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Wow! That’s all I can really say after the amazing come from behind victory the Kansas City Royals pulled off on Monday night against the Chicago White Sox. For 7 innings the Royals looked like a team that was feeling the pressure of contending. Hell, the last week this Royals team has looked like a team feeling the pressure, as they have played about as tight as a team collectively could play. So tight in fact that Ferris Bueller could describe it perfectly, just change Cameron to the Royals:

So only 12 games remain in the regular season(13 if you count the game against Cleveland from last month that will be resumed with the Royals behind in the 10th inning) with the Royals holding the second Wild Card in the American League and 1.5 games behind Detroit in the American League Central. So what does this team need to do to help assure they reach postseason?

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1) Loosen Up

I briefly touched on this a moment ago, but this very well might be the most important thing these players can do over the next few weeks. By Sunday Kansas City had committed 20 errors over the previous 14 games. That is an astronomical number for a team that has been one of the best defensive units in the big leagues over the last two seasons. If those numbers weren’t glaring enough, they have looked just as tight on offense. Over the last 14 games this team is hitting a lowly .233 with an OBP of .286, a slugging percentage of .325 and a wRC+ of 71(when league  median is in the upper 90’s). Obviously the walk percentage is down as well, but that is the norm for this Royals team. Almost every facet of their game has played during this time span like they feel all of the pressure on their backs, and that causes teams to make mistakes and struggle in regular situations. Hopefully last night’s walk off win will loosen the team up and they can return to the style of play they incorporated for the greater part of August.

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2) Continue to Provide Marvelous Pitching

The one thing that has been ‘dead on’ the last few weeks is the starting pitching. James Shields(before last night) had 22.1 IP, 10 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 18 SO, 2 BB, 0.40 ERA over his previous three starts. Jeremy Guthrie(who has up and down over the last few months) threw a gem on Saturday night, giving up only 3 hits, 1 run and 1 walk over 8 innings. Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas have been steady for the most part over the last few weeks and hopefully can continue that. The only real question mark with the starters is Danny Duffy. Duffy came out of his start on September 6th against the Yankees after only one pitch because of shoulder stiffness.  For the Royals to reach the postseason(and succeed there) they need Duffy to be healthy and on top his game. As of right now the plan is for Duffy to pitch later this week and hopefully will return to form in no time. If this happens the Royals will increase their chances of getting a spot in the playoffs and solidify the rest of the rotation.

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3) Smart Lineup Construction

This isn’t always an issue, but when the team is slumping it seems the weaknesses in the lineups that manager Ned Yost puts together are glaring. Take for instance continuing to bat Omar Infante in the second hole. Up until this weekend this was going on despite him hitting just .232 in the second half of the season with an OBP of .258. Most analysts and fans recognized this problem yet Yost insisted on him staying in that spot. Same goes for Salvador Perez, who was holding steady in the middle of the order despite hitting  just .243 over the last month and not taking a walk since July.  If those weren’t bad enough, once Eric Hosmer got off the DL, Billy Butler got about as much playing time as the Royals bat boy, this in spite of him hitting exceptionally well during Hosmer’s absence. The Royals don’t have a lot of pop in their lineup, so a must for them is to have a lineup that plays to their strengths. If that means batting Infante and Perez lower in the order, you do that. If that means picking and choosing when to play Butler(and [gasp] even sit Hosmer), then you do that. The Royals main weakness is their offense, so to put together a lineup that doesn’t play to their strengths, that is already putting this team in the hole. Yost needs to avoid this the next few weeks and go with the hot hand…and not just say that you are going with the hot hand even if you are not. That leads us to the next point…

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4) Keep ‘Nervous Ned’ to a Minimum  

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, since I have covered this ad nauseum over the last three years. But for those new to the party, Ned Yost does not handle adversity well. It has been shown time and time again, and it has reared it’s ugly head the last few weeks. Doesn’t matter if it is batting orders, or handling the relievers or his defined roles on the team; Yost can’t think outside of the box. The best thing for this Royals team is to score runs early, let the starters go at least 6 innings and then Yost can go to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland in the 7th, 8th and 9th. The least amount of thinking for Yost, the better. Yost was fired around this exact time back in 2008 for Milwaukee for doing the same things he is doing now. If they can keep ‘Nervous Ned’ to a minimum, then the Royals have a chance to play October baseball for the first time in 29 years.

