Thursday, April 30, 2009

He Got Caught In The Spotlight

...but when we get to the end, he wants to start all over again.
(From "Stage Fright," Before The Flood)

The day Zack Greinke walked out of spring training with social anxiety disorder in February 2006, I heard about it in the car on the way home from work. I came in the house, flopped down on the couch and told The Amazing Michelle that I wasn't sure it was worth being a Royals fan anymore. I'm sure it was a long diatribe that invoked the names of past Royals pitching disappointments like Jim Pittsley, Jose Rosado, Dan Reichert, Chad Durbin and others. I couldn't believe that this seeming sure thing had apparently fallen through. And this was worse, because it wasn't an arm injury or just an inability to get hitters out. No, this was a mental issue. It seemed like there was no end to the bizarre ways the Royals franchise and fans could be let down.

This is not to belittle or diminish what Greinke was dealing with. I've battled depression and have family members with anxiety disorder. I can't imagine them going out and doing anything with thousands of people watching their every move. And I've certainly been in situations where I didn't want to be working there anymore and hated every minute. At that point in his life, by his own admission, Greinke hated baseball and just wanted to walk away.

I should add that, while I was of course concerned about the Royals, it saddened me to think that someone with so much obvious talent could be walking away from his ability at such a young age. Sure, he had struggled some in the previous season--that was a terrible team he was on, and he obviously was not happy with his situation. But to just walk away and give up on his gifts...well, it was upsetting.

Allard Baird and Buddy Bell may not have done the Royals many favors in their tenures, but we certainly owe them thanks for putting Greinke's personal needs ahead of the team's. It would have been easy for them to demand he stay with the team, but they let him have the time to work out his problems. So Greinke got treatment, and slowly but surely came back to baseball.

He showed plenty of promise last season, but this year Greinke has been simply amazing. Three years ago, on that day that seemed to be the lowest low in Royals' history, it seemed impossible that the story would turn out well. But here we are. Greinke has five wins, is leading all of baseball with a 0.50 ERA, and is tied with Johan Santana for the major league lead in strikeouts. And of course, there's this:

I used to worry about how Greinke would handle the pressure of being the Royals' ace, or how he would react if the Royals were in a pennant race or even the playoffs. Now, I don't worry about the former. And if Greinke keeps pitching anywhere close to this level, I think the Royals have a good chance at the latter. And I think Zack will be just fine then, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Week 3 In Review

After Week 3, the Royals are 9-9. That ties them for second place in the AL Central with Chicago, one game behind Detroit.

Game 13: Tuesday, April 21
Cleveland 8, KC 7

This game was a bummer from the beginning, at least until the Royals mounted a furious comeback that fell short. Sidney Ponson was ineffective, allowing six runs in only 3 1/3 innings. Ponson walked four and gave up eight hits. Meanwhile, the offense could do little against Indians starter Aaron Laffey. For the second time in a week, a pitcher who was in AAA at the start of the season while his major league club gave up 64 runs in eight games absolutely owned the Royals. Laffey gave up seven hits in seven innings, but the Royals grounded into a club-record six double plays. It wasn't until the Indians went to their bullpen that the offense woke up, scoring four runs in the 8th to pull within one run, 6-5. The sixth double play of the night ended that rally, and then Juan Cruz gave up his first runs of the season, a two-run homer by Victor Martinez. That meant David DeJesus' two-run homer in the top of the ninth did not give the Royals a lead, but only brought them back to within one.

This was a discouraging game, as the Royals did not do any of the fundamental stuff they had been doing well so far this season. The offense looked impatient (four walks, but that was because Billy Butler and Willie Bloomquist walked twice each), and Royal pitchers walked nine Indian hitters. Still, I suppose the encouraging thing is that the Royals did not roll over and die; they did make a spirited comeback.

Game 14: Wednesday, April 22
KC 2, Cleveland 0

Banny's back! Recalled from Omaha when Doug Waechter was put on the DL with an elbow strain, Brian Bannister saved Royal Nation from the indignity of another Horacio Ramirez start. Instead of the 2 2/3 inning, 7-run performance I would have expected from HoRam, we got six shutout innings from Bannister. The offense struggled against last year's Cy Young winner, Clif Lee. No surprise there, Lee was 5-0 against the Royals last year. But KC was able to scratch out a couple of runs (I have a feeling I will type that a lot this year). Excellent relief pitching by Jamey Wright (two scoreless innings) and then that Joakim Soria fellow finished it off, although he was a little rusty. I wonder why.

Game 15: Thursday, April 23
Cleveland 5, KC 2

Another frustrating afternoon game. The Royals wasted yet another outstanding effort by Gil Meche, as the offense went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position, including an epic fail in the fourth inning, when KC loaded the bases with no one out and failed to score. Meche tired in the eighth inning, and Ron Mahay was ineffective in relief. Grady Sizemore capped the inning with a three-run homer for the final margin.

