By Jeff Montgomery
I remember driving back to the WHB offices after a Royals day game in mid-May of 2010 and hearing on the radio that Trey Hillman had been relieved of his duties as manager of the Royals after a 12-23 start. Upon arrival at the 810 studios I was asked to go on the air with Kevin Kietzman and Danny Clinkscale to discuss the managerial situation. As is the norm when a manager is let go, there are lots of emotions involved and players comment that it was not the manager’s fault and they wish they had performed better so their manager’s fate would have been better.
It was very interesting to learn that Hillman had been notified of his firing the day before but asked Dayton Moore to give him one more game so that he could possibly go out a winner which he did when Zack Greinke beat the Cleveland Indians 6-4 on May 13th to earn his first win of the season.
When Dayton Moore announced that Ned Yost was going to take over for Hillman the opinions on the hiring ranged about as much as could be expected. Those who remembered Ned’s last year as skipper in Milwaukee couldn’t believe he was getting another shot to manage in the big leagues. Those who remembered him as a coach for several years as a coach under Bobby Cox thought he was the perfect manager for the Royals.
The common thread between Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Kansas City were all organizations that had floundered near the bottom for years and needed someone to guide them through rebuilding to become contenders. The Braves accomplished this and more for a decade and a half and became a perennial playoff team. The Brewers accomplished the rebuilding portion of the task, but were not as successful as the Braves when measured by playoff appearances but they did develop an excellent crop of quality major league players.
The Royals were just a few years into the Dayton Moore era but were at a crucial point in development as some of the amateur talent that Moore and company had drafted were knocking on the door of the major leagues and the right manager was critical in providing the environment for the finishing touches to be added.
The second half of last season and the incredible October the Royals experienced confirmed to me that Ned Yost was the right manager to guide the current group of players through some difficult waters. His commitment to his roster and the way he has consistently backed his players paid off in a large way last year.
Although there were several who wanted to run Ned out of Kansas City when he replaced James Shields with Yordano Ventura during the Wild Card Game last fall, it very well may have been his commitment to his troops that allowed them to overcome enormous odds to win that game.
Now, as Ned Yost is about ready to surpass Whitey Herzog’s franchise record of 410 wins and become the manager with the most wins in Royals history, it is time for all those haters to concede that Yost was the right man for the job.
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?