Back to the Future

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Well, for at least a few days, Reagan is meeting with Gorbachev again, Sly Stallone is boxing Russians and looking for POWs, Madonna is a material girl. For a few days, the Commodore 128 is cutting-edge technology, Coca Cola tries a new recipe and the worst rock song ever recorded, Starship’s “We Built This City,” makes our ears bleed. It is 1985 again. The Kansas City Royals are in first place.

True, they could be out of first place as soon as this weekend. But they are in first place now, and providence demands that small miracles be noticed and cherished. The Royals have been, almost without exception, a nightmare team to love since 1985, when a scrappy bunch of kids and veterans won a World Series. The dreary years since are well-covered ground. And for the first two months of this season the Royals gave every indication that this would be as disappointing and disheartening a season as any of them.

Then they won 10 in a row.

And now, for this moment, they’re in first place.

That’s the wonder of baseball. No other sport offers this chance to go from a nothing team to a thrilling one in just 11 days. On June 7, the Royals were in last place in the uninspiring American League Central. They were three games below .500. They were last in the league in home runs, in slugging percentage, in OPS and, most importantly, in runs scored.

They were so thoroughly out of ideas that they canned hitting coach Pedro Grifol — that’s what the Royals ALWAYS do when they can’t hit. Grifol was the fifth hitting coach to disappear in three years. May in Kansas City is that time of year when hitting coaches (and, occasionally first-base coaches) are best served hiding under beds because they often spontaneously combust or have bizarre gardening accidents the authorities decide are better left unsolved.

So, yes, the Royals’ season was playing out like normal, the longest running tragic opera in America. You would have to say that, the Royals actually were AHEAD of their usual pace — hey, three games under .500 in June is almost parade-worthy in Kansas City. But it felt worse than normal because the Royals had been pointing to 2014 for a long time.  This was to be the year it all turned around, the year their almost unprecedented crop of prospects blossomed, the year the Royals finally gave Kansas City a real pennant race to enjoy and endure.

Eleven days ago, that seemed impossible.

Today, at least, it not only seems possible but very real.

Yes: The wonder of baseball. The Royals have had brief moments of sunshine before –particularly back in 2003 when Tony Pena was handing out “We Believe!” T-shirts and the late Jose Lima was floating change-ups past the world. The Royals were in first place into late July that year. But it was different — 2003 was this strange oasis between 100-loss seasons. That team wasn’t any good, and everyone knew it wasn’t any good. The season was spent waiting to see how long it took the players to figure it out (answer: September 1).

But this Royals teams IS good, or at least they have some good young players. The sluggish start was particularly painful because there had been real hope entering the season. The Royals signed pitcher Yordano Ventura for $28,000 when he was 16 years old — six years later, he’s a rookie throwing 103 mph. The Royals had high hopes for a left-handed pitcher named Danny Duffy, and then one day a few years ago he called up the Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo and said he was quitting baseball. He came back and, not long after, blew out his elbow. He came back again and this year has been mostly fantastic.

The Royals drafted Greg Holland in the 10th round out of Western Carolina — he was a 5-foot-10 non-prospect. Best I can tell, he never once made Baseball America’s list of the Royals top THIRTY prospects. The last two years, he has 67 saves, a 1.25 ERA and he has struck out 143 in 93 innings.

And so on. Once promising starter Wade Davis has become the Incredible Hulk as a setup man — he has struck out 49 batters in 30 innings and, you won’t believe this, has not allowed an extra-base hit all year. Veterans James Shields and Jason Vargas have been very good. Like I say, this team IS good, or as good as Royals teams get, and when they were stuck in last place and playing uninspired baseball, it felt like a new way for them to cause suffering.

Then again, you notice all the players I mentioned above are pitchers — the Royals’ lineup was unbearably awful. For two months they did almost nothing well. The only skill they displayed the first two months of the season was the ability to avoid strikeouts — a skill that doesn’t add up to much when you spend most of your effort grounding balls to second base.

Then, for the last 11 days, the Royals have started crushing baseballs. It’s just a small sample, of course, but it happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that it’s worth celebrating. Since June 7, they have 13 homers in 10 games. They have scored 24 runs in their last three games against top dog Detroit — Tuesday night they crushed last year’s Cy Young-winner Max Scherzer. Catcher Salvador Perez keeps on hitting. Their best hitting prospects of the last few years, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, finally started hitting. Hey, maybe firing the batting coach worked this time.

