So after all the hand-wringing in September, after all the panic, after going 11-17 for the Royals’ first losing month since July of 2014, the Royals finish the season in the same way they began the month: with the best record in the American League, with the #1 seed, and with home-field advantage in every round. They jettisoned their Achilles’ heel, which was apparently located in Greg Holland’s right elbow. They got Alex Gordon back, completing one of the best offenses (relative to the league) that the Royals have ever had. And they finished the season on a five-game winning streak, meaning that over the last two years, the Royals have now won 13 consecutive games played between September 30th and October 20th.
All in all, not a terrible way to end the season. If you believe that momentum carries over into the playoffs, then the Royals’ five-game winning streak means you can put their losing September in the rear-view mirror. If, like me, you don’t, then you can put your faith in the fact that the Royals won more games over the course of the entire season than any other AL team. (And given that the AL once again pummeled the NL head-to-head, the Royals’ 95 wins are probably more meaningful than the Cardinals’ 100.)
But the reality is this: the playoffs are a crapshoot. Last year the 89-win Royals beat the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles before losing to the 88-win Giants. If this year, the 95-win Royals fall to the 87-win Yankees or 86-win Astros, well, we can’t say that we didn’t have it coming. One silver lining from last year is that even if the Royals do fall flat on their face this October, no one can claim that this collection of players underachieved. They accomplished last year what you would expect this year’s team to do; if this year’s team earns the fate that you would have expected from last year’s team, they’re even.
And if this year’s team accomplishes what this year’s team is expected to do…well, Kansas City is lovely in late October. I learned that first-hand last year. (Although early November – Game 7 would be played on November 4th – would be a new experience.)
Enough foreplay. Let’s try to figure out the ideal roster.
Start with the ideal hitter/pitcher breakdown. At this point, it would be stunning if the Royals don’t go with a 14/11 split. It’s impossible to justify a 13/12 split, because you don’t need a fifth starter, so even with 11 pitchers you still have seven relievers; you’re not dropping a bullpen arm, you’re dropping Jeremy Guthrie. And with two off-days in every series, pretty much every reliever can pitch in pretty much every game. (The only two times in the entire month that a reliever would potentially have to pitch for a third straight day would be Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series.)
On that basis, you could make a cogent argument for a 15/10 split, carrying just six relievers. I highly doubt that will happen, because the Royals rarely let any reliever throw more than one inning, and if you carry six relievers you’re either carrying six one-inning guys – meaning you could possibly run out of pitchers by the 12th inning – or you’re carrying a long man like Chris Young, in which case you only have five one-inning relievers. I don’t see that happening, particularly because the Royals have so many bullpen options that even whittling it down to six could be difficult.
So let’s assume 14 hitters and 11 pitchers for now. We’ll begin with the pitching staff. Yordano Ventura almost certainly starts Game 1, and Johnny Cueto probably starts Game 2. As if Cueto’s performance the last six weeks hasn’t been frightening enough, in his final regular season start he worked in the 88-91 mph range with his fastball most of the game. No one in the dugout, the front office, or in the broadcaster’s booth seemed the slightest bit concerned, and he did reach back to 93 as the game progressed, and finished off his outing by hitting 94 for the first time with his 100th and final pitch, so maybe he was just resting his arm a bit before the playoffs. That doesn’t explain the ten baserunners in five innings to a makeshift Twins lineup, but at this point I don’t think we have any choice other than to let Cueto take the mound in Game 2 and pray for the best.
Edinson Volquez presumably will start Game 3, and that leaves an interesting choice in Game 4: go with Kris Medlen, who since joining the rotation allowed 26 runs in 44 innings in 8 starts, or go to Chris Young, who had a stellar 3.06 ERA for the season – he was worth 2.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, making him the most valuable pitcher on the team other than Wade Davis – and after returning to the rotation at the end of the season, allowed four hits and one run in 11.1 innings?
I suspect they will go with Medlen, in large part because Chris Young is an extreme flyball pitcher, and Game 4 will be a road game, meaning it will be at either Minute Maid Park or at New Yankee Stadium, both of which are places where fly balls turn into cheap home runs. (This is also the case for Globe Life Park in Arlington and at the Rogers Center, making Young a poor choice to start any road game before the World Series.) It is true – if quite surprising – that Young actually had a lower ERA (2.52) on the road this season than at home (3.66). But it’s also true that the Royals did a very good job of spotting Young in ballparks that are tough to hit home runs in. In the two bandboxes (U.S. Cellular and Yankee Stadium) that he started at this year, Young allowed four home runs in 11 innings.
