Cain Is Not Able, Heads To DL

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On Tuesday evening, the injury bug hit the Kansas City Royals yet again. This time, it struck All-Star centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, as he pulled up lame running out a ground ball. As most know that follow the Royals, this is not the first time Cain has dealt with a leg injury. In fact, the Royals have spent the last few years trying to get him to kick the habit of lunging at the first base bag when running out grounders and for the most part he has been successful. Unfortunately, this time Cain is dealing with a strained left hamstring and was placed on the disabled list on Wednesday. So what effect will this have on Kansas City?

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Let’s state the obvious first: it is never good to lose a player of Cain’s caliber, let alone the person who is probably the best player on the team. The Royals will obviously miss his stellar defense in center field, but this might turn out to be a nice break for Cain. Cain hasn’t been tearing it up offensively in June, hitting .280/..309/.333 with 6 RBI’s. He’s not hitting poorly, but he’s also not producing the way he was in May; .351/.387/.577 with 6 home runs and 25 RBI’s throughout the second month of the season. It is easy to see where some of the Royals struggles earlier this month can be traced back to Cain, as he has driven in about 20 runs less this month. I feel like I am dogging Cain for the past month, which I’m not; there is no way he would drive in 25 RBI’s every month. But with him batting in the middle of the Kansas City batting order, you would hope he would have contributed a bit more over the span of a full month. Sometimes a player needs to take a step back from the everyday grind of baseball to recharge and get back into a groove. Cain will be allotted that time for the next couple weeks.

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So who will take Cain’s place in his absence? I would have to believe we will see more Jarrod Dyson, as he is a solid fit in center field. Dyson has had a rough June(.229/.357/.257 in only 43 plate appearances) as he has seen his playing time dwindle with Paulo Orlando seeing the majority of playing time in right field due to his hot hitting. Dyson will bring most of the same stellar defense that Cain brings to the table, but offensively he will be a few steps back. There’s also a chance that Brett Eibner, who was recalled again from Omaha once Cain went to the DL, could see some time in center, a position he has played in the minors. Playing Eibner in center field could be interesting, as he is a step back defensively but would add another power bat to the Royals lineup. The Royals tend to put an emphasis on defense the majority of the time, so Eibner would probably see less playing time but it might be a good litmus test to see how he does defensively for a couple of weeks until Cain is back.

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Speaking of Cain coming back, you might be wondering about the timetable for his return. The word is that Cain has a Grade 1+ strained left hamstring, which is defined as follows:

With a grade 1 hamstring strain you may have tightness in back of the thigh but will be able to walk normally. You will be aware of some hamstring discomfort and unable to run at full speed. There will be mild swelling and spasm. Bend your knee against resistance is unlikely to reproduce much pain.

This would be why most didn’t notice a limp after Tuesday night’s game:

This would also explain why they are expecting him to return right after the All-Star break:

In other words, the injury came at an opportune time. With the All-Star break just a few weeks away, that gives the Royals just a tad over two weeks to let Cain rest and get healed without losing him for a long stretch of games. I would also say he will not be playing every single game upon his return, as they will want to monitor the hamstring and make sure not to re-aggravate it. The fact this isn’t Cain’s first leg injury is a concern, but an injury like this would be much more painful during the pennant stretch than it is in late June/early July.

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An injury to an All-Star is never a good deal for any team,  but the Royals should be able to hold the team together during Cain’s absence. Kendrys Morales is on a hot streak offensively and with Alex Gordon back in the fold the Royals offense isn’t as patched together as it was a month ago. If there is a real concern here, it is that Cain has had a myriad of leg injuries throughout his career, most notably back in 2012. You have to hope for the Royals sake that this is just a lone event and not a sign of things to come. Cain has stayed healthy for almost a two-year stretch(his last DL stint was in April of 2014) and the Royals need him healthy if they are going to make a return appearance in the playoffs. The Royals have the depth to wait out this injury and shouldn’t notice a big drop-off in his absence. If you really want a sign as to how the Royals have changed over the last 4-6 years, here it is. The Royals will be without their best player for a few weeks and there isn’t a giant alarm going off. This is progress, folks.

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Wanna Be Starting Something

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Back in May, I discussed how the starting pitching had become a major issue for the Kansas City Royals. Luckily, not too long after that the starters stabilized and even with Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the disabled list, the Royals starters improved upon what at the time was a woeful performance. No one was going to confuse their starting staff with the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s or the Baltimore Orioles starters in the 1970’s, but there was some notable improvement, especially once Danny Duffy returned to the rotation. But the glaring weakness of this Royals team is still the starting five and I’m not so sure help is on the way.

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On Friday night, the normally steady Edinson Volquez had one of the worst starts of not only his career, but in baseball history. Volquez only threw one complete inning, allowing 8 hits, 3 walks and 11 earned runs. This earned him the honor of worst game score in Royals history, -18, which toppled the old record of -11, held by Jeremy Guthrie from last year and Zack Greinke in 2005. Chris Young followed that the next night by pitching 2.1 innings, and allowing 7 runs. Luckily, the Royals got some solid bullpen work both days from Dillon Gee, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang(oh, and Drew Butera). This is after Ian Kennedy only worked 4 innings on Tuesday and while Yordano Ventura is serving his 8 game suspension. The Royals starters are struggling and it’s easy when looking at the numbers to see why.

Indians Royals Baseball
 (AP Photo/David Dermer)

The Royals starters are 13th in the American League in innings pitched, the second highest in walks per 9 and 4th highest in home runs per 9. The only thing saving them from being last in the league is the fact they are stranding the most runners on base(a league leading 76.8%) and the Angels and Twins starters have actually performed worst this year. Back in May, both Medlen and Ventura were averaging 7 walks per 9 innings; Medlen is currently out on rehab assignment and Ventura has lowered his rate to 4 walks per 9. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy are 1 and 3 respectively in home runs allowed in the American League, with Jered Weaver of the Angels sandwiched between the two Royals. If the Royals are going to stay in the pennant race come September, this has to improve. But how?