As Mark Teahen told the Star, "This was a team loss." I suppose you could quibble with the decision to let Meche start the eighth inning, but he had been dominant to that point, retiring 16 consecutive hitters. Perhaps he was left in a little too long in the inning, but he still left with the score tied. A couple of errors hurt, and of course the inability to score runs was a killer.

The game result was frustrating, but the fact the Royals could have had a winning road trip is worse. Instead, KC headed home with a 3-3 record on this trip. Also frustrating: another game given away to a divisional opponent. And yet one more frustration: the Royals are now 6-3 when leading after seven innings. With an All-Star closer, this is inexcusable to me; it's even worse given that the bullpen was supposed to be a strength for this team. We all know about Kyle Farnsworth's struggles, and perhaps Hillman has figured out not to use him in close games (he didn't pitch in the last two games in Cleveland, but was in late in the game Tuesday when the Royals were losing 6-1). More worrisome is Mahay's ineffectiveness this season. It seems like he hasn't recovered from the plantar fasciitis that plagued him last year. The Royals need to figure out something quick--they seemingly have two dependable late-inning guys, and Hillman apparently will not use one of them unless he has a lead in the ninth inning.

Game 16: Friday, April 24
KC 6, Detroit 1

Here's something I hope I'll be typing a lot this season: more dominance from ZacK Greinke. I really don't know what else to say about him this year, and it's only April. The run he gave up in this game was his first of the year, and it was unearned. His ERA is still 0.00. Unreal. It's just a joy to watch him pitch now, and I feel certain every time he takes the mound the Royals will win. It's a feeling I don't think I've had since, I dunno, Kevin Appier or David Cone in 1993? Maybe Bret Saberhagen in 1989? Anyway, Zack was as good in this start as he's ever been: another complete game, only three hits and one walk against 10 strikeouts. On offense the Royals were led by Teahen and Coco Crisp, and did a nice job of responding with two runs after the Tigers got the unearned one in the fifth to make the score 3-1.

The win was a nice counterpoint to the bad news of the day: Soria's sore shoulder. The Royals announced that their relief ace was suffering from soreness in his right shoulder and would not pitch for a few days, although they did not put him on the DL. The whole episode seemed odd to me; the Royals admitted Soria had been dealing with this problem since last Saturday in Texas, but did not want to give opposing teams the knowledge that Soria was unavailable. They also claimed this was why Soria did not pitch in that Sunday game in Texas when the Royals blew a 5-3 lead and lost. Yet Soria pitched and saved the game in Cleveland Wednesday.

I love a good conspiracy theory, but I can't convince myself the Royals are trying to cover up Hillman's bullpen misuse by announcing Soria's injury. First off, even if Soria was not available in that Texas game, there was no excuse for bringing Kyle Farnsworth into the game in that situation. Second, I don't doubt Soria has some stiffness--he missed time in spring training for the World Baseball Classic and may not be in complete game shape (I'm not doubting that Soria is a hard worker and takes care of himself, just saying he didn't get as many spring training game innings as he normally would).

I don't like the plan to use a "closer by committee" approach until Soria returns. Juan Cruz is pretty clearly the second-best reliever the Royals have right now; it should be his job for the time being. And if Farnsworth comes into the game in a save situation, I plan to simply turn off the TV and walk away.

Game 17: Saturday, April 25
Detroit 9, KC 1

The Royals were never really in this game. Kyle Davies gave up a two-run homer in the second and another in the fourth, and once again the Royals could not hit Detroit pitcher Zach Miner. If the Tigers' bullpen could have kept an inherited runner from scoring, Miner would now be approaching 30 consecutive scoreless innings in Kauffman Stadium. Perhaps Dayton Moore could swing a trade for this guy. Or perhaps the Royals could develop a better offense. To be fair, they did get five walks and six hits, but it never felt like KC was part of this game. At least they didn't make Hillman decide who to use in a save situation.

Game 18: Sunday, April 26
Detroit 3, KC 2

This game was even more frustrating than the previous one. I think every Royals fan feels good about their chances when Meche, Greinke or Davies start. But when someone else starts (in this case, Ponson) and gives a great effort, the Royals need to get wins in those games. Ponson was very solid in this game, pitching eight innings, striking out seven and walking no one. But the Royals' offense was once again asleep, getting only four hits in the game and doing little with the six walks they were given.

The Week Ahead

The Royals have a full week ahead, with four games at home against Toronto before playing three games in Minnesota. I have to admit, I'm very nervous about this week and what it means to the Royals season. Think back to last May, when the Royals were 21-22 and 1.5 games out of first. Then, they went to Boston, were no-hit, and proceeded to lose 10 games in a row to effectively end the season. Now, they've lost five of seven, and will be facing a Toronto team that is playing very good baseball. After that, they go to Minnesota, where the Royals have struggled in recent years. Perhaps years and years of losing have beaten the optimism out of me, but this feels like another long losing streak in the making. I think the Royals can hang around in the AL Central race if they can avoid these long losing streaks, but I'm afraid this offense is too inconsistent to keep those from happening. I can easily imagine Meche and Greinke losing a couple of games where they pitch well, and the rest of the rotation struggling. A week from today, we'll know a lot about whether this summer will be interesting or just another disappointment.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Week 2 In Review

After Week 2, the Royals are 7-5. That's good for a first-place tie in the tightly-bunched AL Central, with the Tigers and White Sox also 7-5. The Twins are 7-7, putting them one game behind.

