This won’t be a lengthy article. There won’t be a bunch of numbers. No discussing a player’s decline or ascension. This is purely a call out to all of my fellow Kansas City Royals fans. It’s time. It’s time you get on board with this team. We have spent the better part of the last twenty years just wanting a team that could contend, just wanting a sniff of the playoffs. We bitched and moaned, we cried and yelled. We have been through every imaginable emotion known to man and it was all because we lived and breathed with this team. All we have wanted is have a winning team that realistically could play in October. Well, we are here. Sure, a lot of us still don’t have faith in Dayton Moore and Ned Yost. We don’t get warm fuzzy feelings about owner David Glass. Go ahead and throw logic out the window. Logic obviously isn’t steering this train. No, this group of players on this Royals team are finding ways to win and win consistently. Every morning I wake up and look at baseballprospectus.com/odds to see the chances of Kansas City getting to the playoffs. 80.7%. That is where they stand right now. The magic number is at 29. I beg of you Royals fans, don’t miss this. Quit analyzing all the time and just enjoy what is in front of us. We have a month of regular season baseball left. Let’s just enjoy the ride and worry about the consequences later. If you haven’t gotten those warm and tingly feelings as of late, then get there. It is truly a beautiful feeling. So Royals fans, jump on board. There is more than enough room. We are closer and closer to October baseball every day and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Go ahead, enjoy it with me.
Here we are, the last week of August and the Kansas City Royals are currently sitting atop the American League Central, leading the Detroit Tigers by 2.5 games. Even a month ago it seemed unlikely the Royals would be in this position, with Detroit looking up at them. Things seemed even worse at the time, as the team’s starting first baseman, Eric Hosmer, was dealing with a right hand fracture and would be missing 4-6 weeks. But instead of Kansas City struggling in his absence, the team has flourished. Billy Butler took over first base and not only got hot with the bat, but he has also played very solid defense. The Royals went out and picked up Josh Willingham from Minnesota and his bat has been a major plus in the middle of Kansas City’s order. With all of this said, word got out this week that Hosmer was healing and should be able to go on a rehab assignment as early as next week. That brings up the question that most of us have been wondering; what will the Royals do with the lineup when Hosmer returns?
The first option is that Hosmer returns to first base and Butler slides back to DH. Obviously you would have to get Willingham some at bats as well, but if Butler is still hitting at his current level it will be harder to take him out of the lineup. Either way, Hosmer is the better defensive player(despite the fact that defensive metrics aren’t always fond of him) and this does hold some weight when it comes to a team contending for a playoff spot. Some will point out that Hosmer was also starting to compile some hits before his injury, as he had strung together a 16 game hitting streak before it being snapped on July 23. So the argument is there for things to just return to normal on his return.
The second option is where the trio of Hosmer, Butler, and Willingham float between the two spots, with more at bats going to the players with the hotter bats. In this scenario, the hot hand gets the playing time. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, although manager Ned Yost isn’t always the best at lineup configuration and optimizing it to the Royals greatest advantage. This would also ease Hosmer back into playing time without putting any added stress on his hand. If his hand feels sore after playing a few games in a row? Sit him for a game or two and let Butler play first. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, and it is possible we see something in this vein happen when Hosmer makes his return.
The third option is probably the least likely to happen, but probably the one I favor the most; when Hosmer makes his return to the team, sit him on the bench and continue with Butler playing first and Willingham the primary DH. I’m not saying don’t give Hos any playing time; I think that is just not realistic and probably hurts the team to a degree. But here is the simple truth: this Royals team got hot after Hosmer’s injury. The old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” would apply here and it has been working with the current arrangement. I know some people would scoff at this and say I am crazy, but it’s not like Hosmer has torn the cover off the ball this year. Billy Butler is obviously more comfortable hitting when he is playing in the field and Josh Willingham has added some much needed offense to the middle of the order for Kansas City. Yes, the Royals defense would be even better with Hosmer at first base but the argument can also be made that it’s not like Butler has embarassed himself at the position. Butler has probably looked the most impressive he ever has in the field and it seems a shame to take that away for a guy who for the third straight year has shown major issues at the plate.
That is the other thing with this scenario: team chemistry. Sure, I tout numbers as much as anyone else, mainly because numbers don’t lie. But…there is something to be said for team chemistry and upsetting a rhythm. The Royals have been in a groove since Hosmer went down and I would be leery to turn around and change all of that. It might be superstitious and it might be fool-hardy, but I’m not 100% for sure this team is better with Eric Hosmer in the lineup. He has never seemed to really get into a groove this year offensively, this after last year’s first half where he looked like a singles hitter and his awful 2012. I have discussed Hosmer’s struggles more than once and I am even of the belief the team should look into trading him in the offseason. To just insert him back into the lineup, seems like a bit of a mistake and is a reward I’m not so sure he has earned.
That is the other issue and one that has floated around Royals twitter for much of this year: Hosmer seems coddled. I have no clue where the blame should lie on this, but it has seemed more and more apparent that the Kansas City organization has allowed some of their younger stars a feeling of entitlement, even though they haven’t proved themselves in the majors. This was never more apparent than earlier this summer when Billy Butler was punished for his slump while Hosmer was still allowed to hover around the top of the order despite his lack of production. The belief at the time was the organization had more faith in Hosmer coming around than Butler, but even that thinking seemed a bit flawed. Either or, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Hosmer was forced to the bench. In fact, for an organization that loves “character” this seems like a good way to build some up in him. Maybe Hosmer earning his spot back is the better way to go in this scenario.
Within the next few weeks, the Royals are going to have some hard decisions to make. I firmly believe there is no “perfect” answer to this dilemma, but I also think it is a good problem to have. When was the last time Kansas City was in a position where they had this much talent fighting over just a few spots? For all we know Eric Hosmer could elevate this Royals ballclub even higher than they currently reside. But there is just as much a chance his return can slow down the train. I don’t envy Ned Yost and the decision he is going to have to make and how he will divy up playing time. The best thing he can do is what he feels is best for this team’s chances of playing October baseball. To play Eric Hosmer or not, that is the question. The answer is a muddled mess that might cause deflated ego’s and hurt feelings.
With the Royals continuing their winning ways and stretching their lead in the American League Central(2.0 games ahead of the Tigers) there has been some talk of plans for the team come September, preparing themselves for a stretch run to the playoffs. One of the most discussed ideas has been that of calling up some of their top arms in the minors and using them to help in the last month of the season. Think about that for a minute; a team that prides themselves on having one of the best bullpens in baseball is talking about adding more arms. You might be asking yourselves right now ‘why?’ and that is a valid question. But what Kansas City is considering is not a new concept.
Let’s start with the two main arms that have been mentioned to be part of the Royals pen come September. Brandon Finnegan is the Royals #1 Draft Pick this year but has been progressing through the Royals farm system this summer, currently at Double AA Northwest Arkansas, where he has been pitching out of the pen, working 2 innings at the most in those games. The initial thought when he was drafted from TCU was that his future might be in the bullpen, the thinking that his size would hold him back from being a consistent major league starter. Finnegan has a plus fastball, plus slider and a good changeup to boot. He seems to be in the vein of a Billy Wagner type pitcher, small stature with some high heat. Finnegan even throws across his body like Wagner. The 21 year old isn’t even a year removed from college but has a chance to be pitching in games that matter come September for Kansas City.
The other prospect that has been discussed for bullpen work this September is Christian Binford. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed him earlier this season. In fact, out of the current crop of minor league arms in the Royals system, the only other pitcher that has me as excited as Binford is Miguel Almonte. Binford started the year in Wilmington, moved up to Double AA Northwest Arkansas after 14 starts, pitching in 8 games there before being called up to Triple AAA Omaha this past week. Binford isn’t a guy who will light up radar guns, but he has tremendous command of his pitches and a superb walk ratio. Binford has mainly been a starter since the Royals drafted him, and I’m pretty sure he takes the place of Jason Adam, who the Royals had shifted to the pen awhile back before trading him to Minnesota in the Josh Willingham trade. I’m not entirely sure how Kansas City would use him out of the pen(long reliever if needed? Help rest the other relievers?) but he would be different after seeing the smoke thrown by guys like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I don’t think this role is really in Binford’s long term future, but for this year he might be just what the Royals need.
So what about Kyle Zimmer? Most of us are aware of how 2014 has been a wasted season for Zimmer, as he has been battling a lat injury these last few months. Before that the Royals were taking their time with him, as he has dealt with injuries since the Royals drafted him in 2012. At this point, Zimmer has appeared in one game this season for Idaho Falls in the Rookie League. At one time there was some talk that we could see him in September, but that was before the lat injury stripped him of playing time this season. At this point, the best thing is for Kansas City to let him get some innings in the minors the rest of the year and chalk up this year to a lost cause. We will see Zimmer soon enough, just not this year.
Earlier I mentioned that the concept of using youngsters in your farm system to help out the relief corp in September wasn’t a new idea. Off the top of my head I can think of two times it has helped a team further their chances in the postseason. The first is the Los Angeles Angels using Francisco ‘K-Rod’ Rodriguez to help them gain a World Series title in 2002. Rodriguez only appeared in 5 games that season, but was a key part of their bullpen come October. K-Rod would appear in 11 games for the Angels that fall, giving up only 4 earned runs in 18.2 innings. It had to be hard for teams that year to really get a scouting report on this kid that the Angels had barely used in the season. The other instance I can think of is the St. Louis Cardinals using their young arms these last few years in the playoffs. Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez all were used off and on during the postseason and were live arms that could go out there and just throw heat in short outings for the Cardinals. More than anything it helped the team in 2011, as the Cardinals were able to come away with a World Series title in Tony LaRussa’s final season. These are both prime examples of teams that used young arms in their farm system to help their bullpen in postseason play and use them to help gain the richest prize of them all.
So with just over 5 weeks left in the season it appears as if the Royals are making plans to make the team the best they can be if they are headed to October. Adding a couple of young arms to the pen might not seem like the most obvious paths to take for guys like Finnegan and Binford, but it would give them the opportunity to experience a pennant race(and possibly postseason) while getting big league experience. It’s not a guarantee we will see these two youngsters next month but I would bet money we see at the very least one of them, if not both. The Royals bullpen is a juggernaut and has been the last few years, but adding these two could make it even stronger. With all of us hoping for a “Blue October”, I love the out of the box thinking, especially with some of the struggles as of late for Aaron Crow, Francisley Bueno and Bruce Chen. Finnegan and Binford might be future rotation mainstays for Kansas City, but for now their value might be pitching late in the game during the most exciting September Royals fans have seen in three decades.
Almost two weeks ago, Royals super-fan Sung Woo Lee finally made his trek to Kansas City and see the team that he had followed from his home in South Korea since the mid-90’s. It might be one of the warmest, fuzziest and doggone best stories ever connected to baseball; to read the whole story, go ahead and click here. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the skinny is this: Lee decided to watch baseball games to teach himself how to speak English. He saw a Jeff King(yep, just name dropped the former Royals 1st baseman) hit a home run and fell in love with Kauffman Stadium. Ever since that moment he has been a Royals fan, watching Royals games at odd times because of the time difference and he has communicated over the years with other Royals fans online. What initially was supposed to be a trip to see a few games at ‘The K’ turned into a city and a community embracing one of their own and showing him how great Royals fans really are.
I could go into all the things that Lee got to do on this trip, but I truly can’t do it justice. To REALLY get a grasp on how great this story is, you should read this synopsis that Michael Engel put together about Lee’s visit. It is a long read, but damn if it didn’t get me pumped again for how great this whole story is. Now, the point of all this isn’t to discuss the trip or to bring up how great it is that Lee probably just had the best vacation he will ever have(and I have to believe it will be hard to top). No, the point I want to make is how Sung Woo is the fan we probably all should strive to be.
One of the main items I have taken away from this whole Sung Woo thing is that the guy might be one of the most positive sports fans I have ever seen. For most of us, there are times all we can see is the negative. In some ways it is easier to do that, rather than look for the gleam of light. Sure there are appropriate times for honest criticism. But there are other times where finding the nugget of hope is far and away the better route to take. I am just as guilty as anyone else of doing this, but watching Sung Woo be excited about even minor things made me realize how we as fans need to view the game at times in a better light. For Lee to say that the only Royals player he has ever not liked is Neifi Perez(and let’s be honest; Perez deserves this shame), that says a lot and covers quite a bit of ground. Watching him get excited about something like meeting Mitch Maier just has to make you realize it is simpler than we make it(although I would probably be excited about meeting Maier as well; I always felt he was underrated). Sung Woo’s outlook of the game is almost of a child, just excited about his team. I still have my moments like this, like anytime I walk into ‘The K’. The little kid comes out in me and I forget about any complaints I have about the team, focusing on getting to see ‘my team’ for the next few hours. It’s a simple approach, yet one that could be put forward a bit more.
The fact that the Royals went on a winning streak during Sung Woo’s time in Kansas City just made things that much better. Here was this huge Royals fan from halfway across the world and after almost 20 years of watching Kansas City, he get’s to see in person the Royals play some of the best baseball they have played during that entire span of time. The Royals community started claiming this was “Sung Woo Magic” and after awhile it really felt like it. What other logical reason was there for the Royals playing out of their mind than Sung Woo bringing them good luck? Sure, it seems implausible but sometimes logic doesn’t factor into baseball. Sometimes guys just get in a groove and don’t know any better. I mean, you have seen the movie “Major League”, right? Even if Sung Woo played a small part in this, you can see why. His love of this team was infectious.
It’s been about half a week since Sung Woo went back to Korea and I find myself still wanting to check up on him. After his dream vacation, I feel a bit like I am a Royals AND Sung Woo fan now. The fact that the Royals fanbase went out of their way to make Sung Woo a part of everything Kansas City made this story even better. I have never been prouder to be a Royals fan nor prouder of every fan that showed him how great being a Royals fan can be. Even the Royals organization did a fantastic job of showing Sung Woo real Royals pride, showing him around the stadium, giving him gifts and having him throw at the first pitch at last Monday’s game. There are 39 games left in this season and hopefully more in October. For the rest of the season we should all be the fan Sung Woo is. We should enjoy every moment of every game and be thankful we have something to cheer for. Enjoy the now and worry about the rest later. That is the true magic that Sung Woo Lee gave us, and I am thankful for it.
Just admit it; you didn’t see this coming. Don’t worry, none of us saw this coming. The Kansas City Royals have reeled off 7 straight wins, have taken over the second Wild Card spot and is only 1/2 a game behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and none of us figured this was in the Royals future. Sure, we knew they were in the Wild Card race, but after the 10 game winning streak in June there was nary a chance we would see another long streak from this bunch. This isn’t to say this isn’t a team that could pull off the task; obviously they’ve shown multiple times now this season what they are capable of. For a team who has not had a consistent offense this year, the chance of climbing this high this fast seemed unlikely. So how did we get to this point?
Let’s start with the surging offense. The funny thing is that it’s not as if the whole team is taking off, because it isn’t, as David Lesky of PineTarPress.com points out:
Inspired by @BSGoodman, I looked at the #Royals offense in their 15-3 stretch. It's really not special.
Now what they are doing is hitting well with runners in scoring position, which is always a huge plus. But to add to that, you have two players right now in the heart of the batting order that are punishing the baseball in Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. Butler is hitting .435/.458/.913 over the last 7 days with 2 homers, 7 RBI’s, 21 total bases and an OPS of 1. 371. This recent hot streak of Butler’s coincides with his move to first base, as regular first baseman Eric Hosmer went on the DL at the beginning of August and since then Butler has really taken off. FoxSports.com discussed this with Butler recently and he divulged why playing in the field helps him:
“It relaxes me, playing in the field,” Butler says. “I just tend to get more involved because they have to rely on me defensively, too. And the thing is, I tend to let bad at-bats go more easily. I don’t linger on them.”
