The Unbeatable Kansas City Royals

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — When I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I would write an annual column where I predicted the Kansas City Royals to win the division. It wasn’t quite an inside joke … and it certainly wasn’t a serious prediction. It was, instead, my best effort to capture a little bit of spring hope in a baseball town that had been beaten up over the years. It’s that time of year for baseball hope. Every player is in the best shape of his life. Every manager is thinking pennant. Every fan is imagining that this will be the year this guy hits 25 homers and that guy strikes out 200 and the other guy gets 30 saves.

I think that’s the whole point with March baseball. The season — and grim reality — will come soon enough.

Well, the problem with writing the Royals’ hope column in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s was simply that it was really hard to come up with an even remotely  plausible scenario where Kansas City won anything. They always needed so many crazy things to happen. They would need Chad Durbin and Jimmy Gobble to become stars. They would need Reggie Sanders or Juan Gonzalez to hold off the hands of time. They would need to win every single one-run game they played and to suddenly become a great fielding team and to magically start getting on base more.

After a while, I referred to it as “hitting on 20 in blackjack” hope. If you hit on 20 in blackjack, you might — MIGHT — draw the ace and win. It could happen. But it’s no way to go through life.

This year — warning: I’m about to break one of my major rules about baseball analysis and quote a spring training statistic — the Royals are unbeaten. They tied their first game of spring training (which, in itself, tells you how meaningless this all is) and they have won every game since. They pounded a split-squad Oakland team on Tuesday — battering the shell of Bartolo Colon for four runs in the first inning — to make it 10 victories in a row. “Everybody’s contributing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said after the game. “That makes it fun.”

Now, let me make this clear: I believe this 10-game spring training winning streak means almost exactly nothing. It means about as much as an NBA player making 20 three-pointers in a row during warmups or an NFL kicker making a 68-yard field goal in pre-game. It might buoy the confidence a bit. It might sell a couple more early season tickets. It might help create a more positive atmosphere in the clubhouse. But that’s it. The Royals began last year by losing their first 10 home games in the regular season — THAT means something.

But … hey winning 10 in a row is better than losing 10 in a row. And there is something exciting about this team. That exciting thing is, paradoxically, something kind of boring: For the first time in what seems like forever, the Royals don’t enter a season needing miracles. They don’t need some crazy-good year from Emil Brown or Dan Reichert, they don’t need supernatural comebacks from Chuck Knoblauch or Jose Lima, they don’t need for anybody to transform into one of the Avengers. Few are expecting the Royals to really compete for a playoff spot this year … and they might not. But for the first time in forever, they COULD compete without an inconceivable series of magic tricks and freak occurrences and James Bond luck.

For one, the bullpen should be dominant — especially in the eighth and ninth innings. The eighth is held down by Kelvin Herrera, whose name might not ring a bell yet, but who had the fastest average velocity in American League last year at 97.1 mph. He has already hit 100 this spring — he’s in shape early for the World Baseball Classic — and he dominated most of last season. The ninth is owned by Greg Holland, another new name to many, and he struck out 91 batters in 67 innings last year, and the league hit .194 against him after he became the closer. They have other guys in the bullpen — Aaron Crow, Tim Collins among them — who consistently throw in the mid-to-high 90s. “Where do the Royals get all these guys?” one American League scout asks.

The starting rotation has questions, certainly, but James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie all have been above average major league starters over their careers — and all have had good seasons in the not-so-distant past. Wade Davis was really good in the Tampa Bay bullpen last year and could be a very good fourth starter. The last time the Royals went into a season with just three starting pitchers who you might reasonably expect to be average or better was probably 1994.

*Kevin Appier, David Cone and Tom Gordon … to give you an idea how long ago it has been.

The lineup is young — which makes it both volatile and exciting. Alex Gordon is one of the better players in baseball, even if few people have caught on yet. Billy Butler hit .310 with 32 doubles and 29 homers last year. Young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were Top 10 prospects and have All-Star talent, and catcher Salvador Perez is probably the best throwing catcher in the American League at age 22 and he has been an offensive wonder in limited time. Of course, it can go bad — Hosmer had a shockingly bad 2012 season and Moustakas wore down and Perez was injured and hasn’t established himself yet. But, pretty much across baseball scouts love those three players. As the American League scout above said, “I’d start my team with those three right now.”

Does this mean the Royals definitely will compete in 2013? Of course it doesn’t. They still need all the things teams need — they need to stay healthy, especially in the starting rotation. They need for some young players to break through and get better, Hosmer in particular. They need for some veterans to repeat what they’ve done in the recent past. They need some luck. But these are the things all teams need going into a season. As one Royals executive said Tuesday, “This camp feels more businesslike than any I can remember.” That might not sound like much, but having been around the Royals for a long time I thought what he was really saying was: “Hey, look, we actually have good players.”

Indians sign Michael Martinez to minor league deal

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There’s something irresistible about Michael Martinez, at least where the Indians are concerned. Six weeks after parting ways with the utility infielder/outfielder, the Indians re-signed Martinez for the fifth time in three years, committing to a minor league contract that will see the 34-year-old in Triple-A Columbus this week. He was designated for assignment by the Rays last Thursday after slashing just .077/.172/.077 through his first 29 PA with the club.

Martinez bounced around the American League last season, logging four games with the Red Sox after the Indians jettisoned him in a trade for cash considerations. He returned to Cleveland on waivers and finished the year with a cumulative .238/.267/.307 batting line, contributing one home run and a .574 OPS in just 106 PA. He found more consistency in the minors, touting a .288 average, 11 extra-base hits and 12 RBI in 114 PA for Triple-A Columbus last season, but didn’t receive enough playing time to develop his stuff at the big league level.

Martinez will rejoin fellow infielders Chris Colabello, Nellie Rodriguez, Josh Wilson, Ronny Rodriguez, Todd Hankins, Yandy Diaz, Eric Stamets and Giovanny Urshela on the Clippers’ roster.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Athletics 10, White Sox 2: Matt Olson, Jaycob Brugman and Franklin Barreto stole the spotlight on Saturday, going deep for the first home runs of their respective major league careers. Not only was it a franchise first for the Athletics, but it was the first time three rookies accomplished the feat for any major league team to date. The last trio to pull it off did so for the Kansas City Packers of the Federal League, when Duke Kenworthy, Art Kruger and John Potts went yard for their first home runs in 1914.

Lost in all the mayhem? James Shieldscareer 2,000th strikeout, a 1-2 knuckle curveball that caught Khris Davis looking to end the second inning.

Rangers 8, Yankees 1: Aaron Judge may be unstoppable, but the Yankees are not. The rookie slugger collected his league-best 26th home run on Saturday afternoon, putting the Yankees on the board with a solo shot during the sixth inning.

It was a mistake Texas’ right-hander Austin Bibens-Dirkx wouldn’t make again, shutting down four of the next five batters he faced and leaving the bullpen to polish off the win with two scoreless frames.

Royals 3, Blue Jays 2: Jason Vargas may not have the pinpoint control of Ivan Nova or the sheer strikeout power of Chris Sale, but as of Saturday afternoon, he now owns the best record in the American League. He cruised to his 11th win against the Blue Jays, spinning seven innings of two-run ball and striking out just two of 27 batters. Marco Estrada matched him pitch for pitch, but lost the edge after Alex Gordon tripled to break the 2-2 tie in the seventh.

Nationals 18, Reds 3: It’s safe to say this was not the season debut Homer Bailey had been anticipating. The veteran right-hander was activated from the 60-day disabled list on Saturday and lasted just 1 2/3 innings against the Nationals’ blistering offensive drive. A six-run second inning forced Bailey’s early exit and brought his ERA to a bloated 43.20 mark after he surrendered eight runs on six hits and two walks. Trea Turner and Michael Taylor were the centerpiece of the Nationals’ 18-run drubbing, combining for nine hits, two home runs and five RBI as the Nats coasted to their 45th win of the year.