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Unfortunately, there isn’t much help on the horizon. Medlen is close to being back, but if he pitches the way he was earlier in the season I’m not for sure that is an improvement. Mike Minor was once thought of as an option, but he was shut down from his rehab assignment a few weeks ago for shoulder fatigue and hasn’t been heard of since. Same for two top Royals prospects, Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte. Almonte did return to action on June 9th, but the longest start he has had since then was only 4 innings. Alec Mills was recently recalled to AAA Omaha, but I doubt he is ready yet for a rotation spot. So there are really no answers within the organization. What about outside the organization?

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Unfortunately, the Royals don’t have much to deal, especially after last year’s Cueto and Zobrist trades that took a large chunk of their pitching depth.It’s conceivable that the Royals could go out and make a trade, although it wouldn’t be for much. More than likely it would have to be a middle to back end of the rotation type starter and someone that Kansas City could get fairly cheap. Someone like a Rich Hill of Oakland would probably be within their price range and would be a nice fit in the middle of this rotation.

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If the Royals are going to contend they are going to have to improve from within. Young and Kennedy would do good to keep the ball down low, pitch on the corners and avoid the middle of the plate. Yordano needs to keep his cool and use his fastball to set-up his off-speed stuff. All the Kansas City pitchers would be wise to lower their walk total and let the Royals defense do their job. More than anything, they need to limit the amount of base runners that are on the base paths; the current amount is just a recipe for disaster. This all seems like basic stuff that I’m sure they are trying to do anyway, but at this point whatever they are trying to do is not working.

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So the main solution to the Royals problem is a bit more consistency from their starters. In reality, all they really need to do is go 5 to 6 innings, allowing 3 runs or less(which is essentially a quality start) and then hand the game over to the bullpen. All of the Royals starters are capable of doing this and while it is unrealistic to expect this out of them every start, it is realistic to expect it the majority of the time. It appears rather funny to sit here and tell them to ‘just pitch better’ but essentially that is what will have to happen. There is no hero coming, riding in on a white horse. For the most part, the rotation they have now will decide whether or not this Kansas City team is playing again come October. This is the hand they dealt themselves,  and more than likely it is the hand that will decide their fate.

Welcome To The Jungle

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“Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.” ~Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again.

It’s hard sometimes to visit the past. As much as we want to look at the past through rose-colored glasses, most times the truth is that there was just as much bad as good. Go ahead, look back at an old relationship and really dissect what worked and what didn’t. There is a reason you parted ways. This holds true in baseball as well; if a player leaves a team, there is normally a reason. For the most part, Joakim Soria was a positive when it came to his first go-around with the Kansas City Royals. Multiple time All-Star, reliable closer, and even racked some American League Cy Young  and MVP votes back in 2010. Sure, there was the rough patch he had in 2010 when  he was using a cutter way too often(and saw him get hit hard because he hadn’t mastered the pitch), but those five years of glory endeared him to the Royals fanbase. Unfortunately, Soria was part of the losing years in Kansas City, the years that aren’t always looked back on fondly. It wasn’t his fault, but it’s hard not to associate him with that era of losing.

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So when the Royals signed Soria to a 3 year deal this past offseason, it was mostly met with cheers and adulation. Soria had put up some good numbers last year during his stint in Pittsburgh and was only entering his age 32 season. But there were reasons to be concerned; I for one wasn’t fond of the length of the deal nor the amount of dollars spent. I wasn’t Anti-Soria, but my feeling was that solid relief pitching could not only be found on the cheap, but younger relief pitching wouldn’t be that hard to find. Instead, the Royals latched themselves to Soria for three years with the hope that he still had some of that old glory left in his arm. In some ways Soria hadn’t changed much; his average velocity is still on par with years past and he still uses his four seam fastball to set up a nasty change-up that is a real worm killer. Soria was known to throw the change-up to generate more swings and misses, as it is slightly firmer than the usual change and has more natural sink to it. The feeling was that Soria could help set-up for closer Wade Davis while also using his past closing experience to help in case of emergency.

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The first month of the 2016 season wasn’t a warm welcome back to the fold for Soria. Call it nerves, call it bad pitch location or just bad luck, but in his first outing back he would only throw 2/3 of an inning, allowing 3 hits, 3 runs and 2 walks. In fact, just chalk up April as a bad month; 12 games, 11 innings pitched while giving up 8 runs and posting an ERA of 5.73. Many a Royals fan was already wanting him to be pushed back to less intensive work, a few even wanting him to only pitch during blow outs or in mop up duty. But the truth was that Soria just wasn’t pitching as bad as it appeared; his line-drive rate was down and his hard hit rate also leaned downward. This told me that hitters were just not hitting the ball very hard off of him. This was even more evident when looking at his BAbip, which stood at .355. Luckily, things would turn around starting in May.

Cheslor Cuthbert, Joakim Soria
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

May would lead to more prosperity for Soria; 12 games, 13 innings thrown only allowing 2 runs and posting an ERA of 1.35 while his BAbip lowered to .222. In fact, since May Soria has been one of the most reliable Royals relievers. Over his last 22 appearances, Soria has given up only 5 runs over 24 innings, putting up an ERA of 1.88 while almost striking out a batter per inning(striking out 21 over those 24 innings). So what has changed?

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For one, it appears his velocity has gone up. There is a slight decrease in the speed of his change-up, but to me that is actually a good thing, as it puts more distance between his fastball and his off-speed stuff. This is a good sign.

