games in front in the Central. Who’s going to take them down? The Tigers can look forward to six weeks of no Miggy and wondering if formerly famous person Justin Verlander has a second act in his career that doesn’t just involve lamentation over money spent. The Indians and White Sox, preseason favorites both, are below .500 and have all sorts of flaws to correct before they should be taken seriously as contenders. And fun as the Twins are, they’re a .500-ish team in a division with a club that’s clearly better than that -- the Royals.

Why is that? Because they’re a team without any real weaknesses, while benefiting from some significant strengths. In the lineup, beyond Salvador Perez’s power and Alex Gordon’s all-around game, Lorenzo Cain has turned into a late-developing star, while Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have finally come into their own as hitters. Free agent Kendrys Morales? With his .795 OPS, he’s better than the average AL DH (.758), and totally worth the money in the first year of his two-year, $17 million deal.

On the run prevention side of the equation, the Royals are hard to top. On defense, they’re ranked second in defensive efficiency (converting 71.2 percent of balls in play into outs), and first in defensive runs saved with 39, 20 more than the second-place Astros. In the bullpen, their death-on-everybody late-game trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera has become a death-on-everybody septet with Jason Frasor, Ryan Madson, Brandon Finnegan and Franklin Morales also all showing plus stuff and plus results. That defense and the bullpen add up to an ugly nightly challenge for opponents to get their scoring done early: If you don’t have a lead after the first three innings, the Royals are probably going to beat you, with a record of 39-9 if they lead or are tied through three.

The thing is, the Royals have few tomorrows. While they’re relatively new to the postseason scene, they’re not the young club you might think they are. The only teams in the league with lineups older than the Royals’ average age of 29.0 are the Yankees (of course, at 32.6) and the Blue Jays (at 29.4). At 30.7 years old, their pitching staff’s average age is the oldest in the league. Left fielder Gordon is a free agent if he chooses to be this winter.

So put all of that together, and the one thing the Royals need is obvious: They need a No. 1 starter. Not because it will make that big of a difference in terms of their winning the Central, but because they want to win short-season series in October. Not because Yordano Ventura may not become that guy in a year or three, but because this team’s moment is now.

Why Johnny Cueto works for the Royals, perhaps more than for any other team that might put itself into that kind of conversation, is because of how he fits into this team. Durability is the question mark that Cueto has been tagged with after three DL stints in 2013 for shoulder trouble and more recent worries associated with his elbow. Say Ned Yost manages that risk aggressively, and say Cueto is more of a six- to seven-inning guy in the DH league -- that isn’t a problem for K.C., not on this team. With a bullpen this deep and a defense this good, that helps take the pressure off Cueto to try to be something more than he is -- merely one of baseball’s best starters, despite pitching in the homer-happy Gap.

As I said, going out and getting Cueto isn’t to take anything away from Ventura or Jason Vargas or even Kris Medlen, all of whom should contribute as starters in the second half once they come off the DL. But look at the Royals' current crew in the rotation: Edinson Volquez hasn’t posted a full-season FIP below 4.00 since 2008. Chris Young is 36, pitching with health the past couple of years for the longest stretch in a decade; even if he stays in working order, his FIP (3.89) suggests that nifty 2.64 ERA he’s sporting now won’t last. Jeremy Guthrie is a guy who allows 4.6 runs per nine on his career, 4.4 per nine as a Royal, and that’s counting this year’s decline to 5.4 RA/9. He’s also 36 years old, so that isn’t likely to get better with age; he’s an innings-eater, not a cabernet. And last season’s lesson was that you do not want to be the team starting Jeremy Guthrie in the seventh game of a World Series, because you may not be able to turn that into a bullpen game fast enough. And Joe Blanton? C’mon.

In contrast, think about what that crew looks like with a No. 1 in the mix, even for just the next couple of months. Ventura makes a heck of a guy to slot behind Cueto, freed from the expectation that he’d be the ace. Maybe Vargas is your No. 3, Volquez No. 4. Maybe Young is in that mix, or even Medlen, but that gets into “nice problem to have” territory. If the Giants can bump a guy like Tim Lincecum from their October rotation, none of these guys has an excuse.

All that needs to happen now is the hard part: actually trading for Johnny Cueto -- and good luck with that, Dayton Moore -- to help the Royals deliver a World Series now with a team that should be all about winning now. Because winning the AL Central? Book it.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.