By Jeff Montgomery
The last time I wrote was about the Rotation being the key to the Royals second half and their ability to compete for the Central Division title. Things have not changed much except there appears to be more consistency in the top four in the rotation with Ian Kennedy, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Edinson Volquez all making very nice starts in their post All-Star Game efforts.
Chris Young has been out of the rotation and will contribute from the bullpen. Dillon Gee has been given five opportunities to start but has failed to nail down the slot and will continue to help the bullpen in long relief situations. And, Kris Medlen is not ready to come back as had been hoped because of shoulder fatigue. Lefty Mike Minor could provide some help but he has not shown with any certainty that his shoulder is ready to carry the burden of the innings necessary to be a legitimate option in the near term.
The aforementioned group of Young, Gee, and Medlen has made 24 starts collectively in the fifth spot in the rotation while compiling a 4-14 record and 7.14 ERA in those starts. As on July 20th, the other starters(Volquez, Kenndy, Duffy, and Ventura) have compiled a 25-23 record with a 4.29 ERA in 68 starts. While those numbers are not near the top in League statistically, they are certainly good enough to allow the Royals to compete for a divisional title as we learned last year if the bullpen returns to its expected level of performance now that Wade Davis is back from the Disabled List.
Brian Flynn was given an opportunity to fill the last slot in the rotation which has proven to be difficult one to fill.Unfortunately, his outing lasted less than three innings and he left behind a 3-0 deficit. It will be surprising if Flynn is given another shot at the fifth spot.
Although the price tag may be too expensive to land a starter at the level of a Johnny Cueto like last July, an acquisition of a solid number five starter may be essential if the Royals plan on making up the deficit in the standings that currently exists. They are not looking for a Cy Young candidate, just need someone who gives them a chance every five days to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, the contributions from their fifth starter through the first one hundred games of the season have come up short on the production side.
By Jeff Montgomery
As baseball moves toward the midway point it is always a good time to take a look at where teams stand and what they may or may not need as the July 31 and August 31 trade deadlines get closer.
Remember, the July 31 trade deadline is one that teams have the best chance of making a deal since there are no waiver wire restrictions. In other words, other teams cannot block a trade that may occur as they don’t want one of the teams involved in the trade to get better.
The August 31 trade deadline is significant as that is the last day which a player can be acquired via a trade and still be eligible for the postseason. The August trades normally are made to help teams get to the playoffs, not help them win in the playoffs.
Barring any more significant injuries, it appears the Royals may be set with their position players as Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert have performed at a level that has eliminated any concerns on whether or not they can be long-term fixes at their respective positions and Paulo Orlando has hit well enough to squelch the early season cries for another bat in the outfield. The bench appears to be strong and Brett Eibner was a pleasant surprise during his injury-interrupted stay and could be called up if needed.
Although the bullpen has the league’s lowest ERA, it has been called upon for over 250 innings of work and will need to be monitored during the second half to insure it is not exhausted by season’s end. Ned Yost has done an outstanding job over the past few years in making sure the pen is strong and healthy as he knows its importance to the team’s success.
That pretty much gets us to the starting rotation which has been the least consistent element of the ballclub to this point. The rotation has show signs during a couple of extended stretches of the season that it can be very serviceable. The Royals rotation does not need to be great; it just needs to be consistent. Through the first 75 games of the season, the rotation had pitched the fewest innings in the league and was second-to-last in quality starts. Another alarming stat on the rotations mid-season resume was the amount of home runs allowed which is just over one per game and leads the league in that category while pitching in the most spacious ballpark in baseball.
While it appears that no saviors are looming in the minor leagues, it will be essential for the starters on the current roster to provide more consistent results during the second half of the season. In my opinion, that challenge will need to be answered by the two youngest members of the rotation; Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura. It is easy to be excited about what their contributions might be based on what we have seen from both lately (before Ventura's start vs St. Louis).
With Edinson Volquez and Ian Kennedy being proven innings eaters and consistent performers, the upside lies in the two young guns in Duffy and Ventura. Chris Young will need to return to his 2015 form to be able to continue to take the ball every five days as he has not been able to keep the ball in the ballpark during the majority of his starts. He has also demonstrated the ability to contribute from the bullpen if needed.
Another possibility for upside exists in Kris Medlen who appears to be healthy and throwing the ball the way everyone expected him to be able to throw this season which is the reason the Royals inked him to a two year contract following his second elbow surgery.
