The Royals currently sit at 64-62. They are six games away from the division lead, and we’ll get to that. They are right in the thick of a Wild Card race that includes 41 teams, give or take a couple. All things considered, things could be worse. They definitely could be better, but they’ve now won three of their last four series and gone 7-5 in those 12 games. Do that three more times in their last 36 and they get to 85 wins, which is probably enough to make the second Wild Card spot. 7-5 every 12 games sure seems doable, doesn’t it? Anyway, we’re heading down the stretch and the Royals are in it for the fifth straight year. That’s nice at least.
- It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of Jake Junis for the Royals. Our prospect guru, Clint Scoles, had made some points in the past about how Junis tends to need to adjust a little bit when he reaches a new level, but when he does, he really hits his stride. I don’t think Junis is unique in that, but it’s probably true for him. He showed flashes of quality pitching in his first extended stint in the big leagues while Danny Duffy was out, but was too inconsistent and was the odd man out. Well now with Trevor Cahill out (and in a spot doubleheader start), Junis has made three starts and gone 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings. The best part is that he’s struck out 16 and walked just one in that time while not giving up a single home run. I’m a fan of Junis. I think his slider is absolutely nasty when he’s on. He’s not going to be a one or a two and he may not even be a three, but I think what he’s shown is that he can be a quality piece of a big league rotation, and that’s a fantastic development for the future of this team.
- It’s also a fantastic development for right now because the rotation has hit a pretty rough spot of late. When the rotation was so good in April, they were getting deep into games and keeping the team close. It’s why they were able to start 7-7 in spite of being in the midst of one of the worst offensive starts you’ll see. Lately, though, two pitchers who were keys to the strong April starts, Jason Vargas and Ian Kennedy, have been leaking oil. My theory on them is that Vargas is running out of gas in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. The Royals can say that’s not the case, but Vargas threw 75 innings between 2015 and 2016 and he’s thrown 140.1 this season. My theory on Kennedy is that he’s still not right from his hamstring injury. This is largely anecdotal, but he sure seems to be using his fastball more, which would make sense if he was having leg issues with his off speed stuff. By the numbers, he isn’t using it a ton more, but he’s using it in bigger situations, and it’s leading to trouble. Whatever the reason, the Royals need one of these two at least to step up or they need Cahill to come back and do what they expected him to do or else they’ll be in big trouble in this playoff race.
- One of the best stories of this Royals season is Whit Merrifield. He’s not going to be confused for a superstar, but he’s built on his rookie season and is proving that he’s a big leaguer and then some. With his leadoff home run yesterday, he joined the not so publicized 15/15 club with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases. He’s hitting .288/.323/.467 with solid defense and truly fantastic base running. He doesn’t work many walks, but he also doesn’t strike out. There seems to be a popular game to play to diminish what Merrifield has done for various reasons, but the fact is that he’s been worth 3.9 WARP in his first 190 games and appears to have a high enough floor that even if his offense regresses to something like .270/.310/.380, he’s still a valuable piece on a club in need of valuable pieces. I don’t think it’s out of the question to believe that he’s somewhere in between his current line and the line I just gave you. If he’s a 1.5 to 2-win player over the next two or three seasons, that’s a huge win for the Royals given that he’ll likely make about $2 million in that time, maximum. I think I’ve said this before, but I think a pretty decent comp for Merrifield is later career Martin Prado, but without the threat of him falling off a cliff for age reasons. That will work, especially as the Royals could use a guy who can hit well enough and play multiple positions competently. This isn’t controversial at all, but I’m all aboard the Whit train.
- The Royals loss yesterday coupled with the Indians win gives me a pretty good idea of where this is headed, but I believe we will have a clear answer on the division title chances by about 4 in the afternoon on Sunday. In my mind, if the Royals are three or fewer games back, they have a legitimate shot. If they’re five or more back, the dream is over. At that point, they’ll have 33 games remaining, and that’s just a very difficult hill to climb. I think four games back is the one spot where we don’t know anything. Of course, being six back, barring a rainout, the only way the Royals can get to three back is to sweep and winning two of three, while great, leaves them five back. So yeah, basically if you want the Royals to win the division, they have to sweep Cleveland this weekend I’m not going to hold my breath for that, but stranger things have happened, I suppose.