2013 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Today: the Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Are the Royals finally ready to contend?

For a while the Royals were a popular preseason “sleeper” pick because of their stacked farm system, but the actual big-league impact from those many top-ranked prospects has been underwhelming so far. And so instead of waiting for the next wave of young talent to arrive, led by elite outfield prospect Wil Myers, general manager Dayton Moore decided to trade Myers (and Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard) for veteran pitching help in James Shields and Wade Davis.

Now the Royals are a popular preseason “sleeper” pick again, with the premise being that a totally rebuilt rotation and some natural improvement from a young lineup is enough to make the leap into contention. I’m not sure I buy it, at least not for 2013, because adding Shields, Davis, Ervin Santana, and a full season of Jeremy Guthrie to a team that went 72-90 last year and hasn’t won more than 75 games in a decade doesn’t scream 85-plus wins to me.

Don’t get me wrong, Shields is very good. However, he’s been helped by the Rays’ pitcher-friendly ballpark and defense. For his career Shields has a 3.33 ERA in Tampa Bay compared to 4.54 everywhere else. None of which is to say he’ll fall apart, but Shields isn’t quite as good as he looked in Tampa Bay. And it’s worth noting that for as well as Davis pitched out of the Rays’ bullpen he has a 4.22 ERA with just 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter. Guthrie and Santana aren’t without value, but Guthrie is 34 years old with a 4.47 ERA since 2009 and Santana served up an MLB-high 39 homers on the way to a 5.16 ERA last season.

There’s no doubt the Royals’ rotation is improved, but Shields and four guys who aren’t particularly strong bets to post an ERA under 4.00 is nothing special. And if the rotation is merely mediocre despite all the resources Moore pumped in is the rest of the team good enough to equal a dozen-game improvement? The bullpen has a chance to be a huge strength with tons of power arms, but the lineup scored the AL’s third-fewest runs and is basically unchanged. If the Royals are going to contend I think it’ll be based on young hitters (Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella) breaking through, not veteran pitchers.

What else is going on?

• Alex Gordon deserves recognition for shaking off an early “bust” label to become one of the most underrated players in the league. He hit .298 with an .850 OPS during the past two seasons while playing 312 of a possible 324 games and the former No. 2 overall pick has turned into an excellent defensive left fielder after beginning his career at third base. Billy Butler gets more attention, but Gordon has been the Royals’ best all-around player in back-to-back years.

• Getting back to that part about the Royals’ bullpen being stacked with power arms: Last season 19 relievers in the AL threw at least 60 innings while averaging 93 miles per hour or higher with their fastball and four of them are in the Royals’ bullpen. Kelvin Herrera led the AL with 98.5 mph, Greg Holland ranked seventh at 96.1 mph, Aaron Crow was 12th at 94.5 mph, and Tim Collins was 19th at 93.2 mph. And while the jury is out on Luke Hochevar as a reliever after he stunk as a starter he should be able to join that group after averaging 92.6 mph as a starter.

• The projected starting lineup features two hitters (Gordon and Butler) who had an on-base percentage above .333 last season. I’d bet on Hosmer topping that mark–and remain pretty bullish on him overall long term–but Moustakas, Perez, Chris Getz, Alcides Escobar, and Jeff Francoeur are all hackers. It’ll be an issue for a team that drew the fewest walks in the league last year.

• This year’s Royals payroll includes $34 million going to Santana, Guthrie, Hochevar, Francoeur, and Bruce Chen. I don’t really have anything to add to that, but I just wanted to make sure everyone realized it.

• Joe Posnanski can probably write something similar again next spring.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League Central

Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).