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Schmuck: Royals back in ALCS with Orioles at home because they tried harder to improve

Schmuck: Royals back in ALCS with Orioles at home because they tried harder to improve
Mike Moustakas (8), Eric Hosmer (35) and Kendrys Morales (25) of the Kansas City Royals celebrate defeating the Houston Astros 7-2 in Game 5 of the American League Divison Series at Kauffman Stadium on Oct. 14, 2015 in Kansas City, Mo. (Ed Zurga / Getty Images)

While Orioles fans lay out the chips and dip and watch the Kansas City Royals make their second straight appearance in the American League Championship Series, it should be no consolation at all that the Royals actually took a page from the O's 2014 playbook to improve their chances of getting back to the World Series.

Think about it. While the Orioles front office was busy failing to sign Nelson Cruz last winter, the Royals picked up this year's version, who now looks like the free-agent bargain of the season. They signed Kendrys Morales to a two-year contract with a mutual third-year option that will cost them an average of less than $8 million for the first two years.

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It isn't hard to see some parallels. Cruz signed for one season with the Orioles right before the 2014 season for a super-cheap $8 million. He delivered an MVP-caliber season and the Orioles reached the ALCS for the first time since 1997. We all know what happened after that.

The Royals were coming off their first World Series appearance in decades and clearly were more focused on taking another step forward rather than just trying to get back to the playoffs with the same team.

Morales didn't lead the major leagues in home runs, but he bounced back from a disastrous 2014 season in which he missed the first two months of the season holding out for a better free-agent deal, and then batted just .218 with minimal run-production numbers. He batted .290 with 22 home runs and 106 RBIs in the 2015 regular season and had three home runs in five games during the AL Division Series. All for a 2015 salary of $6.5 million.

Of course, that's not the only reason the Royals are back knocking on the door of the Fall Classic. They were a pretty good team to begin with, and they made some other wily moves to both improve and insulate themselves against in-season setbacks.

They already had one of the most dominant bullpens in the league, but took a Dan Duquette-like flyer on veteran reliever Ryan Madson after elbow problems kept him out of major league action for the previous three seasons. And, for $850,000, they got a guy who pitched in 68 games and had a 2.13 ERA.

Remember, this was a team that rolled through last year's AL playoffs on the strength of its top-to-bottom pitching, outstanding defense and offensive mojo. But it was also a team that ranked just ahead of the Orioles during the 2014 season in that all-important on-base category.

The Royals ranked 16th in the majors at .314. The Orioles ranked 17th at .311, which is why they identified on-base potential as the club's top priority going into the last offseason before letting a bunch of it get away.

So, the Orioles — minus Cruz and Nick Markakis — actually turned south in the OBP rankings, falling to 24th this season at .307. The Royals, meanwhile, jumped to 11th in the majors with the addition of Morales (.362) and solid year-over-year upticks by Eric Hosmer (.363) and Lorenzo Cain (.361). All three of those players ranked among the top 30 in the majors in that category while the Orioles had just Chris Davis (28th), and who knows where he'll be next season.

Though the Royals rotation actually took a big step back this season in terms of overall efficiency, Kansas City starters still managed to tie for the AL lead with 65 victories, thanks in part to their terrific bullpen.

The Orioles also suffered a big increase in rotation ERA (4.53), which probably was the biggest factor in their fall from the ALCS in 2014 to a .500 record and third-place finish this year. There was speculation that they would try to do something at midseason to upgrade the rotation for the stretch run. But the only significant pitching move was the deal that sent hard-throwing setup man Tommy Hunter to the Chicago Cubs for a marginal outfield prospect.

The Royals signed free-agent starter Edinson Volquez last offseason and moved decisively at midseason to bolster the rotation with the acquisition of former Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto, but that deal didn't really pay off until the final two weeks of the regular season. He pitched very well in his final four regular-season outings and was the starter in two of the Royals' ALDS victories over the Houston Astros.

To fully understand the different directions taken by last year's two ALCS teams, there also are a lot of other moving parts, but it's easier just to sum it all up with one broad stroke.

The Royals simply tried harder.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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