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It also looks as if left-handed hitters have hard a harder time hitting him, as the release speed has changed by a decent amount from the beginning of the season.Right-handed hitters speed has gone up, but not by very much. This is also shown in the percentage of pitches:

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So what is Soria doing differently from April? He has drastically increased the use of his off-speed pitches:

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If you notice, the percentage of hard stuff has been drastically reduced by Soria, while both his breaking balls and off-speed pitches have seen an increase since April. This change in philosophy can also be seen in the pitches that batters are swinging at:

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Hitters are swinging at more of his breaking balls thrown and is also seeing their batting average go down on breaking balls as well:

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It goes to show how a slight change in philosophy can change everything. Batters are hitting better against Soria’s hard stuff, but they aren’t seeing those pitches nearly as much as early in the season. As has always been the case for him, he is using his fastball to set up his off-speed stuff, and because of that the results are looking more and more like they did back in his heyday.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
(Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY)

I’m not sure who to give credit to for the change in Soria’s pitch usage(my gut thinking is it was probably pitching coach Dave Eiland) but whomever it was should get a raise. Normally players at Soria’s age start to see a regression; less foot or bat speed, or a decrease in velocity for pitchers. Thankfully for Soria, he seems to have skirted the enivitable…for now.  There is no way to tell if we will be able to say the same by the end of his contract, but for now he is a main cog in the Kansas City bullpen. Players come and go for your favorite baseball team and a select few hold a special spot in your memory. Normally, if a player returns it is at the tail end of his career and he is but a shell of his former self. Thankfully, we are still seeing top shelf Joakim Soria. Sometimes you can go home again.

Salvy Power

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Salvador Perez holds many roles for the Kansas City Royals; clubhouse leader, Lorenzo Cain’s BFF, backup broadcaster, leader of the pitching staff and middle of the order power threat. In 2015, Perez would hit 21 home runs, a new high for a Kansas City catcher. Despite this career high, Salvy’s other numbers weren’t as impressive. Walk rate was the lowest of his career. Strike out rate was the highest it had ever been. Hard hit rate was the lowest it had been since his rookie campaign. Line drive rate was one of the lowest of his career. Most importantly, his wRC+(which weighs runs per plate appearance while being park and league adjusted) was the lowest of his career, at 87(league average is 100). It really appeared as if Perez’s numbers were already starting to skew downwards, which was not good for a player coming into his age 26 season. Most Royals fans are well aware of Salvy’s lack of patience at the plate and most don’t expect him to walk much, but would prefer he became a bit more selective at the plate. All this information makes it even more impressive when discussing what Perez has done so far in 2016.

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Over the last month Perez has been the hottest hitting Royal, putting up a line of .411/.436/.689 with 6 home runs, 14 RBI’s and an OPS of 1.125. Perez, a notorious free-swinger, is still swinging at a lot of pitches(in fact he is pretty much on par with his totals for the last two seasons), but there is a slight change in his approach. Last year, Perez was making contact with pitches outside the strike zone about 73% of the time; so far this year he is at 62%. Meanwhile, pitches inside the strike zone he is actually making a bit more contact, up to 91.4% from 90.7%. This tells me that he is laying off the pitches outside the strike zone a bit more this year while focusing more of his attention on pitches within the meat of the plate. The funny part to all of this is that Salvy’s strikeout rate is up by quite a bit(22%, up from 14% last year) while his contact rate is also down, to 78% from last year’s 83%. You would think that a guy who is making less contact would not see his numbers go up, but they have. In fact, Salvy has been a beast in the power department so far this year.

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The power numbers are where Perez is really stepping up his game. His hard hit rate is significantly up this year, 36% from last year’s 24%, and his fly ball rate has also soared, 48.8% from 37.4%. Of course because of this, Perez has a higher home run to fly ball ratio(14.3%) and a lower ground ball rate(26.7% from last year’s 41.9%). To me this all screams of someone driving the ball much more and realizing he can do more damage on pitches closer to the middle of the plate. This is even more evident when looking at Salvy’s exit velocity:

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As you can tell, outside of a brief dip the week of April 24th, Perez has been not only above league average, but even close to averaging 100MPH on hit balls for a few weeks. Now, while his approach with pitches outside the zone has changed, he is still a very pull-heavy hitter, as he is pulling the ball the most he has since 2014. Slugging, On Base Plus Slugging, Isolated Power and Weighted on Base Average have all gone way up so far in 2016. Hell, Salvy’s BAbip over the last month is a ridiculous .508! These numbers speak of a player on track for a career year.

Salvador Perez
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Speaking of career highs, at his current rate, Perez is on track to have career highs in doubles, home runs, RBI’s, batting average, on base percentage, slugging and with a little luck, possibly even WAR. He also already has 11 walks this year, only 6 behind last year’s total. His career high for free passes is 24, which I’m not quite ready to say he could topple, although if he keeps hitting like this he will surely see his intentional walks go up. I know there was an increased effort this year for Perez to be more patient at the plate. To me, being more patient at the plate doesn’t always mean more walks as much as waiting for a good pitch to hit and drive. I’ve long felt that Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum has been teaching these guys to look for a pitch to drive and because of that we have seen higher power numbers from Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. I’m starting to think the same philosophy is being soaked up from Salvy and it is paying off in spades.

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So do I believe he will be able to keep this up all season? Perez is a very streaky hitter and I would assume at some point we are going to start seeing a lull in his numbers. That being said, I think even with that he can still keep himself with numbers higher than what he accumulated last year. Is he going to hit .300 all year? Probably not, but the power numbers could be here to stay. The bigger concern for Kansas City is to keep Perez rested and make sure they are not over-working him behind the plate. The Royals have a solid backup receiver in Drew Butera and with Kendrys Morales slumping much of this season, it seems like a solid idea to give Salvy’s knees a rest and start him at DH occasionally. More than anything, Kansas City needs Salvy to stay healthy the rest of the year for them to stay in contention in the American League Central. Perez has long been regarded as one of the top defensive catchers in the game and rightfully so; but now, outside of a Jonathan Lucroy or Buster Posey, he is making the case as one of the best all-around catchers, period. Perez is as special as they get and I really hope Kansas City fans are savoring what they have with him. If he keeps this up, the hardware won’t be stopping anytime soon.

