At this point of the season, virtually everything you could write about a baseball team has to be prefaced by the qualifier, “it’s early.”
So to call a late April series between the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals an important one is probably overreacting a bit. After all, it’s early.
But 18 games into the season, the Royals are a “surprise” with a 10-7 record and a slim one-game first-place lead in the AL Central. The Tigers are a “disappointment” with a 9-9 record that has them 1.5 games behind Kansas City in the division.
The Royals roll into Detroit on a high note, having swept a Sunday doubleheader at Fenway Park with the goodwill of an entire nation directed toward Boston. The Red Sox had won seven in a row and looked to be emerging as a contender in the AL East.
The Tigers staggered back home licking some wounds after suffering a three-game sweep in Anaheim to the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels were strugg-a-ling at 5-10, leaving them six games behind the first-place Oakland Athletics in the AL West and buckling under heavy expectations.
The fear going into last weekend’s series, of course, is that the Angels could right themselves at the Tigers’ expense as Detroit neared the end of a nine-game West Coast road trip. That’s exactly what happened, with the Angels crushing Tigers pitching in two of the three games. Detroit was outscored 18-1 in the first two games of the series.
Getting swept in Anaheim ended the road trip on a bad note. After winning two of three in Oakland and Seattle, this had the look of a successful West Coast swing for the Tigers. Even better, Detroit got that trip out of the way early in the season.
However, the schedule could end up making a bad thing worse for the Tigers this week.
If the Royals stay hot and win this series, that nudges Detroit a bit further down the AL Central standings with the Atlanta Braves coming to town for the weekend. More importantly, a series win — even in late April — could help give Kansas City some confidence that they can hang with the consensus favorite in the division.
Of course, the Tigers could pull themselves together against the Royals over the next three games, which would obviously be the best result. Detroit went 13-5 versus K.C. last year. Beating up on the lower-tier clubs in the division is a big reason why the Tigers were able to eke out a division title.
But the Royals team that’s visiting Comerica Park for the next three games really does look like a different team. Maybe they’re still a trendy sleeper pick in the division — even in the league.
Yet as of right now, the changes general manager Dayton Moore made to his starting rotation appear to be paying off in a big way.
Trading top prospect Wil Myers (and three other prospects) to the Tampa Bay Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis looked like a short-sighted deal at first glance. Was it really worth giving up a potential star for the short-term fix of a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher who wasn’t really an ace?
After four starts, however, Shields has yielded the desired results for the Royals’ rotation. Though he has a 1-2 record, he’s allowed nine runs in 27 innings for a 3.00 ERA. Shields has also racked up 28 strikeouts in that span versus just six walks. He’s been the No. 1 starter K.C. was seeking.
But Davis arguably may have been the more important acquisition. For one thing, he’s 27 years old — four years younger than Shields. And with three club options in his current contract, he could be under club control through 2017.
Davis has been excellent in his first three starts, going 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA. Though he’s allowed 18 hits in 16 innings, the right-hander has struck out 15 batters and walked only three. Davis will pitch the series opener for K.C., matched up against Max Scherzer.
One more addition that Moore made that’s paid off so far is Ervin Santana. During the past two seasons with the Angels, he didn’t look too impressive, pitching like a fifth starter. But whether it’s because he’s healthier, refined his game, needed the ol’ change of scenery or is simply pitching more efficiently, Santana has been a new pitcher for the Royals. He has a 2.48 ERA after four starts, striking out 26 batters in 29 innings with just five walks.
However, with Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez set to pitch in this series, the Tigers appear to have the pitching advantage. Additionally, the Royals’ offense hasn’t matched the performance of the pitching staff thus far.
Outfielders Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain, along with shortstop Alcides Escobar, are off to strong starts, giving Kansas City the offense it needs.
But first baseman Eric Hosmer hasn’t shaken off his poor sophomore season, compiling a .629 OPS with no home runs in 52 plate appearances. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is batting .158 and slugging just .193 (!). Billy Butler is hitting .216, but leads the Royals with three homers, 12 RBI and 12 walks and is a certified Tigers killer.
With the Tigers and Royals scheduled to play another 16 games after this week’s three-game set, it doesn’t make sense to place too much importance on the outcome of this series. But losses in April obviously still count and can end up haunting a team in September.
Asserting themselves over the upstart Royals would make a strong statement for Detroit early in the season and help stave off the early-season funks that have made the AL Central races closer than they should’ve been over the past two seasons.
The Tigers should take the opportunity to put the sleeper pick to sleep.