And a few words should be written about Alex Gordon. He’s only 30 but he has lived a full baseball life. In 2005, the Royals drafted him with the second-overall pick — it’s hard to describe how much excitement he triggered. Gordon was not only the top college hitter in the America, he was a true Midwesterner — born and raised and college-educated in Lincoln, Neb. — and he grew up in a Royals family. One of his brothers was actually named after George Brett. Even more , Gordon’s swing was obviously patterned after Brett’s. Everything seemed so right, and then Gordon had a brilliant season in the minors — he was named Baseball America’s minor-league player of the year — and stardom was assured.

Only, it wasn’t. Gordon came up to the major leagues and, for all the calm he tried to display for the masses, he was entirely spooked. He was hitting in the .170s in early June. His defense at third base, which was expected to be solidly average or above, was frightening Royals management. He was the all-but unanimous preseason Rookie of the Year, but instead he hit .247, struck out 137 times. Gordon was only moderately better the next year.

Then the injuries began, and whatever confidence was left seemed shattered. The Royals sent Gordon down to the minor leagues to learn how to be a left fielder. Through age 26, Alex Gordon was hitting .244/.328/.405 and was basically unplayable at third base. It could not have looked more dire.

Then Gordon did what very few can do. He rebuilt himself. He embraced the role of a left fielder, he worked hard on finding his swing. In 2011 and 2012 he was a great player. He hit .298/.372/.478 those two years, led the league in doubles in 2012, won well-deserved Gold Gloves for his play in left field. People had more or less stopped noticing him, but Gordon had become one of the best players in the American League.

This year, he’s again up there, having a quiet MVP-type season. At the moment, the Website Fangraphs puts Gordon’s Wins Above Replacement at 4.1 — second in the league behind only Mike Trout. People feel all different ways about the WAR stat but the point is not the number but that Gordon is doing everything well — he’s hitting, he’s throwing in a little power, he’s one of the best baserunners in baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he’s playing spectacular defense. Gordon has been the best defensive left fielder in baseball for a while now. These days, he’s making a case for best defensive player in baseball PERIOD, any position. According to John Dewan’s fascinating “Runs Saved” statistic, Gordon has saved the Royals 16 runs this year with his defense. For the moment, he has saved more runs with his left-field defense than Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons or Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

Look, you don’t have to tell Royals fans that all this can disappear in a moment. There are stats that suggest the Royals have had a lot of luck this season, and luck rarely lasts all the way through. There are reasons to believe the Tigers are much better than the Royals, and that the Royals’ bullpen will not continue to dominate, and that the lack of power in the Royals lineup will lead to some bad stretches and that the starting rotation won’t hold up. You don’t have to tell Royals fans any of that because they’ve been living it for almost 30 years.

But right now: The Royals are in first place. They are wearing their raspberry berets and listening to the cheers and going back to the future. You don’t question these things in Kansas City. You relish in them. Maybe it’s a dream. But if it is, let us sleep for a little while longer. But, yes, please do wake us up before you go go.

2017 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

Phillies fans, get ready for another losing season. As bad as that sounds, 2017 is simply the next step in the Phillies’ rebuilding process. As a result, the club stocked up on veterans who are not signed beyond this season. GM Matt Klentak acquired Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox and utilityman Howie Kendrick from the Dodgers. He also signed outfielder Michael Saunders, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek, and re-signed Jeremy Hellickson.

The biggest move of the offseason, however, was signing All-Star outfielder Odubel Herrera to a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension which will keep him in town through at least 2021. The deal also includes options for the 2022-23 seasons. Herrera, 25, transitioned from second base to center field in 2015 when the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Rangers. He broke out last season, batting .286/.361/.420 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 656 plate appearances while playing great defense. Herrera is not necessarily the cornerstone of the Phillies’ future, but he’s the best player on the team at the moment.

Kendrick will handle left field. The former second baseman became a utilityman for the Dodgers last year, finishing with a .255/.326/.366 batting line along with eight home runs and 40 RBI in 543 PA. The 33-year-old veteran has lost a few steps, but the Phillies don’t particularly care. As long as Kendrick stays healthy, the Phillies will have felt like they got their money’s worth.

Saunders takes over in right field. The oft-injured outfielder was able to log a career-high 140 games last year with the Blue Jays, hitting .253/.338/.478 with 24 home runs and 57 RBI in 558 PA. Again, the Phillies don’t particularly care if he’s able to match that production; the team is just looking for him to avoid injury. Citizens Bank Park does turn Saunders into a 30-homer threat, though.

Maikel Franco will reprise his role at third base. He’s been a frustrating player for the Phillies over parts of three seasons. He did hit 25 homers and knock in 88 runs last year, but his triple-slash line was a pedestrian .255/.306/.427 in 630 PA. New hitting coach Matt Stairs certainly will make Franco one of his top priorities this season as Franco can sometimes be chaotic at the plate, swinging so hard his helmet flies off. Franco’s defense at third base also leaves a lot to be desired. Some talk of Franco eventually moving across the diamond to first base, but he could also play his way out of the Phillies’ future plans if he doesn’t show any improvement in 2017.

Freddy Galvis returns to shortstop. Though baseball is currently in a state where only a few players reaching the 40-homer club, it seems like more players than ever are at least getting to 20 homers. Galvis was among them, nearly tripling his previous career-high with 20 long balls last year. He also knocked in 67 runs but hit an otherwise poor .241/.274/.399. He still managed to turn in a solid year despite the lackluster offense by playing some of the best defense at shortstop this side of Andrelton Simmons. Galvis, now 27, will soon be unseated by prospect J.P. Crawford. The Phillies may choose to simply move Galvis to the bench or, if he has a good first half, the club may try to trade him.

Second base is Cesar Hernandez’s. He struggled in the first half, putting up a meager .706 OPS, but broke out in the second half with an .824 OPS. It was like he had become a completely new player. Overall, he hit .294/.371/.393 with an MLB-best 11 triples while also scoring 67 runs. He stole 17 bases but also got caught 13 times, illustrating his most frustrating feature. He’s quick, but he’s not a smart baserunner. Hernandez, like Galvis, likely is not a part of the team’s future plans and he may end up in a new uniform by the summer of 2018.

First base is now Tommy Joseph’s to start the year now that the Phillies have finally closed the book on the Ryan Howard era. Joseph showed tremendous power, hitting .257/.308/.505 with 21 home runs and 47 RBI in 347 PA after taking over at first base in mid-May. Joseph is the prototypical first baseman: a player with great power potential but doesn’t get on base much otherwise, has a weak glove, and struggles against same-handed pitching. As mentioned, Franco is a potential threat to Joseph’s playing time at first base, and Rhys Hoskins – who hit 38 home runs at Double-A Reading last year — may be as well.

Cameron Rupp will serve as the starting catcher for the second year. Like Joseph, Rupp has lots of power, but is otherwise pedestrian offensively. Last season, he hit .252./.303/.447 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI in 419 plate appearances. Veterans Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday are hoping to be Rupp’s back-up, but 25-year-old Andrew Knapp is competing for that right as well after a solid year with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Hellickson will anchor the rotation in his second year with the Phillies. He was believed to be headed to free agency, but he shockingly accepted the Phillies’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. The veteran scuffled over the previous three seasons, but had a bounce-back effort in 2016, finishing 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA and a 154/45 K/BB ratio in 189 innings. For a rebuilding team, of course, the innings are all that really matter. Hellickson may find himself traded by the end of July if he performs well in the first half.

Buchholz is hoping for a career rebirth after some inconsistent years in the latter half of his 10 years with the Red Sox. The oft-injured right-hander compiled a mediocre 4.16 ERA and averaged only 22 starts per season since 2012. The Red Sox even used him out of the bullpen quite a bit last season, during which he compiled a 4.78 ERA. Buchholz, however, cost the Phillies virtually nothing and he’ll provide valuable rotation depth in an attempt to reestablish his value.

Jerad Eickhoff slots into the middle of the rotation after a sterling effort in 2016. Acquired from the Rangers in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, the right-hander finished with a 3.65 ERA and a 167/42 K/BB ratio in 197 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old is very polished and is the type of pitcher that will help fill out the team’s future rotations quite nicely.

Aaron Nola is hoping for better luck in 2017. The 23-year-old right-hander got off to a slow start last season before missing the final two months with a sprained UCL and flexor. Nola, the Phillies’ first-round selection in the 2014 draft, is more polished than Eickhoff and will hope to replicate what he did in his rookie year in 2015, when he posted a 3.59 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks in 77 2/3 innings.

Vince Velasquez, 24, rounds out the rotation. He made one of the best starts of 2016 when he struck out 16 Padres in a shutout on April 14. Unfortunately, the rest of his season was marred by inconsistency and inefficiency. He failed to reach the sixth inning in 11 of his 24 starts and was ultimately shut down in September. Velasquez has the potential to become an ace, but some think the more likely scenario for the Phillies is that he eventually transitions into the bullpen.

Jeanmar Gomez will have the privilege of closing out ballgames for the Phillies once again, despite an ugly second half during which he blew four saves and compiled an 8.33 ERA in 31 appearances. He simply appeared to have run out of gas. Gomez does not miss bats nearly as often as typical closers do, which can be a problem in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

Joaquin Benoit is solid insurance for Gomez in the event he falters again. Benoit, 39, struggled with the Mariners but flourished with the Blue Jays after a trade, finishing out the season with a 0.38 ERA and a 24/9 K/BB ratio in 23 2/3 innings. He does have some closing experience, but he’ll be the setup man ahead of Gomez to start the season.

Hector Neris has the most potential of anyone in the Phillies’ bullpen. The 27-year-old posted an impressive 2.58 ERA with a 102/30 K/BB ratio in 80 1/3 innings. Everything about those stats looks good: he misses bats, doesn’t walk too many hitters, and is reliable on a day-in, day-out basis. He could be the Phillies’ closer of the future.

Veteran Pat Neshek will pitch in the middle innings. Youngsters Edubray Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, and others will join him in what will likely be a revolving door between the majors and Triple-A.

The bench will, for now, include Andres Blanco, Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr, and others. Daniel Nava and Chris Coghlan, non-roster invitees, could merit inclusion. Joseph, Kendrick and Saunders may become bench players to some degree in the summer if Klentak deems any combination of Nick Williams, Brock Stassi, Dylan Cozens, and Rhys Hoskins worthy of some big league experience. Knapp, as mentioned, is competing with Hanigan and Holaday to back up Rupp.

The Phillies were the only team in the majors last year to average fewer than four runs per game, finishing at 3.77. Kendrick and Saunders are upgrades over the aggregate .615 and .634 OPS the Phillies got out of left and right field, respectively, last year. Benoit and Neshek add stability to what was a leaky bullpen. Those upgrades alone are likely to help manager Pete Mackanin’s squad make up some ground on their 62-100 record from the 2016 season.

Prediction: 71-91 record, 4th place in NL East

2017 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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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 2017 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The good news: it can’t get any worse. And I don’t mean that flippantly or as a means of laughing at their 2016 performance. Really, most of the things that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays last year did, from injuries to down years from guys they needed to perform to simple bad luck. Meaning that last year was probably near the bottom of their expectations and that, with merely some better luck and better health, the Rays will be a better team.

Chris Archer had a fantastic, All-Star year in 2015. Last year he was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The good news here is that a lot of that was a combination of bad luck and command issues, not a serious overall regression or any foreshadowing of injuries. He still struck out a ton of guys last season, but when he didn’t miss bats he missed the zone. There’s no reason to expect that Archer will repeat his 2016 performance. He’s too darn talented for that, and I would expect him to reassert his acelike status.

But it’s not all Archer. Indeed, beyond him the rotation is really solid with the potential to do some special things. It seems eons ago, but Alex Cobb posted two amazing seasons back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 before elbow injuries hit. He’s now back at full strength. Jake Odorizzi has been a solid presence in the rotation the past two seasons. Blake Snell is raw and wild, but has great stuff. It’s spring and we’re being optimistic, but if he makes at least a passing acquaintance with the zone in 2017 he could be a special pitcher.  Between injury stuff and the need for bouncebacks, a good story about the Rays rotation is all wishcasting to some degree, but there is a lot of talent in this group, and that’s a lot more than a lot of teams have to wish on.

The Rays lost a lot of close games and lost a lot of games late last year. See above about bad luck. That’s often a sign of bullpen trouble. And yes, the Rays’ 2016 pen had trouble. Closer Alex Colome was excellent, but everyone was else was pretty homer happy. Last year the former closer, Brad Boxberger suffered a bad abdominal injury in spring training and it basically derailed everything. He’s working his way back from a lat injury now, but the prognosis is a lot better for him to be at full power and effectiveness at least some point early in the season. Erasmo Ramirez has a hamstring issue, but he’ll likely be the long man. Danny Farquhar is solid. Xavier Cedeno falls into the “he’s better than he showed last year” pile. There’s hope here for better things and, of course, better luck, even if this is not a stellar group. Again, manager Kevin Cash has something to work with here, even if it’s not a lot.

On offense, Evan Longoria continued to be Evan Longoria last season and Brad Miller broke out with a big power year. That’s something else to build on. The issue for the Rays is getting on base. They were among the worst teams in baseball in this department last season and, looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to see where a bunch more walks and hits may come from. Having Kevin Kiermaier back for a full year will be key, and not just for his stellar defense, as he showed some offensive improvement when he did play last year.  If he builds on that he’s a borderline MVP candidate. Ultimately, though, there just aren’t enough weapons here.

I think the Rays are a lot more talented than last year’s 68-win team suggested. I don’t think, however, they underperformed that talent by, like, 20 games or anything, nor did they improve themselves in the offseason enough to make up that kind of gap. Heck, they hardly did much at all. As such, I think they’ll be better than they were in 2016, but I feel like they’re, at the very most, an 80-win team. And most teams don’t hit their best case projections like that.

Prediction: Fifth Place, American League East.