 

Happy Trails, Omar

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Sometimes things just don’t work out. That’s a good way to describe the Kansas City Royals parting ways with second baseman Omar Infante on Wednesday. This wasn’t a shocking move in the fact that it happened; the timing was the only thing that caught most off-guard. Infante had been relegated to third-string second baseman thanks to the hot start that Whit Merrifield has gotten off to and the fact that Omar had struggled on both offense AND defense this year. The Royals still owe Infante another $17.75 million, which includes a buyout of his 2018 option and the fact that Kansas City was willing to eat the rest of his contract shows you the albatross that Infante had become to the Kansas City roster. But at the end of the day, this was the best choice for everyone involved.

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Not everything was all downtrodden when it comes to the Royals signing of Infante. The Royals signed Infante before the 2014 season to a 4 year, $30.25 million deal with a team option for 2018 and at the time it felt like a good signing. The Royals had struggled at second base for years and before Infante, Kansas City was saddled with my favorite punching bag, Chris Getz. Infante was coming off of a solid 2013 campaign in Detroit, where he put up a line of .318/.345/.450 with an OPS+ of 115 and a bWAR of 2.5. Sure, he was entering his age 32 season with the feeling of regression lurking in the shadows, but all he really had to do was give the Royals an upgrade at offense and solid defense and they would be happy. Unfortunately, the momentum started to shift from almost the very beginning.

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In Infante’s six game in a Royals uniform, he took a fastball to the jaw courtesy of Heath Bell. To say he hasn’t been the same since would be an understatement:

 

For Infante’s almost 2.5 years in Kansas City, he hit .238/.269/.328 with an OPS+ of 62 and a bWAR of -0.2. Infante did put up above average defensive numbers for the first two years of his deal but even that took a dip this year, falling below replacement level. For the longest time, Infante’s litany of injuries (jaw, shoulder, elbow) were blamed for his struggles, but that seemed to be rectified this past offseason, as Infante had surgery in November to remove bone chips from his right elbow. The belief was now that Omar was healthy, we would see the guy who had performed so well in 2013. Instead, he struggled even more this year, most notably on defense. The move to his right to backhand a grounder was a normal task in the past; this year he struggled on a consistent basis making that move. It appeared his range had continued to decline and there was very little zip on the ball whenever he would make the throw to first. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I saw Omar throw the ball over the top; every throw I saw from him this year was sidearm. The injuries had seemed to take a toll on his body and the guy who was once a solid defensive second baseman had now become a liability on the field. Infante would bumble a ball in Cleveland a few weeks ago and that would be the last time he would start a game in a Kansas City uniform. Infante was regulated to the bench moving forward, as utility man Merrifield would see the majority of starts moving forward. Christian Colon would be recalled last week and even he was getting multiple starts at second base instead of Infante. It was obvious the end was near.

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There were a couple Omar highlights that I will probably remember for awhile. There was the home run in Game 2 of the 2014 World Series:

 

Oh Hunter Strickland, you insidious gas can! There was also Infante’s walk-off against the Angels in June 2014(a game I was actually in attendance for):

 

But there is one highlight that will be hard to ever forget. Last year in Cleveland, Infante and Alcides Escobar pulled off a highlight reel play that still is fun to watch today:

 

Yep, that was in the 9th inning of a one run game. That’s as big time as it gets! Sure, there aren’t a ton of Omar highlights during his time in Kansas City, but these won’t fade from my memory anytime soon.

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So what should be the game plan for the Royals at second base moving forward? At the current moment, Whit Merrifield seems to be acclimating himself to major league baseball quite well, so I would assume he would continue to see the majority of playing time there. Christian Colon will also figure into their plans, getting a few starts a week at the position:

There has been an interesting rumor floating around over the last couple days:

Now, I’m not 100% sold this will happen. For one, Reyes hasn’t played much second base in his career, just a few games back in 2004. That would be a minor hurdle. The bigger hurdle to jump would be the character issue. Reyes is coming off of a domestic abuse issue and will probably be highly scrutinized for the immediate future. Royals GM Dayton Moore has made it a priority to bring in players who are great clubhouse guys, players who will fit in with the family environment in Kansas City. Moore has occasionally veered off the path(Jose Guillen immediately comes to mind, even Alex Rios wasn’t considered a high character guy) but this just feels like too much media coverage just to fill a slight hole. The plus to it would be that Merrifield could go back to being the utility guy that is probably better suited for him and Reyes would be a major offensive upgrade over Infante. The Royals also wouldn’t have to pay him much, as the Rockies are on the hook for the remainder of Reye’s 2016 salary. But my gut tells me this won’t happen; if I’m wrong there could be a whole batch of issues for us to discuss then. For now, the Royals will just go with Merrifield and Colon and see if someone becomes available that could strengthen the team down the stretch drive.

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No matter how much flak we have given Omar these last couple seasons, I still don’t consider this a bad signing. Sure, I didn’t love that it was a four year deal, but unfortunately that is what a small market team like the Royals has to do since they can’t offer a player more money. No one saw Infante’s regression being so steep, so fast. The good news is we are in the middle of June, with three and a half months left in the season. This could have been so much worse if Infante was still holding up a roster spot into August, taking up space while rarely being used. Infante seemed like a nice enough guy, but it just didn’t work out between him and the Royals. The Royals can now move forward and Omar can see if he is able to latch on to a new team for the rest of the season. That being said, there is one more thing you can do; Vote Omar. Yes, the All-Star balloting is still going on and Infante is listed at second base. Go ahead and go to Royals.com and #VoteOmar. I know, he doesn’t deserve it, but it will burn the chaps of all the people who take All-Star voting seriously. You at least owe us this, Omar. Happy trails.

Whit is a Hit

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Baseball might just be the best sport when it comes to stories that grab us and give us the belief that if you try hard enough anything can happen. You’ve heard the stories before; the player who toils in the minors for years on end before finally getting their shot at the ‘Big Show'(not the wrestler; that is a whole other article) while producing at such a high level that was never thought possible. Many Kansas City Royals fans remember Mike Aviles, who stormed on the scene in 2008 and ended up finishing 4th that year in the American League Rookie of the Year vote. Aviles has never quite reached those same heights since then, but he has turned it into a successful baseball career as a backup utility player. Eight years later, it looks like Whit Merrifield is looking to improve on what Aviles did all those years ago.

MLB: Game two-Boston Red Sox at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

This is not only a great feel good story, but I could almost say I foreshadowed part of this with my article about Whit during Spring Training. The funny part is during the spring, Whit was mainly just thought of as a backup, someone who could fill in anywhere on the field and would be used as more of an insurance piece than an actual part of the lineup. There was a belief by some that Whit had earned a spot on the roster when the team broke camp, but unfortunately he was sent back to Omaha to start the year in AAA. Luckily, there is always a need for a guy who can play 3/4 of the position’s on the field and Merrifield got the call to the majors on May 18th. The initial thought was that Whit would be a backup infielder mostly, as he took the roster spot of infielder Christian Colon. But the stars must have been aligned for Merrifield, as four days later Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas collided in foul territory during a game against the White Sox, eventually leading to both being placed on the disabled list. Between the Royals injuries piling up and Omar Infante’s disappearing act(62 OPS+ so far this year, which is actually an improvement over 2015) led to more playing time for Whit. Boy, has he taken advantage of it!

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So far in 22 games, Merrifield has played second base, third base and left field, with manager Ned Yost saying recently that he would see the majority of his time at second base, unofficially supplanting Infante from the starting job. The solid defense at second isn’t a big shocker(the most errors in one season at 2B in the minors has been 5, if you are into that sort of thing. He also has 3 defensive runs saved already for Kansas City) but the bat has been a bit of a surprise. So far this year he is hitting .330/.344/.484with a wRC+(weighted runs created, basically accumulating all offensive production and is park adjusted) of 123 and 0.8 fWAR. I think we all tend to think that some of this is sustainable and some of it will regulate itself. But which stats should we believe in when it comes to Merrifield, and which should we hold off on?

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Let’s start with the average and on base percentage. I think both of those should still hold up fairly well, although I can’t imagine Whit would hit in the .330 range all year long. If you look at his line during his seven seasons in the minors, he hit .274/.334/.399. The batting average and on base are very respectable numbers and I would tend to lean toward those being about what Kansas City should expect from him. The slugging percentage is down from what he is producing right now, but Whit has never been known for his power numbers. Merrifield has only hit 40 career minor league homers, which is slightly less than 6 a season if you average it out. But while he probably won’t give you many long balls, he might just rack up a nice amount of doubles. Whit has hit 161 career doubles during his time in the minors, averaging about 23 a year. But only going back to 2014, he put together a 41 double season, which is very impressive. Kauffman Stadium could elevate his amount of doubles hit, if he is able to take advantage of the gaps in the huge outfield at ‘The K’.

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Merrifield also currently has a .412 batting average on balls in play. This just seems highly implausible to sustain, as there would have to be a certain amount of luck involved. This could also change if he starts making more contact, although an 84% contact rate isn’t too bad. The 19 strikeouts worries me a bit, since that almost equals one per game, but the more time he spends in the majors the more likely he is to lower that, especially if Dale Sveum gets ahold of him. You can also chalk up 3 stolen bases so far, which I like. I can see many a hit and run used when Whit is on base and he actually does have decent speed(just for note, he did pile on 32 stolen bases last year during his time in Omaha). Whit has looked like a good fit at the top of the Royals lineup, giving them a guy who can get on base and also supply some speed to go with it.

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One more item I want to look at with Whit; exit velocity. Merrifield started out hot for the Royals upon his promotion and they also seemed to catch him at a good time, as he was smoking the ball early on:

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It’s obvious to see the drop, falling from above the 94 MPH line to below league average this past week. I tend to think he would average himself out, where on average his exit velocity would be sitting in 90-92 MPH range. Merrifield has a very nice, compact swing with very little movement which I think helps him make solid contact on a regular basis. This will be something to follow over the next few weeks, as he continues to see regular playing time and gets more comfortable at the big league level.

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The comparisons have been flying when it comes to Merrifield and most of them feel fairly accurate. I’ve seen the Willie Bloomquist comp, which I tend to think might be the closest comparison you can make with Whit. Ryan Lefebvre mentioned over the weekend that at the plate he looked a lot like former Rangers infielder Michael Young, and I totally see that when he is batting. I’ve often referred to him as a “Poor Man’s Ben Zobrist”, mainly for his ability to play all over the diamond but apparently I wasn’t too far off; when he was scouted back in college, scouts wrote Zobrist’s name in the report as a similar player. No matter the comparison, what you can say for a fact is that Merrifield has looked like a million bucks so far in Kansas City and it’s hard not to root for the guy who made his big league debut at 27 years old. Logic tells us that there will be a regression on Whit’s part but it’s hard not to think ‘what if?’ when it comes to him keeping up this pace. Even if Whit ends up being the next Mike Aviles or has a career like Willie Bloomquist, is that such a bad thing? Both have ended up with long careers and have contributed as steady backups. But that is possibly the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that Merrifield becomes a super utility starter that floats around for the team wherever is needed. Either scenario is a respectable one for a guy who has fought hard to get to this point. It has taken Merrifield seven years to get to the majors and by the way he is playing he doesn’t want to go back anytime soon. He might not be the ‘Royals Offensive Savior’ that he is playing like now but he is a guy who should be able to hold down a major league roster spot. Now doesn’t seem like the right time to bet against Whit Merrifield. All he will do is prove everyone wrong.

