Tag Archives: AL Central

Whit Merrifield breaks out as Royals return to contention

Whit Merrifield emerges as productive second baseman
When the Kansas City Royals opened play for the 2017 MLB season, very few prognosticators picked them to be a contender.
The Royals captured back-to-back American League pennants in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. And in 2015, they won the second-ever World Series crown in franchise history. That isn’t all that long ago.
But fortunes of big league mini-dynasties can turn around in a hurry these days. The Royals slipped to a .500 finish a year ago. With the Cleveland Indians on the rise in the AL Central Division, and with an aging homegrown core, the Royals looked like yesterday’s news.
Flash forward a few months, and here we are in the Dog Days of summer. Heading into play on Tuesday, August 8, Kansas City is tied for one of the two American League Wildcard playoff berths. The club also sits just three games behind the Indians in the division.
As the season was set to open back in late March, Royals skipper Ned Yostannounced that then 21-year old Raul Mondesi Jr had won an open battle for the team’s second base position.
The losers in that battle, Whit MerrifieldChristian Colon, and Cheslor Cuthbert, were left to battle for bench roles with the club in the final days of spring training.

PLAYER PERFORMANCES RESULT IN CHANGED PLANS

Merrifield had an option remaining, and so ended up opening the year back with Omaha in the Pacific Coast League. He quickly showed that he could rake AAA pitching. Over 37 plate appearances, he hit for an outstanding .412/.432/.794 slash line with three home runs.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, to say that Mondesi was over-matched would be an understatement. He slashed just .103/.167/.179 over his first 14 games and 46 plate appearances. Mondesi did steal five bases, but he simply wasn’t reaching often enough to make a real difference in that regard.
Into the breach stepped Merrifield. Given an opportunity to start with the big club, he took it and ran. The 28-year old is now hitting .294 over 401 plate appearances. He has 13 homers, 49 RBI, 50 runs scored, and stolen 18 bases. In short, Merrifield has been an unexpected gem for the Royals.
A little over a week after Merrifield took over the job at the Keystone position, Kansas City began to win. Since May 1, the Royals have a 50-38 record.
Rustin Todd of the Kansas City Star noted in a piece earlier this month that the Royals’ vice president for communications, Mike Swanson, was reporting that Merrifield was in rare company.
Per Swanson, Merrifield was just the seventh player in big league history to produce 175 hits, 80 runs, 40 doubles, and 20 stolen bases over the first 162 games of his career.
“With his versatility, there’s a lot of things he can do,” Yost was quoted by Todd. “He can steal a base, he can bunt, he can swing the bat, he hits the ball to all fields. He gives you a good at-bat.”

IMPROVED APPROACH LEADS TO BREAKOUT

Merrifield was Kansas City’s selection in the 10th round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of South Carolina. As he rose through the Royals farm system, a strong 2014 season split between AA and AAA was the only sign that he might be more than a big league bench player. At least so far, he has turned out to  be so much more.
In a recent piece for Beyond the Box Score, Anthony Rescan broke Merrifield’s success down in a more analytic fashion.
“This year, Merrifield has displayed a solid amount of offensive upside. His aggregate offensive statistics have spiked up significantly. He currently sits at a 111 wRC+, .339 wOBA, and a .289 TAv. All of this is being done at a .309 BABIP as well.” ~ Anthony Rescan
Merrifield’s consistent production has been a key to the turn-around of the Royals lineup. Not once this season has he gone more than two games without producing a hit.
Since the MLB All-Star break, Merrifield has only upped his game, hitting for a .327/.366/.577 slash line and six home runs in that span.
The Royals have surprised many by fighting back into contention here in the 2017 season. However, the club has now dropped six of their last eight games. And they just lost their all-star catcher and team leader Salvador Perez until September.
To stay in the race, Kansas City is going to need their remaining veteran core of Eric HosmerMike MoustakasLorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon to step up in the lineup. Continued production from Merrifield is also sure to go a long way towards the Royals returning to postseason baseball.

