KANSAS CITY, MO. — The World Series champion Royals are stuck in no-man's land, close enough to contention to keep fighting yet far enough behind the race that going all-in at the trade deadline would be a fool's gambit.
The Royals entered the All-Star break at 45-43, seven games out of first place in the AL Central. They are also on the outside for the final wild-card spot, leaving general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost in the unenviable position of deciding what direction they should guide the franchise.
"It hasn't been early for a while," Yost said, dismissing the overused cliché of "it's still early."
"But again, you have to stay focused on today," he said. "You have to forget about yesterday. That's the hard part about this game. But we've been doing it for so long, that's how we approach it."
The Royals' season so far has been one of wild mood swings, soaring through a five-game win streak, then scuffling through eight straight losses, only to reel off five more wins in quick succession.
The net result is their current position, stuck squarely between contender and pretender, unsure whether to unload players in the jumpstart of a rebuild or acquire the few pieces lacking from a title team.
Things were much more defined a year ago.
Kansas City was rolling through the hot summer months to a comfortable lead in the division, and it was apparent by mid-July that a postseason run was approaching. Moore began dealing away coveted prospects to get pitcher Johnny Cueto, second baseman Ben Zobrist and other pieces to round out his team.
Both those guys were crucial to Kansas City beating the New York Mets to win the World Series.
The Royals certainly have places that need shoring up, starting with a pitching rotation that has already seen Chris Young shuttled off to the bullpen. The Royals likely need at least one front-of-the-rotation starter if they plan to contend, even though Yost is confident there are sufficient in-house candidates.
Injuries have also left Kansas City depleted across the lineup.
Left fielder Alex Gordon missed a big chunk of the season with a wrist injury and has struggled since his return. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is done for the season with an ACL injury. Center fielder Lorenzo Cain is also on the disabled list after straining his hamstring trying to leg out a single.
Finding someone who could play multiple positions — Zobrist, anyone? — would be ideal.
Then again, the Royals have so far cobbled together a lineup with young call-ups such as Whit Merrifield and Brett Eibner that has allowed them to hang around. Merrifield was hitting over .300 for much of the season while Eibner has flashed some of the power that Kansas City has lacked for years.
"I wouldn't say there's urgency," said Merrifield, whose fine play at second base allowed the Royals to jettison underperforming veteran Omar Infante. "There's a lot of baseball left. A lot of stuff can happen between now and September and October. A lot of games to be played, a lot of ups and downs."
The second half begins with three games in Detroit, then comes a crucial nine-game homestand against the Indians, Rangers and Angels that will ultimately decide whether the Royals will contend in August.
If they go into another prolonged slump, the Royals could begin to replenish their depleted farm system — especially with pitching prospects — with an eye toward contending in a couple more years.
Not that the Royals are thinking that way, even if the front office must consider it. They firmly believe they have the talent to reach the playoffs for a third straight year, or even make it to the World Series for a third straight year, and that one big run is enough for them to climb back into the race.
Time is running out to put that run together.