Is It Time For a Beltran-Royals Reunion?

MLB - Oakland Athletics vs Kansas City Royals
May 30, 2003.

With the trade deadline looming about six weeks away, it is the time of the year where speculation runs rampant. In fact, be prepared for so many rumors during this time period that you can probably discard about 3/4 of them from your brain. One rumor that I can guarantee you will hear a bunch moving forward is whether or not the Kansas City Royals will visit a reunion between themselves and current New York Yankee Carlos Beltran. For the uninformed, Beltran actually began his big league career in Kansas City, playing there from 1998 through the middle of the 2004 season, when he was dealt to Houston. The Royals even attempted to sign him before the 2014 season; but despite a spirited try, Beltran decided to head back to the bright lights of New York City. So should the Royals bring Beltran back to the midwest? Let’s take a look.

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When this subject was initially broached to me back in May, I scoffed. I just didn’t believe that Beltran, at 39 years old, was a good fit for the Royals. He is a below average defender now, which probably leaves him in the position to DH more than anything else and the Royals have Kendrys Morales, who is also without a defensive position in the field. Add in his age and how batters are normally in full-blown regression at this stage of the game, adding Beltran didn’t seem like a step forward for Kansas City. But as we sit here in June, Morales is still struggling and Beltran has done something I wasn’t expecting: his numbers have gone skyward during this last month. With that said, let’s break those numbers down a bit farther to see if he would be a good fit in Kansas City.

USP MLB: AL WILD CARD GAME-HOUSTON ASTROS AT NEW Y S BBA USA NY
(Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY)

Let’s start with the basics. Beltran’s line so far this year sits at .282/.316/.573 with 16 home runs and 43 RBI’s. To really grasp this, for the entire 2015 campaign, Beltran hit 19 homers and knocked in 67 runs while hitting .276/.337/.471. I like to dig deeper though, to fully weigh just how everything breaks down. Beltran’s OPS+ currently sits 135 compared to 120 last year and unless something drastically goes awful, has the same bWAR(1.0) as he did in 2015. His walk rate is down by quite a bit from 2015, as his strike out rate has gone up, but I tend to think you can link those together a bit with the increase in power. In fact, Beltran’s ISO this year has rocketed up almost one hundred points from last year, .291 from .195.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees
(Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY

Now to the real meat and potatoes that I feel will give us a good grasp of Beltran’s performance; how hard is Beltran hitting the ball and how often? In an interesting swerve, Beltran’s line drive rate is down(18.3%), his ground ball rate is up(39.6%), while his fly ball rate is the same from 2015. But his Home Run to Fly Ball ratio has doubled(22.5% from 11.1%) while his hard hit rate has gone up(36.7%) and his soft hit rate is down(11.2%, the lowest it has been since 2006). This goes in line with his exit velocity this year, which has been above the league average for all but two weeks this year:

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As you can tell, Beltran’s exit velocity has been above 92.5 MPH for a large chunk of the 2016 season, an increase from 2015. In fact last year barely saw him get in the 95 MPH range:

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So what does all this tell us? It tells me that Beltran seems to be not only seeing the ball very well this year but is also hitting the ball with some authority. This is a good sign for Beltran, as he is not getting beat by the fastball, a common occurrence for player’s his age. In fact Beltran has been within 5% of his hits coming on fastballs for the last six seasons. It’s a bit odd to see a hitter staying close to his same numbers near the tail end of his career, so the fact that Beltran’s hit selection hasn’t seen a drastic change is a good sign if Kansas City wanted to go after him.

MLB - Oakland Athletics vs Kansas City Royals
June 1, 2003.

One more positive from Beltran’s numbers is that there isn’t a drastic difference between when he hits from the right or the left hand side of the plate. Against right-handed pitching he is hitting .289/.318/.563 while against left-handed pitching he is hitting .280/.321/.587. I’m actually a bit surprised by this, since Beltran plays his home games at Yankee Stadium, which has that short right field porch. All you have to do to hit it out of Yankee Stadium is to hit the ball 314 feet to right field and you have yourself a home run. This would seem to benefit Beltran when he bats left handed, which he does the majority of the time(142 at bats hitting left handed, 75 right handed). But just peeking at the stats show that there isn’t a giant split in those numbers, which tells me he is just flat-out raking, not just taking advantage of his home surroundings. I’m sure Beltran’s numbers are a tad skewed because of his stadium(11 of his 16 home runs are in New York) but if you are looking at the entire offensive package, Beltran is putting up solid numbers almost everywhere, including his four games in Oakland. If there were concerns about Beltran coming to play in Kansas City and hitting in a pitcher’s park like Kauffman Stadium, I would tend to lean toward that not being a big issue moving forward.

MLB - Oakland Athletics vs Kansas City Royals
May 31, 2003. 

