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Royals Preview: Down the Home Stretch

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals’ odds of making the post-season have increased from 0.7% to 2.8% with their nine game winning streak. It isn’t higher because Detroit and Cleveland have been just as hot since the All-Star Break.

To sprinkle on a little more bad news, the Royals have a tough road ahead. ESPN’s Buster Olney says,

"“If you look at teams with the toughest schedule, I don’t think there’s any question about it. Among contenders, it’s the Kansas City Royals.”"

He goes on to state that two of the three easiest schedules are Detroit’s and Cleveland’s.

The Tigers made excellent trades before the deadline that could strongly affect the Royals’ chances of beating them head-to-head. They picked up desperately needed bullpen help by acquiring Jose Veras. He is a dependable strikeout pitcher who gives Jim Leyland late inning options. In a three way trade with the Red Sox and White Sox, the Tigers acquired Rookie of the Year candidate Jose Iglesias by giving up young outfield prospect Avisail Garcia and pitcher Brayan Villarreal. Iglesias is an elite defender and will serve as a backup plan if Jhonny Peralta is suspended for cheating. This is all bad news for the Royals.

The Royals had been beating up on Detroit because their superb defensive range robs the Tigers of hits. The Royals hit a lot of ground balls to a slow Tigers infield, resulting in infield singles and avoided double-plays. Royals starting pitching has been good enough to keep them in games until that extraordinary bullpen dukes it out with the terrible Tigers pen. Now, the Tigers bullpen is stronger and they have a serious defensive upgrade on the infield who can cover some of Miguel Cabrera’s limited range.

The Indians also pose a problem for the Royals because they have so many “three true outcome” hitters. Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Jason Giambi almost completely negate that great coverage by Royals outfielders because they often either walk, strikeout or hit a homerun. The defense may as well sit on the bench.  The Indians  have squeezed out quality pitching from multiple fringe-starters like Corey Kluber and Scott Kazmir. If their pitching stays true, the Indians look unstoppable. In the many upcoming head-to-head series with Cleveland, the Royals must score more runs.

Besides Cleveland (60-48), the main competition for the two wild card spots are Boston (66-44) or Tampa Bay (64-44) (it’ll probably Boston, based on how the Rays have been playing. 21-5 in July. Wow), Texas (60-49), and Baltimore (60-49). You might be able to label the Royals a dark horse, but “dark” is a couple shades too light.

Honestly, though, it doesn’t matter. This is a fun team right now. The Royals are drawing crowds. They’re winning. They’re over .500 in July for the first time in a decade! With the trade deadline over with, it’s now time to lean back and enjoy the the rest of the season. Fans can dream just a little for the first time in years. With an 8-game winning streak under their belt, we can look at the next fifty games, ignore the odds for a few minutes and think, “maybe if this…maybe if that…just maybe.”

Player Profiles:

The pitching staff has two genuine frontline starters in James Shields and Ervin Santana. They also have Jeremy Guthrie and…some other guys. The bullpen is the best in the AL–talent-wise and numbers-wise.  Luke Hochevar is every bit as electric out of the pen as was predicted, and now that Luke Hochevar is no longer Luke Hochevar, Wade Davis is. Despite its ups and downs, pitching should not be an obstacle to overcome  in achieving a winning season. The offense, on the other hand, has many holes that could adversely affect the Royals’ chances of having their first winning season in a decade.

The complexion of the team has slightly changed since opening day. Jeff Francoeur is gone, kind of/sort of replaced by Justin Maxwell. David Lough is the every day right fielder and his average continues to hover around .300. They’re similar, but improved.

Here are your Kansas City Royals for the rest of the season:

Catcher: Salvador Perez – He’s still a defensive wizard behind the plate. Every single opposing team’s broadcaster gushes over his defense, incessantly complimenting him and sometimes stammering in awe. No catcher is better at blocking pitches in the dirt. After hitting hotly in the past two seasons, his bat fell back down to Earth. He comes into today’s game hitting .280/.312/.387. His line drive rate is still an impressive 24%, suggesting that his average will naturally rise before the end of the season. Even if it doesn’t, his defense behind the plate is valuable enough to tolerate a .300 OBP.

First Base: Eric Hosmer – Hosmer has become the monster everyone thought he would be after that horrible 800 plate appearance collapse from 2012 to early 2013. Since the beginning of June, he’s hit .307/.342/.509 in 234 plate appearances. He’s hitting for power and average, doing it consistently, stealing bases, and playing above average defense. The Royals look like they will have MVP-caliber play from first base for the rest of the season.

Second Base: Chris Getz/Miguel Tejada/Elliot Johnson – Getz was meant to be the every-day second baseman after the Royals demoted Johnny Giavotella, but he was placed on the DL after spraining his knee in a collision with Adam Dunn (yes, that Adam Dunn–all 270 lbs of him). Getz brings good defense and speed to the table, but is a liability at the plate. Even though he has a good eye, he rarely has the opportunity to use it. Pitchers challenge him with strikes and why not? Fastballs almost knock the bat out of his hands. He has zero power. His OBP is normally low and he is having a terrible year on top of that. Miguel Tejada will take over daily duties while Getz is on the DL and Johnson will serve as defensive replacement. This makes perfect sense, of course, because Tejada can’t field and Johnson can’t hit.

Third Base: Mike Moustakas – Moose came around late this year to become a valuable piece on offense. Since opening up his stance in mid-June, under the tutelage of new hitting coaches George Brett and Pedro Grifol, he has batted .293/.338/.464 in 151 PA. His two-strike approach has improved and it seems like he will continue to hit well. He has also reduced the staggering number of mental lapses on defense. He’s now a valuable defensive player, as well.

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar – Another high defense, low offense player. He makes dazzling plays at shortstop, but also bonehead ones. He has shown an infuriating lack of effort at times. Because he possesses absolutely no offensive value besides speed, he cannot be afforded any slack on defense. Just last night, he didn’t run out a ground ball to third. He needs to get his head in the game. Something is wrong and he might need a night off soon. Still, he’s a top-tier defensive player at a premier position, which allows him to be a hole in the lineup.

 Left Field: Alex Gordon – He has been a star with his bat for the last two seasons and finished in the top-10 in bWAR both times, but his bat has abandoned him lately. His timing on off-speed pitches is way off and when pitchers speed it back up, he loses discipline. The good news is that he’s still getting on base, which is what the leadoff hitter should do. He had a .340 OBP in July. He might figure out the problems on his own and, indeed, has shown signs of doing so this week. As it is, he’s an average hitter. That is still better than most other Royals batters. His defensive play looks as stellar as it ever did.

Center Field: Lorenzo Cain – Cain is having a disappointing season. Both his OBP and SLG have fallen below his career average and he’s become  a slap singles hitter. His contribution to the lineup is minimal, but his defense has placed him at the very top of defensive outfielders in the American League by every single metric. He has extreme range and a deadly accurate arm. He robbed a home run yesterday. It would still be nice to see him improve at the plate, even if it is just to 2012 levels. Jarrod Dyson will fill in from time to time and somehow provides even more range.

Right Field: Justin Maxwell and David Lough – The Royals acquired Justin Maxwell to either take the full time job in right field or serve as a platoon hitter against lefties. In his 306 career plate appearances against lefties, he’s hit .255/.373/.455, which is a considerable upgrade. His career isolated power is a whopping .197, suggesting he has true raw power. He’s an above average center fielder, which will play up even further in right field. Downside is that his injury history looks like a medical report on Evel Knievel–broken wrist, broken hand, broken ankle, concussion, elbow surgery, etc.

David Lough has been a successful replacement for Jeff Francoeur, with a higher average and SLG. It’s still not much above league average production. He is an eager swinger, which will surely be turned against him at some point. He doesn’t know when to take a pitch with less than two strikes and swings at anything in the zone. He’s hitting exactly .300, so it is not all bad. On defense, he’s another elite outfielder. He misplayed his first ball last night. Other than that, he’s been perfect (and the occasional game-saver). His speed grants him nice range and he dives to extend it. Unlike Maxwell, when he dives, he doesn’t break anything–another bonus. He’s one of the most valuable defensive outfielders (14th by Rdrs) in the American League and he’s not a hole in the lineup. By platooning with Maxwell, right field is covered for the foreseeable future.

Designated Hitter: Billy Butler – Yes, it would be nice if he slugged .500, but he’s still a valuable hitter. He has kept his OBP above .370 and is still a power threat. He’s hit well enough in the last few weeks, squaring the ball up in key situations, and will enter the home stretch in a hot streak (.362/.415/.466 since July 13). He is the most likely player to keep it up. No real complaints here.

All this equals a pretty average team. However, because of the defense, the Royals can put together several winning streaks to finish out the season. With some breaks, some hot streaks, with a hope and a prayer, one can almost see 88 wins…almost. Sometimes it feels pretty good to hope against hope.