After an odd beginning to the season, the Kansas City Royals get to play baseball the way the game was meant to be played, often. They welcome one of their division foes, the Minnesota Twins to town for a three-game series. Last season, the Twins provided the Royals with their biggest challenge in the AL Central, and while the challenge still wasn’t great, they did finish in second place in the division. They went 12-7 against the Twins and are 38-19 against them over the last three seasons.
The Twins bring an intriguing lineup to Kansas City that includes some pretty big power along with some guys who will work a walk. It always seems like the Twins lineup is incredibly patient, but they actually don’t walk that often. Last year, they ranked last in the American League in OBP and only 10th in walks, so maybe they just save it up for the Royals, or maybe I’m just wrong.
Either way, the lineup is led by their budding superstar, Miguel Sano. He’s been made into a right fielder for the 2016 season, and that may be an adventure, but the man can certainly hit. He posted a .530 SLG and a .385 OBP last season along with a .314 TAv. That’s really good. The other power in the lineup figures to come from a combination of Brian Dozier at second base, Trevor Plouffe at third and newcomer Byung-ho Park, who has some big time power. Eddie Rosario showed an ability to hit the ball a long way last season as well, so watch out for him developing.
The second tier of the Twins lineup is interesting. Eduardo Escobar is better than you think and has already started his 2016 with something of a doubles barrage. Joe Mauer isn’t the guy he was when he won the MVP a few years ago, but he’s still talented enough to do some damage from time to time. Kurt Suzuki behind the plate isn’t especially good at the plate, but he’s posted a couple good seasons in his career, so he might surprise you. I personally thought picking up J.R. Murphy was a really nice move for them. I don’t think they’ll miss Aaron Hicks much because Byron Buxton appears to be in the big leagues to stay. He may not hit a ton yet, but he’s a good player and will produce in other areas.
In addition to Murphy, I actually really like the Twins depth. With Eduardo Nunez backing up the infield and Danny Santana and Oswaldo Arcia in the outfield, the Twins can cover for some injuries. Santana can also play a little infield, so they’ve got some nice pieces to put in if needed.
The pitching staff isn’t quite as promising, which is probably a concern for a team that finished in the bottom third of the American League in average, on base percentage and slugging percentage last year (but eighth in runs!). Their starting staff is comprised of Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson, Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco. The first four are all guys who are capable of giving you a quality start. All are also capable of getting absolutely lit up, but you take the good with the bad. Nolasco appears to be in the rotation mostly because of his contract. He posted a 6.75 ERA last year and spent much of the season injured. His time on the DL was about as productive as he’s been as a member of the Twins.
I’ve liked the Twins bullpen for awhile now. They’re led by Glen Perkins, who I think is a really good closer, and probably underrated by many. Trevor May was a starter who is much better in the bullpen (sound familiar?) and I think he might be a future closer with his stuff and how it plays up there. Kevin Jepsen is a solid arm, so is Casey Fien and even Ryan Pressly has been impressive at times. Fernando Abad and Michael Tonkin don’t impress me too much, but there’s some really quality arms out there. They’re not the Royals bullpen, but it’s hard to compare that. I think the Twins probably have a top half of the AL bullpen, even if a lot of people would disagree with that.
Friday – Yordano Ventura vs. Ervin Santana
Santana missed the first half of last season after being suspended for PED use, which could have cost the Twins a wild card spot, given their record at the end of the season. He was decent enough last year, but hasn’t been nearly as good in either of the last two seasons as he was for the Royals in 2013. He was really one of the first guys to be thought of as a poor decision by the organization, pitching-wise, who turned out to exceed expectations significantly. He’s 5-7 with a 4.63 ERA in 16 career starts against the Royals, but was much better last year, going 0-1 with a 2.40 ERA in two starts against them.
Three things to watch for against Santana:
- Santana featured a sinker fairly heavily in his year with the Royals, but decreased the usage of that pitch in 2014 and then nearly stopped using it all together in 2015. Rather he went with a four seam fastball nearly half the time. It averaged about 93 MPH with decent movement. He did continue to use his slider regularly and ridiculously effectively. Of his 71 strikeouts in 2015, 50 came by way of the slider. He also throws a changeup at times, but it isn’t nearly as effective as that slider.
- As a pitcher with stuff beginning to diminish a bit, it’s not surprising that the key against Santana is to get ahead in the count. His slider is the one pitch that should strike fear into his opponents, and he rarely used it when he was behind in the count. His .369/.517/.595 line when behind in the count showed that he can definitely be beat if you can just avoid seeing that slider.
- He also avoided using the slider to lefties, at least as much as he used it against right-handed batters. It’s probably why he was able to hold those righties to a .651 OPS, but lefties had a .804 OPS against him. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon have both hit him well, with two homers apiece against him, and Alcides Escobar has been able to get his hits as well. Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas, though, have been stymied by Santana.
Ventura finally makes his season debut in this one after being pushed back (supposedly) because he was still getting strength back after being sick. I don’t buy that as the lone reason, but what can we do? Ventura had a really up and down season last year, but finished it on a ridiculously strong note in the regular season before fading a bit in the postseason. The expectation is that he puts it all together this year, but we’ll see. The journey to that begins in this one. Ventura’s five career starts against the Twins might be why I think of them as such a patient team. In 30 innings, he’s walked 21 batters. That’s 6.3 per nine innings. He’s walked just three per nine innings against every other team he’s faced. Escobar and Dozier have hit Ventura especially well, but he’s walked seemingly everyone in their lineup at least once.
