Eric Hosmer

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.”

Is Bud Black the favorite to be the next Braves manager?

Bud Black
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We talked last week about how Fredi Gonzalez is likely a dead man walking as the Braves manager. They stink, he’s a lame duck and part of the team’s whole marketing thrust is “2017 will be a new beginning,” what with the new ballpark and all. It stands to reason that Mr. Gonzalez doesn’t have long for this world.

Last week I suspected he’d be fired tomorrow, the Braves off day before a home stand. They’ve won in the past week, but it still wouldn’t shock me. Even if firing Gonzalez would be an act of scapegoating. It’s the roster that’s the problem, not the manager, even though Fredi doesn’t exactly inspire anyone.

Today Bob Nightengale throws this into the mix:

As of yet he hasn’t followed that up with an actual column or more tweets about who, exactly, considers Black to be the heavy favorite, but there’s a definitiveness to that which makes me think he’s heard something solid.

Black, as you know, was the long time Padres manager who had an unsuccessful flirtation with the Nationals before they hired Dusty Baker this past offseason. Black is now cooling his heels with his longtime boss Mike Scioscia in Anaheim, in what is clearly a “wait for his next managing opportunity” posture.

Could it be in Atlanta? At least one national writer and some nebulous group of insiders believe so, it would seem.

The Reds bullpen set a record for futility

Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher J.J. Hoover reacts after giving up a solo home run to Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez, left, during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Cincinnati. The Cubs won 8-1. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Associated Press
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I mentioned this in the recaps this morning but it’s worthy of its own post.

The Cincinnati Reds’ bullpen gave up two runs last night. In so doing it made for the 21st consecutive game in which it has allowed at least one run. That’s a new major league record, having surpassed the 2013 Colorado Rockies’ record of 20, according to Elias.

Last year the Reds set a record — shattered it, really — by going with rookie starting pitchers in 64 straight games to end the season. Those guys aren’t rookies anymore, but they’re still really inexperienced. They could probably use some better bullpen help than they’ve been getting.

Headline of the Day– A-Rod: “Trophy Boyfriend”

Alex Rodriguez
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For as long as there have been couples, the woman in a couple has been publicly defined by the man’s life and accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if the woman cures cancer, walks on the moon or wins the Eurovision Song Contest, when news stories or obituaries are written, she is invariably referred to as “wife of ___” or “girlfriend of ___.” Even if the guy is a grade-A schmuck.

While that pattern still persists, it’s nice to see someone flip the script on it once in a while. Like The Cut did in its story about a new, high-profile couple going public:

 

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The couple: Alex Rodriguez and Anne Wojcicki. Who, if you were unaware, is a Silicon Valley biotech CEO and a billionaire. She went to Yale, played varsity hockey in college and is a mother. Alex Rodriguez is accomplished and famous, but outside of the sports bubble he’s a padawan to Wojcicki’s master Jedi. Despite this, in places other than The Cut, it would still not be surprising to see her referred to as “A-Rod’s girlfriend,” because that’s just how people roll. Here’s hoping others take The Cut’s lead when referring to women in the public sphere more often.

A related note: in the rare cases when a famous male personality is identified in reference to his female partner and not the other way around, people like to make jokes and like to question the masculinity of the man. Which is equally stupid. And, to the man in question, should be utterly beside the point.

To that end, I think it’s worth noting that Alex Rodriguez has been involved with several women who, outside of baseball, are far more famous than he is and it’s never seemed to be an issue for him whatsoever. People like to say a lot of things about A-Rod’s ego and personality, but in this respect I bet he’s a hell of a lot better adjusted, grounded and self-assured than the vast majority of men who might find themselves in his place.

Video: Jeff Samardzija breaks a bat over his knee after striking out

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Jeff Samardzija had a great night last night. He allowed one run on three hits over eight innings and picked up the win. In the early going he’s proving wrong those who thought that the Giants overpaid for him and is providing solid performance from the third spot in the Giants rotation. It’s all good.

But good is not always good enough for a professional athlete. Especially one like Samardzija, who excelled in multiple sports and likely can count his lifetime athletic failures on one hand. No, when you’re wired like that you get upset even when you’re excellent because sometimes you want to be perfect.

For example, most pitchers don’t get too worried about striking out. They’re there to pitch, not bat. They turn on their heel and calmly walk back to the dugout. Samardzija, however, got a bit irate when he struck out. Then he did this: