The Royals are 77-49: Too early to start thinking postseason things?

Look, I’m sorry, okay?

The summer got a bit crazy and my weekly blogging got away from me. There are at least a dozen of you who are, at minimum, wondering why I haven’t been blogging, and at maximum, genuinely concerned for my well being. Somewhere in there you might actually have missed my takes on baseball, youth ministry and pop culture.

Let’s get back to it.

When I last posted about the Royals, they were 9-3 and were dealing with being the Bad Boys of Baseball for the third series in a row. They’ve been nothing less than spectacular since then. They’re now 77-49 and have an absolute stranglehold on the AL Central. They are a handful of games up on the second best teams in the American League. With 36 games remaining…

Their magic number is 25.
Their magic number for home field advantage is 31.

Basically, the Royals are all but guaranteed to end up back in the postseason. That’s not being cocky or overconfident. It’s just the truth. It’s not too early, so let’s take a glance toward October.

Who do we want to face in the playoffs?

While the winners of the AL Central seems abundantly clear, the rest of the American League is mostly uncertain. As of right now there appears to be 7 teams fighting for 4 playoff spots. Baltimore, Toronto, New York, Minnesota, Houston, Los Angeles and Texas are all lingering. A couple of those teams scare me. Most of them don’t. It’s very obvious who the best team in the AL is in 2015.

To me, Houston and Toronto are the scariest of the remaining clubs – especially if we don’t have home field advantage. The Royals are the most complete team in baseball, but the one way they can be beaten is with the long ball. Going to the launching pads that are Rogers Centre (Toronto) and Minute Maid Park (Houston) hurts our chances significantly. Throw Yankee Stadium in there too.

In fact, looking back at 2014, Angel Stadium was the best possible place for us to begin our postseason run. It projects as a pitchers park and played to the Royals’ strengths. The Angels were overmatched in all areas last year, and recent history suggests nothing has changed: we’ve gone 11-1 against L.A. in our last 12 games. I’d love to face the Halos again in the 2015 ALDS.

It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll play the Angels anywhere but the ALDS. If they make the playoffs, they’ll probably end up in the Wild Card game finishing behind the Astros in the West. Chances are they’ll have to go through Toronto or New York first.

I was going to rank those 7 teams in order of who we want to play most/least, but David Lesky over at Pine Tar Press already did a great job of that this morning. He includes the Rays in the list of possible playoff teams, but he agrees that Los Angeles would be a great first round opponent.

I want to avoid Toronto and Houston at all costs, so here’s what I want to have happen: Angels over Blue Jays in the Wild Card. Yankees over Houston in the ALDS. Royals face LAA and NYY en route to the Series.

But who knows how things will shake out? When I think about how much things can change in September, I always remember the 2011 Cardinals: 10.5 games out of 1st place on August 25. Took over the NL Central on the last day of the season and ended up winning the World Series over the Rangers. Anything is possible.

Game 4 starter: Duffy or Medlen?

With the addition of Johnny Cueto, the return of Kris Medlen from injury and the resurgence of Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, this team is suddenly stacked with starters. No more of that Chris Young or Joe Blanton business. Throw in Edinson Volquez, who has been our most consistently wonderful starter this year, and you’ve got a pretty formidable rotation come postseason play.

But you don’t need 5 starters in the postseason – you only need 4. Which means one of these guys is going to end up in the bullpen.

But who?

Well, it’s clearly not going to be Cueto or Volquez. That would just be absurd. That leaves one of Medlen/Duffy/Ventura is headed to the pen. And after Game 6 of the World Series, there’s no way we send Ventura out there.

So that leaves Duffy or Medlen.

The initially obvious choice seems to be Medlen because he was just added to the rotation this past week (shipping Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen), but he looked so solid in his first start on Monday (69 pitches – 6 IP 5 H 3 R 6 K), absolutely filthy at times, in fact, and made only a couple mistakes. The most impressive stat is his pitch count. He already is showing signs of his 2012 self. If he continues to improve over his remaining starts, to me, he’s our 4th starter.

Duffy provides something the rest of them don’t: he’s left-handed. We currently only have Franklin Morales out there, and he’s been fantastic, but it would be nice to have another lefty option out of the bullpen. If we play Toronto, Duffy is guaranteed to be in the bullpen as their entire line up bats right handed. Los Angeles is also righty-heavy. But the Yankees have a pretty left-handed lineup (Brian McCann, Didi Gregorious, Jacoby Ellsbury, Bretty Gardner, Stephen Drew) and so do the Rangers (Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Mitch Moreland, Rougned Odor, Shin-Soo Choo).

Conclusion: if the Royals face New York or Texas, I’d move Medlen to the pen and start Duffy in Game 4. Otherwise, I think Duffy ends up in the bullpen for the second straight year. But again, we’ll see how both of these guys look over the final month or so.

The Postseason Lineup

The trade for Ben Zobrist has me giddy. He has been one of my favorite ballplayers for a long time playing in Tampa and Oakland.

Zobrist is the ultimate utility man. He can play positions all over the field and he can play them all well. He’s the anti-Billy Butler. Outfield and second base have been his primary positions, but you don’t lose anything in terms of defense no matter where you put him.

Well, that’s not true. You probably would on this team with how good our defenders are. The exception is Alex Rios in RF. Rios is bad at defense. His hitting seems to be coming around finally. But Zobrist is better at both offense and defense.

At second base, Infante is slightly better, and the Royals seem to think he’s got good chemistry with Alcides Escobar up the middle. But how many times have we seen him fail to turn a double play? His shoulder is still pretty lame, and he doesn’t appear to have any zip on his 6-4-3 turns. We’ve lost multiple games this season purely because Omar’s arm isn’t strong enough to finish a double play. But the Royals are probably right, Omar’s defense is still better.

But on the offensive side, Infante is miserable. He’s currently hitting .219/.234/.311. He’s picked it up over the past week hitting triples in back to back games which is obviously not sustainable. But he’s nothing compared to Ben Zobrist: .286/.374/.468.

So when Gordon returns to LF in a week or so, does Zobrist move to RF or 2B?

To me, the answer seems pretty obvious: Infante should sit.

However, there are a few probable postseason pitchers who Infante has hit well over his career: Scott Kazmir (.407/.467/.778, 30 PAs), R.A. Dickey (.472/.474/.694, 38 PAs) and C.J. Wilson (.389/.389/.500, 18 PAs) haven’t fared so well versus Infante. Another option the Royals have – which is probably what they’ll end up doing – is to move Zobrist back and forth between RF and 2B based on pitcher matchups. That sounds a bit against Ned Yost‘s typical managing style – he’s much more prone to put guys in specified roles and keep them there – but I think that’s what will eventually happen.

Meanwhile, Jarrod Dyson is better defensively than both Zobrist and Rios combined. In a close game, Zobrist needs to remain at second and Dyson needs to be in for Rios in RF.

For some reason, when Zobrist first came over from Oakland, Yost would regularly bring in Dyson to pinch run for him in the 7th inning. This is not a smart move. In a close game, Zobrist’s bat is crucial in the lineup. Rios’s, on the other hand, is not. If the Royals are leading in a close game, Dyson should come in for Rios and Zobrist should move to 2B.

Here’s what I think our lineup will be…

Escobar SS
Zobrist 2B
Cain CF
Hosmer 1B
Morales DH
Gordon LF
Moustakas 3B
Perez C
Rios RF

You can make an argument that Gordon should lead off, and I’d listen. Boy, would I listen. But c’mon, that’s not happening at this point. Esky is your leadoff hitter, for better or for worse.

And I see the back to back lefties too, and Ned loves stacking his lineups L-R-L-R.

Shoot. Now that I look at it, with Rios at the bottom, you could even start Dyson, pinch hit Rios at some point and move Infante in to 2B and Zobrist to RF late. Gah! It’s wonderful. So many options.

Which points to why Zobrist is so valuable: he creates options with his versatility. He’s even a switch hitter! But the ability to move him around and bring whoever you want off the bench to pinch hit makes him way more valuable than any of his stats claim.

***

That’s plenty for now. Good to be back in the swing of things. Again, sorry about the extended silence, you guys. It won’t happen again.

-apc.

Photo cred: foxsports.com.

The Royals sign RHP Kris Medlen for $8.5M over 2 years.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves

WHAT. ON. EARTH. IS. HAPPENING.

We thought they were finished, but apparently they’re not! The Royals have added to their week of free agent pick ups – Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez – and have agreed to a contract with Kris Medlen that will pay him $2M in 2015 and $5.5 in 2016 with a mutual $10M option for 2017 or a $1M buyout.

Dayton, you dog, you. Incredible work.

All this time we knew they needed three pieces – RF, DH and SP – and yesterday’s Volquez signing just didn’t seem to be the answer for most of us. He’s fine, and was the best option at that price, but we felt underwhelmed, deflated.