Surprising Jason Vargas leads starting rotation of resurgent Royals

Vargas has been a surprise rotation leader for KC
The Kansas City Royals were contenders in the AL Central Division each season from 2013-15. In 2015, the Royals not only captured that division crown, they also won the World Series.
Last year, Kansas City slipped to a third place .500 finish. The club struggled through the first couple months of this season, and as late as June 9 the Royals were still buried at 26-34.
Since that time, the Royals have gotten hot, winning nine of their last 11 games. The winning stretch has pulled the team back within a game of the .500 mark. They are now 3.5 games behind the first place Cleveland Indians, and just two games out in the AL Wildcard race.
One of the key factors in the Royals ability to stay in the race this season has been the strong performance of pitcher Jason Vargas. The 34-year old lefty is 10-3 with a 2.27 ERA and 1.134 WHIP, and has allowed just 79 hits over 87.1 innings.
Vargas 10 victories has him leading the American League in that category, tied with Clayton Kershaw for the MLB lead. The ERA mark is second-best in the AL, his WHIP mark ranks 8th in the league. His .243 Batting Average Against is 12th in the American League.
In short, Vargas has been one of the best pitchers in the AL this season. During this recent hot stretch the Royals have won both of his starts. In fact, Vargas has registered a victory in each of his last five outings. Vargas has allowed just six total runs over his last four starting assignments.

SECOND-HALF SUCCESS KEY FOR PLAYER AND TEAM

In his most recent start, Vargas battled through six innings for a 7-3 win over the Angels. After that game, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com quoted Royals skipper Ned Yost on his pitcher. “He did what he does best — limit the damage,” Yost said.
Vargas is scheduled to next take the mound on Saturday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. There he will face the Toronto Blue Jays, who got off to a similarly poor start to their season but have also fought back into the race.
Vargas is now in his 12th big league season. He has a career 77-73 record with a 4.05 ERA and 1.297 WHIP mark. Vargas has made 210 starts over 230 total appearances in which he has pitched 1,309 innings.
He will be a free agent following this season, so Vargas is absolutely pitching for a contract. Vargas will turn 35 years old just before 2018 spring training gets underway. His ability to earn a big contract is likely limited.
However, if he continues to pitch at this level for the rest of the season, Vargas will certainly get a nice offer for next season somewhere. He could even get a multi-year deal. That continued strong pitching is vital to both his future, and the Royals ability to stay in the 2017 race.

Twins have tough decision with top pick in 2017 MLB Draft

At some point before 7:00pm EDT on Monday night, the Minnesota Twins brain trust will make a difficult decision. 
That decision is likely to have a big impact on the organization during the decade of the 2020’s.
Both general manager Thad Levine and president of baseball operations Derek Falvey are in their first seasons in those roles. The future of the organization is now in their hands. On Monday night, they begin putting their stamp on that future.
After earning the worst record in Major League Baseball a year ago, the Twins hold the top pick in the 2017 MLB Amateur Draft.
John Shipley had a Q&A with Falvey published at winonadailynews.com recently. Falvey stated the following in relation to the draft process.
“…the lifeblood of an organization like ours — for any organization, for that matter, but particularly for small and mid-size market teams — is that you need to build through the draft and through development. So, I look at it as, whether we’re picking first, fifth, 10th, 20th doesn’t matter; it’s important for us to get a lot of value out of each draft. It doesn’t just come with Pick 1. We need to be thinking about how we can accumulate as much value as possible.”
The draft will begin tomorrow night, with pre-draft coverage and then the complete first round being broadcast on the MLB Network beginning at 6:00pm EDT.
Once the first round selections are complete, streaming coverage will then be picked up by MLB.com for the second and competitive balance rounds. On both Tuesday and Wednesday, MLB.com will continue with their coverage through the end of the process.

GREENE THE EARLY FAVORITE

Early speculation had pitcher/shortstop Hunter Greene out of Notre Dame High School in California as the front-runner for that top pick. He worked out in front of Twins officials at Target Field on Friday.

Falvey, Levine, Johnson, Radcliff, Torii H., etc. watched Greene today. Fastball played, hit 4 HRs. No other player there hit a HR. 

