Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox

Picking the Royals to win … again

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I have a friend who, when trying to relax or when stressed about things, will run over Los Angeles Rams scores in his mind. I tend to do the same thing with Kansas City Royals blunders. It comforts me. Whenever I think of Desi Relaford just falling off of first base, as if he had been tipped by drunk college kids, or Ken Harvey getting hit in the back by an outfield throw or the team batting out of order with the first batter of the game (yes, that happened) — I feel better about these Royals.

They have started the most pivotal baseball season in Kansas City in more than 20 years. I really do fear that they might not be up to it.

But, hey, you know, there was this one time the Royals started a non-prospect from Class AA in Yankee Stadium because, well, I still don’t know exactly why they did that.

And I am comforted — because at least they’re not going back to that.

There are so many things that worry me about this year’s Royals team. The Plexiglas effect worries me — this is the proposition that teams that take big steps forward one year tend to give back many of the gains the next. The Royals won 86 games last season, a 14-game improvement and the most they won in a season since 1989. It just feels like they’ll fall a bit closer to earth.

The bullpen worries me — not because I think the bullpen will be bad (I expect it to be good) but because I don’t believe it can be as good as last year. You almost cannot overstate how dominant the Royals bullpen was in 2014. The league hit just .217 against that bullpen last year. The bullpen had an insane 2.55 ERA and the pitchers struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings, they were dominant in every possible way. And bullpens tend to be variable, mercurial … it probably won’t be that good this year. And, right away, Game 1, the bullpen blows a lead

Manager Ned Yost worries me. Yost’s often curious managerial decisions don’t bother me as much as his labored explanations for them — his exposition on why he did not have closer supreme Greg Holland start the ninth inning of a tie game against Detroit Monday but did bring Holland inning once the Tigers threatened to score was typically baffling. People will always argue about how much a manager means to a team’s success, but it has been 30 years since the Royals had a manager (Dick Howser) with any winning success as a manager before taking the job. I was actually daydreaming the other day about the Royals hiring Dusty Baker to be their manager — that’s probably not a good sign.

Jason Vargas and Norichka Aoki and Omar Infante worry me. I know a lot of smart people liked the Royals acquiring these veteran players — or at least didn’t mind it too much — but I keep going back in my mind to the astonishing Royals’ history of signing 30-something “professional players” and then watching them unhappily plod and toil and lose lots of games.

Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain worry me. The Royals have had one of the game’s best minor-league system for years and they just have so much trouble with the seemingly simple process of having player come up and simply become a star without a lot of angst and failure and confusion. Other teams have players who just, blammo, are good players. I see it happen — Evan Longoria and Mike Trout and Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki and Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez and Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander. Heck, it even happened for ex-Royal Wil Myers. I mean it DOES happen.

But it rarely seems to happen for the Royals. Hosmer and Moustakas were the can’t-miss stars of their system (well, with Myers). Hosmer’s three-year career has already been a soap opera. Moustakas has 1,500 plate appearances in the big league and an 85 OPS+. Will they be good players? We still don’t know.

And so, I like to think back. I like to reminisce. I like to remember the time that a Royals outfielder climbed the center field wall to steal a home run only to watch the ball land on the warning track and bounce over his head.

I like to think about the time two Royals outfielders settled under a fly ball, looked at each other, and then started jogging happily toward the dugout … only to forget to actually catch the ball. It plopped down joyfully behind them.

I like to think of the time a Royals player lost a ball in the sun and explained afterward that he wasn’t wearing sunglasses because his prescription sunglasses had not arrived yet. Or another time a Royals player wasn’t wearing sunglasses, lost a ball in the sun and got hit in the face with it … on the plane ride home, it was noted, he WAS wearing sunglasses to cover up the shiner.

There was the time a pitcher was released in the middle of the game so he wouldn’t have to answer media questions about how terrible he had been. There was the time a Royals manager met with reporters in a hotel lobby after a game and was told, much to his surprise, that he had been fired. There was the time a pitcher was so ticked off at himself that he angrily threw his the ball in to his glove again and again kind of like that pitcher at the end of ‘Bad News Bears” only to have a base runner steal third while moped.

There was the time a pitcher complained that he was not getting enough no-decisions.

There was the time a Royals general manager considered hiring an artist — an actual painter artist — to draw some of his players so that they could use the artwork as scouting tools. There was the time the Royals tried out a professional softball player and talked about signing him despite the somewhat obvious drawback that he was balking on every pitch.

I like to remember that the Royals once had a manager who guaranteed the Royals would win the division in May of a season where they lost 104 games. The Royals were once on the brink of being sold to a man who walked around town wearing a suit and Royals cap, who had a meeting with the radio guy and told him to start using one of those egg timers so he would know when to give the score, who then held a meeting with the manager to tell him to stop letting batters swing at the first pitch.

I like to remember that the Royals once announced that the players would not be wearing Negro League uniforms on Negro Leagues Day because, you know, uniforms are expensive.

The Royals once blew a huge ninth inning lead with a spectacular series of blunders capped by a dropped fly ball — this last boo boo led announcer Denny Matthews to make the classic call: “Annnnnnnnnnd he dropped it. Yes he did.”

The Royals once had the future best player in baseball — the 47th best player of all time according to one recent ranking — play high school AND junior college ball in town, and they did not draft him either time.

The Royals once looked at a draft board featuring Tim Lincecum, Evan Longroria, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer (who went to school down the road at Missouri) and with the first overall pick took Luke Hochevar, an independent league player who had refused to sign with a team the year before.

The Royals once canceled their annual banquet to save a few bucks, once had a pitcher throw a baseball, no joke, 10 feet over a catcher’s head even though he was standing about 40 feet away at the time, once had an outfielder kick the ball back into the infield, once had a batter go so long without a walk that when he finally got one the fireworks went off — these are all true. The Royals once decided the best way to keep young players like Johnny Damon was to buy them a house in Kansas City (apparently on the theory that they might never figure out that houses can be sold).

The Royals once put a talented and young left-hander into his first big league game on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium with runners on first and second with Jorge Posada at the plate. The Royals either didn’t know or did not believe the numbers that showed Posada was a BETTER HITTER against lefties. After that three-run homer, the kid pitcher — a great guy named Tony Cogan who I still hear from now and again — was kind of ruined.

There are so many more … but, see, already I feel better. With all the worries, the Royals are not that team anymore. The problems they have are adult problems, real baseball problems, the sort of things that other teams must deal with. The Royals have very good baseball players. Alex Gordon is a brilliant defensive outfielder and an above average hitter. Billy Butler is a professional hitter who will get on base and offer doubles and occasional home run power. Salvador Perez is one of my favorite players in baseball, an exception to the general rule about young Royals players — he’s a brilliant young defensive catcher along the lines of a young Yadi Molina and a developing offensive player along the lines of, well, a young Yadi Molina.

Hosmer, for all my concerns above, is someone I still believe will develop into one of the really good hitters in the game.

That bullpen is still loaded with amazing arms and stuff.

Young Yordano Ventura physically resembles Pedro Martinez and he has a 102-mph fastball. James Shields is a pro’s pro. Again, even with my concerns, the Royals have five starters with a chance to be league average, and that’s actually very valuable.

And, in the end, the Royals don’t need miracles to win. They just need some players to live up to their billing, they need a few breaks, they need some development and they could use some luck — aren’t the Royals due for some luck? They absolutely could make the postseason this year.

And so, what the heck, I’m picking them to do so, despite my concerns (and Michael Schur’s logical skepticism). I’m picking them to win the American League Central. But then, I always do — every year as columnist for the Kansas City Star, I would pick the Royals to win the division. It was part joke, part silliness, part insane optimism, part naive hope. I always thought that’s what Opening Day should be about. I’m picking the Royals to win the American League Central. Why? Because: It’s time.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.