Game 7: Monday, April 13
KC 4, Cleveland 2

This wasn't Zack Greinke's best start, but he managed to work out of trouble when he needed to, and left the game after only five innings with a 4-0 lead. The bullpen was solid until the 9th, when Ron Mahay gave up two singles to start the inning. Trey Hillman made a very smart move, going to get Joakim Soria before things really got out of hand. A single and a wild pitch scored two runs, but then Soria did what he does best, getting the next three hitters to end the game. The offense put up three runs in the first inning, and added a Mike Jacobs homer (his first as a Royal) in the fourth.

Game 8: Tuesday, April 14
KC 9, Cleveland 3

For 7 innings, this was a nerve-wracking game. The Royals scored two runs in the 3rd, then gave up the lead in the 5th. John Buck led off the bottom of the 5th with a homer to untie the score, and the Royals added one more run that inning. The Indians scored one run in the 6th, and it looked like Soria would be needed to save this one too. Until the bottom of the 8th, when a Jacobs single made the score 5-3. After an Alex Gordon walk, John Buck slammed one into the left-field bullpen for a grand slam and the final margin.

Game 9: Wednesday, April 15
Cleveland 5, KC 4

Since he hadn't done something to make me scratch my head in like, four games, Hillman decided to field a lineup including Willie Bloomquist (hitting second), Tony Pena Jr., and Buck DHing and hitting cleanup. Remember, this was a day game before an off day and a flight to Dallas in the second week of the season, hardly a time when I would want to rest half the starting lineup. I suppose this was a defensive lineup for Sidney Ponson, who tends to get groundballs. Defensively, it worked pretty well. Ponson wasn't great, but he pitched six innings and only allowed two runs, which is an acceptable performance from a number four starter. Unfortunately, this lineup was next to useless offensively, getting only three hits off Indians starter Aaron Laffey, just recalled from AAA. They did manage to tie the game 2-2 in the 6th, thanks to four walks in the inning, including a bases-loaded pass to Gordon. Hillman continued his bad day by bringing in Kyle Farnsworth to pitch the 7th, and it only took three hitters for him to give the lead back. The Indians scored three runs in the 7th. The Royals tried to rally, scoring one run in the 7th to make the score 5-3. But Mark Teahen's baserunning blunder, when he was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double, really killed the Royals in the 8th. Jacobs followed Teahen's gaffe with an absolute bomb that would have tied the score if Teahen had been on base. Still, there was plenty of blame to go around in this one. This was a frustrating loss, since Ponson pitched so well and the Royals had a chance for a sweep of a division opponent.

Off-day: Thursday, April 16
I throw this day in because it included a major development for the Royals. Late in the afternoon, the word came down: Alex Gordon would be having surgery on his hip and would likely miss two months or so. With Jose Guillen already on the DL and the team's inability to hit in Wednesday's game, things looked grim for this season's prospects. The loss of Gordon means Mark Teahen will move to third base, and we'll probably see a lot more of Alberto Callaspo at second base. Both of these are fine with me. Teahen may be more comfortable at third; even if his career offensive numbers show little difference between his time at third and other positions, perhaps that comfort level will help him concentrate on hitting. Callaspo is hitting a rather unsung .393 this season and has played better defense at second than anyone expected.

Game 10: Friday, April 17
KC 12, Texas 3

So with two of their best hitters on the DL, the Royals offense exploded for 12 runs and 19 hits. KC put up four runs in the 2nd inning, then teed off on the Rangers' bullpen in the late innings. Gil Meche was solid again, working out of a little trouble in the 1st and 3rd innings, then settling in to finish six scoreless innings, with six strikeouts, six hits and two walks. The Rangers scored their runs off Doug Waechter and Horacio Ramirez late in the game, and this one was never in doubt. Teahen was undoubtedly the offensive star, going 5-6 with three runs scored. He kicked off the offensive onslaught with a solo homer in the 2nd. Jacobs was 2-4 with four RBIs.

Game 11: Saturday, April 18
KC 2, Texas 0

Zack Greinke. Simply amazing. The Rangers had a runner at third with no one out in the 2nd inning and didn't score. They had a runner at third with one out in the 3rd, didn't score. Then Zack took over. The Rangers didn't have a runner reach second until the 9th inning. In the meantime, the Royals' offense managed to scratch out a couple of runs, the first on a Coco Crisp walk, two groundouts and a Billy Butler double. The second run came courtesy of a Miguel Olivo homer. Greinke made those two runs look like 20, at least until the 9th, when the Rangers mounted a two-out threat. With a runner at third, though, Greinke struck out Chris Davis looking to end the game. Greinke has now thrown 20 consecutive scoreless innings this year, and 34 if you go back to last season. He's also leading the league in strikeouts with 26. Right now, signing Greinke to a contract extension looks like the best move Dayton Moore has made as Royals general manager.