If Greene is indeed the pick, the conversation will then switch to his ultimate position as a professional. Scouts and other evaluators are split, with some wanting to keep him on the mound, but others feeling his bat is more valuable.
If Greene is selected as a pitcher, he will become just the fourth high school hurler selected with the first overall pick in the draft.
In 1973, the Texas Rangers made lefty David Clyde the first such selection. It was then nearly two decades before the New York Yankees chose right-hander Brien Taylor. More than two more decades would pass before the Houston Astros picked lefty Brady Aiken with the top choice in 2014.

OTHERS EMERGE AS TOP PICK CONTENDERS

However, as the evaluation process has unfolded this spring, others have emerged as legitimate contenders to go first overall.
Scanning various reports coming out from around the game, the Twins choice now seems to be down to three players, including Greene.
One of the leading contenders appears to be right-handed pitcher Kyle Wright out of Vanderbilt. Wright’s collegiate career came to an end on Saturday night when the team lost to Oregon State in an NCAA Super Regional.
Other reports say the Twins are leaning towards Brendan McKay of Louisville. McKay is likely to be drafted as a lefty pitcher, though some teams feel his big bat makes McKay more valuable as a first baseman-outfielder.
Chad Gray of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press quoted McKay on the possibility of being taken first overall.
“It definitely would be really cool. But at the end of the day, it’s whatever is best for the Twins and what they’re looking for. You can’t let that get too into your mind, but it would definitely be cool and very special.”
It has already been an exciting season in the Twin Cities. Minnesota surprisingly leads the AL Central Division race into mid-June. If they stay in the race much longer, that Twins brain trust will have some decisions to make regarding bolstering the current roster.
On Monday night, it will not be the Twins present, but the future that is impacted in a major way. Will it be an arm or a bat? Maybe it will be someone talented enough to be considered as both. Then the organization will have to make yet another tough decision.

Chisox plummet as new skipper Rick Renteria struggles

With eight losses in their last nine games, the Chicago White Sox are on more than a losing skid. 
The total collapse over the last week and a half has plummeted the Chisox right out of the race.
Following Friday night’s 7-3 defeat to the division-rival Cleveland Indians, the White Sox are in last place in the AL Central Division
Chicago is now 25-34, and has fallen seven games off the pace being set by the division-leading Minnesota Twins.
The primary culprit has been the pitching staff. While losing eight of their last nine games, the Chisox have surrendered at least seven runs on six separate occasions. Three times they have allowed the opposition to score in double digits.
The collapse is particularly difficult to swallow for fans, as well as for manager Rick Renteria and the team itself. Chicago began the season strong in April.
After winning six straight towards the end of the opening month, the White Sox sat at 13-9. But since reaching 15-12 on May 4, Chicago has gone just 10-22 to fall out of the race.

PITCHING A PROBLEM

James Shields, acquired in a trade last June with the San Diego Padres, is currently on the Disabled List. The 35-year old now in his 12th big league season was driven to the DL by a strained lat muscle in late April, and has made just three starts. He should return in about a week.
The bullpen really hasn’t been that bad for most of the year. And with Shields out, the #3 and #4 starters, Derek Holland and Mike Pelfrey, have pitched as well as could have been expected.
But at the top of the rotation, neither lefty Jose Quintana nor righty Miguel Gonzalez has performed to expectations.
The 28-year old Quintana, the subject of numerous trade rumors that are sure to increase, has made a dozen starts. He has a 2-7 record with a 5.30 ERA and 1.407 WHIP, and has allowed 70 hits over 69.2 innings with a 71/28 K:BB ratio.
The 33-year old Gonzalez is 4-7 with a 5.01 ERA and 1.466 WHIP mark. He has allowed 84 hits over 73.2 innings with a 42/24 K:BB ratio.
The White Sox also gave eight starts to a 25-year rookie, Dylan Covey. But the right-hander was shelled for 52 hits over 37.2 innings with just a 22/16 K:BB mark before ending up on the DL himself with a left oblique injury.

