The Kansas City Royals have been in first place in the AL Central three separate times this year: April 18–19 (tied), June 17–19 (sole possession), and now August 11 to the present and, potentially, beyond. Unlike the other two blips which brought the Royals up to the level of the Detroit Tigers, this time the tables have turned: the Tigers look weakened and the Royals have sorted out some of their issues. Can the Royals stay hot and grab the AL Central out from under the nose of the Tigers?
Detroit has entered the past few seasons as the clear favorite in their division largely based on the performances of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Victor Martinez, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez have joined the club in recent years, giving the Tigers a potent "stars" side of a “stars and scrubs” lineup. Not that the Tigers really employ scrubs, just that they have a core of elite talent surrounded by role players. And until now, it’s worked. Adding David Price at the trade deadline only seemed to cement the inevitable: a postseason berth.
While Justin Verlander has been disappointing this season (4.76 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 17% strikeout rate) the rest of the rotation shouldered the burden through August. However, with Verlander leaving his last start injured—but likely avoiding the disabled list—the Tigers might be starting to unravel. Add a Sanchez DL stint to the pile and Price quickly goes from a win more type of move to a player who needs to keep the ship afloat during a rough patch. He’s more than capable, but the debate of rotations between Detroit and Oakland has likely been settled through injuries rather than acquisitions.
Replacing center fielder Austin Jackson, sent to Seattle in the Price trade, with Rajai Davis was not an ideal move. Davis is a fourth outfielder being stretched into a starting job, but it seemed reasonable with the additional run prevention Price can provide. The other part of the outfield plan involves a larger role for J.D. Martinez, who has enjoyed a breakout season. However, Martinez has hit just .193/.256/.325 since the All-Star break. Small samples and arbitrary endpoint apply in spades here, but the Tigers cannot afford a prolonged slump.
Royal Lordes of Kansas City
Just as Dayton Moore and Ned Yost seemed to really be running out of rope, the team seems to have cracked the code. Like something out a movie, their players have had an epiphany and made the charge that everyone knew they had in them. After losing four straight to the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox in July, Kansas City has thrived, winning 17 of its last 21, including eight in a row leading up to Tuesday night’s loss.
The rotation has been the strength it was expected to, led by James Shields (3.25 ERA). Jason Vargas (3.27 ERA), has been better than expected and young hurlers Yordano Ventura (3.45 ERA) and Danny Duffy (2.57 ERA) have settled into major league jobs.
Alex Gordon is leading the team ins Baseball Reference WAR with 4.6 while hitting “just” .278/.353/.432. Billy Butler, the DH, has hit seven home runs. Mike Moustakas is hitting .199, but is tied for the team lead in homers at 14 with catcher Salvador Perez.
The bullpen has been lights out. Greg Holland and Wade Davis have struck out a combined 147 batters in 98 innings.
This isn’t the greatest team ever assembled. But a strong rotation backed up with excellent relief pitching and an offense that, for the moment, is holding its own can put any team within reach of a playoff spot, especially in a division with three teams (White Sox, Twins, and Indians) that aren’t particularly competitive right now.
If the Tigers do falter, the Royals are in position to capitalize and return to the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. That still may not justify the price paid for Shields, but it would bring October baseball back to a city that has sorely missed it.