The 2015 Kansas City Royals: So Now What?

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If you are a fan of the Kansas City Royals, this time of year is normally spent pondering whether or not this is the year the Royals break through the glass ceiling and reach the playoffs. So many years went by wondering ‘is this the year?’ that it started to feel like it was never going to happen. The jokes about Ewing Kauffman selling his soul to get the Royals a championship back in 1985 started to feel like they were actually true and explained the playoff drought this franchise held for 29 years. But this is all a distant memory, as the Royals are not only coming off of their first playoff appearance since that ’85 season but also came one long bomb away from a World Series title. It was a magical October for the entire city of Kansas City and made believers out of the most jaded of us(What, me?). So this is uncharted territory for us headed into this 2015 season and has thrown up a giant question mark going into Opening Day. The question has to be asked; so now what?

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Let’s start with the changes, as there are a few differences with this roster than the one who guided the Royals through the playoffs. Two big cogs of last years team are gone: James Shields and Billy Butler. You can also add Nori Aoki to that list, along with Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez off the bench. Shields was not only the leader of the Royals rotation the last two years but he also brought confidence and guidance to youngsters like Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, helping them turn a corner in 2014. Yes, intangibles! Butler had been with the organization since he was drafted in 2004 and was a fan favorite. Butler’s numbers weren’t quite on par in 2014 with his earlier years but was still a solid bat in the middle of the order. Aoki struggled to begin his Royals career but saved it by finishing hot the last 6 weeks of the season and giving us many a memory. To replace them on the roster the Royals signed Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios this offseason, 3 players with questionable pasts who are being counted on to make solid contributions this year. Volquez is the only one of the three coming off of a solid year for Pittsburgh, but he is not the replacement for Shields; instead that honor goes to a true “Ace”.

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Young “Ace” Ventura becomes the Royals new #1 starter and will take the mound at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Day. It’s hard to argue with this, as Ventura showed the world he was for real during the playoffs, most notably a superb outing in game 6 of the World Series, a game that could have been an elimination game for the Royals. It’s a lot of weight on Yordano’s shoulders, but he seems able to handle the pressure that comes with being “the man”. Danny Duffy will slide into the role of #2 starter and the hope is last year was a glimpse into what to expect from “Duffman”. There are some concern about Duffy and his injury history, but as long as he continues to throw strikes and let the defense work in his favor, he should be fine. Jason Vargas, Volquez and Jeremy Guthrie will round out the rotation and hopefully all three can continue to put up the numbers they had in 2014. Vargas defied his own career numbers last year and turned out to be a pleasant surprise while Guthrie continues to make no sense, a pitcher who allows a lot of  baserunners yet not many score. Also remember that the Royals could add Kris Medlen to the rotation around August if all goes according to plan. I wouldn’t expect this to happen, but it very well could as Medlen recovers from Tommy John surgery. The Royals rotation isn’t going to match up with, say, Washington’s, but as long as Kansas City employs their elite defense they won’t need them to be Cy Young candidates. They just need them to throw 5-6 innings an outing, giving up 3 runs or less, or give the team as many quality starts as possible.

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Speaking of the Royals defense, if there is a reason to be excited for 2015 it’s the possibility that this team will continue their winning ways led by a top notch ‘D’. The only notable defensive difference in 2015 is Alex Rios replacing Nori Aoki in right field. Rios has the label of being lazy defensively but obviously if that is the case that also means the defender’s success in the field is determined purely on his want and will on any given day. It does appear as if early on Rios will not be replaced late in the game on defense, like Aoki was for 3/4 of last year. That could change after a few months but for now he looks to have some slack in the leash. Outside of that the Royals are returning 3 Gold Glove winners(Hosmer, Perez and Gordon) and two other players who were in the discussion for Gold Gloves last year(Cain and Escobar). Add in solid efforts for Moustakas and Infante and you have one of the best defenses in baseball. The defense was a key factor in the Royals October success and why the Royals could be looking at postseason baseball again in 2015. Now about that offense…

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This section will probably feel a lot like the 2013 Royals…or the 2012 Royals…anyway, you get the hint. The last couple of seasons the Royals offense hasn’t been a force to be reckoned with. In fact the last 2 seasons we have seen the team struggle offensively the beginning part of the season so badly that the last 2 May’s they have been forced to change hitting coaches to get the offense to pick it up. 2014 was no different in that the team was in the bottom third of the league in OBP, Slugging, OPS, Total Bases, and dead last in Walks and home runs. There a couple positives; the team does get quite a few hits (3rd in the AL last year) and is first in stolen bases. Now I don’t expect this team to ever be an offensive juggernaut, but the two areas that could be improved on would be extra base hits and walks. They were 4th in doubles and 5th in triples last year, which would be great if they could hit more home runs(not a ton more but some) and take more walks. There are times this team becomes a station to station team, which doesn’t work with as little power as the Royals have. So will there be a difference in these numbers in 2015?