So my suspicion is that Medlen starts Game 4, particularly if the game is at Yankee Stadium, both because of the ballpark and because the Yankees are just crawling with left-handed hitters – counting switch-hitters they might start seven or even eight left-handed hitters in the lineup. Young, who relies on a slider, had a big platoon split this year, although his career splits are pretty standard. But Medlen, who has a very good changeup, actually has allowed a slightly lower OPS for his career vs. LHB (665) than vs. RHB (675). While hitters’ platoon splits generally regress to the mean over the long run, that is not true for pitchers – a pitcher’s platoon split is heavily dependent on his repertoire as well as his arm angle. The Astros are likely to start at least four right-handed bats (Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Gattis), making Young a more viable option against them.
And here’s something else to consider: what if the Royals go into Game 4 down two games to one in the series? And what if Cueto got bombed in Game 2? In that case, would you consider bringing Ventura back on three days’ rest to start Game 4, and then using Young at Kauffman Stadium in Game 5? If playing the Astros, I’d say no – you’re going to have to win with Young either way, so just let him start in Houston in Game 4 and let Ventura go on full rest in Game 5. But if the Royals are playing at Yankee Stadium, and the alternative is letting Medlen or Young pitch on the road in an elimination game…I’m just saying it’s something that has to be considered.
Regardless, Medlen and Young are both on the playoff roster, one as a starter, one as a long man. That leaves room for six relievers. Wade Davis pitches the ninth, and Ryan Madson – not Kelvin Herrera – pitches the eighth. (The Royals seem to agree; they had Herrera setting up for Madson on Thursday when they gave Davis the day off.) Herrera not only may have lost the eighth inning role – he might have ceded the seventh inning to Danny Duffy, who was brilliant in the pen: 8.1 innings, 4 hits, two walks, 12 Ks, no runs. Particularly against the Yankees, Duffy’s ability to shut down left-handed hitters could be one of the keys to the series.
Duffy gives the Royals an option they didn’t have with HDH last year – a left-handed relief weapon, which means that Ned Yost is better off positioning him to pitch when a run of left-handed hitters is coming up rather than pigeonholing him into a specific inning. Hopefully we’ll see Duffy anywhere from the sixth to the eighth, depending on the situation, with Herrera and Madson working around him. The Royals deserve to be applauded for not only moving Duffy to the bullpen when they did, but trying him as a one-inning relief weapon as opposed to a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long man. I’m really excited to see what a healthy Duffy does as a playoff reliever.
His new role gives the Royals four elite relievers, which means there’s really no reason for any starter to go more than five innings in a game. I mean, if Ventura is blowing smoke and making curveballs disappear, I suppose you can stick with him into the sixth and seventh, and if the old Johnny Cueto magically appears, I’d consider it with him too. But there’s no reason – NO REASON – why Volquez or Medlen or Young should ever see the sixth inning.
That leaves two more roster spots, which clearly go to Luke Hochevar (3.73 ERA, 4.00 FIP) and Franklin Morales (3.18 ERA, 3.52 FIP). Hochevar and Morales are roughly equivalent to Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan last year. The difference is, thanks to Duffy, this year they’re the 5th and 6th options in the bullpen, whereas last year Frasor and Finnegan were 4th and 5th. Maybe this bullpen isn’t quite as dominant at the back end, but it’s even deeper than last year’s.
(This is another place where Greg Holland’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. If he were healthy enough to pitch, the Royals would have felt obliged to carry him on the roster, which either would have meant bumping off a better pitcher, or more likely, tempted the Royals to carry 12 pitchers and hobble their bench.)
That leaves us with 14 hitters, and the one real choice the Royals have to make. Eight guys are obvious: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Kendrys Morales. Drew Butera makes the roster because otherwise if Perez gets hurt all the pitches will roll to the backstop, and that’s not good. Jarrod Dyson will reprise his role as defensive replacement and pinch-runner extraordinaire if he’s not starting. Christian Colon will almost certainly be the utility infielder; he quietly hit .290/.356/.336 in the majors this year – his career line (granted, in just 168 plate appearances) is .303/.361/.382. The only alternative would be Cheslor Cuthbert, who has never played shortstop and has played second base for a grand total of 28 innings as a professional. So that’s not going to happen.
