Opening Day 2012 was one of the most heartbreaking games in recent Cleveland Indians history. In case you’ve blocked it from your memory, the Indians went into the ninth inning with a 4-1 lead, but Chris Perez blew the save and the Blue Jays tied it. It took 16 innings and more than five excruciating hours for the Tribe to lose, 7-4.
Luckily, the Indians have another chance to make Opening Day a good one—though not at Progressive Field. It’s off to Kansas City this weekend as Cleveland faces off against the Royals in a three-game series starting with the Kauffman Stadium home opener Friday afternoon.
We’ll get to know this Royals team quite well over the next few months (they’re our division rivals, so we play them 18 times), but for now we brought in an expert on the boys from Kansas City: Michael Engel, Senior Editor of the phenomenal Royals blog Kings of Kauffman. Here’s what he had to say about the Royals’ probable pitchers, the team’s vaunted farm system, and the general 2012 outlook for Kansas City:
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Some people see the Royals as a sleeper pick to win the AL Central, yet I’ve also seen them projected to be the worst team in the American League. How do you see Kansas City’s season shaking out?
MICHAEL ENGEL: I’ve kept my expectations a bit lower than some I think because I’ve seen a lot of Royals teams billed as a sleeper before, only to stay asleep all season (2004 and 2009 come to mind). If I had to put a number on it, I’d say 76 wins – a five game improvement – is very reachable and 78-80 is possible too. I don’t see them jumping to get into the division race this year, but next year is a possibility.
This is the youngest team in baseball and there will be some inconsistencies and those “teachable moments” from time to time, but there’s a ton of talent, too. I don’t think they’ll be the worst in the AL (or the AL Central for that matter), but Detroit doesn’t have to worry – yet.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: The Royals’ biggest move this offseason was rewarding Alex Gordon for his career year with a $37.5 million extension. What do you think of the deal? Is his breakout sustainable?
MICHAEL ENGEL: I like the deal. The money seems right when looking at what other star outfielders have gotten for extensions and there’s a fifth year that’s Gordon’s option to take that makes it basically a five year $50 million deal, which is still good if he performs.
I think he will. It’s not like Gordon’s a guy who came out of nowhere in 2011. He’s always had the talent. As a former NCAA and Minor League player of the year and a second overall pick, he’s got a track record and, despite a very slow start in his 2007 rookie year, from the second half of 2007 to the end of 2008, he was an above average performer. I think people question him because 2009 and 2010 were largely lost seasons, but they were due in part to random injuries. A torn labrum and surgery lost a lot of Gordon’s 2009 and a broken thumb halfway through spring training put him behind in 2010 before he shifted to left field and back to Triple A (a project that couldn’t happen in camp because, again, he was hurt). In 2011, he made some adjustments to his approach (going the other way a lot more) and stayed healthy. The deal also sends the message that if you perform, you’ll get rewarded and that the Royals aren’t going to wait around until it’s time to trade a homegrown star.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: A year ago, people were talking about the Royals’ farm system as one of the greatest collections of young talent ever assembled. Is there still the same degree of optimism about the team’s future?
MICHAEL ENGEL: Some of those claims were great to read about and cause for a lot of optimism, and the Royals system going into 2011 was one of the most talented in a long time, but it smacked a bit of hyperbole, too. Some players regressed a bit in 2011 after facing more challenging competition, but many prospects are still landing in top 100 lists and the Royals have one of the best hitting prospects in baseball in Wil Myers who had a great offseason. Bubba Starling should get into some games in a month or so and start working his way towards what could be the highest ceiling in all of baseball and there are other lesser known names (Jorge Bonifacio is going to skyrocket up lists this year, for instance) that give the Royals a lot of depth of talent still in the system along with guys like Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery and a recovering John Lamb who were all top 100 prospects last year and within a year of the majors.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Are there any young players you’re particularly excited to see in 2012?
MICHAEL ENGEL: I’m really excited to see the continued maturation of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy – and any of the guys up in Kansas City after last season. I’m also glad Lorenzo Cain gets a shot to be an everyday player this year after running into a rough situation where all three outfielders in KC had career years and there just wasn’t a spot for him.
I want to see Mike Montgomery too. He’s been off for a while now and we’re hoping he can get back on track. I don’t think there are going to be any major debuts other than his this year, though. Jake Odorizzi may make it up in September, but he’s getting some more starts in Double A at the moment. The second wave is working its way up though.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: Who’s pitching for Kansas City this weekend, and what should Tribe fans look for from them?
MICHAEL ENGEL: Cleveland is going to get Luke Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez and Luis Mendoza. Hochevar is much-maligned but his second half of 2011 was what you’d hope to see from a former first round pick (and first overall pick). He increased his strikeouts, controlled walks, kept the ball in the park and got grounders. He had a strong spring as well. He’s been using his slider more since the second half last year, which is one of the more valuable pitches in baseball statistically (surprised me too).
Sanchez is coming off of a five inning game with a high pitch count, which Royals fans are just going to have to get used to reading. His potential is obvious, but it’s always been about control and pitch efficiency. He’s not overpowering – the fastball hangs around 91 mph – but he has good swing and miss secondary pitches. It’s all about getting them in the zone and getting strikeouts for him.
I’m probably leading the “Luis Mendoza isn’t this good” charge on the blogosphere, but a lot of fans and the KC media have picked up on this guy. I can’t refute the results – after a mediocre career to that point, Mendoza busted out in Triple A to earn the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year Award and had a great spring – but when I look at his numbers, he didn’t improve in any area that would indicate a new or improved skillset. He still walks the same number of batters, strikes out the same number and didn’t drastically improve his groundball rate by 10% or so (in fact it dropped in 2011).
But he still works with a 95 mph heater that has some sink on it and a new arm slot is the credit for that pitch’s new effectiveness. His pitches are said to have more movement too. He gave up only one run in 5.2 innings in his first start, but also allowed 11 baserunners. I’d be happy to be wrong about him as that means more Royals wins.
WAHOO’S ON FIRST: What’s your prediction for the series?
MICHAEL ENGEL: Royals sweep, of course. C’mon, that’s an easy one!