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The answer to that question is a loaded one. There are some that believe that the additions of Morales and Rios are the keys to how this offense does, but I actually don’t agree with that. The real key to the Royals offensive season will be whether or not Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas improve on their awful 2014 regular season. For Moustakas that will mean learning to hit the ball to the opposite field and taking advantage of that left side being open when teams put the shift on him. Those shifts killed Moose last year, as he continued pulling the ball despite the fact that teams would fill up the right side of the field when he came up to the dish. He also needs to drive the ball more this year, as his 21 doubles and 15 home runs could be improved on. His walk rate was up last year and his strikeout rate went down, so he did have those positives going for him. But those were about the only positives when it comes to Moustakas in 2014. Hopefully his power surge in the postseason carries over into this year and if so that would mean improved numbers in 2015.

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If you didn’t follow the Royals until October you would think Hosmer was a middle of the lineup force for Kansas City in 2014, but you would be wrong. Hosmer struggled for a good portion of the season(what I have started calling his ‘yearly swoon’) and didn’t really start producing until his return from the disabled list in September. Sure, he had a respectable .270 average and a solid 35 doubles last year, both are in the positives of his season. But his slugging percentage was below .400, he didn’t reach double digits in home runs, finishing the year at 9(in fact he didn’t even hit his 5th HR of the year until July) and he was awful in clutch situations. Add in an absolutely putrid June where he looked lost at the plate and you have a guy who is about as streaky as it gets. The Royals worked with Hosmer and re-tooled his swing late in the year and it paid off in the playoffs, where he had 6 extra base hits and drove in 12 runs. If that Hosmer shows up this year, this team will be improved on offense. It would also help if he could avoid his ‘yearly swoon’. The last 3 seasons he has spent a long stretch of the season in a funk at the plate where he just looks lost and his swing is a mechanical mess. A little bit of consistency would go a long way for Eric as he heads into his 5th year in the big leagues.

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The rest of the offense could use some improvement as well. Alex Gordon had another good season last year and looks to be returning to the top of the order this year, as it appears he will be hitting 2nd to begin the new campaign. Salvador Perez fell a bit offensively in 2014 but a lot of could probably be contributed to him catching the most innings in major league history. One of the items on Neddaniel Yost’s ‘to do list’ in 2015 is to give Perez some much needed days off. Sal will never have great plate discipline but it could improve with a little bit more rest. Lorenzo Cain is coming off of a great 2014 and will start the year batting 3rd for Kansas City. Cain had a ridiculous .380 average on balls in play last year, which will probably fall a bit but if he can even get close to that number again he would looking at another good season. Alcides Escobar will return to the leadoff spot this year and hopefully he can avoid his ‘every other year’ curse he has had in his major league career. Also, if he is going to stay at the top of the lineup they will need him to take a few more walks than the 23 he had last year. Omar Infante is coming off a rough first season in Kansas City and more than anything just needs to be healthy in 2015. That leaves us with the two newbies, Morales and Rios. The hope by Kansas City management is that both will bounce back after rough seasons in 2014. Both are sitting at their regression years and we probably won’t see them put up All Star numbers this year, but the Royals don’t need them to. As long as they can be compotent and improve on last year they should be a plus. It does appear Rios will go into this year with his thumb injury, an injury that hindered his swing and sapped his power in the second half of last year. These two aren’t keys to the Royals season but it would be nice for them to produce close to what Butler and Aoki did last year for Kansas City.

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That leaves us with the strongest part of this Kansas City Royals team, the bullpen. The bullpen, along with the defense, was a guiding force for this team in October and it’s easy to see why teams hated getting into the late part of ballgames against this Royals team. The ‘Big 3’ of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland return this year and the hope is they can come close to replicating their dominating 2014 numbers. There is some concern, considering the workload these 3 took on in October:

 

Hopefully it’s nothing major, although even if one of these three go down, there are other arms that can slide in. Luke Hochevar is returning from Tommy John surgery and should be able to go sometime in the next couple months. Jason Frasor is a former closer and was a great pickup for Royals GM Dayton Moore last summer. You could also throw someone like Brian Flynn into the conversation, a reliever acquired from Miami this offseason, a flamethrower that went to Wichita State. The Royals trio might not be able to be AS great as they were in 2014, but this group might be even deeper than it was for Kansas City last year.

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So that leaves us with the inevitable question; where do I feel the Royals will finish this year? Most projections have had the Royals under .500 and sitting in 4th in the American League Central. I can see where they come up with this, as we are talking about a team that didn’t really get hot until the last few weeks of the 2014 season. Add in the free agent losses, the giant question marks on the new acquisitions and how Cleveland and Chicago have improved in the Central and you can see why there is some skepticism. Some think it is being disrespectful to the defending American League Champions; I see it as realizing the flaws that Kansas City does have. That being said, outside of the team dealing with some major injuries, I think they will be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, I also think they will fall just short of that, probably sitting in the 81-84 win mark this year. It’s hard to believe the entire offense will improve and that the rotation won’t have a few faltering parts, and I can see the team hitting a snag in the road at some point in the summer. The solid to all of this is that this will still be a contending team and for years that is all that we have asked for. I would rather see them contend and fall short than be an afterthought and have fans start focusing on the Chiefs come August. If this team is still in the race come September, then I will be a happy man. Let’s be honest; it’s going to be hard to top the Royals playoff run last October. But the competitiveness in me says “Maybe so, but lets give it a try”. This is what competitive baseball is folks; hopefully it becomes a regular occurrence.

 

Country Breakfast is Bay Area Bound

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It was inevitable that Billy Butler would be leaving Kansas City this year, the only question was where he would be landing. We got our answer Tuesday night as it was announced that Butler was headed to the west coast to join the Oakland A’s, agreeing to a 3 year/30 million dollar contract. I have seen a lot of varying opinions on the signing and it’s affect on both Kansas City and Oakland, so let’s look at the fallout from Butler’s signing.

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Let’s start with it’s affect on Oakland. They get the right handed bat they wanted for the middle of the order, and they plan on playing Butler at both DH and first base. Where will he bat in the order?

So there you go. Billy had been wanting to play some more first base the last few years and that just wasn’t going to happen in Kansas City, unless Eric Hosmer would injure himself again. Oakland also has a number of run producers in the middle of their offense, guys like Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss, so Butler won’t be asked to be the main cog in the offensive machine. A lot of times in Kansas City Butler was asked to be “the guy”, which just wasn’t realistic. This will give Billy the chance to perform with a little less pressure than he had for the Royals. For all we know, Oakland’s hitting coaches Darren Bush and Marcus Jensen will be able to unlock some of the power that has been missing from Butler’s bat the last two seasons.

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The affect on the Royals will be quite pronounced, as the team will finally be able to use the DH as a rotating position like they have wished for the last few seasons. This will give guys like Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon days off in the field, and even help a veteran like Omar Infante rest a day if they are experiencing minor injuries. In my mind this also means they need to sign not one, but two OF/DH types this offseason. If they are going to not only replace Butler’s numbers but also gain on them, they need more than just one bat. The honesty of this situation is that the Royals are not a great offensive force, and even to say they are “good” might be questionable. So if they are wanting to improve the offense, acquiring just one bat seems very shortsighted. Getting two bats, plus throwing in Jarrod Dyson occasionally gives them a chance to rotate players and use the DH the way they have dreamed of since 2012.

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So despite seeing how this could be major plus for both teams, I’ve still heard a few fans make the comment that Billy didn’t really want to stay in Kansas City, and I just don’t believe that is true. I think Butler meant it when he said he loved Kansas City and wanted him to stay. I just don’t think Royals management was as keen about keeping him around. Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star has done a good job of chronicling the Butler situation this offseason. Money was obviously an issue:

Plus there was this comment from Butler’s press conference with Oakland today:

There is also David Glass. I really feel his quote speaks volumes:

So as you can see, things weren’t as rosy and sweet between Butler and Royals management as some seem to think. Do you remember earlier in the season, when Butler’s production was coming into question while other Royals who weren’t producing(ie. Hosmer) seemed to be ignored? Or September, after Hosmer came back from injury and manager Ned Yost seemed to favor Josh Willingham at DH instead of Butler? After all this, and the expectations from fans for him to repeat his stellar 2012, it makes you wonder a bit why he would even want to come back. So the fact that he gave the Royals last chance tells me just how much Billy Butler wanted to stay a Royal:

So how much of this was about money?

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As with baseball in general, money is always an issue. It plays an issue here too, but so does playing time and years on the contract. I personally feel like Butler would have taken less money if it meant he would get the same amount of playing time and only a 2 year contract. Instead the Royals had already planned to not have a fulltime DH and weren’t willing to go more than 1 year on a new deal with Butler. Plus, let’s be honest and frank here(or Susan, if you don’t like being frank). A baseball player has a very short shelf life when it comes to active playing time and years to really make big money, since most players don’t make a bunch of money early in their career. So when a player is approaching 30 and looking for a new deal, they are just as big on years as money when it comes to guaranteed contracts. So when the A’s offered more years(3) and more money than Billy made in 2014(8 mill in ’14, 10 mill in ’15-’17) it’s hard to turn that down, especially when you are coming off of the worst year of your major league career. Plus, it seemed like Oakland wanted Butler, which I’m not so sure about when it comes to the Royals. It’s easy for any fan to sit there and say “he just wanted the money”, but in his situation, the desire to be wanted outweighs a dollar total. Like this:

So was this about money? Maybe a bit. But it was also about more than just money. The honest truth is if the Royals had really wanted Butler back, he would be in Royal blue. Instead he will be wearing white cleats come February:

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I am like most Royals fans in that I would have liked to have seen Butler return to Kansas City. But I understand that sometimes the financial aspect of baseball makes it hard for a team(especially a small market team) to keep a player for the duration of his career. It was a great 8 years that Billy Butler and the Kansas City Royals got to share together. I know I will never forget hearing Kauffman Stadium chant Billy’s name at the 2012 Home Run Derby. There was definite love that night between the fans and Butler, as there was during Game 3 of the ALDS this October when Butler stole second base. Butler loved Kansas City and for the most part Kansas City loved him. I wish the best for Butler in Oakland and plan on cheering him when he returns to ‘The K’ in April. We still have the memories, folks. We should always remember though that nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain. The new chapter for the Royals involves no Billy Butler, as it should. Life and baseball moves on, as it always will.

What I Want to See in the 2014 World Series

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Sure, Game one of the 2014 World Series is in the books, and there really wasn’t much to cheer for if you are a Kansas City Royals fan. Salvador Perez went deep for his first postseason home run, Danny Duffy removed himself from the back of milk cartons and helped the team eat some innings and …and…well, there really wasn’t much to get excited about. But more games are coming, and there is still a lot from this series I want to see before it is all said and done. Since us Royals fans have been waiting for 184 years(or something like that), here is a nice tidy list of things I would love to see happen during this Fall Classic.

1) August Alex Gordon to show up

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Sure, it’s been two months ago, but do you remember Alex Gordon in August? The Alex Gordon that looked like a legit MVP candidate, the one who almost carried this Royals team offensively on his back? Since September we have only seen glimmers of that Gordon, including his huge home run in game 1 of the ALCS against Baltimore. If you listen to the national media then you would think Eric Hosmer is the main guy in this Kansas City lineup. Sorry folks, Gordon is the heart of this team and he leads by example. Having Gordon step up and get into a groove would lessen some of the pressure off the rest of the lineup and it feels at this point like he is due. I would even consider moving Gordon up in the lineup. I get that the lineup we have seen since September 21st is one that was working, but the key word there is was.We aren’t talking about a red hot Hosmer anymore and Billy Butler has been lukewarm at best. Gordon has been pitched around a lot during this span and a move up, maybe behind a blazing Lorenzo Cain could do wonders for him. Either way, the Royals need Gordon to get hot and prove why he is the most clutch bat in this lineup. What better time than on the biggest stage of them all?

2) A True Big Game From James

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They call him “Big Game James” but James Shields has been anything but big during this Royals postseason, except for maybe a big disappointment. Outside of his ALDS start against the Angels where he fought through 6 innings without his best stuff, only giving up two solo home runs, he has been shaky at best, compiling a 7.11 ERA this October, not very befitting of a rotation’s ace. I guess in some ways this shouldn’t be a big shock, as he has put together a career 5.74 ERA and a 2.93 strikeout to walk ratio. But a stellar outing from Shields would be a plus on so many levels in this World Series. For one, he will most likely be going back up against Madison Bumgarner in Game 5 and if the Royals even consider taking that game they need Shields at his best. If he can match zeroes with MadBum then the Royals can win that game if it becomes a battle of the bullpens. Also, it would be nice to see Shields have one fantastic postseason start before he leaves via free agency this winter. I know, I know, there is a chance he will come back. But that is a very slim chance and I just don’t believe Kansas City will be able to offer him what he truly desires(which is just as much about years as dollars). So what better way for him to leave Kansas City then on top on this World Series stage? Let’s do it James, put a final stamp on your Kansas City career with a game we will be talking about 29 years from now.

3) One Last Big Hit for Josh Willingham

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Josh Willingham hasn’t done much for the Royals during the playoffs, as he has only accumulated 3 plate appearances during that span. Injuries have limited him throughout much of his Royals tenure but he is still a dangerous bat off the bench for Kansas City. With the likelihood that Josh will retire at the end of the season, and him making his first playoff appearance during this mind-numbing run by the Royals, it seems like a true storybook ending to his career would be a big hit for Willingham during this World Series. Willingham has never been a star in the game but he has been a solid bat who you could rely on for a true professional at bat with the chance of a deep bomb always looming. Josh is one of the good guys in the game, so nothing would please me more than a big hit in this series to help the Royals get a win. The best chance would seem to be during the games in San Francisco, where he could pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot in the lineup especially late in the game. I can already hear the music from “The Natural” playing as Willingham strides to the plate. Let’s hope he gets at least one chance during this series to make some magic happen.

4)More Redemption for Danny Duffy 

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My heart has pained for Danny Duffy this postseason. Here is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and has had to constantly fight throughout his career. Whether it is stepping away from the game in 2010 or Tommy John surgery in 2012, Duffy has had one challenge after another. But things finally seemed to fall in place this year, as he put up numbers that the Royals organization have been expecting from him for years. It has been glorious to watch Duffy blossom this season, but the last couple months have not been pleasant. First there was the one pitch start in New York, where most of us feared for the worst. Then there was the horrible outing in Chicago where Duffy couldn’t throw a strike from the windup and was forced to throw from the stretch. Between these things and his past injuries, the Royals seemed to back off Duffy during the playoffs and had only used him in relief in one game of the ALDS against the Angels. But then Duffy came in last night to relieve James Shields in the 4th inning. Duffy had a rough start, but soon settled down and ate some valuable innings that the Royals needed. In fact before the 7th inning, Duffy looked like the guy we had seen for a large portion of 2014. This was almost redemption for not getting to start in the playoffs, as Duffy is a total team first guy, wanting to help in anyway possible. I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen from him this postseason. I hope he gets to have one more outing to really shine again. Some have recommend him start game 5 of the World Series instead of Shields, but that just isn’t going to happen. But a solid outing out of the pen is more than possible. A chance for Duffy to show his value in this series is a feel good story for a guy who bleeds Royal blue. Let’s hope we have not seen the last of Danny Duffy in 2014.

5) The Return of Moustakas and Hosmer

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So far this postseason, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have looked like the first round draft choices they were by Kansas City. But if you follow the Royals in any fashion, you know that these two have been living off of potential the last four years. I feel like I have discussed these struggles over and over, with Moose and Hos. You have heard a lot about these two turning a corner this postseason, but we won’t truly know if that is the truth until we get the 2015 season underway. What we can say is that we haven’t seen much from these two offensively the last few games in the ALCS into the World Series. Want to show us that you are truly maturing during this postseason of Royals goodness? Get some more big hits for Kansas City. Hosmer is locked into the cleanup spot in the order and has a good chance of having runners on base in almost every plate appearance he makes. His swing has looked better as of late, but I still want to see a bit more discipline and him to hit it to the opposite field a bit more. Moustakas has struggled when teams put the shift on him, so hitting it to left field more often would make me feel like he is starting to learn at the dish. No matter what, if these two can get going again, we could start seeing a bit more offense out of the Royals and comfortable leads in their future. I don’t want to say the fate of this offense relies on these two, cause it doesn’t. But it is a much better offense when they are producing.