That leaves three roster spots and four options to fill them. Alex Rios is almost certain to get one of them as the starting right fielder. After a five-week hot stretch sandwiched around a bout of chicken pox – Rios hit .382/.387/.584 over a 24-game stretch – he finished the season in a 2-for-29 slump. Still, the Royals are convinced his overall line of .255/.287/.353 isn’t indicative of his ability. He did hit better from September 1st on (.259/.286/.424), and if you want to draw the line all the way back to the All-Star Break, he hit .267/.302/.400 in the second half. Even those numbers aren’t great, and his defense is below average, so I’m still not sure why they stick with him over Jarrod Dyson, at least against right-handed pitchers. But having started 23 of the Royals’ last 25 games after returning from his varicella-induced absence, it would be rather shocking for Rios to suddenly be benched now.
That leaves one of the following three players off the roster: Paulo Orlando, Terrance Gore, and Jonny Gomes. All three have their appeal. Orlando can do a bit of everything: he can pinch-run for you and give you excellent speed on the bases, if not necessarily an excellent base-stealer; he can come in for defense; and if he has to bat, well, his .249/.269/.444 line was better than Rios’ line overall.
Gomes does one thing: he hits left-handed pitchers. This is a highly useful skill. It is not clear whether this skill is still intact, however – Gomes’ slash line against LHP this year was just .221/.371/.412. And even if it is, it’s not clear how the Royals would deploy it.
Gore does one thing: he runs (and steals) the bases. This is not nearly as useful a skill as the ability to hit left-handed pitchers. If he enters the game as a pinch-runner, he almost has to be replaced by the next half-inning. Not only is he not ready to hit in the major leagues, he’s not particularly ready to field in the major leagues.
However, Gore does his one thing basically as well as any player in the major leagues does any one thing. He is the human incarnation of Ludicrous Speed. He is a completely useless waste of a roster spot unless and until a specific moment materializes that requires a man who has a very particular set of skills. And in that moment, there may not be a man on planet Earth more suited for it than Terrance Gore.
Someone has to be left off the roster, and I don’t know who it will be. I don’t know who it should be. Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d say it should be Alex Rios, because I’m not sure there’s anything that Rios does right now any better than Orlando, and Orlando has a substantial defensive advantage on him. (According to Defensive Runs Saved, Orlando was +8 runs in barely 600 innings in the field. Rios was -6 runs in 105 starts in right field.) Between Orlando, Gomes, and Dyson, the Royals could cobble together a pretty good right fielder and still have some options on the bench.
But if you’re going to start Rios, the choice of who to leave off becomes a lot less clear. Do you really need Orlando, who can do lots of things in a pinch but doesn’t do anything well enough to make you want to reach for him in an emergency? Do you really need Gomes to hit against a left-handed pitcher, given that unlike last year – when Josh Willingham pinch-hitting for Moustakas in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game saved the Royals’ season – it’s unlikely you’ll ever pinch-hit for Moustakas, or Gordon, or Hosmer, the three left-handed hitters in your lineup? Do you really need Gore when, by starting Rios, you’ve already got one of the five fastest runners in baseball on the bench in Dyson?
I think the decision is close enough that the best answer is simply “it depends”. It depends on the opponent: if you play the Astros, with Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir and a left field fence that’s just 318 feet down the line, then you probably roster Gomes and maybe even start him in right field at Minute Maid Park when Keuchel takes the mound for Game 3. If you play the Yankees, whose only left-handed starter (C.C. Sabathia) just checked into rehab, it’s hard to see how Gomes will get into a game. It depends on the ground rules: in the World Series, where you need several pinch-hitters to bat for your pitchers in three of the games, Gomes would need to be rostered.
Like I said: the easy solution would be to take Rios off the roster and take your chances with everyone else. The Royals think they know better. Given their track record over the last two years, then, I fully expect Rios to come through with a crucial hit at some point this month. Given all the good hitters in front of him, he certainly won’t lack for opportunities.
The Royals always reserve the right to surprise us – remember, Jayson Nix was on the World Series last year over Christian Colon, and Nix has as many career hits for the Royals as I do. But looking at this roster, at least until Omar Infante gets healthy, there are really just 26 guys that merit any consideration for the playoff roster. One guy will get left off, and no matter who they choose, it’s hard to screw that decision up significantly. In terms of the personnel available to them, the Royals head to the postseason in as good a shape as they’ve been in all season.