But this changes everything.

After the Royals signed Alex Rios on Monday, I wrote about how they still needed to add a starting pitcher. I offered up Volquez as a safe option that wasn’t a sexy name, but that would at least bring some serviceable innings to the 2015 starting rotation. I also offered the option that they could take a gamble on a pitcher who missed 2014 due to injury – specifically Kris Medlen who had just been non-tendered by the Atlanta Braves. Here’s what I wrote on Tuesday morning…

The other option would be to take a gamble on a pitcher who missed 2014 due to injury. Kris Medlen missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and was non-tendered by the Braves. What do you get from a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery? Who knows. Could he be the guy who threw a 2.47 ERA from 2012-2013 or would he be a shell of himself? And is that worth a $5-6M gamble? Hmmm. Answers please, Dayton Moore.

I never believed for a moment that they would pick up both Volquez and Medlen, but Dayton Moore has gone and stirred things up even more with this move. They’re essentially opposite players in terms of their potential ceiling, so paired together, this feels like a brilliant move. On the one hand, Volquez is coming off his best season as a starter, and we pretty much know his ceiling is his 2014 season. His control is questionable, and he’s not going to be lights out, but he’ll eat up innings. You know what you’re getting with Edinson Volquez and it’s not great. He’s…fine.

But with Kris Medlen, we really have no idea what we’re getting. Medlen was incredible with the Braves from 2009-2013. He has a career 2.95 ERA. He strikes out nearly 8 batters per 9 innings. He walks less than 2 batters per 9 innings. His career WHIP is a notch above 1. Kris Medlen was going to be one of their top starters. He was entering the prime years of his career. Instead, he had to undergo his second Tommy John surgery of his career.

So what are we getting with Kris Medlen?

It’s a lottery ticket basically, but the upside is astronomical. We’re paying $2M in 2015 for a gamble on a guy who could come back from injury and be an absolute stud in our rotation. He probably won’t be ready by Opening Day, and with the depth of the Royals rotation now, we may let him take his time and trot him out there sometime in June.

Even then, he would probably be a back of rotation guy for this year, pushing Guthrie or Volquez back to the bullpen. He’ll have to work his way back to his old role as a top of the rotation guy. This also takes the pressure off the bullpen to have additional long men available rather than having to turn to Hochever/Frasor early and making Herrera/Davis/Holland work more innings than they should be throughout the season. This also almost guarantees that Brandon Finnegan starts the season in the minors.

Kris Medlen has ace-calibur stuff. A fastball in the upper 80s, but pinpoint control. His changeup and his curveball are his best pitches. From 2012-2013 only two pitchers (Cole Hamels and, interestingly, Jason Vargas) generated more value out of their changeup than Medlen did, and only 8 players had a more valuable curveball. Basically, Kris Medlen has the stuff to potentially be a top of the rotation type of guy, as long as he can jump back from TJS #2.

So this year we’ll spend $2M on a second-half starter. We can expect around 80 innings from Medlen this year, but could be really special in 2016 if he can work back to his old form.

We have unbelievable depth at starting pitching suddenly. Which is very important, and we were fortunate to not have any injuries to our rotation in 2014. High five to one of baseball’s best training staffs. With the addition of Kris Medlen, the pressure on Ventura and Duffy is lifted, and you have one of the highest upside pitchers waiting for the ball come midseason.

So in 2015, the Royals are on the hook for $6.5M for Morales, $11M for Rios, $10M for Volquez and $2M for Medlen. That’s $29.5M in 2015. Rios is gone in 2016, but the second year for both Morales and Medlen is more money, so it’s $9.5M for Morales, $10M for Volquez and $5.5M for Medlen. That’s $25M in 2016. We are sure to lose either Greg Holland or Wade Davis’s option for that year (if not before this season), which reduces that commitment even further.

All that to say, we’ve had a busy busy week and our pocketbook isn’t on the hook much at all. Suddenly this move makes yesterday’s move feel completely justified. By signing veteran guys to modest money, if any of these four exceeds expectations, we’re going to come out way on the plus side on these deals.

And we didn’t have to give up anything but cash to do it. I absolutely love this deal. Bravo, Dayton Moore. Bravo, David Glass.

I thought this team was done with signings yesterday, but apparently I was wrong. This team is still moving and shaking and who knows what might be in store for tomorrow. What a crazy busy and exciting week in the life of Royals baseball fans. Phew.

…SO IS IT SPRING TRAINING YET, OR WHAT?!

-apc.