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There is not much time left in the season so each game is going to feel like a pressure cooker until the Royals clinch a spot. Most of us Royals fans have never felt this kind of stress and it has made us all a bit on edge. If the Royals can do those 4 things listed above, they will defy the odds and make their first playoff appearance since 1985. If they aren’t able to keep those items in check, it could make for a very long winter. This is a team that has the talent to succeed, but there is always the human factor around the corner and it doesn’t follow any certain pattern. That human factor can also elevate a team and play above their talent. Right now the human factor has us all on pins and needles.

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With the Kansas City Royals poised to garner their first playoff spot in 29 years, it seems only appropriate that one man would lead the charge and carry this team on his back. It happened in 1985, as George Brett had one of his best offensive seasons, leading the charge to the franchise’s first World Series title. So it seems only right that Alex Gordon would carry this team on his back. Over the last month it has appeared that Gordon has almost singlehandedly thrust this team into the top position in the American League Central. But he has also slid his way into the American League MVP conversation.

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Now, I should go ahead and preface this with the fact that if I was a betting man I would bet that Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels will end up with the MVP trophy and I have no issue with that; Trout has had a fabulous season and is probably the best player in baseball right now(outside of maybe Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers). But Alex Gordon should be getting some votes and there are a number of reasons why there should be heavy consideration for his candidacy. Let’s start with the defining of “Most Valuable”. This can be taken a number of different ways and no one opinion of its meaning is more right than another. It is very subjective and means different things to different people. I tend to think it’s the most valuable player to his team, where if you took him out of that team’s lineup they would not be in the position they are currently in. This would also imply that the winner should be on a team that is going to the playoffs. For the most part I agree with that, but there are exceptions; the Marlins aren’t even sniffing October baseball but I do believe Giancarlo Stanton should be at the least considered for NL MVP this year. With that said, it is pretty obvious this Royals team wouldn’t be even thinking about the playoffs this year were it not for Alex Gordon. When the Royals offense has gone stagnant these past few weeks, Gordon has been the one consistent bat in the lineup that has produced. Gordon has not only produced, he has produced in high-leverage situations. This year, Gordon has a slash line of .330/.441/.580 in those situations. If you are a believer in clutch(and even if you aren’t, there is something to be said for timely hits) then Alex Gordon has been as clutch for this team as any player has this year in the big leagues. Just take last Tuesday night against the Twins for instance:

Before that game winning shot, the Royals had produced only 4 hits and one walk. The Royals have a very topsy turvy offense, one that can be electric when it wants to but also has many flaws. They are notorious for not taking many pitches(hence not many free passes) and sometimes seem like they swing at every pitch thrown their way. This leads to a very inconsistent offense but Alex Gordon has been the one consistent batter this team has seen for the majority of the last few months.

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Speaking of offense, Gordon’s numbers aren’t going to just jump out at you if that is what you are taking into account for MVP. He currently sits at .279/.355/.459. His OPS is at .814(which is pretty good but not great) and an OPS+ of 124(league average is 100). Since I know some enjoy the classic numbers, he has 19 home runs this with only 65 driven in, which neither are numbers that will make you swoon. The numbers show a very good offensive player who despite his team’s lack of offense is still able to put up solid numbers. He is leading the team in most categories this year and has really been big for the Royals in the last month. If you are someone who likes a player who performs down the stretch, Gordon sits at .298/.373/.615 over the last month with over half of his home runs hit in that span. It’s obvious that Alex has elevated his game when the team needs him to,but this hasn’t painted the whole picture.

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It’s hard having a conversation about Alex Gordon and his true value to this Kansas City team without mentioning his defense. It is safe to say that Gordon is probably the best left fielder in the American League and maybe in all of baseball, especially on the defensive side. He is a three time Gold Glove winner(the last 3 years) and it is safe to say he will win his 4th this year for defensive excellence. Alex Gordon is about as smooth in the field as humanly possible and this from a guy who started his pro career at third base. Going off of his numbers, he is having the best dWAR year of his career, sitting at 2.1. Since 2011 he has a combined dWAR of 6.5 and has 82 defensive runs saved in that time, 22 just this year. Gordon is on another level defensively and has gotten to the point where runners don’t dare run on his arm, as he has thrown out 61 runners over the last four years, but only 7 this year. It tooks almost four years, but runners have finally figured out not to run on Alex. All these numbers are great, but I feel unless you watch him play everyday(and I am normally either watching or listening to the broadcast most nights) you don’t really truly understand just how great he is defensively. We are getting to see a defensive master in Kansas City, one that might rival Frank White and his 8 Gold Gloves at second base, including 6 in a row. Gordon’s defense adds to his value to this Royals ballclub and makes it to where he is near the top of the WAR leaderboard of the American League.

