By Jeff Montgomery
As the Major League Baseball season hits the one-quarter pole it is obvious that the success the Royals had last fall was not a fluke. Even though there were several outside the team who thought the Royals would digress, it has been very clear that no player felt like October was a flash. Instead, it seems as though many players have used the post-season as a springboard for their careers.
Although the Royals have been at or near the top of the American League Central Division standings the entire season, this year’s team is considerably different than the 2014 version. Last year’s team was built around pitching, speed, and defense with considerable emphasis on pitching, both starting and relief.
This year’s team has been a surprisingly good offensive team. There has been emphasis on pitching and defense too, but the majority of the focus around pitching has been on the lack of consistency from the starting rotation as the bullpen has been just as good as it was in 2014.
This team has found a way to work around several stretches where it was playing shorthanded because of either suspensions or injuries. It has also been successful despite the fact that quality starts and innings pitched by the rotation have declined significantly from last season.
In my opinion, the biggest key to the Royals ability to win the Central Division is held by the starting rotation. It has been very encouraging to see a good week’s worth of improvements from that ever so important department but it will be equally as important for the rotation to perform at a high level over the final three-quarters of the long season.
By Jeff Montgomery
A few weeks ago I wrote about the Royals starting rotation and the keys to success of the starting pitching. Now, as exhibition games are starting around the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, I will share some thoughts about the Royals bullpen.
Last October the entire baseball world had a chance to see just how important the Royals relief corps was to the team’s post-season success. The bulk of the recognition went to the trio know as H-D-H and those three letters were utilized in most every discussion surrounding the Royals. But if you look at the potential depth in this year’s bullpen there could actually be an uptick in the output of the bullpen. Holland, Davis, and Herrera were the keys last year and will be again this year but if the current roster of bullpen arms is able to stay healthy the Royals bullpen will once again be looked at as one of the best in the industry.
In 2013 we were able to witness the evolution of Luke Hochevar as he became the 2013 edition of what Wade Davis replicated last year when he transitioned from a starting pitcher that could not consistently produce quality innings. Even though he showed occasional brilliance as a starter, his consistency as a reliever was markedly different than as a starting pitcher. His unfortunate elbow injury last March which led to Tommy John surgery opened the door for Davis to step in and evolve into that same dominant reliever we saw in Hochevar in 2013.
Jason Frasor’s arrival in July of last season in a trade with the Texas Rangers was not a big headliner but proved to be a wise acquisition by Dayton Moore and the Royals as he provided veteran presence in the bullpen and gave Ned Yost another quality arm to go to in the middle innings. Frasor shined especially in situations where he came in to games in the middle of an inning to put out a fire. The Royals will be able to rely on Frasor and Hochevar for the entire season this year and they should prove to be more consistent options than Aaron Crow as a bridge to the Three Headed Bullpen Monster of Holland, Davis, and Herrera.
One story line that will be interesting to follow is who will be the left-hander or left-handers in the bullpen? Most will want to see Brandon Finnegan in a Royals uniform after his spectacular September and October last year. However, Tim Collins came back from a stint in the minors and was much more consistent at throwing strikes. It could be an interesting spring for both of the lefties.
As I have said many times, “a good bullpen will not win you a pennant, but a bad one will insure you don’t win a pennant.” One thing most can agree on is that the Royals bullpen is not a good reason to think the Royals can’t win another pennant.
By Jeff Montgomery
The most recent dose of snow and frigid temperatures in the Kansas City area will certainly make the words “Pitchers and Catchers Report” sound just a little more welcome. As the Royals prepare to defend their American League Championship, there will be an escalated amount of discussions about how they look on paper going into Spring Training Camp.
There are many who think the Royals offseason moves were unimpressive and some who think the team is better going into camp than they were last year. Only time will tell which camp is correct but there is an increased level of expectation from most all Royals fans based on the success the team had last October. It will be interesting to see how much carry-over the October success will have on the players returning from last season. I am one who thinks the success will be a big key for several of the younger players who have not quite achieved the level of success at the major league level that was expected when they were drafted.
Over the next few weeks we will take a look at the various components of the team but for now the focus will be on the Starting Pitching since it is the single biggest factor in a team’s overall success.
