The American League Central is still like a packed horse race, as the teams jostle for position, but no one has done better jostling thus far than the new-look Kansas City Royals. Coming into Saturday, the Royals are 11-8 and lead the heavily favored Detroit Tigers by a game. After years of being a trendy preseason pick and then immediately flaming out when games started for real, there’s hope for the Royals. Just how much is our topic for today’s American League MLB coverage…
If we had to break Kansas City down in soundbites, here’s what they would be…
- The revamp of the pitching rotation is an early success
- The bullpen is a tremendous success
- The area of concern has to be the slow and tortured development of highly regarded young hitters.
Kansas City made a huge offseason splash when the traded for James Shields and Wade Davis from Tampa Bay, then signed enigmatic Los Angeles Angels’ righthander Ervin Santana. To top it off, they signed veteran Jeremy Guthrie, giving the organization four new starting pitchers that all had significant positive major league experience.
The Veteran Four have all pitched well early on. All have ERAs under 4, with Santana being the best of the group at 2.48. With the exception of Guthrie, they’ve all pitched significant games in the stretch drive and the postseason itself, so that’s another big positive to look forward to.
Making the move to name veteran pitchers marked the end of Kansas City’s reliance on home-grown arms who had good press clippings in Triple A, but poor results at the major league level. One of those was Luke Hochevar, who’d been Kansas City’s nominal ace. He’s been moved to the bullpen and the change may rescue his career. Hochevar has blended in with setup men Aaron Crow and Tim Collins, who were already solid major league relievers, and the trio has been unhittable in April. They’ve combined to work 18 innings and give up just two runs. Greg Holland is at the back end, and while the closer got off to a slow start—his ERA is still 5.14—he’s thrown scoreless innings in each of his last five outings.
Unless Royal fans remember names like Bret Saberhagen or Mark Gubicza from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, they probably don’t remember much about good pitching. There are those of us who can date ourselves by further reaching back to the era of Dennis Leonard and Larry Gura in the late 1970s. Now they’ve got the arms, and the bats need to come through.
The offense has not been a part of the early season success. The Royals rank 13th in the American League in runs scored. They have “can’t-miss” players in Eric Hosmer (1B), Mike Moustakas (3B), and Salvador Perez (C). But Perez and Moustakas are doing a lot of missing, and neither has done anything with the bat. Hosmer, after a horrible year in 2012, is at least getting on base with a .377 on-base percentage, but has to show some power.
One young stud who is getting the job done though is centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, blazing out with a .419 on-base percentage/.500 slugging percentage. He’s joined by Alex Gordon, who’s evolved into a reliable bat in left field and is at .368/.530. The time it took for Gordon to develop—he came up in 2007 to much hype, but didn’t really find his stride until 2011—might give the organization patience with the struggling young hitters today. Billy Butler is one of the American League’s better DH’s, and though the .424 slugging is a little low by his standards, it’s still respectable.
With the pitching the Royals get, the current offensive output is enough to keep the team a little bit over. 500. I think there’s also every reason to think the pitching will continue to be good. The issues are twofold—can the struggling young hitters at least pick up the slack when Gordon and Cain hit inevitable slumps? And for how long will churning along at a little bit over .500 be enough to stay atop the American League Central?
The latter question is more about Detroit, so we’ll defer it for another time. For now, after years of ineptitude and dashed hopes, Royals fans can finally be confident in expecting their August and September games to mean something.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL CENTRAL: Jose Valverde has returned to Detroit, and just in time. Not only does the Tiger bullpen continue to struggle, but Octavio Dotel is on the disabled list and Phil Coke and Al Albuquerqe are each dealing with nagging injuries.
AL EAST: Boston continues to play well and leads the division, but their own bullpen is on rehab, with Joel Hanrahan and Craig Breslow each doing stints. The Red Sox have been bailed out by a strong early showing from Andrew Bailey in the closer’s role. And the fact Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz are a combined 9-0 doesn’t hurt.
AL WEST: How many injuries can Texas take to its pitching staff? Last week the back injury to Matt Harrison looked mild enough to have him back next month. Now Harrison is reported as being out until the All-Star break. The Rangers are atop the division, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that with Harrison, Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz out, it’s going to be tough to continue that. If nothing else, if those players do make it back in the late summer as scheduled, there’s no need for Texas to do any deadline trade deals.