If you are like me, you have probably been trying and failing to avoid thinking about the Royals since last October. Storms of blue raining down cheap broken bat bloopers and infield hits will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my days. Just thinking about it right now is still enough to get my blood boiling.
All of that is water under the bridge, though, because the most pressing concern right now is that the Orioles need to get their ship turned around in a hurry, yet now they head to Kansas City, where they will face these Royals for four games. The Royals have followed up on last year's fluky postseason run by absolutely steamrolling an AL Central division that's essentially laid down and died all around them. Must be nice.
It is weird that it's late August and we have yet to play this team. I checked in with my counterpart over at Royals Review, Max Rieper, to get some perspective on how a Royals fan looks on this year's edition of the team. If you'd like to read some of my thoughts on the current sad state of the Orioles, you can find them over at RR here.
Mark: To the best of your knowledge, have any babies been born in the greater Kansas City area since last October? I'm just asking because obviously there must be a price to be paid with the devil for the run you're on.
Max: There has actually been a baby boom this summer in Kansas City, just nine months after the club went on their amazing post-season run. I guess Royals fans really like celebrating.
The club has some good karma going its way lately, which helps make up for the 29 previous years of mostly awful baseball. But the Royals have not exactly fluked their way into this now. Over the last two calendar years, they have a .582 winning percentage, second in baseball only to St. Louis, and that doesn't even include the amazing 11-4 run in the post-season last year. The Royals have proved they are no flash-in-the pan.
Mark: Here in Baltimore, there's been a sense with so many pending free agents that this might be the end of a little run. With the Royals really making big moves for rentals at the deadline, do you feel like that's a sign the team is all in for this year because they don't know what's left for next year?
Max: The club will still have much of its nucleus intact for next year and with the huge bump in attendance, they should have some short-term revenue to at least make a good run at bringing back either Alex Gordon or Ben Zobrist, both of whom will be free agents this winter. Johnny Cueto will certainly be gone, but the Royals couldn't really afford to take on any large long-term contracts due to their contract obligations for next year.
After 2016, virtually the entire team is eligible for free agency. The only players under any kind of contract for 2017 are Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera, and Omar Infante. So the feeling is they have a short window that extends into next season, but you never know if the Royals will ever be in this kind of position where they have skyrocketed to the best record in the league, so they have to put all their chips in now.
Mark: One of the relievers in your bullpen is Ryan Madson, who threw one professional inning from 2012-2014 and now he's back in the bigs with a 2.45 ERA. I don't even have a question about this, I just continue to be amazed how a bunch of randos is once again the best bullpen unit in the AL. Franklin Morales? I mean, really.
Max: A lot of credit should go to Dayton Moore, who has always seemed to be able to assemble a decent bullpen, even going back to the days when the Royals were bad. He is the man that also plucked an All-Star closer from the Padres farm system in the Rule 5 draft by the name of Joakim Soria, so its not too surprising when he finds a non-roster invitee like Ryan Madson and gets some useful innings from him.
Madson signed here because of Jim Fregosi Jr, a special assistant to Dayton Moore, and because the Royals were more flexible with his unusual rehab methods than the Angels were. He's looked like the Madson of old with a killer changeup, and he has allowed Ned Yost to rest his "big three" - Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland.
The Royals bullpen, as good as it was last year, is actually much deeper this year with Madson, Franklin Morales, a healthy Luke Hochevar, and good long relief innings from another cheap free agent in Chris Young. It was so deep they had to jettison Jason Frasor, likely making him the first reliever with a 1.54 ERA ever to get designated for assignment.
Mark: It's late August and our teams have yet to play one another before now. I have observed the Royals steamrolling the AL Central from afar without really seeing how they've done it. Do you think the formula for success is the same as what you had last year? Is there anything different about how the 2015 Royals are winning games?
Max: The foundation for the team is pretty much the same - play amazing defense, keep the game close, and turn it over to a shutdown bullpen. The Royals lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved led up the middle by Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Salvador Perez. They are 52-3 when leading after six innings. They've had some shakiness lately with closer Greg Holland and Wade Davis has been going through some back injuries, but the depth in that pen has helped the Royals weather those storms.
What has really taken them to the next level is the improvement in the offense. The Royals were just ninth in the league in runs scored last year and dead last in home runs and walks. They still aren't great, but they've improved quite a bit and are above average now in runs scored. Eric Hosmer has been red-hot lately, hitting.373/.437/.585 since the break, taking his performance to the next level. Lorenzo Cain, last year's ALCS MVP, has also been on a tear lately and has hit for more power this season.
Mike Moustakas, who was one of the worst regulars in baseball last year, changed his approach and began hitting the ball the other way to beat the shift. The turnaround for him has been remarkable. Kendrys Morales was a disaster last season with the Mariners, and has bounced back to be among the league leaders in RBI. With the offense humming, Ned Yost has not had to play small ball as much, meaning fewer steals and bunt attempts. It will be interesting to see if he gets back to that in October.
Mark: The whole Omar Infante thing... seriously, what the heck? Is Yost just running him out there so often because he thinks that will increase his degree of difficulty and get him a higher score from the Russian judge or what? You have Ben Zobrist!
Max: Zobrist has been handling left-field with Alex Gordon out, and Ned indicated last weekend that time is running out for Infante and Alex Rios, both of whom are in the bottom 20 in baseball in OPS. My theory is that the team has been trotting those two out there as an audition to see if there is a possibility they can turn the corner and be useful in October. With such a large lead not only in the division but for home field advantage, the Royals have the luxury of resting guys, experimenting with lineups, and auditioning players.
As we head into September I imagine the Royals will want to begin dress rehearsals for the playoffs, meaning Infante and Rios will begin sitting in favor of Ned's post-season lineup. When Gordon returns in September, I would expect Zobrist to play second base, and some combination of Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in right field. The only thing that would keep Omar in the lineup is his glove, which has been pretty good this season.
It is interesting how even a major metropolitan daily has been drawn into making up stories to cover for the lack of babies. Who's going to fact check a story about babies? Some day the truth will come out, though.
Thanks to Max for taking the time to answer a few questions. Maybe unlike the last time these two teams played four games, the Orioles can actually win a game this time around.
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