If the Tigers are playing the Royals for the first time this season, we have to talk to our buddy Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star. If you want to keep up with the Royals, Sam's blog, Ball Star, is a must-read. (And it's worth a look even if you don't want to follow the Royals.)
We swapped questions with Sam before last year's first Tigers-Royals series, and K.C. went on to sweep three games. Actually, maybe we shouldn't be talking to him. I probably should've considered that.
Bless You Boys: So the surprising upstart team of the AL Central comes into town to take on the heavy favorite to win the division (by the New York Times, anyway). A battle for first place! Just like the experts predicted, right?
Sam Mellinger: Maybe Sidney Ponson throws a no-hitter on Sunday and the Tigers' bullpen doesn't give up a baserunner. It would just about make sense. I gotta be honest, I expected the Tigers this season to embody an adjective you'd probably rather not have on your blog. They still might, but over .500 after two weeks has to be worth something, right? As for the Royals, I do expect them to be around .500 most of the year, but can't say early injuries to Gordon and Guillen are encouraging.
SM: To be honest, and if he was being honest, I think he'd tell you he'd just rather have a position and stick to it. It's kind of funny that last spring, when I was joking with him about being moved from third to right and then to left field, he said, "Yeah, it's fine as long as they're not putting me at second base next year." Turns out the move to second base was Teahen's idea.
But if new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has as much an impact on Teahen as everybody's saying, the challenged Royals offense will need his Jeff Kent imitation in the lineup -- wherever he plays in the field.
BYB: You were critical of Trey Hillman's handling of the bullpen last weekend. Do you think he doesn't have a feel for his relievers yet (especially Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz)? Or could Hillman's experience in Japan have him accustomed to using the bullpen differently?
SM: I don't buy the Japan theories. Trey is American. He was born and raised in Texas, spent more than a decade managing in the Yankees' system. He certainly learned some things in Japan, and had a ton of success and some experiences that changed his outlook and view on both baseball and life. But I just don't believe that the guy came back wanting to Japan-ize American baseball. There are a lot of things to criticize Trey about, and I've done a lot of it, but I just don't buy the Japan thoughts.
He does need a bit better feel for the relievers, especially Farnsworth. The decision to go with Farnsworth instead of Soria for the ninth inning [last Saturday] in Texas was just terrible on so many different levels. The front office gave Trey a deep and talented bullpen to work with. There's no reason it shouldn't play out to be one of the team's biggest strengths. It's just up to Trey to use it correctly, and if he doesn't, well, that goes a long way in determining his effectiveness as a manager.
BYB: Are there any concerns about Mike Aviles's slow start? (.182/.193/.218 in 57 plate appearances.) Or are Billy Butler's numbers (.213 /.339 /.277, three RBIs in 56 PAs) raising more eyebrows?
SM: Yes and maybe. I could be proven wrong on this, but Billy's gonna hit. The kid is a savant of sorts. Won two batting titles in three full minor league seasons, and missed the other year by two or three points. He crushes lefties already, and that leaves a big portion of the pie, but I would be really surprised if Billy doesn't turn into a very good big league hitter.
As for Aviles, yes, lots of concerns. Or, at least, there should be. A slow start isn't necessarily alarming, but when you take it all in context there are real reasons to worry. Aviles has lots of holes in his swing, and if the slow start means that the league has figured out how to exploit those holes and Aviles is unable to counter, then it's a big problem.
Remember, Aviles' rookie year was a revelation specifically because of how little anybody was expecting. He was exposed in the Rule 5 draft, nobody took him, the Royals called him up only because their first three shortstop options each failed, then Trey benched him for a week after he went hitless in his first game before finally getting another shot. If Aviles is behind now in the adjustment game, it's definitely something worth keeping an eye on.
[Ed. Note -- Sam wrote more about Aviles' slow start on his blog yesterday.]
BYB: Should Tigers fans feel lucky their team is only facing the "GD" portion of the "MGD" starting pitcher triumvirate in this series?
SM: Haha, yeah, unless they were hoping to get two of the "other" options. I'm expecting all summer the Royals to win more games than they lose when Meche, Greinke or Davies is starting, and then sort of trying to fight for wins when the fourth or fifth starter is going. But look at it this way: your guys have the chance to be the first team this season to score on Greinke.
Thanks once again to Sam for taking the time to answer our questions. He's a good sport and a fun guy, and has great taste in burgers. You can read Ball Star every day at kansascity.com. Now we just have to get him on the Twitter.