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Ah yes, the WAR argument. There is a division when it comes to the true value of the WAR stat, which is understandable with the uncertainty of accuracy when it comes to defensive metrics. But there is also no other stat that truly encompasses the true value of a player the way WAR does(factoring in offense, defense and baserunning into its equation). It’s pretty simple to see that it is a stat that truly likes complete players. In the American League, Josh Donaldson of Oakland leads with a bWAR of 6.9, 0.3 ahead of Mike Trout. He is followed by Felix Hernandez in third, Adrian Beltre in fourth and…Alex Gordon in 5th with a 5.9 bWAR. Even to be mentioned in the same company of the other 4 players shows just how valuable Alex Gordon is to this Royals team. Gordon also sits 2nd in fWAR at 6.2 behind only Mike Trout. You don’t have to believe that WAR is the end all be all to factor in the true value of a player, but you do need to recognize that it helps someone understand the greater value of that player to his team. Gordon is on a level with true superstars and shows that his “value” is great enough to be considered “Most Valuable”.

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Numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Alex Gordon but they do show that his value stretches across the entire board not only for the Royals but for the entire American League. Without Gordon, the Royals aren’t preparing to play in the postseason for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in office. I know where my vote is going to land. Voters, I’m not saying that you have to vote Alex Gordon for American League MVP. What I am saying is that it would be a mistake if he doesn’t end up in the top five, because I think it is safe to say that he is one of the five best players in the league this year. There is nothing wrong with voting for Mike Trout, as he has had another stellar season for the Angels. But Alex Gordon is closer than you think and deserves your consideration. It’s a good thing for you to stop and pause to think about it; Alex Gordon has earned that extra thought.

 

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This won’t be a lengthy article. There won’t be a bunch of numbers. No discussing a player’s decline or ascension. This is purely a call out to all of my fellow Kansas City Royals fans. It’s time. It’s time you get on board with this team. We have spent the better part of the last twenty years just wanting a team that could contend, just wanting a sniff of the playoffs. We bitched and moaned, we cried and yelled. We have been through every imaginable emotion known to man and it was all because we lived and breathed with this team. All we have wanted is have a winning team that realistically could play in October. Well, we are here. Sure, a lot of us still don’t have faith in Dayton Moore and Ned Yost. We don’t get warm fuzzy feelings about owner David Glass. Go ahead and throw logic out the window. Logic obviously isn’t steering this train. No, this group of players on this Royals team are finding ways to win and win consistently. Every morning I wake up and look at baseballprospectus.com/odds to see the chances of Kansas City getting to the playoffs. 80.7%. That is where they stand right now. The magic number is at 29.  I beg of you Royals fans, don’t miss this. Quit analyzing all the time and just enjoy what is in front of us. We have a month of regular season baseball left. Let’s just enjoy the ride and worry about the consequences later. If you haven’t gotten those warm and tingly feelings as of late, then get there. It is truly a beautiful feeling. So Royals fans, jump on board. There is more than enough room. We are closer and closer to October baseball every day and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Go ahead, enjoy it with me.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

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Here we are, the last week of August and the Kansas City Royals are currently sitting atop the American League Central, leading the Detroit Tigers by 2.5 games. Even a month ago it seemed unlikely the Royals would be in this position, with Detroit looking up at them. Things seemed even worse at the time, as the team’s starting first baseman, Eric Hosmer, was dealing with a right hand fracture and would be missing 4-6 weeks. But instead of Kansas City struggling in his absence, the team has flourished. Billy Butler took over first base and not only got hot with the bat, but he has also played very solid defense. The Royals went out and picked up Josh Willingham from Minnesota and his bat has been a major plus in the middle of Kansas City’s order. With all of this said, word got out this week that Hosmer was healing and should be able to go on a rehab assignment as early as next week. That brings up the question that most of us have been wondering; what will the Royals do with the lineup when Hosmer returns?

