2011 Series Preview: Twins vs Royals (4/29-5/1)

Let’s start with this; the Rays are a good team. I thought that during the offseason and I thought it when they gave the rest of the AL East a weeks head start by going 0-6.  Still the Twins just got swept by Tampa Bay for the second time this season. Unlike the first time around, these games were not remotely close. The offense continued it’s struggles and scored only 6 runs off of Rays pitching. That’s just more of the same for the 2011 Twins. Far more concerning is the fact that Minnesota’s pitching staff gave up 29 runs to Tampa Bay and did so at home.

Is it time to panic? For me not yet, but there are plenty of alarming signs in play if panic is the route you want to take. For example:

  • They are 29th in runs scored and 25th in runs allowed right now in MLB.
  • They have dealt with a season’s worth of injuries and illness in less than a month.
  • They have also watched their best starting pitcher – and the unanimous 2nd best starter in the division – string together the worst stretch of starts in his career.

I could list many more things, and yet they’ve managed to win 9 games. That’s kind of miraculous when you think about it. On the bright side only the Cleveland Indians are over 0.500 in the division and that’s not going to last while the rest of the AL Central is within 2.5 games of each other.

One of those teams is the Kansas City Royals. A team that boasts a pitching staff which has given up more runs than the Twins despite a youth-infused bullpen that has been fairly effective this year.  If there was a series for Minnesota’s bats to wake up and snap out of their funk, this is the one. The Twins may be rolling out a quasi-AAA lineup some days due to a variety of factors but the Royals current rotation is probably worse than their rotation down in Omaha right now. It’s a case of the immovable object (struggling, depleted lineup) and the irresistible force (sub-par Royals rotation).

Helping me preview this titanic struggle set to occur over the weekend at Kauffman Stadium is Kings of Kauffman Senior Editor, Michael Engel.

Kansas City Royals:

2011 Regular Season Record: 12-13, t-2nd in the AL Central (4.5 GB)
120 Runs Scored (4th in the AL) / 129 Runs Allowed (14th in the AL)

Minnesota Twins:

2011 Regular Season Record: 9-15, t-4th in the AL Central (7.0 GB)
77 Runs Scored (14th in the AL) / 124 Runs Allowed (12th in the AL)

Pitching Matchups

April 29th (7:10 pm EDT): RHP Scott Baker (1-2, 3.24 ERA) vs LHP Bruce Chen (3-1, 3.86)

Baker’s career against the Royals: 96.2 IP, 3.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 4.94 SO/BB

Scott Baker’s 2011, like most of the Twins starters, has been a mixed bag:

First 2 starts: 11.0 IP, 12 H, 8 R, 6 BB, 9 SO, 4 HR
First 2 starts: 14.0 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 15 SO, 0 HR

At least he’s heading in the right direction and at least he has enough of a track record that I feel confident he can get the job done without his best stuff on a given night. His primary weakness is giving up the long ball, but Kauffman Stadium and the relatively HR-light Royals, should help him in that regard.

Chen has had three strong starts sandwiched between two pretty bad ones. His first start was a windy day against the Angels in which he gave up three homers, but he followed it with a stretch of three starts where he gave up just two earned runs in 21 innings. He’s been mixing his pitches well and has usually commanded his arsenal of offspeed stuff well. On Sunday, he wasn’t off to his best game through four innings but fell apart in the fifth, giving up two walks, a single and a homer. He was tagged for six earned runs in 4.1 innings.

April 30th (6:10 pm): LHP Brian Duensing (2-0, 3.00) vs RHP Sean O’Sullivan (1-1, 4.20)

Duensing’s career against the Royals: 33.0 IP, 3.27 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 2.38 SO/BB

Early on in spring training a popular topic in the Twins blogosphere was who should have a spot in the Twins rotation. At the time the prevailing opinion – one that I did not agree with – was that Duensing was best suited to pitch out of the bullpen. 24 games into the season, I shudder to think where the Twins would be if he had been cast into that role. After all, he has been the Twins best and most consistent starter in 2011. Duensing’s worst outing was his first of the season on April 5th against the Yankees. He gave up 6 hits and 4 runs in 7.0 innings that day, but kept the game close and Minnesota went on to win it 5-4. In his next three starts he’s gone 20.0 IP with 20 H, 5 R, 5 BB and 10 SO.

