Somehow, someway, with a record of 7-10, the Kansas City Royals find themselves in second place in the American League Central — only trailing the Minnesota Twins (who they should’ve swept the last time they played).
The Royals recorded a road series win over the Chicago White Sox, taking the rubber match 5-2 on Thursday as Whit Merrifield scored the winning run on a wild pitch and Kyle Isbel sealed things with a two-out, two-run single. Even though the Sox are struggling right now, I still believe they are the favorite to win the division. This is a definite quality result.
The Royals have the Yankees up next, who are a playoff contender that is putting up results that match their expectations. If the Royals can take two of three from the Bronx Bombers, their record may not be back above .500 but it will be an eyebrow-raiser nonetheless. But for now, let’s talk about the good, meh, and the bad from this latest series with the White Sox.
Eventually Andrew Benintendi will cool off, but that time most certainly was not this latest series. He went 5-12 with four RBIs — driving in a run in each game of the series — and is now hitting .400 on the year. Aside from a lackluster throw in left field on Thursday that allowed the game-tying run to score, Benintendi has been showing that great all-around game that once made him one of the highest-rated prospects in baseball.
Unless the Royals plan to sign the likes of Michael Brantley to a one-year deal next season, there is not a more realistic option in the Royals' budget to fill in at left field next year than Benintendi. Even if they don’t want to announce a deal while the season is going on, Dayton Moore and J.J. Picollo better be on the phone with Benintendi’s agent to try and work out the framework for a new contract.
Starting pitching was once again very solid for the Royals, with two quality starts by Daniel Lynch and Brad Keller that both resulted in team wins. When the weakest starting performance is a six-inning, three-run start by Zack Greinke, you know things were rolling. If the Royals can find a way to get the bottom two starters on the same level as the top three, they might finally have an answer to what has been a long-term problem.
Finally, although the hit total was a bit lacking for the number of runs they scored, this was probably the best the Royals' offense has looked in a three-game series. One of the big reasons for this was the plate discipline that they showed, drawing 30 walks. Sometimes you don’t have to hit when the other side is doing the hardest part for you. So while the offense still not quite clicking on all cylinders, a way to circumvent a low team batting average is by drawing walks. The Royals did just that in Chicago.
The bullpen had a good first game, a bad second game and a meh third game so by the law of averages, they find themselves in the middle tier. The likes of Scott Barlow and Colin Snider and Josh Staumont all allowed runs in the series against what is still a potent White Sox lineup. The structure (or lack thereof) in the bullpen is something that is a bit concerning because the closer-by-committee routine rarely — if at all — results in long-term success.
The Royals got to back-to-back World Series by having the most structured pen in the league and while nobody on the roster has been "the man" out of the bullpen before, the Royals eventually need to find a go-to ninth-inning guy. My choice for that role would be Barlow, seeing as he’s the most experienced and consistent member of the group.
This is more of a side note than a reflection on what happened during the series: the likes of Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares should’ve gotten more playing time from the start of the season. It took a possible season-ending injury to Adalberto Mondesi for both of them to start a game in a series, and that reflects the very meh long-term strategy that Royals' management had for the club.
While I don’t believe that either Isbel or Olivares will be stars, Olivares appears to at least be a viable fourth option in the outfield and Isbel looks like he could turn himself into a Brett Gardner-esque type of player. It should go without saying that a steady starter and a quality reserve are two things that the Royals could desperately use going into next year.
If it wasn’t for his iron man streak, Whit Merrifield would’ve already have been sat down for a day or two to try and get his mind right. Some of the struggles have been bad luck, and others have been just flat-out bad hitting. He’s in the lineup right now because of reputation but at some point, reputation should only take you so far before reality has to take over.
The bottom line is that if Merrifield is hitting above .250 by the deadline, the Royals need to do everything in their power to trade him. His presence hinders the playing time of Isbel, Olivares, and the possible call-ups and future playing time of guys like Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Loftin.
Josh Staumont has also been a bit up-and-down this year, as he allowed the game-tying run on Thursday after a single, wild pitch and another single set up the AJ Pollock sac fly. To be fair to Staumont, he slammed the door afterward and the second single he gave up was the jam shot to end all jam shots. Regardless, he still needs to find a way to start limiting baserunners; his WHIP is at a career-high of 1.444. Also, it didn’t seem fair to just single out Merrifield in what was the Royals' best series of the year.
Series Grade: B+
This is a positive result and a step in the right direction to take a road series from a team that, on paper, should run away with this division due to the number of quality bats and pitchers it possesses. The weather the entire series was miserable, and it robbed the Royals (especially Bobby Witt Jr.) of a couple of home runs.
However, this was the first time Kansas City scored more than five runs twice in a series. The starting pitching is still carrying the bulk of the weight, but it appears as if the offense might be finally getting ready to start carrying more of the load.
For right now, the Royals are in the holding pattern of playing .500 baseball with a record below .500. Eventually, they’ll need a sweep to get themselves back above .500 but for right now, they’ll gladly take their first road series win of the season.