So after looking at all of Beltran’s numbers, the question will be asked again: should the Royals look into bringing him back? I can’t believe I am going to say this but yes, I think they should. With Morales continuing to struggle and the combo of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando starting to come down to earth, it might be a good time to take a flyer on Beltran. The Royals shouldn’t give up a major prospect(or a needed piece of the current roster) for Beltran, but I tend to think New York won’t ask for something like that. Beltran’s contract only runs through the rest of this season and there have been whispers that he might decide to retire once the season is up. It’s conceivable to think the Royals could take on his contract for the last few months of the season and see if he can help them offensively. It would be assumed that Beltran could see some time in right field(especially if Morales starts to hit) but it makes sense for him to mostly be a DH if he came to Kansas City. The Royals have had some offensive struggles as of late and adding a solid bat for the stretch run might be just what this team needs. While the Royals haven’t looked like a contender during this most recent road trip, as I type this they are only four games out of first place in the American League Central, or within striking distance. Reuniting Beltran with the Royals(plus Alex Gordon returning from the disabled list) might be just what the Kansas City offense needs. Since we all love feel good stories, can you think of a better one than the future Hall of Famer Carlos Beltran, returning to the team that he began his career with, and helping them reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season? Sounds like the storybook ending that Beltran’s career deserves.

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Love

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It’s a tough time to be a Minnesota Twins fan. After an unexpected second place finish in the American League Central in 2015(and competing for a playoff spot into the last week of the season), the belief was that the Twins would take another step forward in 2016. Minnesota was expected to grow from last year’s success, especially with the addition of some top-level prospects being around all year(Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton) and the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park, so it appeared that second year manager Paul Molitor had a contender on his hands. I definitely had bought in, as I expected the Twins to garnish a playoff spot this year, with my belief being that they had a great mix of veterans, youngsters and a great leader in Molitor. Instead this year has felt like a horror show, as they are 14.5 games out of first in the Central, 13 games below .500. But this isn’t a brow beating on this year’s Twins team as much as it’s a look back at my fondness for a team that was a big part of my childhood.

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Now, I am a devoted Kansas City Royals fan and have been since I was 7 years old; that will never change. But in 1987 I couldn’t help but root for a fun Minnesota Twins team that would go on and win the World Series that year. What really started my ‘Minnesota Love’ was Kirby Puckett. Puckett was everything great about baseball; a cherubic center fielder who could hit, run and play defense and had elevated himself to be one of the great players in the game. I loved watching Puckett run around the outfield, then step to the plate and rack up hit after hit. He fit in perfectly in the 1980’s, an era of contact hitters like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly. Puckett also seemed to have a child-like grin on his face at all times, leaving the impression that he was having as much fun playing the game as we did watching him. Puckett was a perennial All-Star, a guy who averaged 192 hits a season throughout his 12 year career, multiple time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner and was voted in the top ten of the American League MVP ballots 7 of his 12 major league seasons. I know some have questioned whether or not he should have been a Hall of Famer, but in my eyes there was never a question. Puckett was one of the best throughout his career and one can only imagine what his final numbers would have been had glaucoma not taken his sight. There were some less than flattering moments for Puckett post-career but Puckett the ballplayer was a joy to watch play.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once you looked at the rest of the roster, there was a nice group of players who were easy to root for. Kent Hrbek was the lovable, goofy first baseman with power. Dan Gladden, current Twins radio broadcaster, played like his hair was on fire and was the spark plug at the top of the lineup. Frank Viola was the left-handed ace who had elevated himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Bert Blyleven was nearing the end of his career but still fun to watch. I also can’t forget Juan Berenguer, a guy who did not fit the normal physique of a major league ballplayer but was a pivotal part of the Minnesota bullpen. Even the 1991 World Series team was easy to root for, with Puckett, Hrbek, Gladden and pitchers like Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani holding down the rotation and Rick Aguilera closing out of the pen. The Twins had players who were fun to watch and it always appeared as if Tom Kelly led teams played more as a team and weren’t as focused on individual numbers. As the Royals have shown these last few years, if you play as a team there is a good chance that winning is part of the formula.

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Speaking of Kansas City, there is a deep connection between those late 1980’s/early 1990’s Twins team and the Royals. Many of the Twins who helped Minnesota win those two World Series’ would eventually spend time in Kansas City. Gary Gaetti, the Twins third baseman for both championship teams, would eventually move onto the Royals and would even hit 35 home runs for Kansas City in 1995. Greg Gagne was a pivotal part of those Minnesota teams and he would go on to play three seasons in Kansas City at shortstop; his offense wasn’t anything to write home about, but his defense got him 4.8 dWAR during that period. Chuck Knoblauch would play his last major league season for the Royals, producing a -0.7 bWAR in just 80 games. Chili Davis would end up in Kansas City in 1997, hitting 30 home runs and posting 2.4 bWAR. As if that wasn’t enough, Berenguer pitched for the Royals earlier in his career, while backup catcher Sal Butera’s son, Drew, would later play for the Twins and is the current backup receiver in Kansas City. So in a roundabout way, I got to see a few of the bigger pieces of those championship Twins team’s contribute in a Royals uniform.

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But it wasn’t just the players or the style of baseball they played that made me intrigued by the Twins. As a kid, I was enamored with the Metrodome, warts and all. Here was this domed stadium that had character and didn’t have the feel of cookie cutter stadiums like Three Rivers or Veterans Stadium. Minnesota had the “baggie” out in right field(which is now a handbag), and a roof that looked spectacular but was easy for fielders to lose a pop fly in. The crowd always seemed raucous and during the playoffs the fans would wave their “Homer Hanky” to get the team going. There seemed to be a whole atmosphere to that stadium that I wanted to be a part of  and that lured me into wanting this team to succeed. Sure, I had heard stories about the stadium being broken down, cold, drab and being nothing but a big slab of concrete, but that didn’t seem to matter to me much. It just seemed like a fun place to watch a baseball game from. I still get goosebumps when I think back to Game 163 of the 2009 season, when the Twins and Tigers battled it out in the dome for the Central Division title. Here was a stadium that being replaced the next season but it was going to get one more thrilling, iconic moment before it was gone. The Metrodome might not have had the beauty of Kauffman Stadium(yes, biased), the legend of a Wrigley Field or the visual classicism of a Camden Yards, but it had its own nuances that would grow on you. I never got to attend a game at the Metrodome, which saddens me, but I was able to be at Target Field a few years back. While I liked Target Field and think it is a solid replacement for the Metrodome, I have a feeling it won’t match up when it comes to the character of that old dome.