Game 12: Sunday, April 19
Texas 6, KC 5

Another series, another chance for a sweep, another game blown by Hillman and Farnsworth. This game started out looking like a Rangers rout, as Kyle Davies had no control in the first inning. Davies walked four hitters, but managed to escape with only a 2-0 deficit. The Royals battled back, both on offense and on the mound. Davies settled down, allowing only one more run as he worked through six innings. The offense got those two runs right back in the 3rd, then put up single runs in the next three innings, taking a 5-3 lead to the 7th. That's when things got dicey. Hillman brought in Juan Cruz to pitch and Tony Pena Jr. as a defensive replacement at shortstop. So far, so good. Cruz sandwiched two strikeouts around a walk. With lefty Josh Hamilton up, Hillman brought in Ron Mahay to pitch. This despite saying back on Opening Day that Mahay was not a left-handed specialist (his rationale for leaving Farnsworth in to face Jim Thome; the resulting 3-run bomb gave the White Sox a win). Mahay did get Hamilton, but surrendered a double to start the 8th. The next hitter, Hank Blalock, hit a grounder to first that Jacobs tried to field with his feet.

Now, first problem. Hillman had seemed to learn quickly that Jacobs is not a good defender. This was Jacobs' first start at first base since last Sunday. If he used a defensive replacement for Mike Aviles, why not use one for Jacobs? Billy Butler was DH in this game, so he was out. But what about Teahen? He could have been moved from third and Willie Bloomquist could have come in to play third. If Hillman had wanted, he could have moved Aviles to third instead of taking him out of the game. If you're going to emphasize defense with a two-run lead in the seventh, then don't leave a man widely considered the worst first baseman in the majors in there, even if it means Pena actually gets an at-bat.

Next came two plays Callaspo couldn't quite make: a slow grounder which only left him with a choice of going to second or first for an out (the first run of the inning scored, making it a 5-4 game) and a grounder up the middle he knocked down but couldn't field cleanly. On the first play, it looked to me like Callaspo fielded the ball after the runner was by him, eliminating the possiblity of a tag. I'm not sure he could have turned all the way around and thrown the man out, either. Callaspo got the out at first, but the tying run was in scoring position. That became large on the second play, when the runner (Blalock) kept running and scored when Callaspo couldn't get a good throw to home plate. It was a tough play, but Alberto had made some very nice plays the previous night. Still, if you're emphasizing defense in the late innings, where was Bloomquist? The Royals spent all offseason and spring training insisting that Willie Ballgame was a better defender than Callaspo.

And of course, the final terrible mistake came when Hillman called on Farnsworth to come into a tie game in the bottom of the 9th. Let's see, homer-prone pitcher facing a homer-hitting team in a homer-hitter's haven with the wind blowing out when one run means a loss. Of course this ended badly. Farnsworth threw two pitches, Michael Young blasted the second one out of the park, and the Royals lost. I'll never understand why Hillman didn't bring in Soria. Joakim had not pitched since last Monday, although he did warm up in the 9th Saturday night. I feel reasonably certain he could have pitched the 9th and 10th, if needed. The Rangers do not have a strong bullpen; why not give your team another chance to score in the 10th?

Bottom line: Hillman's refusal to make defensive substitutions for players who are not good defenders and his bizarre bullpen usage cost the Royals a game.

The Week Ahead

The Royals continue their road trip with three games in Cleveland Tuesday-Thursday before coming home for a weekend series with Detroit. With six divisional games, this week could be pivotal. It's hard to believe two series in April could be very important, but if this division is as tightly bunched as I think it will be (and has been so far), every divisional game matters. After the Royals handed the Indians a gift win last Wednesday, Cleveland has played better, although they did lose Sunday. The Royals will have their hands full with the Indians, especially since Hillman announced this weekend he intends to let Horacio Ramirez start Wednesday's game to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest. However, it looks like there is a good chance of rain in Cleveland Tuesday and Wednesday, so this may be a two-game series.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Curtain Risin' On A New Age