6) #RoyalsDevilMagic

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This hashtag became a fun little topic on Twitter not only during this postseason run but even before that, back when the time was just vying for a playoff spot. “Royals Devil Magic” is when the unexplainable happens, or as Denny Matthews would say, “simple, dumb luck”. Like this:

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Or like Terrance Gore scoring from second base on an infield chopper. Or pretty much anything that happened in the Wild Card game against the A’s. It has been said by better men than me that the Royals are a team of destiny, and even if you aren’t someone who believes in something like fate, you have to at least acknowledge that when it is your time, things seem to fall your way. More than anything I want to see some “Royals Devil Magic” in this series. I was an 8 year old kid when the Royals won the World Series back in 1985 and there are certain moments that are etched into my memory that will be there long after I get old and start losing my mind. George Brett sliding into the dugout to catch a pop up. Dane Iorg’s bloop hit into right field to score Jim Sundberg, sliding headfirst into home. Darryl Motley’s home run in game 7 and him catching the last out in that same game to clinch the series. I would love to add some more memories to pass the time during those seasons that aren’t quite as magical. There is no reason to stop this train now. Some more devil magic would seal the deal on what has been a season of the unexplainable. There has to be some more magic left in this team for a few more great moments. It might not make any sense, but why should we start making sense of this Royals team now?

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Look, this list could go on and on. Who doesn’t love the Royals outfield defense and the amazing feats they pull off? What about the back end of this Kansas City bullpen with the Cyborgs(Herrera, Davis, Holland) throwing heat? Maybe another stolen base from Billy Butler? More than anything, I want to see a good, tough series where the Royals triumph. This has been an electric postseason for Kansas City but there is still work to do. It’s time for the Royals to bring it home. Yes, more than anything I want a World Championship. I’m already making plans to view the trophy in the Royals Hall of Fame next spring. Oh, how sweet it is…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…Or Maybe It Is Over

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Just a few days ago it was hard not to think the Kansas City Royals could not only take the series with the Detroit Tigers this weekend at Kauffman Stadium, but take on the world. The Royals inexplicably won a game on Monday night that they probably shouldn’t have and that had become the Royals mantra this year; fight back and win the unattainable. Royals Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews had even mentioned numerous times this year that these things only happen when you are destined to win, when luck is on your side. With all that said, it appears the Royals luck might have just ran out, as they have lost two heart breakers this weekend against Detroit.

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Friday night the Royals went out, a full house at ‘The K’, thunderstix and optimism in tow, and essentially crapped the bed. Jason Vargas had possibly his worst outing as a Royal, the offense was abysmal and the Tigers showed why they are a mainstay in the playoffs. I’m not sure there was anything positive to take away from Friday night’s game, other than after being on the roster for almost three weeks manager Ned Yost remembered Johnny Giavotella was on his bench, as Gio would take over second base late in the game. In fact, Yost emptied the bench, giving his regulars some rest or to feed them milk and cookies, I’m not for sure. Either way, Friday night should have been a night to drink away any memories of the game and let it die out in a field somewhere, never to be seen or heard from ever again.

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Saturday felt like the definition of a ‘must-win’ game as any would feel. If the Royals didn’t come away with a victory on Saturday they might as well concede the division to the Tigers. Things started out hopeful, as James Shields was dealing and looked to be on the top of his game. But the little voice in the back of my head went off in the bottom of the first inning. After a leadoff double from Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki(who has been the Royals hottest hitter, just 13 for his last 16 plate appearances coming into the contest) stepped up to the dish and proceeded to put down a sacrifice bunt. Yep, the Royals have a runner in scoring position, a guy with speed that could score on a hit to the outfield and instead Aoki chose to bunt him over and give the Tigers a free out. After the game Yost would say Aoki did this on his own, but this still falls on Neddy. As manager you need to stress(especially to guys like Escobar and Aoki who do like to bunt) that in that situation go ahead and swing away. This looked even worse as Josh Willingham and Alex Gordon would follow with strike outs and Escobar would be stranded at third base.

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This was compounded in the third inning when Aoki would step back up to the plate with runners on first and second(two speedy runners in Jarrod Dyson and Escobar, mind you) and would lay down a sacrifice AGAIN! We would find out later this sacrifice was called for from the dugout and shows yet again that Yost has a hard time thinking outside of his outdated box. Once again, a hit to the outfield will get the runner home from second, but more importantly you are taking the bat out of the hands of the hottest hitter in baseball this week! Once again the Royals would not score a run as Willingham would continue his craptacular day at the plate with another strikeout against the Tigers Max Scherzer. I don’t understand using the sacrifice bunt this early in the game. I get that the Royals aren’t an offensive juggernaut and have trouble at times scoring runs. But to take the bat out of the hands of a batter and give up an out seems ludicrous, especially when the percentages say you have a better chance of scoring by letting the guy hit rather than pushing the runners up. So there was two big opportunities Kansas City had to score early on in the game that was flushed away because of poor tactical decisions. I know for years smarter baseball men than me have advocated the sacrifice bunt, but in today’s game it seems to be more effective late in the game when you need just one run to either tie or put your team ahead. In my eyes, a sacrifice bunt early on is the equivalent of a rally killer.