The other bat that has taken off during this stretch is Alex Gordon. It seems only fitting as this past weekend’s promotional schedule for the Royals revolved around A1(Saturday was Nebraska day at the K and Sunday was the Alex Gordon Bobblehead giveaway). Over the last 7 days Gordon is hitting a robust .381/458/.810 with 3 homers, 6 RBI’s, and an OPS of 1.268. It does seem when the middle of the order takes off, so does the rest of the team. Mike Moustakas and Nori Aoki are both hitting over .300 this past week and the Royals have 5 players who have driven in at least 5 runs during that stretch. Jarrod Dyson has only received 5 at bats in the past week but has taken advantage of his time on the field, getting 4 hits(including a double)and 4 steals. Just coming through in clutch situations is big, as Lorenzo Cain did Saturday night with his single to right field to keep the Royals inning alive in the 7th. When this team is selective at the plate and gets on base, it tends to string together multiple run innings. This has been more than evident these past few weeks and has helped lead them to a 10-2 record over their last two weeks.
It has helped as well to have the Royals pitching holding up their end of the deal as well. James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie have led the charge for the starters with ERA’s below 2.00 this month and have been aided by a bullpen that has been practically unhittable. Lately the Royals have made it rough for any team to come back from a deficit once you get past the 6th inning. Jason Frasor, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland have been spotless as of late with only Holland giving up a run during this span. I’ve been saying for a few years now that if it comes down to the Royals bullpen or the oppositions, the Royals have a great chance of winning. As of late it feels like just that, as they have been locking teams down and doing it in impressive fashion. All have strikeout rates above 11.00 during this streak and Frasor and Herrera have each only given up 2 hits. The Royals will need this group to keep it up as they plan on playing more meaningful games come September.
Of course the cherry on top of this winning sundae is the Royals spectacular defense. This is no secret, as the Royals have had one of the best defenses in baseball over the last couple of seasons. This has been on display as of late, helping the pitching out even more. To get a better idea of how good this defense is(especially the outfield), check out this article at FanGraphs.com, which really points out how special this team’s defense really is. Safe to say if the Royals are playing in October it will be partially because of the Royals play with the leather.
Winning is contagious. There really is nothing quite like seeing a team with potential live up to it and excel on the diamond. Watching the Royals these past couple weeks makes it worth all the bad. If the Royals can continue with their timely hitting to go with the consistency of the pitching and defense, we could be talking playoff baseball. Currently BaseballProspectus.com has the Royals odds of making the playoffs at 47.8% and climbing. It will be a fight to get there, as there are a few other teams wanting a taste of the postseason this year. Normally this time of year the only streaking we see is this kind:
Instead, this year we are seeing the kind we all prefer. The streaking that pulls the Royals into the playoff picture. Hey, if all else fails, we have some “Sung Woo Magic”:
Yep, it sure seems as if the baseball God’s are on our side this year. Whether it’s black magic, fate, or just some great baseball, none of that matters as long as we see the playoffs. It’s time, Kansas City.
A few seasons back, Major League Baseball decided to spice things up and added a second Wild Card spot to the playoffs. In November of 2011, MLB announced they would be adding this second wild card, with the top two Wild Card teams playing each other in a one game playoff to determine who would go on to the division series and who would go home. In a lot ways this second Wild Card was added to hopefully add to the excitement of pennant chases, much like the electric last day of the 2011 season(do you remember how awesome that day was? If not, go ahead and revisit it!)
Now that I just gave you the equivalent of a sugar rush, let’s get to the real meat and potatoes of this; the second Wild Card spot is up for grabs in the American League this year with four teams battling for the spot with only a game separating these teams. No one team in this group stand out amongst each other with each team holding equal positives and negatives to their run for a playoff spot. Obviously around these parts we are cheering for the Royals to make the playoffs. With that said, lets look at what each team will bring to this ‘Wild Card Shuffle’.
Kansas City Royals-Currently holding 2nd Wild Card spot, 34.0% chance of reaching playoffs(BaseballProspectus.com/odds/)
The Royals have seen a big increase in their chances of making the playoffs over the past week, in fact almost a 18% increase in that span. As most Royals fans can attest to, this has been a very topsy turvy season already, as the Royals went on a 10 game winning streak in June, took over first place of the American League Central from Detroit. Kansas City followed that by going on a losing streak and even straddling .500 before the All Star break. The Royals currently have a 4 game winning streak and are 7-3 over their last ten games. Outside of back to back series coming up with Oakland and San Francisco, the Royals will then play 12 straight games(outside of a lone game against the Yankees) against teams under .500, followed by 3 games to wrap up August against Cleveland, who are currently at .500. If the Royals are going to make a run, now would seem to be the best time to do it.
