The last time the Tigers met the Kansas City Royals the two teams were in fourth and fifth place respectively. While the Tigers remain in the four spot coming into the most current match-up, the surging Royals have climbed up to third. To give us a little perspective on the turnaround, and what’s going on with the team in general, we talked with David Lesky the Managing Editor for Baseball Prospectus Kansas City.
BYB: Leading into the last series where these two teams squared off, the Royals were 21-28 and sitting in last place in the AL Central. They now find themselves at 37-37 and only 2 1/2 games out of first. What do you see as the reason for the turnaround?
David: When the Royals last played the Tigers, the turnaround had sort of begun, but wasn't in full swing just yet. After starting 7-16 in April and 10-20 through 30 games, the offense began to click a little bit and instead of being one of the worst offenses in baseball history, they were actually competent! It was pretty crazy. Two guys who weren't on the big league roster to start the season, Whit Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio, have been really important cogs in this offense and allowed them to do some good things. It's also helped that the bullpen has stabilized a bit after a brutal start to the season, but just scoring runs has been the biggest key.
BYB: What is your take on the AL Central as a whole at this point in the season?
David: Man, this division confuses me. I thought the Indians might have a bit of a hangover after the World Series, but I didn't expect the Tigers to be this bad or the Twins to be this good. If you forced me to answer, I'd still say the Indians get to 91 or 92 wins, but I also think there's a non-zero chance that the Central is won with 88 wins, which leaves it wide open for basically everyone but the White Sox. I'm sure your fans will read this and say I'm crazy for not lumping the Tigers in, but with the talent on the roster, I still think they could go on a hell of a two-week run to get right back in it.
BYB: We've read that the Royals are inclined to make another run at the playoffs with the players they have. With so many good players due for free agency after this season, don't they risk losing out on a big opportunity to acquire some players to rebuild around? Do you think they would be better served to rebuild or should they go for it?
David: Mediocrity is basically the biggest enemy of the Royals this season. If they're really good, awesome. Let's gun for another parade. If they're really bad, well that sucks, but at least they have a clear path to help rebuild a down farm system. But here we are, they're 37-37 and right in the middle of about 78 teams within a few games of a playoff spot. To not answer your question, I think there's next to no way the Royals sell at this point. To answer your question, I think what's best for the long-term of the franchise is to sell if they're just hovering around .500, but as a fan at this very moment, I won't mind seeing these guys finish one last season. Don't ask me about that in two years. I might be very mad about standing pat at that time.
BYB: The Tigers are almost certainly going to be sellers. Names mentioned have been J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, Justin Verlander, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila and Jose Iglesias. I'm going to ask you to suspend reality for a little bit here and assume that the Royals want to acquire someone from the Tigers, and that the Tigers would be willing to buck the bizarre rule that teams have of not trading within the division. Who do the Royals target here, why, and what do they have to give up to get it done?
David: In order, I'd say J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and Ian Kinsler would be the targets. With Martinez and Upton, they can upgrade the DH spot, whether that's playing them there or pushing Bonifacio to the DH role. With Kinsler, they could push Merrifield to the outfield and send Bonifacio to the DH spot (yeah, he's not so great defensively). And every team can use a solid reliever to add to their unit. Where there would be a holdup is the return. Josh Staumont has had a rough few weeks in Omaha, but he has one hell of an arm and could be a piece the Royals use to trade. They could look to move one of their first base prospects, I guess, in Ryan O'Hearn or Samir Duenez. And another piece they could move would be Jorge Soler who was hurt to start the year, then struggled in the big leagues and is now treating AAA as batting practice. The likelihood is they don't have the piece for a move, but you never know.
BYB: Matt Strahm is slated to start game one opposite of Justin Verlander. Until recently he was pitching out of the bullpen. Is Strahm a starter going forward?
David: I'm not sure if Strahm is a starter all this season, but I think that's his ultimate role. His changeup will determine whether or not I'm right, but I see it as an average enough pitch that he can get by with his fastball, slider and curve and that as something a bit more than a show pitch. I'm a big fan of Strahm, so I might be a bit biased, but as long as he can stay healthy, I think he'll be a good starter. It just might be 2018 before he's really there.
BYB: The Royals also signed Neftali Feliz recently. What was the purpose of this signing, and do you see it as a good move, or would you have preferred they try another option to help bolster the bullpen?
David: The purpose? I have no idea. I mean, I guess they hoped to catch lightning in a bottle as they've done a few times before with Dave Eiland as pitching coach. As long as he's throwing the low leverage innings Chris Young was before, I'm fine with it to see if they can fix him, but I really fear that they'll use him in a way that makes this move stupid. I get the sense that he has until Kyle Zimmer can throw more than every fourth day to show what he has. I guess I'm not sure what else they could have done, and it's dirt cheap, but I still don't really get the move.
BYB: Finally, I'll give you a chance to prognosticate. What is your prediction for how things shake out for the Royals in the upcoming series?
David: I think the Tigers take the series, but it's more of a gut feeling. This is probably another spot where your fans are thinking I'm way too optimistic about the Tigers, but I could see this series being looked over by the Royals with a four-game set against the Twins coming up and I also just don't like the pitching matchups for this team. I hope I'm wrong, though.
Thanks again to David for taking the time to participate in our Q&A. He’s on Twitter at @DBLesky, and you can read more of his work at the BP Kansas City site. To get more insight on his thoughts about the upcoming series you can jump over to BP Kansas city and read his series preview.