At some point soon, like several of his teammates, Mike Moustakas is going to play his final game as a Kansas City Royal.
It could come this week as the trade deadline looms, or it might be after the season when he signs a free agent contract for more money than the Royals can afford.
Either way, his 10-year run with the organization, one that has brought success that the long-suffering Kansas City fans had almost forgotten about, will end.
Moustakas played a key role in winning two American League pennants and the 2015 World Series, has gone to two All-Star Games and has helped the Royals make another improbable run toward the playoffs this year.
As recently as three years ago, though, it didn’t seem like Moustakas would have a positive legacy at all.
Moustakas joined the Royals organization at a particularly painful time. After years of battling the equally hapless Tigers for last place in the AL Central, Kansas City went 62-100 in 2006 while Jim Leyland led Detroit to an improbable American League pennant.
The only positive of the season was that the Royals would have the second pick in the 2007 draft, and after Tampa Bay scooped up David Price with the first choice, the Royals grabbed Moustakas. He had been named the High School Player of the Year by Baseball America, joining honorees like Josh Hamilton (1999), Joe Mauer (2001), Scott Kazmir (2002) and Justin Upton (2005).
Was he the perfect pick? As it turned out, probably not. Madison Bumgarner went eight picks later and both Jason Heyward and Josh Donaldson were selected later in the first round.
Still, Moustakas did enough in 11 games of rookie ball that he was rated No. 19 on Baseball Prospectus’ top prospect list before the 2008 season. That didn’t change much after he posted an .805 OPS, including 22 homers, in the Midwest League as a 19-year-old.
He entered 2009 as the No. 21 prospect, but hit his first stumbling block as a 20-year-old in high-A ball. He still showed power with 16 homers and 86 RBIs in 129 games, but hit .250 with a .297 on-base percentage. He had a successful run in the Arizona Fall League, hitting five homers in 19 games, but only made it to No. 79 on the 2010 prospect list.
That was the season that everything fell into place. He started the year in Double-A, but only stayed for 66 games thanks to a .347/.413/.687 batting line. He spent the rest of the season at Triple-A Omaha, and put up an .878 OPS in 52 games. Between the two leagues, he had 36 homers and 124 RBIs in 118 games.
Suddenly, he’d gone from a fading prospect to one of the most highly regarded in the game. The Royals started 2011 with Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit splitting time at third, but on June 10, the 22-year-old Moustakas took over the job.
It wasn’t an easy adjustment – he hit .263/.309/.367 in 89 games – but it wasn’t bad for a player that had been struggling in High-A just two years earlier.
The problem was that things stalled there. Moustakas hit 20 homers in 2012, but couldn’t hit for average or draw walks. At the end of the regular season in 2014, his four-year career had resulted in a .236/.290/.379 batting line and decent defense at third base.
Things were about to change. Moustakas singled and scored early in the wild-card game against Oakland, but Josh Willingham pinch-hit for him in the ninth inning as the Royals rallied to win.
He was back in the lineup for the ALDS against the Angels, homering twice in Kansas City’s sweep, and he hit two more home runs as the Royals swept the Orioles in the ALCS.
Moustakas only hit .217 in the World Series loss to the Giants, but his five postseason home runs led the majors and changed his career.
In 2015, he brought his OPS from .632 to .817, hit 22 homers and made it to the All-Star Game. He set a franchise record with a nine-RBI game in September, and played every inning of Kansas City’s 16-game run to their first World Series championship in 30 years.
His 2016 season was ruined by a torn ACL, but he has come back with a huge season this year. His .857 OPS is one of the main reasons the Royals have hung around the wild-card race, and with 25 homers he’s on pace to break Steve Balboni’s franchise record of 36. That alone would make him a hero in Kansas City, because it is embarrassing that no Royal has ever hit 40 homers.
He might never get the chance at the record. The Royals finished the weekend two games behind Cleveland in the AL Central and 2.5 behind the Yankees and Rays in the wild-card race, but keeping the roster together risks losing several key assets in free agency. The smart thing is to sell, and Moustakas would bring a nice return.
That isn’t the ending Royals fans want – they’d rather see the team add a hitter or two at the deadline and keep the gang together for one more run – but whatever happens, Moustakas will have a major spot in franchise history.
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