The Detroit Tigers went into Kansas City with a half-game lead in the American League’s Central Division, and left town with a four-game series split. Both teams were off to a good start for the 2015 season, picking up where they left off in 2014 -- when the Tigers edged out the Royals to win the division title by a one-game margin. But splitting series' will not be enough this year.
The differences between the two teams were pretty clear in 2014, but each team enters the 2015 season looking more like the other. The Tigers bring a vastly improved defense, with Jose Iglesias at shortstop, and with Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes in the outfield. The Royals have added some offense, with Kendrys Morales signed as a free agent, and a lineup that suddenly found it’s punching power during the postseason last October.
Some things remain constant. The Royals bullpen and defense are among the best in the game. The Tigers lineup is going to score runs and Miguel Cabrera is going to remain one of the best hitters in the game. But the recent four-game series revealed some questions for each team that need to be answered.
Victor Martinez has been battling a sore knee and his production has fallen off the map. The problem is particularly evident when he faces right-handed pitchers, and is batting left-handed. He is hitting just .213/.330/.227, with no home runs and just one extra base hit overall, batting just .132 from the left side of the dish. This cannot continue much longer if he is to remain in the cleanup spot in the lineup.
Anthony Gose showed flashes of speed on the bases, along with some solid defense, but he also had lapses in both areas, with some ill-advised throws and baserunning mistakes. He will need to be more consistent.
J.D. Martinez is mired in a slump that has left Cabrera with little help to produce offense. Three times during the series in Kansas City, he went 0-for-4. Early signs were that his breakout campaign in 2014 was no fluke. He will need to regain his stroke.
For the Royals, Mike Moustakas has been knocking the cover off the ball, smashing .337/.398/.490 thus far in the 2015 season. After hitting just .212/.271/.361 for the 2014 season, Moustakas found his power, belting five home runs during the postseason, which provided the team with the one thing they lacked most ... power.
Morales is also off to a fine start, hitting .313/.358/.485 with three home runs and 20 RBI for the first month of the season. The Royals took a chance on him as a free agent, even though he hit just .218 with eight home runs in 400 plate appearances between Seattle and the Angels in 2014. He has a career 162 game average of 25 home runs and 89 RBI, and his power is something that the Royals could really use in their lineup.
In fact, the entire Kansas City lineup has been performing well above 2014 levels, and well above expectations this season. Six different Royals carry a weighted on-base average (wOBA) above .350. None of them did so in 2014. They are not going to be anywhere near as good as they have been offensively, but they need to be a good bit better than they were a year ago.
Both the Tigers and the Royals lost their ace pitcher over the offseason. Detroit lost Max Scherzer, while Kansas City lost James Shields. Former Cy Young winner David Price will replace Scherzer in Detroit, while Kansas City is counting on free agent signee Edinson Volquez to pick up the slack. He is off to a fine start, with a 2.10 ERA and 2.73 FIP.
Each team also had some turnover at the back end of their starting rotation. Detroit replaced Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly with Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon. Both pitchers were off to fine starts to the season, but both faltered in the two losses in Kansas City. Kansas City added starting pitchers Kris Medlen, on the disabled list, and Chris Young, who no-hit Detroit through five innings.
The Tigers have yet to get a start from Justin Verlander, who is out with a triceps strain and does not have a return date. Kansas City is expanding the role of young starters Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, with mixed results in the early going. The Royals rotation is full of question marks, although they have managed a combined 2.96 ERA over the first month of the season. The Tigers have steadiness in David Price and Anibal Sanchez, giving them the edge in the starting rotation.
Detroit has the added stress of having just one reliable pitcher in their bullpen -- former Royals closer Joakim Soria. The Tigers have been able to escape the horrors that plagued their relief corps in recent years, limiting the damage when the team carries a lead into the late innings. But they will need either another high wire act or some help from outside the organization in 2015, and the Royals bullpen is the surest thing in the major leagues when the team leads in the late innings.
One of the keys during the 2014 season was the Tigers dominance in head-to-head competition, beating the Royals 14-of-19 games. The Tigers were glad to get out of Kansas City with a split, and with their slim lead in the division in-tact. They are well aware of the fact that they have managed to dominate their closest rivals during their four-year reign as American League Central Division champions. If the Tigers are going to maintain their title for a fifth consecutive year, they must be able to beat the Royals. Of course, the same can be said for the Royals to be successful in 2015.