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Royally Schooled

The differences weren't huge, but they were to readily apparent. They defined a ballclub that knows how to execute just well enough to win against a team that finds a myriad of ways to manufacture frustration and failure.

It all added up to three one-run ballgames in Kansas City last weekend as the high-flying, talented Royals edged the fading White Sox 3-2, 7-6 and 5-4.

We can begin with key hits as Kansas City, the division-leaders with an American League-best record of 66-44, came through seven times in 20 opportunities with runners in scoring position. The Sox were 6-for-24 in the same department. Go no further, and you can explain in three tight games how our local club was swept.

The Royals' bullpen, arguably the greatest strength on a team that came within a Bumgarner of winning last year's World Series, wasn't untouchable. The Sox nicked Kelvin Herrera - he of the 101-mph heater - for an eighth-inning run on Sunday that tied the game at 4 on Melky Cabrera's - what's new? - shot into left field.

But our Jake Petricka gave it right back on an Alex Rios single and a double by Paulo Orlando before Rios scooted home on a dribbler to first baseman Jose Abreu. Jose fielded the ball bare-handed and threw too high to get the sliding Rios. Sure, the play was close at the plate, but that's the point. The Sox needed to make a play and couldn't do it. The Royals are just the opposite.

Jeff Samardzija put the Sox in a hole on Saturday, leaving in the fifth inning and being charged with all seven Kansas City runs as the Royals raced to a 7-2 lead. Samardzija leads all pitchers in one category: He's given up at least seven runs in five different starts. No one else has done that.

After Geovany Soto and Tyler Saladino singled in the top of the fifth, Abreu was at the plate with two outs and a full count. In one of the moves that has no explanation in a season that has seen plenty of them, Soto took off for third before pitcher Jeremy Guthrie delivered to the plate. Needless to say, Soto was tagged out to end the mild threat.

Wouldn't you know it? Abreu homered to lead off the next inning - the Sox scored four times to creep within a run - which made Soto's gaffe not exactly on a par with Merkle's Boner (I just love that) but clearly in a similar category. Unfortunately, four Kansas City relievers limited the Sox to one hit the rest of the way for the final 7-6 margin.

And Friday night the White Sox simply weren't up to the task of challenging Royals right-hander Edinson Volquez, who allowed a lone run and four hits in seven innings. The Sox had some chances - Cabrera led off the second with a double but stayed there as Volquez retired the next three batters. Robin Ventura's crew was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

Royals' closer Greg Holland yielded Adam LaRoche's solo home run - he hadn't homered since June 24 - in the ninth inning before Carlos Sanchez lined a two-out single. But Tyler Flowers, who strikes out in about one-third of his plate appearances, whiffed to end the game.

The Royals are playing with confidence, skill and the feeling that they can beat anyone. This is a relatively recent development. In the nine seasons from 2004 to 2012, Kansas City averaged 96 losses. They drew poorly with lineups that included guys like Mark Teahen, Matt Stairs, Joey Gathright and Yuniesky Betancourt.

General manager Dayton Moore arrived in mid-season 2006 after being assistant GM in Atlanta. Just three years ago in 2012, the Royals lost 90 games, but they improved to 86-76 a year later before gaining a wild card berth last year with an 89-73 mark.

Moore's formula for reversing fortunes in Kansas City is not unlike what most GMs would endeavor. He drafted wisely, helped by "earning" high draft choices because of the Royals' lopsided losing records. He made some astute trades and signed Latin American prospects like catcher Salvador Perez in 2006 when Perez was just 16. Perez's signing bonus was $65,000. The young catcher learned and developed over four minor league seasons. Today he's the best catcher in the American League.

Moore's draft choices also paid dividends. First-rounders Luke Hochevar (2006), Mike Moustakas (2007), and Eric Hosmer (2008) have become mainstays for the Royals. Before Moore arrived, Alex Gordon (2005) and the now-departed Billy Butler (2004) were selected in the first round.

In addition, Kansas City has been notable for developing lower choices like Holland (10th round in 2007) and the speedy Jarrod Dyson (50th round in 2006). (Today the draft has 40 rounds, so Dyson would have gone undrafted under present rules.)

And then there have been some noteworthy trades, the most productive which occurred before the 2011 season when Moore dealt pitcher Zack Greinke to Milwaukee and received shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain in return.

Greinke, another Royals' first-rounder in 2002, was the team's best pitcher, but was going to become a free agent - his new contract with the Brewers was almost double what Kansas City had paid him. The much-advertised, small-market Royals traded him in what arguably was the move that put the team where it is today, getting two future middle of the field defenders who today bat leadoff and third in the order.

The then-24-year-old Escobar immediately became the team's regular shortstop. Today he plays every day, hitting .275, stealing bases, while being a superb defender. Tell me how many successful teams don't have a stellar shortstop. (Check Joe Maddon's recent move on the North Side.)

Meanwhile, Moore was patient. Cain, a 13th round draft choice of the Brewers, spent almost all of 2011 at Triple-A Omaha honing his skills before becoming the Royals regular center fielder the next season. Now he's an All-Star.

[Editor's Note: Isn't this an argument to trade Chris Sale?]

