KANSAS CITY -- The Royals are in better shape this year compared to a season ago. As Kansas City entered the All-Star break, the team was two games over the .500 mark and 6 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the American League Central. If that sounds too daunting, consider that they're just 2 1/2 games out in the Wild Card chase.
There is no doubt in manager Ned Yost's mind of what his Royals must do to reach postseason play for the first time since 1985.
"Hit," Yost said. "Hit with runners in scoring position. Hit, score more runs. Produce more offense. I think the pitchers have been really good, our bullpen's been fair to good, our defense has been very good. I think with our offense, there's more there. We just have to make it produce."
Yost says the Royals, for whatever reason, have been second-half hitters in recent years.
"They shouldn't be second-half guys, they should be full-season guys, but they aren't," he said. "The last couple of years, we've been a good second-half team. We're eight games better than we were last year, and I think we've got our best baseball ahead of us."
Five key developments in first half
1. The 10-game winning streak
The streak brought the Royals into first place for three glorious days, June 17-19. The 10th win put them 1 1/2 games ahead of the Tigers in the division. Alas, Kansas City lost six of its next seven games, the Tigers got hot and by June 26 the Royals were 4 1/2 games behind.
|MVP: Salvador Perez
A strong season at bat for Perez was accompanied by his superb defense and leadership behind the plate.
|Top starter: Jason Vargas
A consistent performer, Vargas gave up more than three earned runs in only four of his 19 starts.
|Top rookie: Yordano Ventura
The hard-throwing right-hander has learned quickly and has done everything expected of him.
|Top reliever: Greg Holland
The closer has been tough as nails, blowing just one save in 26 chances.
2. Lack of run production from middle of the lineup
Really, the amazing thing is that Yost was able to keep the club in contention with an offense that often had trouble scoring runs. Three of the most important movers in the lineup, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, struggled much of the first half.
3. Change of coach leads to increase in offense
The Royals' sparse scoring prompted a change of hitting coaches. On May 28, Kansas City changed hitting coaches from Pedro Grifol to Dale Sveum. Production under Sveum jumped, from 3.8 runs per game to 4.4 runs per game. The team average also climbed from .251 to .280 and homers increased from 21 home runs through the first 52 games to 34 homers in the next 42 games.
4. Emergence of Duffy and Ventura
Left-hander Danny Duffy and right-hander Yordano Ventura have made rapid strides as starters. Duffy's mental approach caught up with his great stuff, while Ventura matured quickly as a rookie. The two pitchers mesh nicely with James Shields, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie.
5. Holland and Davis become 1-2 punch
While a prized bullpen staff developed some leaks, closer Greg Holland remained tough and dependable, while Wade Davis emerged as a marvelously effective set-up man. Supported by Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow, Davis and Holland became a 1-2 knockout punch for the Royals.
Five storylines to watch for in the second half
1. Can the Royals live up to playoff expectations?
All winter and spring, Kansas City was a trendy choice as either a division winner or a very strong contender. Despite a brief turn in first place, it could not quite fulfill the promise engendered by those expectations. The Royals have just 68 games left to shed their streakiness and become a consistent force in the AL Central.
Players to watch in second half
Hosmer's 13-game hitting streak before the break might be an indication that he's found his groove.
Butler's regression was puzzling as a player who is a polished hitter and student of the craft.
Moustakas' season batting average under .200 has been somewhat offset by his 10 home runs and 36 RBIs.
2. Continue offensive improvement
The offense was ripped during the first two months, so the heat's on to continue the improvement seen in the last 1 1/2 months. Hosmer streaked before the break, and Butler and Moustakas were showing good signs, too. Lorenzo Cain has been a breakthrough, Jarrod Dyson has often been a spark, and Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante have been solid. The Royals will also need a boost from right fielder Nori Aoki.
3. Buyers at the Trade Deadline
The Trade Deadline is fast approaching, but the ambitious Royals figure as buyers, not sellers. Free agent-to-be Shields can't fulfill his Kansas City destiny if he's traded away. The idea will be to add help for the stretch run, not subtract. The 12 games before the Deadline could alter things, of course, but adding vets Raul Ibanez and Scott Downs is an indication the Royals are all in for a run at it.
4. Jason Vargas' future
Left-hander Jason Vargas has been a huge part of the rotation's success and his appendectomy last week was a real punch in the gut for the club. Vargas was 8-4 with a 3.31 ERA, and he averaged nearly seven innings a start. The Royals were 10-9 in Vargas' 19 starts. The team is hoping he can return in about three weeks. How effectively Vargas can pitch, however, is anybody's guess.
5. Royals await offensive leader
Every successful run for the postseason needs some everyday leaders in the lineup. Some power bats have to get hot and, yes, show some of that power. So who will take off in the stretch run? Gordon? Hosmer? Perez? Butler? Moustakas? Or will a new name be imported for the last two months? Stay tuned.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.