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The sixth inning was possibly a major turning point in this game and one that will haunt Royals fans for years to come. With one out and runners on second and third, Omar Infante would hit a light liner to Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, who would then try to double off Eric Hosmer at second base. Only the ball would sail past shortstop Eugenio Suarez. Seeing this at third base was Salvador Perez, who was walking back to the base before taking off once he saw the ball go past Suarez. It seemed as if the Royals had taken a lead in the game but the only problem was Perez never stepped back on the bag, which he needed to do to score from third. Detroit’s bench noticed this, as Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus would come out and question the call. This is where things got kooky. The Tigers would appeal the call, as Scherzer would throw over to third base, where the umpire called Perez safe. But if you were watching at home, you didn’t see this. Great camera work, FOX, as they wouldn’t show this footage till much later in the game. After a conference by the umpires, Ausmus would ask for a review, which the umps would walk over to do. The only issue was the play was non-reviewable, as tag up plays are not part of the replay process. The umpires were told that as well while talking to the replay officials from New York. Meanwhile, the replay was shown at the stadium, clearly showing that Perez never stepped back on third base before trotting home. The umpires would huddle again and then declare Perez out. The main argument in all of this wasn’t that the wrong call was made; Perez never touched the base, therefore he should be out. The issue was more how this was handled by the officials. Why call Perez safe when the Tigers appealed? It seemed as if they thought he was out as well but wanted to get the play reviewed to make sure. Hopefully the call wasn’t influenced by the replay showed on CrownVision or by Royals first base coach Rusty Kuntz making a comment to one of the officials that Perez never touched the bag. The call was correct; the execution could have used some work.

Billy Butler, Raul Ibanez

This leads us to the ninth inning. The Royals are down 3-2 with runners on base, 2 outs. Josh Willingham, who struggled mightily on this day, was scheduled to bat, but Yost decided to go to his bench. With Joe Nathan on the hill for Detroit, it would seem to make sense to go with the guy who was 6 for 14 career against Nathan, not the batter who was 1 for 11 against him. It seemed to be wise to go with the guy hitting .264 instead of the one slumming it at a .190 clip. Nope, Neddy went Raul Ibanez over Billy Butler, despite the fact Butler’s numbers all the way around are better than the guy who had batted twice the entire month of September. You can imagine how this turned out, as Ibanez grounded out to end the game. After the game Yost would say he was looking for a “professional at bat”, which he why he chose Ibanez. I get the thinking, but I think you would get the same from Butler, despite his latest struggles. In my mind you go with the guy who gives you the best chance to win; Ibanez should never be that choice. This was just another bad call for the manager who seems to be wilting under the pressure of a pennant race. Yes, we knew of this before now. Now we are seeing it with our own eyes, like Milwaukee before us.

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With only 8 games left in the regular season(and the Cleveland make-up game that will finish on Monday) the Royals still have a solid chance of reaching the postseason. But at this point a division title looks out of the question, as Detroit has owned Kansas City and only has Minnesota and Chicago left on their schedule. The Royals are left with a series against Cleveland that will be no walk in the park and the final 4 in Chicago. The Royals will have Oakland and Seattle to contend with for the two Wild Card spots, as Oakland has 3 against the Angels and 4 against the Rangers, while Seattle has 4 against Toronto and 3 against the Angels. It is too soon to say it is over but if the Royals catatonic offense doesn’t wake up and the defense continues to stumble, then the Royals are going to have a hard time picking up wins within the next week. Add in Yost’s questionable tactical decisions and you have a recipe for disaster for the last week of the season. This current series against Detroit was supposed to be an opportunity for the Royals to lay claim to the American League Central and show the baseball world that they deserved the respect they covet. Instead we are left wondering if there is enough gas in the tank to even get them to the postseason. At this point Kansas City needs to decide; are they contenders or pretenders?

The Hosmer Dilemma

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

MLB: Kansas City Royals-Workout

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.

Winning the Arms Race

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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