KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Six years ago, a core group that would usher the long-suffering Royals to a pair of World Series and its first championship in nearly three decades arrived in Kansas City amid terrific fanfare.
Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain.
These are the names, among many others, that would adorn the backs of thousands of jerseys sold to fans, scribbled onto baseballs brought to the ballpark by kids and that made headlines in the newspapers.
Now, that core is poised to hit free agency, and a team clinging desperately to the fringe of playoff contention will spend September trying to make one last run. The odds of getting back into the postseason hunt are firmly stacked against Hoz, Moose, Esky and Cain after a dreadful August left them four games back of the wild-card race Thursday, but they still believe to a man that they have a fighting chance.
"When you leave Arizona for the 162-game grind, you try to make the most of your hot streaks," Hosmer said, "and when your cold streaks come, you basically try to tread water as long as possible."
Problem is there's been too much treading and not enough swimming.
Just a month ago, the Royals were nipping at the heels of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, trying to get back atop the division after missing the playoffs last season. They were so all-in on catching up that general manager Dayton Moore began swinging trades for starting pitching and bullpen help, and brought back former fan-favorite Melky Cabrera to fill a problematic void in the outfield.
But rather than spur the Royals down the homestretch, those moves seemed to bog them down.
The pitchers that were acquired have been lackluster, and while Cabrera has done what the Royals expected of him, there hasn't been enough help from a team beset by injuries and underperformance.
Longtime linchpin Alex Gordon, in the second year of a $72 million contract, is hitting .199 with five homers and 37 RBIs. Escobar is hitting .234 with three homers and 41 RBIs. And when you throw in the revolving door at designated hitter and right field, there emerges a black hole at the bottom of the lineup.
The result this past week was a scoreless streak that stretched to 45 innings, an embarrassing stretch that ended three shy of the major league record shared by the 1968 Cubs and the 1906 Athletics.
"We've had some letdowns in some major critical areas lately," Moore said. "We made a couple of deals at the deadline that we felt were going to really improve our team. We did that simply because we believed in this group of players. So far it hasn't worked out how we anticipated — not the players we brought in, but just the overall wins on the field. In reflection, I'm extremely at peace with what we did and why we did it."
To be sure, it was a bold move by a general manager who is generally averse to risk.
Moore decided to give that core group that returned winning baseball to Kansas City the benefit of the doubt, rather than unload them at the trade deadline and jumpstart a rebuilding job that could take years.
Hosmer is hitting .318 with 22 homers and 76 RBIs, almost certainly driving up his value on the free-agent market. Moustakas is hitting .275 with 35 homers and 78 RBIs, and his next long ball will match Steve Balboni's long-time franchise record. Cain is hitting .290 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs, and even though he turned 31 earlier this year, he is certain to receive a sizeable contract.
In other words, the likelihood is high that all of them will be playing elsewhere next season.
Making matters worse is the fact that many of the players under contract next season, such as Gordon and the designated hitter Brandon Moss, have been unproductive most of this season.
"We're showing up every single day with the eye on that (postseason)," Moss said. "We won't know, just like anyone else won't know, what that's like until the end of the season."
Moore downplayed any sense of sentimentality when asked about the prospect of Hosmer, Moustakas and the rest of the core group hitting free agency. For one thing, Moore has said all along that he would like to keep at least one and perhaps several of them. For another, there are still plenty of games to play.
That is where the focus is with a month left in the season.
"It doesn't matter if it is opening day, or if you're in middle of the season or the last game. Every game is important. Everything you do is crucial," Moore said. "I know as an industry we like to downplay it, the 162 games. But every game is important, every pitch is important, every inning is important.
"I was raised that you've got one chance and that's now. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."