This weekend I made it out to see the reigning World Series champions come to town to play at Target Field, the Kansas City Royals.
I used to love seeing the Royals spring training games in Arizona. I only went to their home park in Surprise once and the fan base that was there was a little southern conservative scary for me as there were also a lot of Rangers fans milling around, but I saw them play a lot of away games with lower ticket prices when there wasn't much expected from them. The Royals were a bit of a laughing stock in the league for years, having a few hot seasons sprinkled in here and there where they would suddenly be a team that would beat Pedro Martinez for a couple of starts or have exciting young players like Beltran and Damon exciting the crowd. They would also be known to have trouble filling the stands or have fan walk outs when playing the Yankees to protest their minimal payroll.
This minimal payroll did mean they would always have a lot of prospects coming through their franchise and in spring training those young players would make the games interesting as they tried their hardest to make an impression. I specifically remember seeing Johnny Giovatella racing around the bases on all kind of gap shots and sprawling all over the infield to try to establish himself as the future of the Royals lineup despite not rising on prospect watch lists. He has gone on to some stability as the 2B for the Angels, but at the time he seemed like another minor leaguer who was doomed to not catch on.
The Royals have found the strangest route to success. Their strengths are speed and defense as well as lumbering corner infielders and DH and having one of the scariest bullpens in the league. Their starting pitching might be their secret to their success as they seem to live and die on having an Ace and some stability from the rest of the rotation. Two of the oddities from Moneyball were that you shouldn't hold too much of a premium on speed/defense or paying too much for a closer because all that matters is getting on base, and a closer can be found from within or on the cheap.
Their first World Series team had James Shields for an ace and their second (the one that won it) had Johnny Cueto. This year there is no Shields nor Cueto and most of the same supporting cast of starters is still around performing around the same level they have in the past. There is the exception that Danny Duffy has had a nice season and has been dominant the last six starts including a star with 16 K's in 8 innings that set a franchise record for a game.
The bullpen of Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Joakim Soria, and Kelvin Herrera is as flame-throwingly dominant as they have been in the last two years although it might not be as deep, they have faced some injuries (especially to Davis) and their ERA's have ticked up a notch. Injuries seem to have been the biggest factor in the Royals not being at the top of the AL Central this year as cornerstone 3B Mike Moustakas has also been out for a good chunk of the season and Alex Gordon missed a month and has a .217 avg to illustrate his rust.
The Royals are just a game under .500, in the top 4 in the AL in AVG and SB, but dead last in HR and runs. They are starting to play more younger players like Christian Colon, Cheslor "Cheese" Cuthbert after Omar Infante was released and Moustakas was injured. Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer and Kendrys Morales have had the bulk of the power on the team (Cuthbert seems to been showing some power in his playing time as well) but the heart of the team is still the speed players of Alcides Escobar (one of the smoothest short stops in the league as well), and outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson. They recently traded for Billy Burns, formerly of the A's (a favorite speedy OF of mine) and called up Raul Mondesi (junior).
I'll finish with a little about the older Raul Mondesi, Raul, Sr. I guess. The top prospect's father of the same name came up through the Dodgers organization and won the Rookie of the Year award and had a fairly productive career with 271 homers over 13 seasons but I learned a little more about him in the book Pedro. Pedro Martinez grew up with the senior Mondesi, went to the Dodger's baseball academy in the DR together and played on the same minor league team in a rural midwest town where they lived with the same host family. Pedro and Raul did not have similar personalities and would butt heads at times and Pedro would complain about Raul goofing off with other boys and getting into trouble when they were supposed to take their training seriously. When they lived together, they would argue a bit, but Pedro says they had a very bizarre afternoon one day when Raul dressed up in the host father's clothes and Pedro in the host mother's dress, makeup and wig. Pedro says there is a picture of it that exists, it just won't ever see the light of day.