Royals show mettle in 2016 title defense

Royals show mettle in 2016 title defense

KANSAS CITY -- As the losses piled up during a rough 7-19 July, Royals All-Star catcher Salvador Perez attempted to analyze what had been ailing the defending World Series champions.

Perez shrugged his shoulders and simply said, "Maybe we're a little tired."

Tired. And banged up.

After a run all the way to Game 7 of the 2014 World Series and a five-game World Series triumph over the Mets last season, the Royals' energy tank eventually showed empty in '16.

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It didn't help that the Royals lost third baseman Mike Moustakas (knee surgery) for the season in May. Or that Alex Gordon (wrist) missed over a month. Or that closer Wade Davis (forearm strain) missed over a month. Or that reliever Luke Hochevar (thoracic outlet syndrome) missed the final two months. Or that center fielder Lorenzo Cain (hamstring, sprained hand) hardly played the final two months.

The list goes on and on.

Record: 81-81, third place, American League Central.

Defining moment: After an encouraging 4-2 road trip through Miami and Boston, the Royals returned home in late August for a six-game homestand with the Yankees and Tigers, two teams ahead of them in the Wild Card chase. That's when the season went awry.

The Royals lost back-to-back extra-inning games to the Yankees, seemingly having both won only to lose them late. In one game, the Royals had the tying run on third and the winning run on second with none out in the 10th inning and the 3-4-5 hitters coming up. They didn't score.

Then against the Tigers, the Royals easily could have enjoyed a three-game sweep, but the bullpen coughed up late leads twice. Those demoralizing defeats left the Royals with a deflating 2-4 homestand, triggering nightmares of what-ifs.

What went right: Amid all the injuries, the Royals did have several young players step up and prove they could play at the big league level.

Rookie Cheslor Cuthbert filled in for Moustakas, and for a while he was in consideration for Rookie of the Year honors. Rookie Whit Merrifield proved he belongs on a 25-man roster. Rookie left-hander Matt Strahm was a starter almost all season in the Minors, but came up and served as a sensational bullpen addition the final two months.

Duffy sets Royals' K record

And let's not forget about left-hander Danny Duffy, who started the season in the bullpen and was shifted to the rotation because of injuries. He was so dominant -- he set a franchise record for strikeouts in a game with 16 against Tampa Bay -- that he forced himself onto the fringe of Cy Young consideration.

What went wrong: The Royals' vaunted shutdown bullpen -- considered by most as the best in baseball the last three seasons -- sprung numerous leaks, especially in the second half.

And many of the meltdowns could be pinned on reliever Joakim Soria, signed in the offseason to a three-year, $25 million deal. Soria experienced his worst season in the Major Leagues, as he was on the mound when the Royals surrendered the tying or go-ahead run 13 times.

Biggest surprise: Although Strahm's emergence as a bullpen force certainly opened many eyes, Duffy would have to be considered the biggest surprise, simply because his role originally was as a bridge to the back end of the bullpen. Now Duffy has emerged as the team's ace.

Hitter of the Year: Kendrys Morales was struggling so much in May that fans were screaming for the Royals to designate him for assignment. But Morales bounced back and nearly won Player of the Month in the AL for June. He hit .402 that month with a 1.108 OPS. He continued to pound the ball the rest of way.

Pitcher of the Year: Again, an easy call and we'll go with Duffy. During an 11-game stretch from late June until late August, Duffy posted a 2.14 ERA, and opponents hit just .210 off him. Duffy credited going to the stretch full time as the key to simplifying his mechanics, thus improving his command.

Rookie of the Year: This likely would have been Cuthbert, but he faded in the second half. While the sample size isn't big, let's give it to Strahm, who was an instant force from the time he was called up in late July. Strahm gave up a run in Texas in his Major League debut and then didn't give up another run over the next six weeks.

Jeffrey Flanagan has covered the Royals since 1991, and for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter @FlannyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.