The Royals made what seemed like an inevitable decision on Thursday, demoting third baseman Mike Moustakas to Triple-A Omaha.
With a .152 batting average and .543 OPS in 139 plate appearances, Kansas City had to press the eject button. When Moustakas was in the lineup, he was batting eighth. But manager Ned Yost was also giving more playing time to Danny Valencia in recent weeks because the Royals had to get some production from third base.
Sending down Moustakas had been considered for the past couple of weeks, and plenty of fans and analysts are wondering why it took so long to make this move. But the Royals tried to justify keeping him in the majors because of his power potential and excellent defense. Surely, there were also worries that booting the 25-year-old to Omaha would affect his confidence. (That is, if his confidence wasn’t already low because of how poorly he’d been playing.)
Moustakas provided one last blip of hope shortly after rumors of a demotion began to circulate. On May 14, he hit two doubles in going 2-for-3 with three RBI in a 3-2 win over the Rockies. But Moustakas just couldn’t build on that. Since that game, he batted 1-for-13 (.077) with no extra bases hits nor runs driven in.
Valencia may not feature the same power or defense as Moustakas, but his bat has been much more productive. In 59 plate appearances, he’s batting .308 with a .785 OPS. The Royals acquired Valencia from the Orioles in the offseason, eyeing him as a platoon partner for Moustakas versus left-handed pitching. Last year against lefties, Valencia batted .371 with a 1.031 OPS.
Moustakas was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 MLB Draft and quickly showed he could handle minor league pitching. In 2010, splitting the season between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit a combined .322 with a .999 OPS, 41 doubles, 36 home runs and 124 RBI. By June of 2011, he was in the majors and projected to be a cornerstone player for years to come.
But Moustakas just hasn’t been able to fulfill his potential. In that regard, he’s essentially the embodiment of his team’s failure to follow through on its recent promise. The Royals came into 2014 as a trendy pick for one of the AL’s playoff teams. Some even had them overtaking the Tigers in the AL Central.
Moustaka’s performance in spring training further buoyed those hopes. In 56 Cactus League at-bats, he hit .429 with a 1.280 OPS, seven doubles, four home runs and 18 RBI. A resurgent season seemed entirely possible. (Of course, Moustakas hit well in the spring of 2013 as well, and that didn’t result in regular season success.)
It’s still too early in the season to write off Kansas City’s chances at the postseason, especially with so much parity in the American League thus far. While the Royals might be six games behind Detroit in their division, they’re only 1.5 games out of a wild-card spot. (However, five teams are ahead of them in the standings.)
Yet a 23-23 record at this point is less than what was expected, and you have to wonder if the Royals have created too much of an uphill climb for themselves.
Another reason demoting Moustakas wasn’t necessarily an easy decision is that he’s hardly the only batter in Kansas City’s lineup that’s been struggling. The Royals’ 181 runs scored are tied for the second-worst total in the AL. (Their 178 runs allowed is the fourth-best in the league and their 3.53 team ERA ranks third. The Royals’ offense is wasting an outstanding performance by its pitching staff.)
Alex Gordon has a .723 OPS and three home runs. Eric Hosmer’s OPS is .723 and he only has one homer. Billy Butler is batting .255 with a .631 OPS and one home run. Moustakas’ four homers are tied for the team lead. Only Salvador Perez has a slugging percentage above .400 among Royals everyday players. (Valencia now makes that two, actually.)
Obviously, the hope is that Moustakas can still be salvaged. He’s still just 25 years old. Perhaps he just needs to regain some confidence against the Triple-A pitching that he crushed when he was a prospect. Getting away from the pressure of not succeeding and the increasing questions as to whether he’d stay in the majors will likely provide some relief as well.
Maybe Moustakas can even turn himself around in time to still make a positive impact for the Royals this year. Neither player nor team should probably be written off at this point, even if it looks like the window of contending for this season is slowly closing.