The last time we heard from Max Rieper, Editor-in-chief of Royals Review, was for our Q&A back in May when the Royals were playing some pretty terrible baseball. Now that they’ve become “contenders” for the top spot in the AL Central, we’ve asked him to come back and answer some questions about this transformed team leading up to the four-game series with the Tigers.
BYB: The last time I talked with you the Royals were not so great. This time around they're at 45-45 and are two games out of first place. What has changed for this team, and do you think they have a legitimate shot at the division?
MR: The Royals stumbled out of the gate with a historically-bad offense — like literally, they were on pace to smash record for ineptitude. But these are veterans with a track record, so we should have known Eric Hosmer wouldn't hit .165 all season, rather, he has been on fire since then, and he, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Salvador Perez have really carried the offense this year. They have also gotten surprising performances from Whit Merrifield and Jorge Bonifacio which has allowed them to win despite league-worst performances from Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Brandon Moss, and Jorge Soler.
The bullpen has shaped up after a shaky earlier performance and the starting rotation has been much better than expected. This is a team that still has some major holes, but if they can address some of those holes at the deadline, you can kind of squint and see them contending for a playoff spot if the Indians continue to underperform.
The trade deadline is quickly approaching. Are the Royals buying, and if so what are they looking for?
After months of speculation that the Royals would have a firesale, it looks like the team will instead be buyers at the trade deadline. However, they have two pretty big limitations — the first being money, which is always a concern for small market teams, but the more serious limitation is the barren farm system with few tradeable assets. That takes the Royals out of the running for any top trade target, and they will have to instead look at rentals who will only require good, but not great prospects. With Nate Karns and Matt Strahm out for the year, the Royals have a major hole in their rotation that they will need to address. They also highly value bulllpen depth and could likely use another arm out there. They were hoping Jorge Soler could help address the black hole at DH - Brandon Moss has been a disaster. But Soler has failed to hit either, and the Royals could begin looking at external options. They badly need a leadoff hitter, and there was talk they could bring in Dee Gordon (who would also be a long-term asset) and move Merrifield into the outfield and Bonifacio to DH.
Speaking of trades, the names of quite a few Tigers players have been bandied about in regards to trade probability. Is there anyone on Detroit's list of possibles that you'd like to see in a Royals uniform?
There was a piece by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe last week mentioning the Royals as one of the teams in on J.D. Martinez, but I have a hard time seeing it. Martinez should be one of the most coveted bats available, and it is hard to see what the Royals could offer to get him. Maybe one of the Tigers relievers could interest them, and if they get desperate enough, maybe they agree to take Anibal Sanchez if the Tigers pay all his salary and maybe throw in a free oven mitt or something. You don't typically see intra-division trades, and I don't really see the Royals and Tigers matching up well.
Take a minute and explain what the Moose Dongs t-shirt is, and why anyone would wear it.
So "dongs" is an old term meaning home runs, and Royals fans on twitter and the internet have kind of adopted the term and made it their own, calling Royals home runs "trips to Dongtown." Moustakas is on his way to breaking the single-season franchise home run record (a pitiful 36, held by Dennis Franz-look alike Steve Balboni), so "Moose Dongs" has become a bit of a thing in Kansas City. Maybe the Midwest heat is getting to us.
Jason Vargas is slated to start the opening game. He continues to pitch extremely well, but his peripherals (like a 4.77 xFIP) are a little alarming. Is he one of those pitchers that peripheral stats are wrong on, or are you expecting the bubble to burst on him at some point?
I think we've been expecting the bubble to burst since April, but he continues to outperform his peripherals. Vargas has succeeded by throwing an unbelievable number of changeups (30% of his pitches), and he has been the most effective changeup pitcher in baseball by a significant margin.
Vargas has been an afterthought during the Royals' recent runs — he had Tommy John surgery in 2015, months before the Royals won it all — so we kind of forget how good he was before the surgery. But he was a 2.2 fWAR pitcher in 2014 and has been a pretty solid pitcher most of his career. No one expected this, however.
Finally, take your best shot at predicting how this series shakes out.
This is a pretty big series for the Royals. The were swept by the Dodgers before the break, and were in danger of being swept by the Rangers until Shin-Soo Choo dropped a ball in the ninth to allow the Royals to score the winning run on Sunday. They have two weeks to put themselves in a good position for the trade deadline. While I don't believe they will be sellers in any circumstance, if they go on a losing streak they may go from being "buyers" to "staying put."
Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann have dominated the Royals, and with Verlander going in one of the other games, the Royals will probably have to hope to get into Detroit's bullpen to do damage. The Royals have fared well against the Tigers the last few seasons, and with Detroit falling out of it, this would be a good opportunity for the Royals to go on one of their patented runs.
Thanks again to Max for answering our questions for this installment of the Q&A. You can find his work, and other great Royals coverage over at Royals Review.