With the Mariners and Royals competing for the second Wild Card in the last week of the season Max Reiper of Royals Review and I thought it would be a good idea to get some insight on each other's clubs. Max's questions and my words can be found here. Max's answer are below. Huge thanks to him and the fine humans at Royals Review. If the Mariners must Mariner, at least we can potentially prevent another Royalsing from the Royals.
Q: With the often disharmonious relationship between the current Royals ownership/front office and the fans what has the experience been of watching, in many ways, things playing out this year according to their plan and the team contending so strongly?
A: Its been exhilarating, nerve-wracking, painful, and joyous. This team may not find easy ways to win, but they sure do find exciting ways to win. Nearly all Royals fans aren't accustomed to how a pennant-race is supposed to feel, so I think we take each game way more seriously than we probably should. It has also been tough to shake off the memories of 29 years of losing baseball, so there is still an apprehensiveness to "buying all in" to their success.
In the back of our minds - at least some of us critical spirits - is the nagging feeling that this success is a bit fluky and not at all sustainable. But we drown those voices out with alcohol and sit back and enjoy the ride for now.
Q: Billy Butler and James Shields, among others, look likely to leave as free agents after the year. Does this year's team have the feel of a the beginning of an era of contention or more "2014 or bust!"?
A: I certainly don't think management feels it is a "2014 or bust" year. They have several players in the "prime" of their careers - Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain. They have found a pair of excellent young pitchers in Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura and it looks like 2014 first-round Brandon Finnegan is already contributing. They have signed veterans like Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, and Omar Infante to long-term deals.
Still, the loss of James Shields and Billy Butler are huge holes to fill (as well as right-fielder Nori Aoki, who is a free agent) and the club does not have a lot of financial flexibility unless they raise payroll. They backloaded the Infante and Guthrie deals so that the pain is felt in 2015, and they have nine arbitration-eligible players to deal with this winter. The club will almost certainly trade either Wade Davis or Greg Holland to get some salary relief and get some talent back, but with little in the upper minor leagues to contribute other than Finnegan, the Royals may suffer from a down year in 2015.
Q: Which player or players have been key to the Royals success this year that those of us watching from afar may easily overlook?
A: The strength of the team has been pitching, so I would say the success of Danny Duffy has been the biggest factor. Duffy was seen as a huge question mark going into this season having undergone Tommy John surgery. Pre-surgery, he was seen as having terrific stuff, but was a guy that was so amped up he tried to strike everyone out and had trouble putting guys away, leaving him to exit games in the fifth inning after high pitch counts. This year he has changed his approach, lowering his strikeout rate quite a bit, but that has somehow gotten him better results, as he is third in the league in ERA now, despite a FIP of 3.64. Perhaps his season is BABIP-blessed, but having a terrific pitcher right behind James Shields in the rotation has been huge.
Honorable mention goes to former Mariner Jason Vargas, who most on our site were down on heading into this year. He has been more than an "innings-eater", he has actually been a very solid pitcher this year.
Q: Alex Gordon routinely rates as one of the very best defensive corner outfielders in the game by use of almost all defensive metrics we have available. As someone who watches him everyday what is it about his defense that makes him so good out there?
A: First of all, Alex Gordon is a remarkable athlete, which he probably doesn't get enough credit for. His speed is probably underrated. But what really makes him I think are his instincts. I have never seen an outfielder play caroms and bounces as well as he does. He has a good arm, but I wouldn't call it an exceptional arm. What gets him so many outfield assists are how he plays the ball perfectly, getting an accurate throw to nail a surprised baserunner. What makes it all even more remarkable is that he came up as a third baseman and spent a few seasons playing third in the big leagues before the club moved him to left-field. The club, and in particular, coach Rusty Kuntz, deserve a lot of credit for helping Gordon become an exceptional left-fielder.
Q: What are the recent trends the team is going through that lead to the most concern that they won't be able to get through to October?
A: The Royals can not score runs. It is not often a team finishes dead last in walks and home runs and makes the playoffs, yet the Royals will try to break that trend. The Royals have been extremely lucky on offense, bunching hits together and having one of the "clutchiest" lineups in the league. It is probably too late to expect Billy Butler or Mike Moustakas to turn around their disappointing season, but the Royals need to take a better approach to hitting this last week and hope the pitching is good enough to carry them over the finish line.
Again my thanks to Max and Royals Review. I imagine quite a few Mariner fans will jump on the Kansas City bandwagon should the Mariners continue to falter and the Royals make the postseason.