The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals have not played against one another for nearly three months. When they last faced off, the Tigers had a winning percentage close to .600 and were still considered favorites to win their fifth consecutive AL Central Division title.
Man, has a lot changed.
The Royals, who had the best record in the American League following that mid-May series, are running away with the AL Central. Their young, boisterous team has earned the ire of baseball for a few controversial dust-ups, but they also seem to be having a lot of fun along the way. Joining them in their blaze of glory through the 2015 season is Royals Review, SB Nation's excellent Royals community. We spoke with managing editor Max Rieper about what has changed with the Royals since they last were in Detroit.
1. This may be a touch premature, but congratulations on your team's first AL Central championship! I won't ask if you're excited about a 62-42 record (duh), so let's go a different way: is the Royals' 96-97 win pace sustainable, or is there something that leads you to believe they will tail off down the stretch?
You know, about 53 weeks ago, the Tigers has a seven game lead on the Royals, in a division that ended up being decided by one game. So let's not crown the Royals quite yet.
That being said, it does seem like they can coast to a playoff spot at this point. The Twins did little at the deadline and there is every reason to think their play is unsustainable (although we've been saying that since April). The Tigers are in rebuild mode, and the White Sox have pretty glaring holes on their otherwise talented roster. The Royals biggest weakness thus far was starting pitching, but they have addressed that with Johnny Cueto, and they have gotten more consistent performances from Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy over the last month. If those two can finish out strong, the Royals have the making of a quality post-season rotation when combined with Edinson Volquez, and they have some decent fallback options in Chris Young and Kris Medlen.
2. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas got all the hype when coming through the Royals' farm system, but Lorenzo Cain leads the team (by a longshot) with 4.9 WAR. Was there a specific change he made to his game that led to this production, or has he always had the potential to be a five-tool center fielder?
The biggest change with Lorenzo is he is driving the ball with more power now. Scouts have long said he had more home run potential, but it would come at a cost of hitting for average. This year, that hasn't been the case. Lorenzo is hitting the ball with authority and Neil Weinberg had a great article at Fangraphs showing how he has closed a hole in his swing.
Lorenzo has been a late bloomer at age 29, but he came to baseball rather late, picking the game up in high school after getting cut in high school. The Royals anticipated his game taking awhile to develop, especially after injuries derailed his career early on. Its great to see their patience pay off, because Lorenzo is simply one of the most enjoyable players to watch on the field and off.
3. Losing Alex Gordon and his 134 OPS+ was a big blow to the Royals' lineup, but they have not missed a beat, winning 13 of their 22 games since he landed on the disabled list. How have Gordon's replacements fared? When is he expected back?
The Royals patched the hole in left-field quite nicely by using a platoon of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando. Orlando has been a bit of a story as a 29-year old rookie out of Brazil. He has always exhibited terrific speed in the minors, but his numbers were never overwhelming. He held his own replacing Alex Rios when he was out for two months with an injury, which has given more opportunities. Jarrod Dyson is one of the more underrated players in the game - even by his own team, seemingly. His base-stealing ability is well known, ask the Oakland Athletics about that, but his defense is also tremendous, and he's one of the few Royals who can draw walks.
Unfortunately, the Royals see him as only a part-time player, and their acquisition of Ben Zobrist was used to plug left-field with Gordon out, despite the fact the Orlando/Dyson tandem was working well, and the team instead had glaring holes in right-field and second base, two positions Zobrist also plays. Zobrist will eventually move to those positions when Gordon comes back, but it is a little frustrating the team does not seem to trust Dyson, despite a .360 OBA since the start of June.
4. The Royals were uncharacteristically aggressive at the trade deadline, adding Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist in exchange for two of their top pitching prospects (and a few other nice players). How do you feel about these trades, particularly considering how far ahead the Royals are in the division race? Will losing Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea eventually come back to bite the Royals?
It's uncharacteristic because the Royals have never been in this position in the modern trade deadline era before. Remember, even last year at the deadline they were barely above .500 and behind two other teams for the final Wild Card spot. There was a question as to whether they should be buyers or become sellers and see what they could get for James Shields.
This year, there was no doubt they should be buyers, and it was exhilarating to see the Royals cash their chips in for two outstanding players. A vocal minority of fans were concerned the team was selling off its future, but I think we have been conditioned to buy into the farm system a bit too much. Many prospects busts, and while its true that as a small market, we depend on prospects more than most, we may not get another opportunity like this again. Adding Cueto and Zobrist was done with an eye towards October. Cueto gives the team the Game One starter the Royals desperately needed, and Zobrist gives them another bat and roster flexibility they sorely needed last year in the playoffs. Brandon Finnegan and Sean Manaea (who I particularly like) may have promising careers ahead of them, but that shouldn't stop the Royals from making a move that improves their probabilities to win this October.
5. From an impartial perspective, last weekend's Royals-Blue Jays series was a ton of fun, and I'm among those rooting for a repeat matchup in the postseason. The Jays seemed to pose a serious problem for the Royals, though, battering them for 23 runs in four games. Which AL playoff contender do you most not want to face in a five or seven-game series?
Toronto is a beast in the friendly confines of the Rogers Centre, but they've been dreadful on the road at 22-31, with the Royals handling them well, taking two of three at Kauffman just before the All-Star break. Adding David Price and Ben Revere helps them, but they've been plagued with starting pitching and bullpen issues this season, which is a big reason why they're barely above .500 and may not even make the post-season.
Houston and New York both thumped the Royals at their place, sweeping the series, only to lose the series at Kauffman. I think both pose a threat because they take advantage of their short porch so much, making a road win difficult for the Royals. However, the Royals have the big advantage in Kansas City, with the spacious ballpark and excellent defense. With Houston's starting pitching and their bullpen's ability to miss bats, I'll put them down as the team that probably scares me the most right now.
6. After Wade Davis allowed a home run this weekend, Detroit's Blaine Hardy inherited the "longest inning streak without a home run allowed" title. Hardy is one of two bullpen pieces we Tigers fans even somewhat trust, while the Royals have a stable of arms deeper than Justin Verlander's sports car collection. Do you guys just grow them on a farm? Make them in a factory? Steal them from the Cardinals? Share your secrets.
We've been critical of Dayton Moore for awhile, but we've long said the one thing you can count on him is his ability to assemble a bullpen. Even when we were a pretty lousy team 5-6 years ago, Dayton was finding use out of guys like Joakim Soria (Rule 5 pick), Robinson Tejeda (waiver claim), or Tim Collins (trade). I'm not exactly sure how they do it, although I should probably give some credit to Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland since the overall bullpen numbers have improved pretty much since they got here. Ned has been criticized quite a bit in the media over the years, but he deserves a lot of credit for how he handles the pen. The Royals are dead last in the league in relief appearances on zero days rest, and Ned has been pretty dogmatic about not overusing guys. It helps that Dayton Moore has given him a lot of depth, but Ned has not abused his embarrassment of riches and hopefully that discipline will pay off in October with fresh arms.
Once again, a big thank you to Max and the rest of the Royals Review staff for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read the other half of our Q&A over on their site. Be sure to check out Royals Review all season long for the very best Royals news coverage and analysis!