Brian Duensing has been a rock in the majors for the Twins – regardless of his role – and O’Sullivan is a glorified batting practice pitcher. Anything can happen in any given game but this is the biggest pitching mismatch of the series.

O’Sullivan started the year as a long relief option while off days allowed the Royals to run out a four man rotation. Out of the bullpen, he tossed four innings, giving up five runs. As a starter, so far, he’s been completely different. In two starts he’s completed 11 innings and struck out 10. He has walked five over that stretch, but compared to what he showed last season (3-6, 5.76 ERA in 70.2 innings with KC), he’s looked solid. Considering the Royals rotation problems this week, they’d better hope he stays solid so that, if nothing else, SOMEBODY can get outs in the first six innings of the game.

May 1st (1:10 pm): RHP Carl Pavano (2-2, 5.12) vs RHP Luke Hochevar (2-3, 5.68)

Pavano’s career against the Royals: 71.2 IP, 6.28 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 4.08 SO/BB

Pavano is the latest victim of the plague/flu that is sweeping through Minnesota’s roster and his endurance and stamina are certainly going to be impacted on Sunday. However, we will have no way of knowing if it plays any part in how he pitches since he’s been so inconsistent without the flu as a factor.

Two great, two terrible and one mediocre start. That’s sum of Carl Pavano’s season so far. After his 1st start (4.0 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 2 BB and 3 SO) he ripped of 16 innings of 1 run baseball and Opening Day looked to be an aberration, or at least the low point of his season. Then he gave up 8 runs on 8 hits with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts in 4.2 innings against the Orioles. His 18 GSc from that start was actually worse than his 21 GSc on April 1st and now I’m left wondering if he can set the bar lower still. It’s early but his 2.8 BB/9 is the highest walk rate of his career since the 2002 season and he simply can not afford to walk guys. The rest of his numbers are in line with those from 2010 and his BABIP is actually lower right now (0.245) than it was last year (0.281).

Against Luke Hochevar he just has to keep the Twins close and wait for Luke to give up the seemingly inevitable big inning. Then again with Carl’s career numbers against Kansas City and his inconsistent performance this year, there might be multiple big innings on both sides of the scoreboard on Sunday.

On April 10, Hochevar pitched seven innings at Detroit, walked none, struck out six and, other than three solo homers, held the Tigers at bay. He followed that up with seven incredible innings against Seattle. After a leadoff double to Ichiro Suzuki, Hochevar didn’t give up a hit the rest of the night. He walked Luis Rodriguez in the second inning of that game with two outs and proceeded to retire the next 31 batters he faced. After five perfect innings against Cleveland, the Royals blogosphere was cracking their knuckles, ready to type out the “He’s figured it out” column we’ve had in reserve for the last three years. Then Michael Brantley singled. Matt LaPorta doubled to drive in a run, but after two ground outs, it looked like Hoch was getting out of the inning. A walk, single and two doubles later put four runs on the board. He opened the seventh with two walks and gave up six runs total in six innings. Typical Hochevar.

Who’s Hot

Kansas City Royals

In compiling a career high 17-game hitting streak, Jeff Francoeur has been among the hottest hitters in the league. In his last ten games, he’s hit three homers and five doubles while driving in eight runs. He’s even walked four times. Alex Gordon lost his hitting streak at 19 games but he’s looked great at the plate and in the outfield. We continue to hope. And hope. And … he’s gotta come around one of these years right?

Minnesota Twins

Jason Kubel lands on the hot list – yet again – after hitting 0.389/.429/.500 over the last week. Jim Thome had only 8 plate appearances for the week but did get 3 hits – one of them a 2B – and 2 walks.

I already touched on Brian Duensing’s recent outings in the pitching matchups above, but we can add Matt Capps and Joe Nathan into this category as well. They’ve combined for 4 appearances in the last 7 days and have allowed just 1 hit in 3.2 shutout innings.