NEW SKIPPER ON THE HOT SEAT

Renteria has clearly seen enough, having huddled the team in the dugout for what was described by Dan Hayes of CSN Chicago as a “fiery meeting” on Thursday night. Hayes quoted Renteria on the timing.
“It’s like a dog that’s always barking — at some point you just start to ignore it. I think you just have to have purpose, you have to have a good feel, a sense of time for when it is you’re supposed to speak to people…you have to have the ability to articulate a message if you need to present it. Just depends, everybody’s different. The people that you’re working with alongside are ultimately dictate what you need to do.”
If the White Sox players are indeed ignoring the Renteria message, that would be a troubling development. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, and it would turn into a long, ugly summer on the South Side.
It’s hard to imagine that Chisox management would throw in the towel on the Renteria managerial era just a few months in. But if this level of play continues, the skipper will find himself on a short leash. Meanwhile, the worst record in the American League has already buried his team.

Justin Verlander Born Again Hard

It appeared during the 2015 season that fans of the Detroit Tigers just might be witnessing the beginning of the end of the brilliant career of ace starting pitcher Justin Verlander.
Verlander had won the 2006 American League Rookie of the Year Award and the 2011 AL Cy Young Award. He had also been a six-time American League All-Star at that point.
He was a key member of the rotation in that rookie 2016 season as the Tigers won their first American League Pennant in nearly two decades. In 2012, Verlander was the ace of the staff as Detroit won another AL Pennant.
The Tigers have either won the AL Central Division or finished second in nine of 12 seasons since Verlander fully joined the rotation.
In 2015, Verlander opened the season on the Disabled List. It was the first-ever appearance on the DL in his Major League Baseball career. A right triceps strain put an end to seven consecutive seasons as the Opening Day starter for the Tigers.
Finally able to return in mid-June, Verlander pitched well over the remainder of the season. But the Tigers finished in last place, just the second time in his career that had happened.
Verlander had seen his ERA rise from a 2.64 mark in 2012, a year in which he finished as the runner-up in the AL Cy voting, to 3.46 in 2013. It then rose again to the 4.54 mark in 2014. His strikeout numbers, K/9, and K:BB ratio dropped each year.

VERLANDER COMES BACK STRONG

The 2016 season opened with Verlander as somewhat of a question mark. He answered those in resoundingly positive fashion, turning back the clock with a 16-9 record.
Verlander allowed just 171 hits over 227.1 innings a year ago with a dominating 254/57 K:BB ratio. For his tremendous season, he once again finished as the runner-up in AL Cy Young voting.
The Tigers were also rejuvenated with the return of their ace. Detroit just missed the postseason, finishing 1.5 games behind the two AL Wildcard playoff positions.
Also last season, Verlander became officially engaged to longtime girlfriend Kate Upton. The high-profile couple seem to be enjoying life and enjoying one another. The solidification of the relationship may have been another factor in helping the pitcher bounce back.
Verlander opened the 2017 season with a strong outing in Chicago against the division rival White Sox. He allowed just two earned runs and six hits over 6.1 innings, striking out 10 and walking a pair while throwing 103 pitches.

AGE AND PITCH COUNTS CATCHING UP

That pitch count could eventually prove problematic. In a December 2014 piece, Diane Firstman for ESPN noted that Verlander had thrown 32,535 pitched since his big league debut. That was the most pitches thrown by any pitcher in that time span.
“Verlander…has thrown 32,535 pitches in the regular season, the sixth-most through anyone’s age-31 season since pitches began being counted in 2000. Add in another 1,688 postseason pitches and you have over 34,000 pitches dispensed from that arm in his 10-year career.” ~ Diane Firstman
Now 34 years old, Verlander is approaching an age at which many of his contemporaries began to break down. And the wear and tear on his arm is not going to do him any favors.
Roy Halladay had his final strong season at age 34 in 2011 before struggling through two more years to end his career. Cliff Lee was 34 during his final strong season in 2013, and was finished a year later.
The Tigers and their fans in the Motor City and around the country have to hope that the ace has more left in the tank. He bounced back nicely in 2016, and is beginning 2017 looking strong. For now at least, Verlander appears to be born again hard, and the Tigers can contend as long as that continues.