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The first option is that Hosmer returns to first base and Butler slides back to DH. Obviously you would have to get Willingham some at bats as well, but if Butler is still hitting at his current level it will be harder to take him out of the lineup. Either way, Hosmer is the better defensive player(despite the fact that defensive metrics aren’t always fond of him) and this does hold some weight when it comes to a team contending for a playoff spot. Some will point out that Hosmer was also starting to compile some hits before his injury, as he had strung together a 16 game hitting streak before it being snapped on July 23. So the argument is there for things to just return to normal on his return.

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The second option is where the trio of Hosmer, Butler, and Willingham float between the two spots, with more at bats going to the players with the hotter bats. In this scenario, the hot hand gets the playing time. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, although manager Ned Yost isn’t always the best at lineup configuration and optimizing it to the Royals greatest advantage. This would also ease Hosmer back into playing time without putting any added stress on his hand. If his hand feels sore after playing a few games in a row? Sit him for a game or two and let Butler play first. I don’t have a major issue with this idea, and it is possible we see something in this vein happen when Hosmer makes his return.

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The third option is probably the least likely to happen, but probably the one I favor the most; when Hosmer makes his return to the team, sit him on the bench and continue with Butler playing first and Willingham the primary DH. I’m not saying don’t give Hos any playing time; I think that is just not realistic and probably hurts the team to a degree. But here is the simple truth: this Royals team got hot after Hosmer’s injury. The old saying “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” would apply here and it has been working with the current arrangement. I know some people would scoff at this and say I am crazy, but it’s not like Hosmer has torn the cover off the ball this year. Billy Butler is obviously more comfortable hitting when he is playing in the field and Josh Willingham has added some much needed offense to the middle of the order for Kansas City. Yes, the Royals defense would be even better with Hosmer at first base but the argument can also be made that it’s not like Butler has embarassed himself at the position. Butler has probably looked the most impressive he ever has in the field and it seems a shame to take that away for a guy who for the third straight year has shown major issues at the plate.

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That is the other thing with this scenario: team chemistry. Sure, I tout numbers as much as anyone else, mainly because numbers don’t lie. But…there is something to be said for team chemistry and upsetting a rhythm. The Royals have been in a groove since Hosmer went down and I would be leery to turn around and change all of that. It might be superstitious and it might be fool-hardy, but I’m not 100% for sure this team is better with Eric Hosmer in the lineup. He has never seemed to really get into a groove this year offensively, this after last year’s first half where he looked like a singles hitter and his awful 2012. I have discussed Hosmer’s struggles more than once and I am even of the belief the team should look into trading him in the offseason. To just insert him back into the lineup, seems like a bit of a mistake and is a reward I’m not so sure he has earned.

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That is the other issue and one that has floated around Royals twitter for much of this year: Hosmer seems coddled. I have no clue where the blame should lie on this, but it has seemed more and more apparent that the Kansas City organization has allowed some of their younger stars a feeling of entitlement, even though they haven’t proved themselves in the majors. This was never more apparent than earlier this summer when Billy Butler was punished for his slump while Hosmer was still allowed to hover around the top of the order despite his lack of production. The belief at the time was the organization had more faith in Hosmer coming around than Butler, but even that thinking seemed a bit flawed. Either or, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Hosmer was forced to the bench. In fact, for an organization that loves “character” this seems like a good way to build some up in him. Maybe Hosmer earning his spot back is the better way to go in this scenario.

MLB: Kansas City Royals-Workout

Within the next few weeks, the Royals are going to have some hard decisions to make. I firmly believe there is no “perfect” answer to this dilemma, but I also think it is a good problem to have. When was the last time Kansas City was in a position where they had this much talent fighting over just a few spots? For all we know Eric Hosmer could elevate this Royals ballclub even higher than they currently reside. But there is just as much a chance his return can slow down the train. I don’t envy Ned Yost and the decision he is going to have to make and how he will divy up playing time. The best thing he can do is what he feels is best for this team’s chances of playing October baseball. To play Eric Hosmer or not, that is the question. The answer is a muddled mess that might cause deflated ego’s and hurt feelings.

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With the Royals continuing their winning ways and stretching their lead in the American League Central(2.0 games ahead of the Tigers) there has been some talk of plans for the team come September, preparing themselves for a stretch run to the playoffs. One of the most discussed ideas has been that of calling up some of their top arms in the minors and using them to help in the last month of the season. Think about that for a minute; a team that prides themselves on having one of the best bullpens in baseball is talking about adding more arms. You might be asking yourselves right now ‘why?’ and that is a valid question. But what Kansas City is considering is not a new concept.

