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Tigers vs. Royals Series Preview: Detroit looks to salvage road swing in first trip to Kansas City

A series sweep would put the Tigers close to .500 for their long road trip.

Baltimore Orioles v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

For as different as their rosters were constructed over the past few years, the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals entered the 2017 season in a similar situation. Both teams are nearing the end of their competitive windows, but were hoping that they could defy preseason projections and compete with the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central.

Instead, they occupy the last two spots in the division standings. The Royals got off to a brutal start, losing 20 of their first 30 games. They have been better lately, ripping off an 11-8 record over the past few weeks. This stretch includes series wins over the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, and Cleveland Indians. For the month, the Royals have a 14-12 record, but have been outscored by 13 runs. They have also been outscored in 23 home games, but sport a 12-11 record at Kauffman Stadium.

At the heart of the Royals’ issues is their offense. They have a 76 wRC+ as a team, the lowest in the American League by a full 14 points. They have the lowest batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average in the league, and have the second-lowest walk rate in baseball. Franchise cornerstones Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas -- a pair of pending free agents that will determine the team’s future this winter — have performed up to expectations. Their role players have not, including shortstop Alcides Escobar, who has a wRC+ of 8.

On the pitching side, the Royals have been fairly decent. Their 4.27 ERA is the fifth-highest in the AL, but they have a 4.13 FIP closer to league average. Their starters have a solid 4.04 ERA despite Jason Hammel’s struggles. The bullpen is no longer the juggernaut that led them to a World Series title, though. Their ‘pen has a 4.66 ERA and the highest walk rate in the league. Like the Tigers, however, the Royals have a few dominant relievers — Mike Minor, Kelvin Herrera, and, yes, Joakim Soria — who have performed well in high-leverage situations.

Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: LHP Daniel Norris (2-3, 4.38 ERA) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (1-6, 5.98 ERA)

While his ERA has not reflected it, Hammel has been trending downward over the past couple seasons. His home run rate has been climbing over the past few years, and his strikeout rate dropped sharply from 2015 to 2016. His walk rate has gone up as well, and is now at the same level as his ill-fated days with the Colorado Rockies. His swinging strike rate is down to just 8.8 percent this year. Depending on what metric you prefer, he may be either lucky or unlucky; His 6.35 Deserved Run Average (DRA) suggests the former, while a 4.86 SIERA hints at the latter.

Game 2: RHP Justin Verlander (4-3, 4.87 ERA) vs. TBD

When Nate Karns was placed on the disabled list last week, young flamethrower Miguel Almonte was slated to start against the high-powered New York Yankees. However, the game was rained out, and the Royals skipped Almonte’s spot. He would have been Tuesday’s starter, but threw 41 pitches in an ill-fated relief outing against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday.

This should mean Chris Young gets the nod, but conspiracy theories, man.

Skoglund is a 24-year-old lefthander the Royals selected in the third round of the 2014 MLB draft. He has had an up-and-down season for Triple-A Omaha, but has a solid 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struck out nine in his last start, and has worked seven strong innings in back-to-back outings. The Royals would need to put him on the 40-man roster to call him up, but they currently have an open space after designating former Tiger Al Alburquerque for assignment last week.

Game 3: LHP Matt Boyd (2-5, 5.40 ERA) vs. RHP Ian Kennedy (0-4, 4.43 ERA)

After a solid debut season with the Royals, Ian Kennedy got off to a blazing start in April. He struck out 28 batters in 31 13 innings, and held opponents to a 2.30 ERA. However, he benefitted from a .184 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and was due to regress at some point. That regression hit as soon as the calendar turned to May, and he has allowed 14 runs in his last 11 13 innings. Even more concerning might be his 11.5 percent walk rate, the highest of his career.

Who’s hot: Eric Hosmer

The rest of baseball got a good laugh when Hosmer (read: agent Scott Boras) told the media he wanted a $200 million contract. That won’t happen, but any rumors of him having a subpar contract year are overblown. Hosmer is hitting .303/.363/.432 in 204 plate appearances, including a 168 wRC+ in the last month. His power has trended in a positive direction as well; he is slugging .500 over the past two weeks, and three of his four home runs have come in the month of May.

Who’s not: Alcides Escobar

The 30-year-old shortstop has long been a point of contention for Royals fans. Things are worse than ever this year, though, as Escobar has a wRC+ of 8 — eight — in 49 games played. He has drawn five walks all season long and has an on-base percentage of .201. Despite these putrid numbers, he has been in the leadoff spot since May 8. He has produced a .372 OPS in those 19 games.

How the Tigers win the series

Normally, this is the part of the preview where I try to find a singular weakness in the opponent that the Tigers need to exploit if they are to be successful. However, after an awful weekend in Chicago, there isn’t much else to say beyond “play better.” The pitching has been fine at times — Michael Fulmer deserved better on Saturday, for certain — but the starting rotation still ranks among the worst in the American League.

If I have to single out one area where the Tigers need to improve, it’s the offense. They struggled to score all weekend long in Chicago, and have managed just 23 runs in the first eight games of their road trip. As has been the case for years, the Tigers need to score early and often against the Royals’ average starters in order to avoid the back end of their bullpen. They are fortunate to avoid Danny Duffy in this series, and will do well to also avoid the likes of Herrera, Soria, and Minor in the later innings.