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You would think that with the Twins being in the same division as my Royals I would loathe them and wish for them to just go away, but I don’t. I have very fond memories of the Twins and most years wish them the best. Well, I always hope they don’t do as good as Kansas City, but otherwise I want them to have success. It blows my mind sometimes when I think back and remember there was a period where baseball considered contracting the Twins. This is an organization with rich history and the idea of a baseball team not being up in Minnesota is unfathomable. When I go back and think about baseball highlights in my life that I will play over and over in my head, there are a number of Twins highlights that will live on forever. Puckett’s catch, Larkin’s single, Morris’s pitching and Casilla’s single; all are memories etched in my head forever. For that, I thank Minnesota. Thank you for making my childhood brighter and my adulthood memorable. I still kinda love ya.

 

Problem Child

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On Tuesday evening, the insecure part of Yordano Ventura got the best of him. After Manny Machado had some words for Ventura in the 2nd inning for pitching inside, Ventura’s pride got the best of him during Machado’s next at bat, as Yordano drilled him in the back with a 99 MPH fastball, his fastest pitch of the evening. To say it illicited a response is a bit of an understatement:

Most everyone felt like Yordano was past this, after the numerous encounters he had last year that got him in trouble. Instead, once again he allowed his emotions to run the show. This leaves the Royals in a bit of a pickle, since management, coaches and even players are tired of his behavior. So the question has to be asked: What do the Royals do with Yordano Ventura moving forward?

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Since the circus that Ventura created spun out of control last night, there have been rumors that the Royals had talked to other front office executives about Ventura in possible trade talks. In my opinion, Ventura will not get traded any time soon. For one, his value has never been lower. It would make no sense for Kansas City to trade an arm like Ventura at his lowest value. Second, the Royals are having issues currently with their starting rotation so it would make no sense to trade away the starter with the highest potential out of their current crop of starters, especially with no relief to be seen down in the minors. So if Venura was to get traded, it probably wouldn’t be until the offseason or even next season.

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

So if Ventura is staying, the Royals need him to perform much better than he has this year. Through 12 starts this season, Yordano has issued the most walks in the American League, while posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career(6 strikeouts per 9). His ground ball percentage is down(44%) while his fly ball rate has rocketed(39.4%, up from 27.2% last year), which has also seen his home runs per 9 to go up as well. Basically, Ventura is getting hit harder than ever before and is way above the league average when it comes to the exit velocity off of his pitches:

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2016 is his third season in the big leagues and the advances that the Royals have expected from him just are not happening. There are still glimpses of the “ace” the Royals think he can be, but those become fewer and farther between each start. After Tuesday’s start, Ventura’s ERA rose to 5.32 while his FIP elevated to 5.29. Normally this would force him to the bullpen or even down to AAA, but the Royals just don’t have the starting pitching to let that happen. Instead, they need him to get his head on straight and at least produce like a league average pitcher.

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So do the Royals at least have some options with Ventura? If you mean ‘can he be sent to the minors’ the answer is yes. He still has options left, so a trip to Omaha isn’t completely out of the question. In fact, I would think that Ventura is on a short leash with the coaching staff and if they feel he needs to work on something in the minors, then he will be sent down. One comment made after the game on Tuesday I did find interesting, especially when it comes to what Ventura has been told by the coaching staff. Here is Orioles manager Buck Showalter who said this:

 

“No, I don’t like when any of my guys are put in harm’s way, especially a guy throwing that hard and having some problems with his command tonight. But [its] not the first time. Obviously, it must be something that’s OK because he continues to do it. It must be condoned. I don’t know.”

Now, I take umbrage with this. No way does the Kansas City organization approve of what Ventura did. That implication by Showalter just isn’t true:

The Royals had squashed that “bad boy image” from last year and the team had moved on from those problems. Ventura has been the only one who still seems to think that reacting in this manner is appropriate. So much bad could have come from this, whether it meant another player getting hurt(and lets be honest, the Royals already have enough players injured), or starting a feud that would distract from focusing on the main goal, which is winning games and eventually, returning to the playoffs. There is no way to know for sure, but I would guess Ventura spent Tuesday night and Wednesday in meetings with teammates, the coaching staff and possibly even upper management. Ventura is at a point in his career where he needs to fix his mentality. I made a comment on Tuesday night about how Ventura’s problem was not his arm, but what is in between his ears. Adam Jones of Baltimore might have said it better than I did:

Yordano has to fix his mental approach during the game. It could be learning yoga, or talking with a therapist or even Jason Kendall’s ‘Tough Love’ approach, but a change has to happen. If it doesn’t, he will have more to worry about than just being dropped from the Royals rotation.

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There are many reasons for the Royals to not give up on Yordano; he just turned 25, he has a team friendly contract that runs through 2019 and he has an electric arm that can be dominate when he wants to. But that is the thing-when he wants to, not all the time or even most of the time. Many young pitchers, especially those with dynamite stuff, struggle early in their career because they believe it is all about the velocity and not as much about the location or changing speeds. Ventura mentally seems younger than his age when it comes to maturity and hasn’t figured out how to deal with adversity. For Ventura to be a part of the Royals future, he has to learn how to let adversity roll off his back and learn from it. Otherwise, he will just be another in a long line of starters the Royals have failed to develop. This is the fork in the road; it’s time for Yordano to figure out which path he wants to take.

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