Remember, they don’t have to be great, just consistent.
By Jeff Montgomery
Although it took Whit Merrifield roughly six years of minor league baseball to make it to the Major Leagues, his path is not extremely different than that of other Big Leaguers who were able to persevere until their opportunity was there.
Merrifield is 27 years old and in a perfect world a player will be in his early twenties when he starts his Major League service, especially if he is a high school draft pick. Whit attended the University of South Carolina which meant he was already older than some phenoms that are drafted as eighteen year-olds and start their professional careers before they know how to do laundry. Although he would have loved to been in the Majors at a much younger age, the extra time in the Minor Leagues will be very helpful in allowing him to stay in the Big Leagues for a long time if he stays healthy. The extra experience he has gained by spending most of six seasons down on the farm has already show me that he is ready for the Majors because he plays the game right.
Fans love the style of play that Whitley demonstrates along with his hustle and never take anything for granted play. When a player has to work extra hard to earn his opportunity he is going to make sure that no one takes it away from him. One way to do that is to play with conviction and control everything that you have the ability to control. His offensive numbers are quite impressive for a new call-up but his swings looks to be very fundamentally sound and one that will not be easy for pitchers to find holes in. He is a career .274 hitter in the Minor Leagues so it is unrealistic to expect him to hit at his current pace of .326 in the Major Leagues over an extended time frame. He could however, be one of those players that hits for a higher average in the Big Leagues because pitchers are around the plate more often.
Merrifield reminds me of a player that could be like Greg Holland. Not because of his pitching ability but because he wasn’t a high round draft pick (Holland was a 10th rounder and Merrifield was a 9th rounder) and is under-sized when compared to most other Major League players. Both Holland and Merrifield play with similar passion and both have Carolina roots. Those type players have to work a little harder and a little longer for their chance to play in the Major Leagues.
Maybe another reason I like Merrifield so much is that I was a 9th rounder too and was undersized and had to spend more time in the Minor Leagues than most. We’ll see how Whit turns out, but I really like his chances.
By Jeff Montgomery
The Royals recent comeback victories had everyone talking about the historic weekend of baseball at Kauffman Stadium. And for good reason, never had a Royals team had as many thrilling come-from-behind wins in team history. One will need to watch a lot of baseball to witness a series of games like the White Sox series to experience as much excitement.
One detail that stands out to me about the come-from-behind wins is the fact that all of the rallies started after the first batter was retired. On the surface, that may not seem too unusual but as a former pitcher I can attest to the fact that getting the first batter out is the most important.
Going back to Friday night’s game against the White Sox, the seventh-inning rally began with Cheslor Cuthbert grounding out to open the frame before Brett Eibner got things going with his first major league hit which was a double. The Royals would go on to score four runs in that inning and win, 7-5, after being down by three runs to start the bottom of the seventh.
Saturday’s game will be the most memorable of all the comeback wins as the Royals were able to score seven runs in the bottom of the ninth for an 8-7 win. That ninth inning started with Sox closer David Robertson retiring Paulo Orlando with a strikeout. What followed was an incredible display of frenzied hitting, capped off by Eibner getting the game-winner with his first career walk-off hit in only his second major league game.
It would have been tough to top Saturday’s win in the series finale, but the Royals still managed to erase a 4-2 deficit in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 5-4 win. And yes, the rally started with Whit Merrifield fouling out to start the inning before Lorenzo Cain started the rally by homering to right.
To keep the one-out rally theme alive, the Royals began a four-run rally in the eighth inning on Memorial Day after Drew Butera grounded out to start the inning after the Rays had tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the eighth. The Royals eventually won, 6-2.
So much of the Royals play over the past two to three weeks reminds most everyone who watches of how different this group is from most other teams. Their ability to come back from seemingly insurmountable deficits seems to be in their DNA.
Let's hope it lasts.
By Jeff Montgomery
When the Royals scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Tuesday night’s game against the Washington Nationals, it could have been just what this struggling team was looking for. After being shut out in three of four losses going into the game, it had seemed as though the defending World Series Champions had lost their swagger.
Even though it was only 25 games into the season it felt like the 8-2 start the team had was so far in the past it might never get back to playing “Royals Baseball”. The same baseball the fans had grown accustomed to seeing going back to October of 2014 when they pulled of the ultimate comeback in their Wild-Card victory over the Oakland A’s. The same “Royals Baseball” that had provided so many dramatic victories during the championship run to the World Series title last year that one could hardly keep track.
All teams hit the skids during the course of a long and grueling season but almost everyone who watched Royals baseball in 2015 felt as though a stretch like this team has experienced over the past few weeks was impossible. With the offensive depth it demonstrated last year, it almost felt as though this team would be slump proof as it had not shown any signs last year and it returned 8 of 9 in the starting lineup from last year's Opening Day lineup.
We have learned that it is possible that seven or eight can go cold at the same time. We have learned that one hot hitter cannot carry a team every night. We have also learned that this team still has the ability to come back against even the best of teams. Before Tuesday’s victory, the Nationals were 16-0 when leading after 8 innings and they took a 2-run lead into the ninth with Jonathan Papelbon on the mound and the Royals proceeded to “keep the line moving” and scored 3 runs on 5 hits before it was all over.
It seemed as though it was going to be another night when the lights would go off and the focus would be on tomorrow and finding a way to get a victory. However, Alex Gordon got things going with an “excuse me” base hit and the flood gates opened from there with Lorenzo Cain closing the deal on the comeback with a single in the gap which scored Mike Moustakas who had driven in the tying runs with a 2-run, pinch-hit single of his own.
As the Royals move forward, it will be very interesting to see what kind of impact this single victory has on the team. A team that certainly needs no reminder of just how good they can be. A team that had sort of lost its swagger, an intangible that is very difficult to measure. An intangible that is so important to playing “Royals Baseball”.
By Jeff Montgomery
After the first week of Royals baseball it appears that all is still good in Royals Land. The team seems to be essentially the same team that just last season won their first divisional title in 30 years, won their second American League title in as many years, and won their second World Series title in franchise history.
There were some legitimate concerns about the starting rotation coming into the season. While the Royals gave Ian Kennedy the largest pitcher's contract and the second largest overall contract in team history at $70 million, the most common comment was that they overpaid for the right-hander. On Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium, he gave Royals fans a glimpse at why the Royals wanted him so much. He has always been a consistent performer that is know as an inning eater but Saturday he was much more than that. He turned in a brilliant performance and the Royals beat the Twins, 7-0. Edison Volquez has been Edinson Volquez in his first two starts and the Royals have won both of his starts. The first win coming on Opening Night in front of a national television audience. Through the the first five games the Royals rotation has an ERA of 1.91 which is a small sample size and doesn't have any duds factored into the numbers but still quite impressive for a department that was certainly under the microscope going into the 2016 campaign.
The offense has demonstrated the same ability to score runs from top to bottom in the order. In the Royals win on Friday night, all four runs in their 4-3 victory came from the bottom four in the lineup. It also featured newcomer Raymond Fuentes collecting his first hit in in Royal Blue which provided two critical RBI's. In my opinion, their deep and balanced lineup was one of the biggest keys for their offense in 2015 after adding Kendrys Morales into the designated hitter's role.
Even though defense doesn't always get the same credit for winning as offense, the early part of this season demonstrates exactly how important defense is to this team's ability to win games. The weekend series which the Royals swept from the Twins is a great example of how important defense can be. Yes, the Royals are the only team in Major League Baseball to not commit an error through the first week of baseball but that is only part of the reason defense is so important. The Twins committed three very costly errors which allowed the Royals to sweep the series. Over the past three seasons, the Royals have +192 Defensive Runs Saved - which is the best in all of baseball. And, it's not always the highlight reel play that makes a difference, sometimes it's just good baseball instincts taking over allowing a great play to be made.
The Royals bullpen has the makings of being one of the best in the game again this year. As Wade Davis slides into the closer's role to begin the season, everyone else slides up a notch in the bullpen ladder. It will also require Joakim Soria to settle in and pitch consistently (which I am confident that will happen). The pen is full of power arms which include Kelvin Herrera and new "fireman" Luke Hochever who has excelled in stranding the inherited runners which he comes in to prevent from scoring.
The other intangible element this team has shown that it possesses in the ability to come from behind regardless of how unlikely it may seem. It has picked up where it left off from the past two postseasons and won games already in the early part of 2016 that many had written off to the loss column.
Overall it appears the summer at the "K" will be full of excitement. Let's just hope the fall is just as action packed!