The Rays have been in tailspin over the last week, falling down into the shared-mix of the American League East, and now face an incredibly difficult stretch heading into the All-Star Break.
Foremost to be celebrated next week will be the Royals, who we will get an early exposure for in the coming four games. The Rays always have difficulty in Kansas City, for whatever reason, so it's not a match up to which I'm looking forward.
Ahead of the series, I exchanged questions with Royals Review's Max Rieper. You can find his responses below.
James Shields might be gone from the mix, but do the Royals look more-or-less like their World Series self from last year?
The Royals look a bit different from the team that won 89 games and went on an amazing October run. They still have the terrific bullpen and the outstanding defense, but the offense has been better than last year when they were dead last in the league in home runs and walks. Adding Kendrys Morales to replace the disappointing Billy Butler has been a huge pickup and the team has benefitted from a completely different Mike Moustakas. "Moose" was one of the worst hitters in baseball last year, but decided this year to hit the ball to all fields to beat the shift and the result has been remarkable. Its still not a great offense, but they showed last year they can win without a great offense.
On the downside, the starting pitching is worse than last year. Losing James Shields was tough, but free agent Edinson Volquez has pretty much matched his numbers thus far. Chris Young has been a pleasant surprise, but he's confounding BABIP with a sub-90 mph fastball, so it could all go to pot in a hurry.
What has been disappointing is the regression of young pitchers Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, both of whom have struggled from physical and/or mental inconsistency this season. The club was hoping for improvement from them to mitigate the loss of Shields, and it hasn't worked out that way. Even worse, the club's top pitching prospects who might have contributed this year - Kyle Zimmer and Sean Manaea - have been hurt, and the club has had last year's first-round pick Brandon Finnegan yo-yoing between the Major League bullpen and minor league rotation, possibly affecting his development.
What has been the secret sauce for the Royals this season? Does the team still thrive on defense?
The Royals lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved by a pretty healthy margin, in a division where everyone but the Tigers play terrible defense. I was never a big believe in the value of defense until I saw one play every day, and seeing the contrast between them and, say a good club with bad defense like the Indians, is tremendous.
As good as the bullpen was last year, it is probably better this year. Last year's pen was very front-heavy, with the dominating trio of Kelvin Herrera/Wade Davis/Greg Holland to close out games, but until they acquired Jason Frasor in mid-season and promoted Brandon Finnegan, it wasn't a deep pen at all. This year they have Frasor for the entire season, and they bring back Luke Hochevar, who missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery. They also added former Phillies closer Ryan Madson after a few years away from baseball and he has come back to look fantastic. Its no surprise the Royals are 34-2 when leading after six innings this season.
Ventura looks like he may be ready to start Thursday on the last day of the four game series. The kid is a joy to watch, from a pure baseball perspective. How severe has his injury been, for him and the team, and what do you expect of his first start back?
Yordano has managed to avoid major injury in his career, which is always a concern when a pitcher with his slight of frame throws as hard as he does. But he has had a variety of minor injuries, including a "valgus stress overload" last year, and "ulnar neuritis" this year. It sounds like his hand has had issues from the stress of throwing the ball so hard, so its something they'll want to monitor carefully.
Ventura was supposed to make one more rehab start this week, but the urgency with the starting pitching in the rotation caused them to scrap those plans, which is a bit concerning when you're talking about a 24-year old who just signed a five-year $23 million deal.
How have you enjoyed seeing you team vaulted into the mainstream consciousness?
It is interesting how we have a fanbase seem to have gone from pitied during the losing years, to becoming America's lovable underdog last fall, to more of a hated fanbase this year after the early season conflicts with other teams and now the ballot-stuffing. I suppose its better to be hated than irrelevant, and we certainly wouldn't want to go back to being lovable losers.
Is Royals Review to blame for the 60M scrubbed All-Star Votes?
The "60 million scrubbed votes" issue was misreported quite a bit, and we tried to set the record straight.
I get why other fanbases are upset with us - I wouldn't want to see nine Rays voted into the All-Star Game, but to suggest the integrity of the All-Star Game is being tarnished or that the American League will get killed now is ridiculous. Its always been an exhibition game about the fans, and one Omar Infante at-bat will not cost the American League home field advantage. If anyone doesn't like it, they should have voted more.
The James Shields trade... now that all the pieces have been disseminated in just two seasons, how do we feel now?
Our site has had to do a 180 on the trade. We hated it at the time, and 1 1/2 years into it, it was looking like the dumbest decision of Dayton Moore's tenure. Then suddenly they turned things around and James Shields was a HUGE part of it. Not only that but Wade Davis has gone from being a terrible fifth starter to the most dominating reliever in baseball. Meanwhile, both Wil Myers and Mike Montgomery have already been dealt away, and while Jake Odorizzi looks good, it seems like a small price to pay for an American League pennant.
I still think the Royals franchise got a bit lucky, but its also likely that they saw some flaws with Wil Myers' game that they took issue with and decided they could part with him. The Royals deserve credit for identifying the right pitcher in James Shields that could help them out, and doing it at the right time when the rest of the team was close enough to contention that it could make a difference.
Many thanks to Max for taking the time. His site's coverage over the past two years has been a great follow, something I've been watching ever since James Shields said goodbye on moving day in 2013. Go check out what they have to say about the Rays at Royals Review.
Photo Credits: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports; Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports