The Houston Astros are heading back to Kansas City to play the Royals for three games. TCB talks with Royals Review editor Max Rieper about the Royals' draft, the 2016 edition of the Royals, and of course the 2015 ALDS.
So, what is the current state of the Royals? What the hell is going on with the Indians?
MR: The Royals have been a "Jekyll and Hyde" team this year, going on hot streaks one week, and eight-game losing streaks the next. They have been a remarkable home team - the best in baseball. But they are just 13-25 on the road, mystifying fans on how they can look so bad away from Kauffman Stadium. They have weathered some tough injuries - Mike Moustakas is out for the year with a knee injury, Alex Gordon will return this weekend after missing a month with a wrist injury, and Kris Medlen is currently on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. They have papered over some holes by getting big seasons out of Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez and getting some surprisingly good seasons out of young players like Paulo Orlando, Whit Merrifield, and Cheslor Cuthbert.
The starting pitching remains a big concern, however, and many feel like the Royals will have to look outside the organization to address the issue. The problem is, they cleared out the farm system last year to acquire Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto and have few trade chips left. Dayton Moore may have to be creative. The Indians, on the other hand, have an embarrassment of riches in the starting pitching department. They seem to be the perennial division underachievers, but perhaps this is the year they finally live up to expectations. The Royals will certainly have a race on their hands.
Where you disappointed with the way offseason went with the departure of a few key free agents or did the fact they helped finish the job make it worthwhile?
MR: Everyone expected Johnny Cueto to depart, and most felt Ben Zobrist would probably leave too. The big question was whether Alex Gordon would stay, and that seemed like a 50/50 proposition going into the winter. Fortunately, he stayed, to the delight of Royals fans, so I think most fans viewed the off-season as a big win. The Royals bumped payroll up quite a bit this year to keep the team together and go out and get Ian Kennedy, so I don't think fans were disappointing that the team was staying put or losing guys. A few may have questioned the wisdom of spending so much on Kennedy and reliever Joakim Soria, however. But winning a title does give management more leeway, and quiets any concerns for a bit.
Who has been the biggest surprise this season for the Royals?
MR: Easily Whit Merrifield. He is a guy that was nowhere near the prospect radar because he was a light-hitting 27-year-old utility player who was coming off a disappointing season in AAA. But he has been a fan favorite in the minors for some time and added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He looked terrific in spring training and many thought he should have made the team to start the year. He has come up and made the most of his opportunity, and despite playing in just 30 games so far, he leads all American League rookie position players in WAR right now. I expect him to cool off, but he does bring a nice spark to the lineup and he has allowed the Royals to cut ties with disappointing free agent second baseman Omar Infante.
What did you think of the Royals 2016 Draft class?
To be fair, the Royals were in a tough bind because they didn't have a first-round pick due to signing Ian Kennedy, and their draft bonus pool was one of the lowest in baseball because of their success last year. Second-round pick A.J. Puckett out of Pepperdine had a brilliant ERA - 1.27 - so he could be something. They grabbed a few toolsy high school outfielders in Cal Jones and Khalil Lee (who may end up on the mound if hitting doesn't work out). I really like Logan Gray, an outfielder from Austin Peay that went to high school in the Kansas City area and shows good pop. But they also took a ton of low-upside college players to stay in their pool, which is understandable, but it doesn't help re-stock a farm system that is already pretty thin.
How were you feeling going into that eighth inning of the ALDS Game 4 before the Royals scored 5 runs?
MR: I know everyone says this now, but I was still pretty hopeful. Not that I expected a comeback, but I knew the team had a comeback before (most famously in the 2014 Wild Card game) so it wouldn't be crazy to think they could come back again. I still remember a few Royals fans tweeting some snide comments at me about how optimistic I was being, which I wish I would have saved. Once they got a few hits, you could feel like the momentum was building. I feel for the Astros though, it isn't like the pitchers really made many bad pitches that inning or that Correa flubbed a super-easy play. It was just one of those weird, fluky things that happen and makes post-season baseball so great (at least, when your team benefits).
Did you vote for Omar Infante over Jose Altuve in 2015 or 2016 All-Star Game?
MR: I voted Omar Infante because the All-Star Game is a farce that routinely starts the less qualified players, has the silly rule of requiring every team to send a representative, with a massively bloated roster of guys that shouldn't be there. To cap it off, they make this exhibition game count for home field advantage in the World Series, which is absurd. Jose Altuve, of course, is more deserving, but I voted Omar Infante because some people just want to watch the world burn.