And lest we are remiss, Moore signed free agent designated hitter Kendrys Morales last December after releasing Butler, a fixture in Kansas City. Morales, just 32, had a miserable, injury-plagued 2014 season in Seattle. This year the switch-hitter is leading the Royals with 80 RBI, batting fourth and hitting .290. His two-run homer on Sunday provided the margin of victory.

(Morales, by the way, was available when the White Sox signed LaRoche last winter. But more on that next week.)

One factor in Kansas City's rise is that the core of the team - Gordon, Moustakas, Cain, Hosmer, Escobar, and Perez - started playing together as young men. They lost a lot of games, but management showed faith in them. Of course, all their eggs were in one basket. That core was all Dayton Moore had, but they got better as a unit.

Manager Ned Yost has received criticism for his strategic skills, but someone - why not Yost? - deserves credit for developing the present ballclub. They catch the ball, lay down a bunt, steal a base, and move runners along. All parts of the game that have severely challenged the 2015 White Sox.

However, one could argue that the makeup of the present team on the South Side is not wholly unlike the Royals of a few short seasons ago.

The White Sox have averaged 84 losses since 2007, not nearly as inept as the Royals had been. (This includes 2015 if the Sox continue to play at their present rate of .468.) The Royals had much farther to travel than the White Sox.

However, the Sox have a young core composed of Sanchez (23), Garcia (24), Saladino (26), and Eaton (26). None have played more than Garcia's 239 games in the big leagues. Add in Abreu, who is 28 but only in his second season, and Cabrera, who is 30 and in his prime, and you have six players who have either good track records and/or the promise of youth with promising talent.

[Editor's Note: Wow, has this column taken a turn!]

Chris Sale (26), Jose Quintana (26), Carlos Rodon (23), and David Robertson (30) have already established themselves or shown potential to lead a formidable pitching staff. John Danks (30) has been throwing in the low 90s. Who knows? His best days may be ahead of him.

The Royals struck oil with first-round draft choices, and that could determine how the Sox will do in the near future. Sale (2010) already has shown what he can do despite his recent problems. Rodon (2014) is just starting out and has shown flashes of being a genuine stalwart. The Sox front office feels that Vanderbilt pitcher Carson Fulmer, this season's first-rounder, can follow in Sale and Rodon's footsteps.

If shortstop Tim Anderson (2013), a .304 hitter with 44 stolen bases at Double-A Birmingham this season, turns out to be a keeper, he will be added to the list of young talent.

What's important to note is that the core of the team - even during a losing season - is learning how to play together much as the Royals youngsters did a few seasons ago. Whether Ventura and his coaching staff are the mentors to develop this crew to teach them how to play the game is debatable. The mistakes they make are indisputable. However, the talent is there for the future. The Royals provide a model. Time will tell if a team such as the present White Sox can copy that model.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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Comments:

1. From Steve Rhodes:

1. Aren't you making the case for trading Chris Sale when you discuss the success of the Greinke trade? Besides this not being a small-market . . .

2. I was taken aback by the turn to optimism in the column . . . you are comparing 26- to 30-yearolds with 18- to 22-year-olds! I don't know if anyone would consider Adam Eaton a core young player. The Royals had a couple draft classes come in and play and lose together for a few years, and added other young players through, for example, the Greinke trade. I don't see how that compares to the Sox situation . . . they don't have high draft picks and you're really describing trying to win next year by . . . adding Tim Anderson? To follow the Royals model, they need to tear it down! Seems to me they are following the Padres model by saying we still believe in what we did over the winter and we're going to stick with it and tweak it next year and see what happens.

Roger's reply:

Guys like Eaton may be 26, but in terms of big league experience, he's just starting out. Same with Garcia, Sanchez, Saladino, and, for that matter, Abreu. I watch these guys and see some good things like Sanchez completely turning it around with the bat. Put Saladino at short, and you have a combination that could be around for a while.

One of the differences between Sale and Greinke is that Sale is tied up contract-wise. The Royals were going to lose Greinke.

My point is patience. The 2016 White Sox might be the team Hahn thought he had this year. I'd give it another season to find out. If they lose 85/90 next year, then, OK, start looking to deal someone like Chris Sale.

I'd be surprised if at the end of June 2016, the Sox are last (or even near the bottom) in runs scored. I just think it takes time for a team to gel, to learn how to play together, to adapt to different personalities.

Of course, a manager can make a difference, and I question if Ventura is the right guy. But, again, Yost was on his way out in KC. It's just so hard to tell without inside information, and the beat writers provide absolutely zero insight. My biggest problem with Robin is his strategy. He does some things I simply don't understand, and, again, the beat guys rarely quiz him.

Now, all of this could depend on them finding (trading for) a catcher and/or a third baseman. Having Flowers and LaRoche both in the lineup absolutely kills them offensively. But looking at the past vis a vis Adam Dunn, LaRoche will be back. Dunn was even worse than LaRoche his first season with the Sox. If LaRoche plays the first two months in 2016 like he has this year, they'd have to move or release him. Batting fifth or sixth, he's killed the offense. I just don't get it.

So, my point is that these relatively inexperienced - if not as young in age as the Royals of a few years back - progress, improve in many aspects, then I can envision a competitive team. If it doesn't happen next season, then tear it down. But one unsuccessful season (with a few new faces like Robertson and Cabrera) is not enough to throw in the towel.

Finally, if only Joe Maddon was the manager . . .

Rhodes' reply:

You're describing the Padres, not the Royals!

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