Orioles 8, Rays 3: Goodbye, ugly losing streak. Hello, Dylan Bundy. The Orioles pulled within five games of the division lead on Saturday, giving up fewer than five runs for the first time since June 2. Bundy led the charge, issuing three runs on five hits and four walks and striking out eight over seven innings for his eighth win of the season. An explosive four-run effort propelled the club to a comfortable lead in the seventh inning, while Manny Machado‘s eighth-inning sac fly put the finishing touches on an 8-3 finale.

Cubs 5, Marlins 3: After 12 years in the majors, Cubs’ veteran lefty Jon Lester still had some career firsts left to record — including his first win against the Marlins. He cut through Miami’s lineup with expert precision during Saturday’s win, giving up a J.T. Realmuto home run in the first inning and settling down to retire 18 of the next 20 batters he faced. The next team on his list? The Red Sox, whom the Cubs are not scheduled to face this season (barring a chance meeting in the World Series, of course).

Braves 3, Brewers 1: Is R.A. Dickey… good again? The knuckleballer commanded his third quality start on Saturday, squelching the Brewers’ offense with just one run and six strikeouts over seven innings. His only snafu came in the first inning, when he turned to pick off Travis Shaw at third base and was instead penalized with a balk, his first of the year.

The Freeze, meanwhile, was not nearly as successful as his parent club, missing the finish line by mere inches during the customary between-inning sprint around the warning track.

Twins 4, Indians 2: There’s nothing more tragic than a solid pitching effort gone to waste. Corey Kluber allowed two runs and fanned 13 batters for his fifth quality start and second no-decision of the month, dropping what looked like a guaranteed win after Brian Dozier and Chris Gimenez reclaimed the lead with a pair of home runs in the eighth and ninth.

Angels 6, Red Sox 3: Not everyone was as delighted about Kole Calhoun‘s run-scoring balk as the Angels were. Calhoun plated a run in the seventh inning after Fernando Abad stopped his delivery on a 3-1 pitch, boosting the Angels’ lead to three runs and eventually securing their 6-3 win. Neither Abad nor Red Sox manager John Farrell saw eye-to-eye with crew chief Bill Miller, however, and contested the ruling after Abad claimed that he inadvertently balked after seeing Calhoun call for a time out.

Mets 5, Giants 2: From injuries to slumps, it’s been a rough ride for the Mets this month. Enter Jacob deGrom, who crafted his third consecutive quality start with eight innings of one-run ball, striking out seven and going 1-for-3 with a single against the Giants’ Johnny Cueto. The Giants, on the other hand, became the first team to record 50 losses this season after the bullpen blew a 1-1 tie in the eighth.

Pirates 7, Cardinals 3: Look, there may be plenty of legitimate baseball-related reasons to skip out on a wedding reception. I can’t think of any compelling enough to leave your own wedding, however, at least not just to watch Lance Lynn give up seven runs during the Cardinals’ 40th loss of the year.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

Dodgers 4, Rockies 0: Clayton Kershaw is still very, very good. After faltering in a six-run outing against the Mets last week, the Dodgers’ ace returned with six shutout innings against the Rockies, striking out eight and matching Jason Vargas’ league-best 11 wins. He manufactured his own run support, too, drawing a bases-loaded walk in the third inning to cement the club’s four-run lead:

Padres 7, Tigers 3: The Tigers continued their eight-game skid with a tough loss at PETCO Park on Saturday, marring six solid innings from Anibal Sanchez with a five-run implosion in the eighth inning. Andrew Romine put up two of the Tigers’ three runs on an RBI double and single, but wasn’t able to single-handedly rally from a four-run deficit in the ninth.

Astros 5, Mariners 2: Sometimes, it’s difficult to identify the exact moment when a game swings out of control. Other times, it’s all too obvious. For the Mariners, that moment could be traced back to one line drive in the seventh inning:

In Mitch Haniger‘s defense, clearing 69 feet in under five seconds is a feat few can pull off, even with the game on the line.

Diamondbacks 9, Phillies 2: Nothing the Diamondbacks and Phillies did — not even the Ben Lively home run that made this play possible — was as impressive as the coordination and grace of this lone D-backs fan: