“The future’s gonna land on you”
No, I can’t properly wrap my head around what I witnessed in the ALCS. Nobody can.
Sure, the Royals are hot. But this isn’t even about being hot anymore. This is about being in some impenetrable, inexplicable zone in which the legs churn a little faster, the glove feels a little bigger, the opponent seems a little shakier and every bloop and dribbler bounces or rolls your way. With their energy level, their clear chemistry, their enraptured fan base and their suddenly impeccable skipper, the Royals, in their ascension to this World Series stage against the Giants, have truly been an October delight.
Hey, don’t get me wrong. This is not intended to be disrespectful to the Royals. I’ve been on their bandwagon quite a while. I picked them to win the AL Central this season, when what Terry Francona told me in Spring Training (“They make me nervous”) was still fresh in my mind.
But with the way the season itself played out, I’d wager to guess there are members of that organization who are asking themselves that very same question. When the Royals got swept out of the All-Star break by Boston and fell below .500, for instance, I don’t recall many people inside or outside the Kansas City clubhouse asserting they were World Series-bound. And even at season’s end — less than three weeks ago — when they had reached the playoffs via the Wild Card, it was still fair to wonder whether supposed cornerstones Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas would every truly pan out.
Perceptions change quickly in this game.
On that note, it’s only natural for fans of an Indians team that played these Royals fairly well (10-9 record against) and stayed neck and neck with them much of the year (with the Royals eventually finishing four games ahead of the Tribe in the Central standings) to wonder if the gap between also-ran and October run is as wide as might have been previously presumed.
The Royals and Indians, after all, were both drastically outpaced by the Tigers in payroll this season, and, while the Tigers won their fourth straight division crown, the Royals have clearly been the better postseason ballclub.
Don’t get caught in the trap of drawing bold conclusions from that small sample, because the Tigers destroyed the Royals head-to-head this season, and Detroit’s staying power atop the Central speaks for itself. But if the $90 million Royals — a team whose primary pieces are all the result of in-house drafting and development, whether those drafted players stayed or were flipped for established talent — can get this far, then, yes, obviously, the Indians can, too.
No, it wouldn’t have happened this year, even if the Indians had somehow snuck into the Wild Card game. The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. To me, it’s really that simple. Nothing separated the Royals from the O’s in this ALCS more than their ability to make it seem as if they routinely had 18 gloves in the field. So let’s not indulge in any undue fantasies. Stick to the Super Bowl beliefs borne out of a 3-2 start, or go watch LeBron and the boys stroll through the NBA’s plodding and predictable regular season.
But I do think the Royals are offering hope of a different sort here. In possibly the most difficult sport in which to repeat, the wear and tear they’re taking on by going deep into October is bound to have some lingering effect in 2015.
For starters, they’re either going to lose or drastically overpay James Shields. I’m not sure which scenario is worse, frankly. But the more likely one is that they lose him, and those 200-plus innings won’t be easy to replace on the cheap. The Royals are probably doing the right thing in limiting Danny Duffy’s innings right now, given the shoulder situation he endured late in the season and his importance to the future of this rotation. But Yordano Ventura has already exceeded his 2013 workload by more than 30 percent, and he’s on top to start Game 2 of the World Series. Jason Vargas and our old buddy Jeremy Guthrie are obviously more of the inning-eater variety, so it remains to be seen whether the Royals are able to patch together a rotation next season (here, Draft-pick-turned-instant-bullpen-piece Brandon Finnegan could loom large) that is as reliable as this one has been.
And as far as the bullpen is concerned, you know Wade Davis can’t possibly repeat what he’s done this year. Davis and Kelvin Herrera are exceeding the 80-innings mark this year, so there could be some regression there next year. The Royals might also be in a situation in which their best option is to dangle consistent closer Greg Holland, who is about to get awfully expensive in arbitration, in the trade market to offset needs elsewhere.
The Royals’ lineup is obviously stepping up big on this October stage, but it is less imposing in the grind of 162. Now, understand, it could get imposing in a hurry if what we’re seeing from Hosmer and Moustakas of late is real. Their confidence is soaring at the moment, and we can’t underestimate what that confidence will reap them in the future. But also remember the two guys who were probably most prominent in the Royals’ second-half surge into a Central dogfight with Detroit were Billy Butler (in August) and Nori Aoki – two pending free agents.
Anyway, one way or another, the Royals’ ultimate staying power will come into question. And the questions about the Tigers’ ability to repeat, given their aging and increasingly expensive roster, have already begun. Dave Dombrowski told me earlier this year that the one thing you have to worry about with a high-priced roster is that you have a club that becomes too old to compete almost overnight (I think that’s ultimately why he made the much-maligned Doug Fister trade). The Tigers have some nice young (or youngish) pieces in J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos, and maybe Robbie Ray develops into the front-line arm they envision (early returns don’t point to that, but you never know). On the whole, though, that Tigers team, as currently constructed, is beginning to take on a bit of a Philadelphia Phillies vibe, and that could be encouraging for the rest of the Central, the Indians included.
Maybe, then, in the midst of watching the Tigers get bounced and the Royals exert themselves on the postseason stage, the Indians actually have reason for optimism that extends beyond their high-upside, contract-controllable starting staff. It’s still going to be all but impossible for the Indians to address their offense in a meaningful way unless they can get creative on the trade front with Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn. And unless every Indians position player is currently committing himself to those Tom Emanski defensive drill videos, it’s likely this will be a club that will have to continue to try to outhit its mistakes.
We’ll see what transpires winter on all fronts, but right now I see opportunity for the Indians in the Central next season. They won’t have the Tigers’ stash of former Cy Young winners (a stash that may or may not include Max Scherzer), and they won’t have the Royals’ newfound postseason prominence. But they’ll have a deep and rested pitching staff, with some obvious in-house potential for defensive (Francisco Lindor is looming) and offensive (is Swisher really going to turn in another .604 OPS? … OK, don’t answer that) improvement.
Yeah, I’d say 2015 is looking interesting for the Indians and potentially problematic for Detroit and K.C. And that can only mean one thing:
The White Sox are going to run away with the Central.