Who’s Cold

Kansas City Royals

Billy Butler has been walking like crazy. He’s on pace for 117 walks and is clearly the one guy teams don’t want to let beat them. He’s hit almost everything hard, but this past week, he seemed to be pressing a bit and popped it up more than usual. In his last seven games, he’s just 5-24 with one RBI. He’s walked four times over that stretch, at least. Chris Getz is 4-28 in his last ten games and seems to be losing playing time to Mike Aviles while Wilson Betemit plays third.

Minnesota Twins

No one really expects Drew Butera to contribute much at the plate but .071/.133/.143 in the last week is unacceptable, even for him. However it’s not just Butera’s fault that the Twins have scored just 3.2 runs per game so far. Matt Tolbert, Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer have also combined to go 6-46 in the last 7 days.

Nick Blackburn and Francisco Liriano together managed just 6.1 innings in the last week. They gave up 14 hits and 12 earned runs while walking 8.

Injury Update

Kansas City Royals

15-Day DL: RHP Robinson Tejeda (shoulder), C Jason Kendall (shoulder)

60-Day DL: RHP Henry Barrera (elbow)

Minnesota Twins

Day-to-Day: DH Jim Thome (oblique strain), OF Jason Repko (sore quad)

15-Day DL: C Joe Mauer (bilateral leg weakness), 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka (fractured fibula), RHP Kevin Slowey (shoulder strain), OF Delmon Young (oblique)

3 on 3 Questions

Minnesota Twins

Michael: What’s the status of Joe Mauer?

Wally: Joe was eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list yesterday, but obviously that didn’t happen. In a recent MLB.com article by Rhett Bollinger, Mauer referenced that he was “turning the corner” but at this point it doesn’t sound like his return is imminent. That of course means Drew Butera’s offensive stylings will continue to be on regular display for a while. Unfortunately I don’t think any one really knows when Joe will return to the lineup.

M: As a fan of both the Royals and the Twins, what do you think is the reason why the Twins seem to own Kansas City in every series?

W: I think the reason here is the most obvious one. For the last decade or so, the Twins have been the vastly superior team. 2010 was just another example of that. Minnesota was 13-5 against Kansas City which was good for a 0.722 WP. Considering the Royals played at a 0.414 clip and the Twins played at a 0.580 clip that seems about right. In an 18 game stretch with those percentages the Royals could expect to win about 7.5 games. The Twins, in a similar stretch would be expected to win 10.5 games if the WP held true. But their WP reflect the results over an entire season of playing good teams, bad teams and the teams in between. Playing the last place Royals for all of those 18 games increases the Twins chances of winning more than those 10.5 and that is exactly what happened.

Minnesota has generally had a better: offense, defense, rotation, bullpen, and manager among other things. So the results on the field shouldn’t be a surprise. In 2007, the only year the Twins finished below 0.500 since 2000, they were 9-9 against the Royals. In 2003, the only year the Royals have finished about 0.500 since 1994, Minnesota actually lost the season series 8-11 even though they won the division with a 90-72 record.

M: Are you more surprised about the Twins being in last at this point, the Indians in first, or are Twins fans generally waiting until June to panic?

W: I would have to say I’m more surprised with the Indians being in first at this point. I never expected the Twins to play 0.375 ball through their first 24 games or have the worst offense in the AL. But if you told me in advance that things would unfold they way they have, I could comprehend it. With Cleveland, I’ve watched things unfold and I still have no clue how they are winning two-thirds of their games.

Twins fans, at this point, run the gamut of emotions and as a whole I think people are more disappointed than anything. For me it is encouraging that there are identifiable reasons for the team’s struggles so far (injuries, flu outbreak, etc) and that keeps me, and a lot of fans, from hitting the panic button just yet. Minnesota has made some serious 2nd half runs in past years and the makeup of the AL Central this season helps buoy my outlook right now. Even at 9-15 I still feel the division is there for the taking and there is a lot of baseball to be played.