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Let’s start with the two main arms that have been mentioned to be part of the Royals pen come September. Brandon Finnegan is the Royals #1 Draft Pick this year but has been progressing through the Royals farm system this summer, currently at Double AA Northwest Arkansas, where he has been pitching out of the pen, working 2 innings at the most in those games. The initial thought when he was drafted from TCU was that his future might be in the bullpen, the thinking that his size would hold him back from being a consistent major league starter. Finnegan has a plus fastball, plus slider and a good changeup to boot. He seems to be in the vein of a Billy Wagner type pitcher, small stature with some high heat. Finnegan even throws across his body like Wagner. The 21 year old isn’t even a year removed from college but has a chance to be pitching in games that matter come September for Kansas City.

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The other prospect that has been discussed for bullpen work this September is Christian Binford. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because I discussed him earlier this season. In fact, out of the current crop of minor league arms in the Royals system, the only other pitcher that has me as excited as Binford is Miguel Almonte. Binford started the year in Wilmington, moved up to Double AA Northwest Arkansas after 14 starts, pitching in 8 games there before being called up to Triple AAA Omaha this past week. Binford isn’t a guy who will light up radar guns, but he has tremendous command of his pitches and a superb walk ratio. Binford has mainly been a starter since the Royals drafted him, and I’m pretty sure he takes the place of Jason Adam, who the Royals had shifted to the pen awhile back before trading him to Minnesota in the Josh Willingham trade. I’m not entirely sure how Kansas City would use him out of the pen(long reliever if needed? Help rest the other relievers?) but he would be different after seeing the smoke thrown by guys like Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I don’t think this role is really in Binford’s long term future, but for this year he might be just what the Royals need.

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So what about Kyle Zimmer? Most of us are aware of how 2014 has been a wasted season for Zimmer, as he has been battling a lat injury these last few months. Before that the Royals were taking their time with him, as he has dealt with injuries since the Royals drafted him in 2012. At this point, Zimmer has appeared in one game this season for Idaho Falls in the Rookie League. At one time there was some talk that we could see him in September, but that was before the lat injury stripped him of playing time this season. At this point, the best thing is for Kansas City to let him get some innings in the minors the rest of the year and chalk up this year to a lost cause. We will see Zimmer soon enough, just not this year.

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Earlier I mentioned that the concept of using youngsters in your farm system to help out the relief corp in September wasn’t a new idea. Off the top of my head I can think of two times it has helped a team further their chances in the postseason. The first is the Los Angeles Angels using Francisco ‘K-Rod’ Rodriguez to help them gain a World Series title in 2002. Rodriguez only appeared in 5 games that season, but was a key part of their bullpen come October. K-Rod would appear in 11 games for the Angels that fall, giving up only 4 earned runs in 18.2 innings. It had to be hard for teams that year to really get a scouting report on this kid that the Angels had barely used in the season. The other instance I can think of is the St. Louis Cardinals using their young arms these last few years in the playoffs. Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez all were used off and on during the postseason and were live arms that could go out there and just throw heat in short outings for the Cardinals. More than anything it helped the team in 2011, as the Cardinals were able to come away with a World Series title in Tony LaRussa’s final season. These are both prime examples of teams that used young arms in their farm system to help their bullpen in postseason play and use them to help gain the richest prize of them all.

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So with just over 5 weeks left in the season it appears as if the Royals are making plans to make the team the best they can be if they are headed to October. Adding a couple of young arms to the pen might not seem like the most obvious paths to take for guys like Finnegan and Binford, but it would give them the opportunity to experience a pennant race(and possibly postseason) while getting big league experience. It’s not a guarantee we will see these two youngsters next month but I would bet money we see at the very least one of them, if not both. The Royals bullpen is a juggernaut and has been the last few years, but adding these two could make it even stronger. With all of us hoping for a “Blue October”, I love the out of the box thinking, especially with some of the struggles as of late for Aaron Crow, Francisley Bueno and Bruce Chen. Finnegan and Binford might be future rotation mainstays for Kansas City, but for now their value might be pitching late in the game during the most exciting September Royals fans have seen in three decades.