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Tigers vs. Royals Series Preview: The rebuild has officially begun

You know, in case the last week didn’t already make that clear.

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

This is going to be a rough month for the Detroit Tigers. If trading four established major leaguers over the past six weeks (including two last week) didn’t make that abundantly clear, last weekend’s series against the Cleveland Indians did. The Tigers were outscored 29-5 in four games and fell 20 games below .500 for the first time since the final day of the 2005 season.

Now they welcome the Kansas City Royals to town. Kansas City has had their own ups and downs throughout the 2017 season, but have a mostly healthy roster on hand. Meanwhile, the Tigers will be without Miguel Cabrera (suspension), Victor Martinez (heart), Michael Fulmer (elbow), Alex Wilson (suspension), and Jordan Zimmermann (neck).

Speaking of Zimmermann, his recent flare-up of neck pain will take him to a specialist later this week. He will miss at least one start — which would have come against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, not in this series — and potentially more. This leaves the Tigers rotation as such:

Artie Lewicki
Anibal Sanchez
Matt Boyd
Buck Farmer
Chad Bell

Not only will the Tigers be facing more talented teams down the stretch (especially if Fulmer doesn’t return), their opponents will also be more motivated. The Royals and others are still jockeying for playoff position, while the Tigers are simply playing out the string in a lost season. Their rebuild is off to a fast start, but it will make for some ugly series over the next few weeks.

Pitching Matchups:

Game 1: RHP Jake Junis (6-2, 4.41 ERA) vs. RHP Artie Lewicki (14-4, 3.38 ERA in minors)

Artie Lewicki will make his major league debut on Monday afternoon against a near-mirror image of himself. Jake Junis was a similarly unheralded prospect — though he was drafted out of high school, not college like Lewicki — who put up solid numbers in the minors en route to a shot at the big league rotation. Junis struggled in his early call-up, but has settled down since then. He posted a 2.96 ERA in five August starts while limiting opposing hitters to a .219 batting average and .255 on-base percentage. The 24-year-old Junis did so by increasing his slider usage, which might not be sustainable for a long period of time. He has just enough movement on his low-90s fastball to stick in the back of a rotation, though.

Game 2: LHP Jason Vargas (14-9. 3.87 ERA) vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez (3-3, 6.95 ERA)

Remember when Jason Vargas was an All-Star? Yeah, that was fun. The Tigers rudely greeted Vargas with six runs on seven hits in just 2 23 innings in his first start after the All-Star break, and things haven’t gotten much better for him since then. He has a 6.80 ERA in the second half, and the Royals have lost six of his nine starts. He has given up 11 home runs in 45 innings — he only gave up eight in the first three months of the season — and has just 34 strikeouts to 20 walks. Vargas has never been able to solve the Detroit lineup either; in 11 starts against the Tigers, he has given up a 6.03 ERA.

Unfortunately, the Tigers might need those runs (and more) with Sanchez on the mound.

Game 3: RHP Jason Hammel (7-10, 4.80 ERA) vs. LHP Matt Boyd (5-8, 5.92 ERA)

There is something about this Royals lineup that Matt Boyd can’t solve. Though he has a pair of wins against them this year, they tagged him for four runs on seven hits in a late May matchup. In eight career meetings with the Royals, Boyd has an 8.27 ERA. He has just 19 strikeouts in 32 23 innings. He has given up an incredible 53 hits during that span.

Part of it is their lineup construction. Boyd has struggled against right-handed hitters throughout his career, and the Royals have been able to run out a slew of semi-productive righties over the past few years. Their lefties have also hit Boyd well; Eric Hosmer is 7-for-15, and Mike Moustakas has a pair of extra-base hits in 11 at-bats. Worse yet, they now have Melky Cabrera (6-for-17) in the mix as well.

Who’s hot: Melky Cabrera

Cabrera hasn’t been the Royals’ hottest hitter since arriving from the division rival Chicago White Sox. He hasn’t even been a replacement level player, thanks to some truly horrible baserunning. He has been a plus at the plate, though, hitting .307/.336/.488 with four home runs in 32 games. He has been even better over the past month, providing a 121 wRC+. This hasn’t helped the Royals in the standings — they have actually lost 3 12 games in the wild card race since the trade — but Cabrera has generally done his job.

Who’s not: Alex Gordon

Man, what happened? Gordon once seemed like one of the surer bets on the free agent market. He was a well-rounded corner outfielder coming off three consecutive All-Star appearances, and had compiled a pair of six-win seasons (and 24.9 total fWAR) since 2011.

His latest contract has been a complete disaster, though. Gordon hit .220/.312/.380 in an injury-riddled 2016 season, and has followed that up with a 50 wRC+ (and -0.3 fWAR) in 122 games this season. He is hitting just .176/.222/.191 over the past month, and has finally been relegated to the bench by manager Ned Yost. He will be in Kansas City’s lineup on Monday, but will need to improve his production if he wants to stay there.