For what it is worth, the 2011 Indians have the feel of the 2003 Royals but they don’t have the offensive firepower that Kansas City did that year and Cleveland’s rotation is even more suspect. I’d be surprised if they make it to the All-Star break with a 0.500 or better record.

Kansas City Royals

Wally: The Royals have lost 6 games in a row and Bruce Chen is the team’s best starter. At what point do you think Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy will join Kansas City’s rotation? They can’t possibly be worse than most of the team’s current group can they?

Michael: I still think the Royals are going to be patient, especially with Montgomery. Duffy has been brilliant in Omaha so far, and he tossed 6 one-hit innings last night. Montgomery was dominant in the Futures Game on April 2, the one time I have seen him live. He impressed me beyond what I’d read in scouting reports.

They’ll both be up this year, barring injury. I say that because Monty had some elbow and forearm issues last year, which is why I think he’ll be behind Duffy on the Omaha-to-KC charter. That might mean Duffy makes it up in June and Montgomery gets here in July. No big difference. If they keep pitching well and Kyle Davies continues to throw batting practice, though, the organization could speed up their promotions.

W: I’m of the opinion that the Royals need to bring up Eric Hosmer right now. I know he’s going to have his struggles but he makes the team immediately better on offense and defense. If he lives up to just some of the hype, he’s going to merit a long term contract in short order so worrying about his arbitration clock seems foolish. What are your thoughts on this and what do you think Kansas City will actually do?

M: If I’m not driving the bus, I’m at least near the front on the “let Kila Ka’aihue fail entirely first” express. I was listening to Kevin Goldstein’s podcast this morning and he passed on a quote from Joel Goldberg regarding Ka’aihue’s struggles in light of Clint Robinson’s awesome start and Hosmer’s strong Triple A debut. He said “last year this time, people were naming their babies Kila after watching him in Omaha”.

First base has looked like a logjam since last year, so the Royals can afford to be patient. Hosmer probably deserves a shot now, to be honest, and I’d love to see him up. But what I’d do is a) let Ka’aihue get to the end of May and if he’s still floating just above .300 with his OBP (WITH his walks), then maybe something needs to be done. From there, though, I say give Robinson a shot. Showcase him for other teams. If he hits, great, you can move him for some A ball pitcher. If not, he’s not in the long-term plans anyway. Hosmer then continues to rake in Omaha and delays the Super Two status.

That all being said, I don’t think the Royals care about the Super Two status anyway with Hosmer, and if they did, there’s no true guarantee he’ll end up in that category anyway, since it’s relative to service time of all players reaching arbitration for the first time at that point. I think they’ll wait – then sign him to a fat contract the first chance he shows he is for real (probably his second at bat).

W: The 2011 MLB draft is just over a month away now and the Royals have the 5th overall pick. What player would you like to see them take and why? (For the sake of this question, let’s assume that Antony Rendon and Garret Cole are off the board but everyone else is in play)

M: Ah, I”m not near the draftnik that many others are, but the good thing about being a Royals fan (I guess) is that I don’t have to be for the first rounders. I just have to know five to ten names usually. If Trevor Bauer is there at 5, I’d take him. I think a lot of teams are going to give him a shot, even with his odd throwing program. He has dominant starter potential.

The other option is Bubba Starling. A Kansas high schooler, the main obstacle for him is that he’s also a superstar QB and could go to Nebraska in lieu of signing with a big league team. The Royals aren’t afraid to pay up in bonuses, though, so if they want an impact hitter with big upside, Starling’s a good pick. The local flavor helps too, I think, as they have Aaron Crow, Tim Melville and Jason Adam from the Kansas/Missouri area as well.

Topics: Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Brian Duensing, Bruce Chen, Carl Pavano, Chris Getz, Danny Duffy, Danny Valencia, Drew Butera, Eric Hosmer, Francisco Liriano, Jason Kubel, Jeff Francoeur, Jim Thome, Joe Nathan, Kansas City Royals, Luke Hochevar, Matt Capps, Matt Tolbert, Michael Cuddyer, Mike Montgomery, Minnesota Twins, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Sean O'Sullivan

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