(From "Groom's Still Waiting At The Altar," Biograph)
Royals Stadium was opened in 1973. Your humble correspondent came along in 1975. Royals Stadium and I first met in 1983. For 25 years, we got along great. Sure, there were some changes. The lovely plastic turf was ripped out years ago and replaced with real grass, an excellent upgrade. Ugly orange seats went out, more subdued blue ones came in. A Jumbotron was added, then the old scoreboard was replaced with a new hi-def video board. Through the years, the stadium became like Grandma's house: there might be a few places you couldn't go, but every inch of the rest of the place became familiar. Sure, there were some problems, some cosmetic deficiencies, some things that needed fixing up. But you always knew what to expect.
Until now.
After a 2008 season played in a construction zone, a full offseason of work, and a lot of excitement, the new stadium was revealed last Friday. Tickets were nearly impossible to get, especially for us poor folks, so The Amazing Michelle and I planned to go to the second home game of the season, last Saturday night. We packed up the digital camera and headed out. Frankly, with a pitching matchup of Horacio Ramirez vs. CC Sabathia, we were more excited to see the stadium than to see what we figured would be a rout by the Yankees. And the stadium did not disappoint.
Some changes are evident as you approach the stadium. A large glass facade stretches between the two circular ramps. The Royals' staff has their offices in this building. A large metal structure stretches along each side of the stadium, starting on the other side of each ramp. The three new structures really attract your attention, which has the pleasing result of de-emphasizing those ramps, which are not very attractive.

Inside, of course, the first thing you notice is the new, wider concourse. There are many more concession stands than before, and more bathrooms too. We arrived pretty early for Saturday's game, so even though the crowd was big, it may not have been the best test for the new concourses. I do know that big crowds before could make the interior of the stadium rather claustrophobic, and Saturday night it certainly felt roomier.

Once we got out to the seating bowl, we headed out to the new outfield area. The Royals Hall of Fame is behind the left field seats; unfortunately, it will not open until midseason. Now there are seats behind the bullpen, and of course the new seats in front of the left field fountains. We look forward to sitting there sometime this summer, as it seems probable those seats will be cooled by spray from the fountains. Of course, I imagine most Royals fans are feeling the same about those seats, so I think they'll be a tough ticket.

We proceeded around the outfield. It is now possible to walk all the way around the lower bowl. You can see Royals games from perspectives that were never available before. You can even stand behind the "batter's eye" in center field and look straight up at the massive scoreboard. You can even buy a beer back there! The eye consists of staggered sheets of green metal, so you can peek out between them and see part of the playing field.

We continued on, coming to the Party Porch in front of the right field fountains. The Party Porch has a corporate sponsor, but they're not paying me anything, so they don't get a mention here. Anyways, the Party Porch has two levels, with a bar running along the railing on each level. There are no seats, but you can stand here and watch the game, and have your food and drink in front of you on the bar. Or you can watch some of batting practice, like we did.
They built a bar and grill behind the Royals' bullpen in right field. We didn't go in, but it looked pretty nice. We climbed to the top of the stairs in right field, next to the restaurant, and headed back towards left field. The Royals built a kids' wonderland back there, with a mini golf course, a batting cage/speed pitch area, and the new Little K. Oh yeah, and a baseball-themed carousel.
We headed to our seats in the upper deck. The escalators which used to stick out from the stadium like sore thumbs have been neatly tucked away now. Almost too neatly, since we had to search for one for a few minutes. If you're into exercise, there are staircases at each end of the upper deck. But God created escalators so we could avoid exercise, so we eventually found one and rode it upstairs.
One thing I was really happy about was the increased number of concession stands in the upper deck, and the improved food choices. Before the renovations, if you wanted a specialty food, like Gates BBQ, you had to get it downstairs and lug it upstairs. Gates is gone (nooooooooooooo!) but now it appears the food choices are the same upstairs and down.

We settled into our seats and immediately noticed that the ballpark feels much more intimate than it used to. With a big crowd on hand, there were people all the way around the field. It feels like a real ballpark now, not a theater where there is a large stage in front and you never get to see behind it.

Here's a view from our seats:

It's funny, a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine from college emailed me a panorama view of the stadium he took when we went to a game together in 1996. It was amazing to see how the place used to look, and to compare it to the new stadium.

Here's the 1996 stadium.

And here's how it looks today.

If you have a chance to see the new Kauffman Stadium, I urge you to take it. The old stadium was nice. The new improved one is gorgeous, and I know you'll enjoy it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Week 1 In Review

This is a new feature here at Tangled HQ: a few notes on each game from the previous week. I wish I had the time to blog about each game as it happened, but I suppose that's not feasible, since I do have a wife and a job. And I have to help maintain my mom's basement. Because that's where I live. Because I have a blog, see.

And now that joke is officially dead.

Anyways, after Week 1, the Royals are 3-3, tied for second in the AL Central, and a 1/2 game behind Detroit.

Game 1: Tuesday, April 7
Chicago 4, KC 2

The season opener was delayed one day by snow in Chicago. This gave Trey Hillman an extra day to figure out how to best use Kyle Farnsworth. Unfortunately, Trey needed a few more days, since he originally concluded that the Farns would be an ideal candidate to pitch the 8th inning with a 2-1 lead. Two singles and one Jim Thome blast later, the Royals had wasted a tremendous effort from Gil Meche, a long home run from Alex Gordon and were 0-1.

There isn't much more to say about Farnsworth and Hillman's decision to use him. It was obviously a poor decision for a couple of reasons (Farnsworth is homer-prone, Thome murders righties but is not as effective against lefties). And it is true that if the Royals had not left 11 runners on base, they probably would have won. But it was still a disappointing game, not least because it left the impression that Hillman was making the same dumb mistakes he made last year (not using Joakim Soria in the eighth inning, letting homer-prone relievers pitch in key spots).

