Kansas City Royals (9-8) @ Cleveland Indians (8-10)

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Apr 20, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a two run home run against the Minnesota Twins during the seventh inning at Kauffman Stadium. The Twins won 8-3. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

 

A Year Older, The Young Royals Are Ready for the Next Step

The Kansas City Royals have been one of the most frustrating teams in baseball over the past several years. Armed with what many insiders considered to be the best group of minor league prospects anyone had ever seen, it was only a matter of time before they ascended the AL ranks and took their rightful place back atop the throne. Well, all of those top prospects have made their way to the big leagues and the pay day has still yet to happen. But, a successful finish to the 2013 season and promising start here in 2014 have many thinking this could finally be the year where it all comes together.

As things currently stand, the Royals find themselves sitting in second place in the AL Central with a 9-8 record. They are a game back of the first place Tigers and a game and a half ahead of the Indians, who are bringing up the rear. That comes in spite of posting a negative run differential to begin the year. Yes, it is a small sample size that is likely to correct itself, the Royals pitching is too good and offense too potent not to, but a 9-8 record after giving up five more runs than they’ve scored is a big deal and a trend they would like to rectify sooner rather than later.

All signs seem to indicate that it will the Royals are due to break out in a big way. For starters, while they rank 29th out of 30 teams in runs scored this season, they are 10th in batting average and 19th in OBP. It would appear that their inability to score runs has less to do with opportunities and more to do with not getting timely hits in crucial, run scoring situations. It also probably doesn’t help that one of their primary offensive weapons has yet to get things going at the plate in the first few weeks of the season. Billy Butler has posted a very un-Billy Butler like slash line of .213/.286/.230 and has yet to hit a home run. He also has only 5 RBI to his credit. Known as a doubles machine, Butler has hit only one double in all of 2014.

He isn’t alone in his struggles, though. Salvador Perez, who had a breakout performance in 2013, is also struggling. He has been a bit better than Butler, but not by much. His .242/.329/.355 slash line and five RBI are well off his expected pace. Mike Moustakas is another player that Royals fans are growing increasingly frustrated with. After being downright awful for most of 2013, “Moose” has been just as bad in 2014. His .125/.206/.268 slash line is borderline pathetic. He has hit two home runs, more than any other Royal, but he only has 6 RBI to his name. That has to get better. In fact, they all have to get better.

Picking up the slack for those three have been the usual offensive forces for the Royals, that being Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer. The Duo is off to a great start in 2014 and should only improve once their fellow Royals get their acts together. Alcides Escobar is also off to a great start ofter regressing in 2013. While the young shortstop still isn’t quite sure how to take a walk, He has posted a team leading batting average of .298 to go along with a .333 OBP and .439 slugging percentage. That’s not bad for a player who is generally more valued for his glove work than anything else.

Helping the Royals get to 9-8 while the offense finds itself has been the pitching staff. Once again, they are among the best in all of baseball. So far on the young season, they rank in the top 10 for every major category. They’re 8th in ERA at 3.20, 8th in WHIP at 1.22 and 5th in batting average against at .224. The pitching is also a big reason why the Royals are undefeated when scoring four or more runs. Of course, it helps to have one of the best front line starters in all of baseball on your side. I’m talking about none other than James Shields.

In four starts, Shields has been fantastic. He has posted a 2.00 ERA and .96 WHIP. His 26 strikeouts lead the Royals. Unfortunately, his record does not reflect just how well he has pitched. At 1-2, he has fallen victim once again to a lack of run support, something that plagued him throughout much of 2013. Even still, Shields remains one of the best top of the rotation starters in all of baseball and is only getting better.

Another pitcher who has pitched well for the Royals is Jason Vargas. Many questioned what the Royals were thinking this winter when they signed him to a massive four year deal. Well, it was massive in the context of his career numbers, not massive in relation to Albert Pujols or Robinson Cano. He is 2-0 with a team leading ERA of 1.24. Maybe the Royals did know what they were doing after all when they signed him. Who knew?

In the backend of the Royals bullpen is one of the better closer in all of Major League Baseball. Through the first three weeks of the season, Greg Holland has closed out six of the Royals nine victories and has looked impressive doing it. As of today, he is averaging 15.43 strikeouts per nine innings and appears well on his way to another 40-plus save season. The point here is, if you want any chance of beating the Royals, don’t be behind heading into the start of the ninth inning. It won’t end well for you.

For the Indians to survive this four game series, it will be crucial that they stay patient at the plate and force the Royals pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. Allowing them to run roughshod through the Indians lineup with minimum effort is going to result in a lot of quick games and very few rallies. It seems cliché, but it’s the truth. Make the Royals pitching staff work, and you have a chance.

From their own pitching perspective, the Indians will have to be very careful not to wake a slumbering giant. The Royals offense, while borderline impotent to begin the year, has the potential to put up runs in bunches. The Indians don’t want to be the team that jumpstarts the core of their lineup. Billy Butler, for all of his struggles this season, is coming off of two straight multi-hit games. It’s only a matter of time before they figure it out. Let’s just hope for the Tribe’s sake it isn’t over the next four days.

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Tags: Alex Gordon Billy Butler Cleveland Indians James Shields

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