Saturday – Ian Kennedy vs. Tommy Milone
Tommy Milone seems to have been a thorn in the Royals side since he was a rookie with the A’s, and while the Royals have hit him, he’s also had his way with them. He’s your typical crafty lefty who has been recklessly compared to Tom Glavine before. At this point in his career, he’s become more of a back end starter rather than a middle of the rotation guy, which means he can be fairly easily replaced once the prospects start making their way to the big leagues for the Twins. He’s 5-2 with a 3.55 ERA in 11 career starts against the Royals, and the bulk of the damage came in two starts in 2014 when he gave up 11 runs in 6.2 innings against KC.
Three things to watch for against Milone:
- He’s a fastball-changeup guy, who throws the fastball at about 88 MPH and throws it about half the time and throws the changeup at about 82 MPH and throws that about a quarter of the time. The fastball gets hit hard while the change is pretty effective for him. As long as that pitch remains effective, he’ll be able to get guys out. He also throws a curve and a cutter, both of which were pretty effective last season, but I’ve seen him get both elevated and very hittable.
- As is often the case with a pitcher like Milone, if you can turn your lineup over and see him a third time, you’re likely to do pretty well against him. A team like the Royals might do pretty well against him all game because he’s seemingly all around the strike zone, but last year, teams had an OPS of .857 against him the third time through. They hit 35 percent of their homers against him that time through in just 24 percent of their plate appearances.
- Milone handles lefties well, holding them to a .603 OPS last season, while righties put up a .773 OPS against him in 2015. Gordon and Lorenzo Cain have hit Milone really well while a few other guys have been decent enough against him. Gordon, Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Kendrys Morales have all hit home runs against him.
Kennedy will make his Royals debut after seeing his start pushed back to hamstring issues. The concern is that it was the same hamstring he hurt last season that he says didn’t feel right until mid-season, so that’s something to keep an eye on in the immediate future. Kennedy hasn’t pitched in the American League in a long time, so there will be an element of mystery to what he can do out there for the first few starts of the season at the very least. The cooler weather along with Kauffman Stadium should help him against a powerful team. Kennedy has started against the Twins just twice in his career, going 1-1 with a 5.02 ERA. Only Plouffe has faced him as many as seven times, so there isn’t much data, but he’s been great against Kennedy in those seven PAs that include a home run.
Sunday – Edinson Volquez vs. Ricky Nolasco
Nolasco has appeared in 36 games (35 starts) for the Twins and has a 5.64 ERA with 253 hits allowed in 196.1 innings pitched. Let’s just say that contract isn’t going well for them. Last year, the strikeout rate ticked back up for him, but so did his walks, and he wasn’t any less hittable than he was in 2014. I imagine he won’t last long in the rotation, so it would be nice if the Royals could beat him while they still have the opportunity to face him. He’s 2-3 with a 4.33 ERA in six career starts against the Royals, and posted a gentleman’s 16.88 ERA against them in 2.2 innings in 2015.
Three things to watch for against Nolasco:
- Nolasco sits in the low-90s with both his four seam fastball and his sinker. Last year, he allowed a .531 average and a .938 SLG against that sinker, so Royals hitters should maybe be on the lookout for that. He also throws a decent slider and a slow curve that is incredibly effective in freezing hitters. Those who do swing often struggle against it. Of course, he likely can’t throw it more or else the element of surprise will be gone and it won’t be nearly as good of a pitch.
- The tips to hit Nolasco are pretty much to swing, but you probably want more than that. In his career, you really want to get to Nolasco early or else he settles in and is actually pretty decent in the middle portion of games. Hit him in his first handful of pitches and you’re set. He does tire and struggles after he gets to about 75 pitches, but it’s better to get to him early and not have to worry about waiting.
- Last year, Nolasco was actually better against lefties, but that isn’t the case for his career, so it’s hard to say what’s the truth here about him. Hosmer, Escobar, Gordon and Salvador Perez have all had lots of success against Nolasco, but Omar Infante hasn’t done much in 20 career plate appearances.
Volquez didn’t have great command in his first start of the year against the Mets, but he only gave up two hits in six innings, so it clearly wasn’t too much of a problem for him. That’s kind of the Volquez we should expect to see. At times, he’ll be brilliant and at other times maybe a little frustrating, but he’s a decent bet to be the Royals most consistent starter when it’s all said and done. He’s 3-1 with a 1.96 ERA in six games (five starts) against the Twins in his career, which includes a 2.05 ERA in 30.2 innings last season. Mauer and Arcia have hit him well, each with homers against him, but Volquez has fared pretty well against the rest of the Twins.
I like the Twins future. I think it’s awfully bright, especially once some of their pitching gets to the big leagues. But, for now, the Royals are still the superior team, and the weather this weekend (cold) should suppress some of the advantage the Twins have over the Royals in power. Because of all that, I think the Royals get a series win and take two of three over the weekend. What do you think?