Positives: One of the best defenses in baseball, great bullpen, solid rotation
Toronto Blue Jays-1/2 game out of the 2nd Wild Card spot, 25.8% chance of reaching playoffs
A week ago, the Blue Jays looked golden; in that span their chance of making the playoffs has fallen 34.3% and have basically let the other teams around them back into the boat. The Blue Jays could still be the team to beat in this position, but it’s going to take a bit to widen the gap. Toronto is almost the polar opposite to the Royals schedule-wise over the next month; the Blue Jays have Detroit, Milwaukee, Seattle, New York and the once surging Rays to contend with in August. The Blue Jays have been hit by the injury bug as of late, and they should be getting a few of their offensive pieces(Encarnacion, Lind) back soon. The Jays have a young pitching staff and still need some help in the bullpen, but if they piece things together they are a real threat to the Royals for that spot.
Positives: Great offense, young pitching, aggressive GM
Negatives: injuries, thin bullpen, rough schedule
Seattle Mariners-1/2 game out of the 2nd Wild Card spot, 23.0% chance of reaching playoffs
Seattle is an interesting ball club to say the least. You have to wonder where the Mariners would be in the standings if their offense was just league average. Instead, they have a weak offense, in fact one so weak that it makes the Royals look like ‘Murderers Row’. But Seattle’s GM Jack Zduriencik has already been working to fix that, adding Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia before the trade deadline and very well could be adding more. Jack Z’s job is probably on the line, so he could very well be proactive over the next month. Add in a stellar pitching staff that is better than Kansas City’s and you have a team that the Royals should be worried about. The Mariners still play a number of playoff contenders to play this season, including 15 of their last 18 against teams vying for a playoff spot. Seattle very well could be the Royals biggest obstacle in front of them when it comes to grasping a playoff spot.
Positives: Fantastic pitching, a GM with his job on the line,excellent at run prevention
Negatives: weak offense, rough schedule
New York Yankees-1/2 game out of the 2nd Wild Card spot, 34.5% chance of reaching the playoffs
The fact that the Yankees are still in this conversation is a minor miracle. Their starting rotation has been decimated, they have been hit with a number of injuries and unless Derek Jeter is truly a God(as has been hinted at by almost every major media outlet this season), the Yankees shouldn’t even be in this position. But…here they are. Actually, out of these four teams, the Yankees have the best percentage chance of making the playoffs. Getting players back from injury will help, but they also need to add to their weakened rotation. Unfortunately for them, the likes of Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano just won’t work. The Yankees are known for stocking up this time of year, so don’t be shocked to see another pitcher head to the Bronx before the month is up. If that happens, their odds will improve, although they still have 24 games left against teams trying to reach October(and that isn’t even counting games against Cleveland and Tampa Bay, who are on the fringe). I would like to see the odds are stacked against them, but I have counted New York out before and they’ve proven me wrong. Don’t be surprised if they are still in this spot come late September.
Positives: Improving offense, excellent bullpen, deep pockets
Negatives: Pieced together rotation, tough schedule, old shortstop
You probably noticed I didn’t add Cleveland to this list. The Indians are currently 4 games out of the Wild Card spot, so technically they are still in it, but they would have a tougher road to go and more teams to climb over(same for Tampa Bay). Sure, it could happen. If anything, we have learned over the years that it’s not over until a spot is locked up. This might be the most interesting race to follow over the next seven weeks and one that could fluxuate quite a bit between now and then. Obviously us Royals fans are hoping that 29 years of playoff-less baseball ends this year, but there are no guarantees. Any of these four teams could grasp that last spot and play either the Angels or A’s for the one game playoff. None of these teams stand out above another, but the team that can play the most consistent over the rest of the season will probably be the team there at the end. At the very least it will be a fun seven weeks to cheer on your team if you are in Kansas City, Toronto, New York or Seattle. It will also be stomach churning at times. All this for October baseball. You gotta love it!