One of the biggest concerns that most people I talk to have is “how does the team replace James Shields?” I’m not sure the team needs to replace Shields, but it does need to replace the quality innings he provided over the past two seasons while pitching in a Royals uniform. I think the leadership and attitude he brought to the team will have a positive lasting effect.
Although Edinson Volquez was the pitcher the Royals signed to replace Shield in the rotation, it could very well be the combination of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura who are most suited to make up the quality innings that need to be replaced with Shields’ departure. If the young duo of Ventura and Duffy combine to make 60 starts or more on the season the necessary output of innings should be there. If they do not combine for around 60 starts there could be a problem which would require a possible unknown to provide those innings. The quality of innings could be the issue at that point.
Those who enjoy watching Yordano Ventura pitch will likely enjoy watching Edinson Volquez work as well. He is about 8 years older than Ventura and at least 40 pounds heavier than Ventura but both grew up in the Dominican Republic and both idolized Pedro Martinez and styled their pitching after the Dominican great. Like Ventura, he will rely on an above average fastball mixed with his change and curve for success. Volquez is coming off his best season as a Big Leaguer after sporting a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates last season and compiling 192 2/3 innings.
The fourth and fifth starters of Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are very solid veterans who should provide consistent and predictable work from start to finish of the season. For a starting staff to approach the 1000 inning mark as a whole, these two guys could be difference makers one way or another. Both Vargas and Guthrie provide quality presence in the clubhouse which will be needed with the departure of Shields.
On paper the Royals look to have a very solid rotation going into Camp but as we know, health and durability normally are tested at various points of the long Major League season. If any of the starting five listed above are not able to pitch for one reason or another, right-hander Kris Medlen could become a very valuable insurance policy. Although Medlen would not likely be ready to pitch until the second half of the season, if he is able to perform and a level close where he was prior to his second Tommy John surgery he could be a huge factor for the Royals. He is signed for the next two seasons.
So, as Pitchers and Catcher Report to Spring Training Camp, there is reason for optimism for those who believe Starting Pitching will be a big factor in the outcome of the team.
By Jeff Montgomery
Winning the American League Championship certainly has a way of turning the spotlight on an organization. The Royals were recently recognized by Baseball America as the Organization of the Year for the second time in team history after their World Series appearance this fall. Their other Organization of the Year award came after the 1994 season. This year’s 89 victories and first postseason appearance in many Kansas Citians lifetime provided an opportunity for the City to fall in love with the Royals again.
The 12-inning Wild Card Game win over the Oakland A’s and sweeps of the Angels and Orioles also gave many baseball fans across America a chance to root for their new favorite team, a team that was in search of the second World Series Championship in franchise history. Unfortunately, the Boys in Blue came up 90 feet short of winning the World Series but provided an unforgettable October for millions.
It will be interesting to see if winning the A.L. Championship will also give the Royals an opportunity to attract free agents that in the recent past have not considered signing with the organization because of their track record of not appearing in the post season. Such was not the case earlier when Torii Hunter signed with the Minnesota Twins to return to the organization that drafted him. Hunter would likely have been a very good fit for the Royals who benefited from having veteran presence on their team last year after signing Raul Ibanez. If Hunter is able to stay healthy he will provide the leadership of an Ibanez with nice production to go along with it. Unfortunately, the Royals will now have to switch to an alternate plan to replace Nori Aoki in Right Field.
In addition to replacing Aoki in right, someone or some group of others will need to replace the bat of Billy Butler. Losing Butler could have a more significant impact than most people think unless someone emerges as a consistent Designated Hitter. Right handed hitters with power are hard to find these days as we saw last summer when almost every team in baseball was trying to land a right handed hitter with power at the trade deadline. The Royals were able to trade for Josh Willingham but injuries did not allow him to produce at the level which was expected and it was ironic to see that Billy Butler heated up during the second half of the season to be the right handed bat the Royals needed.
Another opportunity to see how winning will work in attracting free agents will likely be tested as the Royals will attempt to replace James Shields with an experienced arm for the rotation. Word on the street is that Ervin Santana could be wearing Royal blue again. The Royals playoff run and the depth of quality relievers in the bullpen should make pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium an attractive home for anyone trying to make a living pitching a baseball.
As the Organization of the Year, there should be plenty of depth in the organization to insure the team is competitive for years to come. It will be fun to see how the team responds now that everyone expects them to win.
By Jeff Montgomery
While talking about the World Series with some friends, I asked, “Have two Wild Card teams ever faced each other in the World Series?” Although no one could remember such a series, the Giants actually faced the Angels in the 2002 World Series.
As Wild Card teams, both the Giants and Royals have beaten the odds and survived the elimination Wild Card Game, the Divisional Series, and the League Championship Series to advance to the Fall Classic. Both teams have played some very exciting games in the Post-Season and found different ways to win baseball games by narrow margins.
Even though the Royals hit the fewest amount of homeruns during the regular season, they have encountered a power surge to add the homerun as another way to win along with their always present speed, defense, and pitching, especially their relief pitching.
Like the Royals, the San Francisco Giants have found some interesting ways to win in the Post-season themselves by taking advantage of wild pitches, walk-off errors, and walk-off homeruns as ways to win. Also like the Royals, the Giants won less than 90 games during the regular season and find themselves still alive in the post-season tournament and have proven several experts wrong in their post-season predictions.
This World Series is certain to be a “Wild” Series with both Wild Card teams squaring off to see who will be the last team standing which makes it almost impossible to predict a winner. However, if you want to base a prediction on the past, the Royals swept the Giants in a three game series at Kauffman Stadium this summer and the Royals were 15-5 against National League foes in 2014. Also, the Giants did lose to the aforementioned Angels in the 2002 matchup between the two Wild Card teams. We all know history has a way of repeating itself. Will it in this year’s Wild Series?
After Sunday’s frustrating 8-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox, there were several people questioning Ned Yost’s usage of his bullpen - which is what happens when managers make moves that don’t work out. The blame should always be on the player but unfortunately, the manager is the one who puts the player in a position to either succeed or fail. On Sunday, it was Aaron Crow who failed to execute the manager’s plan when he surrendered a grand slam in the sixth inning.
By Jeff Montgomery
When looking deeper into the game situation, it is easy for anyone to be critical of Ned Yost’s plan that didn’t work. I agreed with Ned’s reasoning for not bringing in a left-hander to face Daniel Nava who hit the grand slam off Aaron Crow. Had a left-hander entered the game to face Nava, a potential long ball threat named Mike Napoli would have entered the game. A very similar situation occurred back on July 18 when the Royals were playing the Red Sox in Boston and Ned replaced James Shields with Scott Downs to face lefty Jackie Bradley, Jr. Following the move, right-handed batting Jonny Gomes was summoned to pinch-hit and responded with a two-run home run to put the Red Sox on top. Yost admitted after the game that he gambled and lost, as he did not think Sox Manager John Farrell would pinch-hit in the sixth inning.
It will be interesting to see if Ned Yost will change his thinking regarding the usage of his three top relievers with less than two weeks of baseball remaining on the schedule. Although Aaron Crow has had some moments lately to indicate he may be ready for some high-leverage situations, it seems risky to chance that Crow will have the consistent command to survive outings like Sunday when you have Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland rested. Before Sunday’s game Herrera had only appeared twice and thrown 32 pitches in the last six games while Davis and Holland had only appeared once each and thrown 18 pitches each in the last six games.
While the top three of Herrera, Davis, and Holland can stack up against any teams top three at the back end of their bullpen, the remainder of the Royals bullpen is not as consistent. Since June 26th the top three have an ERA of 0.31 with 25 walks, 109 strikeouts, and 0 Home Runs allowed, while the remainder of the bullpen has a 5.23 ERA with 47 walks, 83 strikeouts, and 15 home runs allowed.
In a perfect world it is great to be able to limit relievers roles to one inning stints and Ned’s thinking is one reason his big three has been so dominant. However, going down the stretch he may need to adjust his thinking in order to make sure that one of the teams biggest strengths is not sitting on the bullpen bench watching opportunities slip away.