Game 2: Wednesday, April 8
KC 2, Chicago 0

Thankfully, Hillman appeared to learn his lesson quickly this time. On this night, he made Juan Cruz is 7th and 8th inning guy, and Soria breezed through the 9th to preserve Zack Greinke's brilliant outing (6 IP, 7 Ks, 3 H). Once again, the offense did just enough for a win. This time, KC left 6 men on base, but Mike Aviles scored both runs on hits by Coco Crisp and Mark Teahen.

Game 3: Thursday, April 9
KC 2, Chicago 1

For the third straight game, the Royals only put up two runs. For the second straight game, a great game by a starting pitcher, a solid effort by a key short reliever and Soria made it stand up. The starting pitcher in question was Kyle Davies, who looked like he did last September. The reliever was Ron Mahay, who looked like as effective as he was before he was injured late last year. Crisp's two-run homer broke a scoreless tie in the 9th, and Soria struggled a little before closing the game out and giving KC a series win. With 11 men left on base, the Royals pushed their series total to a rather frustrating 28. As an added bonus, Jose Guillen injured himself running out a grounder in his last at-bat and was put on the disabled list on Friday. But the Royals headed home with the division lead.

Game 4: Friday, April 10
New York 4, KC 1

The Royals opened the new Kauffman Stadium with another disappointing offensive showing, managing only 4 hits and 1 walk against longtime nemesis Andy Pettitte. There were plenty of complaints beforehand about the Royals having Sidney Ponson in the rotation, but he actually wasn't awful in this game. He was hurt by some poor defense in the first inning, but got through 6 innings with the 4-1 deficit. As poorly as the Royals were hitting, though, this one was already over.

Game 5: Saturday, April 11
New York 6, KC 1

I'm not a big fan of Ponson, but the real starting rotation head-scratcher to me was the Royals' insistence on starting the season with Horacio Ramirez in there over Luke Hochevar, apparently just so they could say they had a left-handed starter instead of five righties. HoRam did little to dispel my doubts, getting torched for 8 hits and 6 runs in 4 1/3 innings. Once again, the defense did little to help the pitching. Willie Bloomquist made his first start in right field this year and got a poor jump on a two-run double in the first and then dove for and missed a soft fly ball near the right field line in the third. That resulted in a run-scoring triple. Also once again, the Royals offense took a night off, this time being completely shut down by CC Sabathia.

Game 6: Sunday, April 12
KC 6, New York 4

The Royals offense finally broke out of the doldrums in this come-from-behind, come-from-ahead, come-from-behind-again affair. Oddly enough, the offense was sparked by two guys who have had limited playing time, John Buck and Brayan Pena. Buck had a single, double and home run to drive in 3 runs; Pena doubled in the tying run in the 8th and then scored the go-ahead run on Alberto Callaspo's single. This came after Gil Meche tired in the 7th inning and gave up a 3-1 lead.

I don't know if this game will be a turning point for the offense or not. Yes, they scored 6 runs, but they only had 7 hits and 2 walks. On the bright side, the hits and walks were bunched together enough to be effective (in innings 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7, KC was 1-15 with 1 HBP and 0 walks; all the damage was done in innings 3, 4 and 8). Also on the bright side, there is no way the Royals will continue to hit .200 (the team batting average so far) all year. There will be more hits and runs. On the other hand, this team is still in last place in the AL in walks with 12. Until that improves, the Royals will struggle to score runs.

The Week Ahead

The Royals offense should get a shot at some lesser pitchers this week, including Carl Pavano and Scott Lewis of Cleveland on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Matt Harrison, Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla of Texas next weekend. While some of those are solid major league starters, none of them are quite as accomplished as Sabathia or Pettitte. This week could be a big help to the Royals, as I would say they are about evenly matched with Cleveland and Texas, especially with the Indians coming to town. As always, solid pitching is going to determine the Royals' chances of a winning week.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

There'll Be A Time I Hear Tell

...when all will be well
(From "Lord Protect My Child," The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3)

Is this the year? That's the question, of course. Will the Royals rise up and surprise an unsuspecting nation by reaching the playoffs for the first time in 24 years? Can the team that once employed luminaries like Ken Harvey, Kerry Robinson and Mark Redman make true blue believers throughout the Midwest rush to sporting good stores for official AL Central Champions merchandise? Will October be the time when "all will be well"?

OK, probably not. I'm not even sure they can compile a .500 record, although I think they will be close.

I do know the Royals came closer to .500 last year than they have since the magical summer of 2003. The last time before that they won even a modest 75 games? 2000. So this is a roster full of players who haven't had much success at the major league level. Not that that means they can't win, but it does make me wonder how they would handle a pennant race.

It's getting in a pennant race that's the trick. As I've said before, it looks like the division is evenly matched enough that any of the five teams can win it. So the Royals may be in a pennant race by default.

I wrote yesterday I was predicting a 79-83 record for the Royals this year. That's four games better than last year. I've had trouble all spring reconciling my heart with my head in regards to this team. In fact:

  • My heart says that they can improve even more than that, since the roster seems to be upgraded offensively.
  • My head says that the Royals still lack players who get on base consistently, which is the basis for any good offense.
  • My heart says Alex Gordon and Billy Butler will have big years, while Jose Guillen is bound to improve his numbers, giving the Royals three big bats to go with Mike Jacobs.
  • My head says Jose Guillen is in decline and still swings at everything. And speaking of Jacobs, my head also says his lack of plate discipline will offset the 30 or so homers he should hit.
  • My heart says the Royals' impressive spring training offense is a sign of things to come.
  • My head says those numbers are a result of high altitudes and thin air.

OK, that's enough debate on the offense. What about pitching and defense?

  • My heart says Zack Greinke and Gil Meche will win 17-18 games each, and challenge for a Cy Young award.
  • My head says neither one has won more than 15 games in a season.
  • My heart says Kyle Davies will be the guy we saw in September (4-1, 2.27 ERA, 0.92 WHIP).
  • My head says Kyle Davies will be the guy we saw before September (5-6, 5.43 ERA, 1.89 WHIP).
  • My heart says the bullpen will make up for the losses of Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez with the help of Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz.
  • My head says Farnsworth was not good last year and Cruz is on his fifth team in seven years for a reason.
  • My heart says the outfield defense will be improved, and Mike Aviles and Alex Gordon are at least average defenders on the left side.
  • My head says Jose Guillen is still roaming right field, Coco Crisp has no arm, the Billy Butler/Mike Jacobs mix at first base is terrible, and the Royals have a third baseman playing second base. Oh, and John Buck can't throw anyone out and Miguel Olivo can't do any of the other stuff you want a catcher to do.

I suppose all of this internal debate is a sure sign the Royals will be around .500. But...if my heart is right more than my head, this could be an interesting season. We'll find out starting on Tuesday, now that the opener in Chicago has been postponed due to some more lovely spring weather.

A Few Thoughts on the Other Divisions

I'm not going to give a detailed breakdown of each team like I did for the AL Central, but here are my predictions for the other divisions, along with some thoughts.

AL East

Tampa Bay
New York

The Yankees in third? Well, call me crazy, but I'm suspicious of a team that depends on a 37-year-old catcher, a 34-year-old shortstop and a 35-year-old left fielder without much quality depth behind those guys. Also, it looks like they'll start a rookie in center field. Oh yeah, their best player is going to miss the first month of the season, at least. And a team that expects A.J. Burnett to stay healthy is a team that is going to be disappointed. The Yankees will still contend, but I think the Rays and Red Sox are just a little better.

AL West

Los Angeles

I really want to pick the Rangers to do better, but I just can't see it with that pitching staff. I really want to pick the Athletics to win the division, but I just can't see it with that pitching staff. So I'll stick with the Angels for this season.

NL East

New York

Ho hum. Another year, another Mets team that can't quite win the division. At least they fixed up the bullpen, or tried to. The good news for the Phils and Mets is that the other three teams here are varying degrees of bad, so this is likely a two-team race.

NL Central

St. Louis

The Cubs are pretty clear favorites here, but the Reds are most intriguing team to me. They might have more good young players than any team outside Tampa Bay. I doubt they can catch the Cubs, but I think they might be a little better than the Cardinals and Brewers. The bottom two teams in this division are pretty much trainwrecks.

NL West

Los Angeles
San Francisco
San Diego

A full season of Manny Ramirez ought to give the edge to the Dodgers here. I might be giving the Giants' offense too much credit, but their pitching looks pretty good to me. If they had any sort of hitting, they could be contenders.


AL playoffs: Boston vs. Minnesota, Tampa Bay (wildcard) vs. Los Angeles
ALCS: Boston vs. Tampa Bay

NL playoffs: Philadelphia vs. Chicago, New York (wildcard) vs. Los Angeles
NLCS: Chicago vs. Los Angeles

World Series: Boston defeats Los Angeles, while sports fans everywhere pray they never hear about Manny Ramirez facing his old team again.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Few Thoughts on the AL Central

I thought I should throw a few predictions out there before Opening Day, which has really sneaked up on me. I blame the Kansas City weather, which as featured several cold mornings, plus several inches of snow a week ago today. It's been hard to get into a baseball frame of mind. At least today was nice and basebally, even though tomorrow brings another cold front. Grrr.

Anyway, as I've said before, I think the AL Central will be the most balanced division in baseball this season. I really believe anyone could finish first, even your Kansas City Royals. Also, I believe anyone can finish last (yes, even your Kansas City Royals). But here's my best guess at what will happen:

1. Minnesota, 87-75
2. Cleveland, 85-77
3. Kansas City, 79-83
4. Detroit, 76-86
5. Chicago, 75-87

Minnesota Twins

Last year: 88-75, 2nd place, lost one-game playoff for division title
Key losses: 3B Mike Lamb, SP Livan Hernandez, RP Dennys Reyes
Key additions: 3B Joe Crede

The Twins, God love 'em, just keep putting a solid team on the field and hoping for the best. Starting in 2001, they've been above .500 every year except a 79-83 hiccup in 2007. A presumably full season from Francisco Liriano (he had 14 starts last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery) should help the Twins stay near the top of the Central this year, too. Signing Joe Crede to play third should help out the big guns in the lineup, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. As always, Joe Nathan is around to finish off every save situation. As a Royals fan, I watch the Twins with a mixture of admiration and envy, and I hope the Royals will be in the Twins' situation someday: a good team every year.

Cleveland Indians

Last year: 81-81, 3rd place
Key losses: 3B Casey Blake, SP CC Sabathia, SP Paul Byrd
Key additions: SP Carl Pavano, SP Joe Smith, 3B Mark DeRosa

The Indians seem to be the trendy pick to win the division, and I think they will certainly be good. I might even agree that on paper, they look like the best team in the division. But for some reason, I just can't pull the trigger on them. Wait, there is a reason: a rotation that, after 2008 AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and 2007 sensation Fausto Carmona, is not very impressive. Even Carmona is a question mark after he struggled in 2008. And who knows if Lee can duplicate what he did last year (22-3, 2.54 ERA, 175 ERA+)? After that, it's Carl Pavano (ask any Yankee fan about this oft-injured pitcher) and Anthony Reyes (still waiting for him to show he can live up to the potential he showed in 2006). On the other hand, the offense should be good, with the division's best player in CF Grady Sizemore, a slugging 1B in Victor Martinez, and underrated RF Shin-Soo Choo. I just don't think they can do enough to overcome that rotation.

Kansas City Royals

Last year: 75-87, 4th place
Key losses: RP Ramon Ramirez, RP Leo Nunez, 2B Mark Grudzielanek
Key additions: CF Coco Crisp, 1B Mike Jacobs, RP Juan Cruz, RP Kyle Farnsworth, IF Willie Bloomquist

Progress continues. We hope. I fully admit that picking this team for third may be an optimistic homer move. It certainly looks like the offense has improved, at least as far as power goes. On-base percentage will still be a question mark. The pitching staff will need at least one starter to step up, and the bullpen will need some sorting out after it was shuffled in the offseason. I don't want to get too in-depth here, as I plan a post tomorrow with a more detailed look at the Royals' hopes this season. But I will say that I still believe the Royals are improving and at least I can say (with a straight face) they have a shot to contend this year.

Detroit Tigers

Last year: 74-88, 5th place
Key losses: C Ivan Rodriguez, DH Gary Sheffield, SS Edgar Renteria, RP Todd Jones
Key additions: C Gerald Laird, SS Adam Everett, RP Brandon Lyon

Remember about a year ago, when everyone thought the Tigers would score 1,000 runs in the 2008 season? Yeah. Didn't happen, although they did score plenty (821, 4th in the AL). So the Tigers decided to emphasize defense, picking up no-hit, all-glove shortstop Adam Everett and moving Carlos Guillen (Detroit's version of Mark Teahen, as he has gone from SS to 1B to 3B in his time with the Tigers) to left field. I guess the latter is a defensive move, since Guillen has played 2 whole games in the outfield in his 11-year career and Comerica Park is known for its spacious outfield. The defense needs to improve to help out the rotation, which is full of question marks. The biggest is, what the hell happened to Justin Verlander last year? His strikeouts dropped by 20 from 2007, while his walks went up by 20. His ERA went up by more than a full run. Any hope the Tigers have of winning the division rests on his return to form. After him, the Tigers will have Edwin Jackson, who won 14 games for Tampa last year, and promising youngsters Armando Galarraga and Rick Porcello (2007's top draft pick). But can they become big league pitchers fast enough to help Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman, if he is ever healthy again?

Chicago White Sox

Last year: 89-74, 1st place, won one-game playoff for division title
Key losses: SS Orlando Cabrera, 3B Joe Crede, OF Nick Swisher, SP Javier Vazquez
Key additions: IF Brent Lillibridge, SP Bartolo Colon

This may be a biased, anti-homer pick, as the White Sox are always the AL Central team I love to hate. But I'm putting them here because they are replacing 3/4 of their infield. Rookie Chris Getz takes over at second for Alexei Ramirez, who moves to shortstop to replace Orlando Cabrera, while Josh Fields gets to show us if he really can be a star at third base. I'm also leery of an offense depending on a 33-year-old Paul Konerko, a 35-year-old Jermaine Dye, and a 38-year-old Jim Thome. How long can they keep going? I'm also leery of a rotation depending on Bartolo Colon, who hasn't been good since 2005, and 38-year-old Jose Contreras. Besides, the White Sox went from 72 wins in 2007 to 89 last year; you would expect them to fall off some under any circumstances.