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Deconstructing The Process

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What can we say about Bruce Chen?

The guy is simply a freak of nature.

Yeah, the Twins offense is dreadful (except on Monday when it was pretty good) but whenever a starter puts up a line like this…

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 SO

You’re thrilled.

Chen threw 88 pitches and 62 of them were strikes. He was cruising.

And they were largely low stress innings. The Twins put a couple of runners on second, but both reached there with two down – a double by Dozier and a single and a steal by Mastroianni.

I was surprised Yosty didn’t send him back out for the eighth inning. At only 88 pitches and with Chen being a low effort kind of guy (not exactly a flamethrower who runs out of gas) and with those low stress innings, it seemed like an opportune time. Save Greg Holland for another night and let Chen go eight before turning it over to the ninth inning guy.

Shows you what I know when Holland comes on and simply punches out the side.

Nice.

– The Royals gave their free baserunning out away early in this one when Alex Gordon was picked off first in following his first inning walk.

– Chen evened the ledger when he scored a pickoff of his own. Looked extremely close to a balk to me where the lefty isn’t allowed to bring his right leg past the pitching rubber, but it wasn’t called so good enough. Dozier was going on movement, so nice job by Chen to get the ball to first to start the out.

– The Royals seemingly had an opportunity to tack on an insurance run in the eighth when Gordon laced a one out double. Although he was the giver of the Royals Free Out on the bases in the first with his pickoff/caught stealing (that’s how it’s scored) I can’t hang a baserunning blunder on A1 in this situation. The ball was sharply hit, Gordon was going on contact when he saw it wasn’t hit to the left side of the infield, took two steps and was caught in a proverbial no man’s land. Maybe the proper play was to freeze until you saw the ball get by the pitcher, but I’m betting Gordon was thinking about getting a good jump so he could score on a single up the middle. With one out and Butler up, maybe he should have played it safe, thinking Butler could at least get him home with a fly ball. Dunno.

– The Jonathan Broxton highwire act came on in the ninth. Really, the only true scoring opportunity for the Twins all night came in the ninth inning. Antacid time. A double and a walk with one out and he gets a pair of fly balls to end the game. The Dyson grab was a little unnerving. He hasn’t exactly inspired confidence out there when asked to run far to make a grab.

Whew.

– The Royals now have three wins on the homestand. More importantly, they are still on track to win six of their nine games against the A’s, Twins and Pirates.

– Speaking of Pirates, with the glory of interleague the Royals will be forced to play Eric Hosmer in right, slide Jeff Francoeur to center in order to keep Butler’s bat in the lineup at first.

Seriously, with an interleague game scheduled every day of the season next year with the Astros moving to the AL, it’s time to put the DH in the National League. It’s laughable that the Royals construct their team the way they do and then are told they can’t use it in that fashion.

Fix it, Bud.

Robinson Tejeda… Something isn’t right with this dude. Last year, his average fastball was around 94 mph with some serious life. Last night, he was living around 88-89 mph while sometimes dialing it up to 92. Interestingly enough, his fastest pitch was his last pitch – a 92.7 mph four-seamer he left right down the middle of the plate that was smoked for the game winning hit by Danny Valencia.

It was pretty clear from the four pitch walk to the second batter Tejeda faced (Michael Cuddyer) that this game was going to end in an ugly fashion for the Royals. What was Ned Yost thinking at this point? Unfortunately, it appears he wasn’t thinking at all. Ripping a page from the Trey Hillman Managerial Handbook, Yost sat on his hands while the game crumbled. Of course, the obvious gripe will be that Joakim Soria should have been in the game. Put me in this camp. Although I also understand that in an extra inning game on the road, you have to save him for the bottom of the inning just in case you take the lead in the top half of the inning. You just have to. (Emphasis added to underscore the sarcasm.) This argument is a dead horse. There are a lot of things about Yost that I like, but we can’t forget that he’s a major league manager, and as a major league manager he is expected to do things in a certain way. By The Book, if you will. Yost doesn’t strike me as a guy who would like to be tagged as an innovator. There’s just no way Soria will ever enter the game in that situation. Moot point.

Moving on, while Soria isn’t even going to warm up without a lead in extras, there was no reason Yost couldn’t have grabbed any warm body out in the pen. I don’t care who… Adcock, Jeffress, even Texeira. The point is, Tejeda was struggling (again.) If you’re truly trying to win the ballgame, you can’t watch what happened with the first two batters and do nothing. Yost fell asleep at the switch. I’m not going to say his inaction last night cost the Royals the game, but it didn’t help.

If you were managing like it was 2010, maybe you stick with Tejeda. He should be a better pitcher than the remaining guys in the bullpen. But this is 2011, and he’s not a better pitcher. At least so far in this young season.

Now we have to wonder what’s next for Tejeda. I’m thinking trip to the DL is happening, and I’m hoping it’s soon. He’s faced 26 batters this year, allowed 12 of them to reach base and has struck out just one.

Of course we wouldn’t be talking about any of this, had the Royals come through in the top of the seventh with runners on first and third and no one out. The Royals had just forced Brian Duensing out of the game after the Melk Man tagged him (literally) on a shot back up the middle. Enter Jose Mijares, a LOOGY who promptly overmatches left-handed hitting Alex Gordon on heat that was up and running away. Yes, you want Gordon to just put the bat on the ball in that situation, but it really felt like an unfair fight. The last pitch was up and probably out of the zone, but the action of it running away from the left-handed hitter made it a difficult pitch to handle. And given the moving strike zone all night (more on that in a moment) I can’t fault Gordon for the swing and the miss.

For me, the next at bat was much more frustrating because Matt Capps served up a couple of fastballs that Billy Butler really should have done something with. He was out in front of the first pitch and jerked it foul down the left field line, but that was a belt high fastball on the inner half. Right in his wheelhouse. If he had timed it right, it’s at least a sac fly, maybe more. The third (and final) pitch was just ridiculously hittable, and Butler dropped the barrel of the bat and popped out.

As frustrating as the first two outs… Jeff Francoeur. As I tweeted during the game, the Frenchy at bat carried an air of inevitability. Two outs, runner on third in a tie game and the three and four hitters had already failed. The pressure squarely on, Francoeur illustrated why you can’t count on him because his pitch selection is just so horrible. And of course, after he swings at a couple of pitches out of the zone, he takes strike three.

Before I’m blasted in the comments section about hating on Francoeur, let me talk about how much I liked his defense last night. Yes, he didn’t get to that ball in the 10th, but he had a long way to go and that wind was playing tricks. Good effort, and I really thought he had it. (Wouldn’t have made a difference with Yost sitting on his hands in the dugout.) Still, he recovered quickly and a strong throw prevented the game from ending right there. Then, there was the play on the Justin Morneau lineout where he was able to double Joe Mauer off first base. Solid. (And worth at least one point, I assume.)

A couple of other notes…

- It will be interesting to see the lineup for this afternoon’s game. It made sense to sit Kila Ka’aihue against the left-handed starter, especially given how he’s struggled in the early going. Mike Aviles isn’t doing much better, but Wilson Betemit has to be in the lineup from here on out. Maybe we’ll start to see a Kila/Aviles platoon until one of these guys comes around. If this is the case, Kila will be out today against Francisco Liriano.

- Loved the Tim Collins/Jim Thome matchup last night. The camera angle from Target Field really showed where Collins is (or isn’t) on the rubber. He’s practically throwing from the third base dugout.

- Aaron Crow is quickly becoming one of my favorite relievers because the guy works fast and doesn’t nibble. I get the feeling he knows what he wants to do with the next pitch before he’s done with the one he’s currently delivering. There might be some temptation to shift him to the rotation, especially given how Kyle Davies has performed and we’re a couple of days away from a Sean O’Sullivan start. The Royals will be wise to keep him in the bullpen for a couple of reasons. One, he projects as a reliever. That’s just his strength. And two, he’s a rookie. Let him learn how to pitch in the majors coming out of the bullpen. I love that old school philosophy. This way, it’s possible he could contribute to the rotation down the road.

- Presented without comment… Last night’s strike zone.

Well that was certainly interesting.

A lineup that not only features Jason Kendall hitting second… But Chris Getz, Yuniesky Betancourt and Wilson Betemit in the lower third.  Somehow, they scrape together nine runs.  Nine runs!

Then somehow, Bruce Chen kept the Royals in the game with a masterful six innings.  Somewhere Zack Greinke is asking his teammates why they can’t score eight runs while he’s on the mound.

Before the game, I thought that lineup was awful.  Literally the worst combination you could possibly arrive at given the players.  No Billy Butler?  No Mike Aviles?  While I’m certain if you handed in that lineup card 100 times, they would struggle to score more than five runs in 95 of those games, Ned Yost struck gold last night.

That’s why they play the game.

A couple of quick thoughts from the second craziest game of the year.

– Although my self-proclaimed Gauntlet of Suck (Getz, Betancourt, Podsednik and Kendall – number 8, 9, 1 & 2… get it?) was a combined 3-18 with two walks, they each scored a run, which was useful.

– Jose Guillen is still on his current tear… three hits, one of which was a triple.  Just be prepared for the upcoming Guillen Winter, which should start in about a week.

– This is not a team that will hit many back to back home runs.  The combination of Mitch Maier and Betemit isn’t even close to the most unlikely duo.  I’d go with Getz and Wee Willie.  Or Pods and Kendall.

–  What can you say about Betemit offensive performance last night.  Two home runs, the last of which was the difference in the game.  Plus, he drew a walk.  Overall, he saw a team high 30 pitches last night – no small feat against the Twins pitching staff.

– According to Brooks Baseball, Chen relied on his change-up and slider last night while mixing equal parts of a two seam and four seam fastball.  He was also dropping his arm angle from time to time, which made things extremely difficult for the Twins hitters.  His final line won’t look impressive, but if Yost had pulled him after six, it would have looked completely different.  It didn’t help that Robinson Tejeda gave up hits to his first two hitters he faced, which allowed both his inherited runners to score.

– That ninth inning was a thrill ride, wasn’t it?  Mauer and Morneau are just awesome.  That’s all.  Swinging at the first pitch – because they know that’s how you attack Soria – and they both rap run scoring base hits.  Thankfully Cuddyer isn’t in the same class as his first pitch swing ended as a long fly ball out.

Whew.

With about a week remaining until camps open, now is as good a time as any to take stock of the AL Central and see how the Royals rivals have done this winter. We know all about the Royals additions Scotty Pods, Ankiel, the South Side duo of Getz & Fields (or Fields & Getz) and the Punchless One behind the plate. How do the Royals moves stack up against their division rivals? Has anyone done enough to run away with the title, or will it be another close one?

And most importantly, how will everything shake out once the dust settles in October.

What follows is a brief capsule of each team in the Central and how the moves they’ve made effect their title chances. At the end of the article, you’ll find my current (in other words, subject to change) picks for the order of finish.

Chicago White Sox

This is where the strongest rotation in the Central lives. Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and a healthy Jake Peavy will be difficult for any other division rival to top. Hell, that could be the best rotation in baseball. Plus, those four can rack up the innings so if the Sox can get some quality work out of newcomer JJ Putz in the eighth and Bobby Jenks in the ninth, they’re going to get some wins no matter how bad the offense is.

Speaking of the offense, what exactly is going on here? Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are all newcomers who will certainly have some impact on the team, but it s not going to be positive. Pierre will have the most opportunity to do some damage as he figures to slide into left and will certainly bat leadoff. He s a player only Ozzie could love. Jones and Vizquel are backups although it s not difficult to imagine Jones could get some playing time if Alex Rios can t rediscover his stroke.

Once upon a time, I had a man-crush on Rios. I really bought into the hype that he was going to be one of the best young outfielders in the game. Now? Not so much. That’s what back to back underwhelming seasons will get you at Royals Authority – no more respect. And since Rios was downright horrible last year after his move to the South Side (.199/.229/.301 in 154 plate appearances) he s the leading candidate for Ozzie Guillen s Dog House. How great would it be if Jones reports to camp fat and Rios continues to forget how to hit? Imagine the quote gold we’d get from Guillen. And that it would be happening to the White Sox would be a bonus.

Cleveland Indians

We’ve said it before, but it just has to suck to have surrendered CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee and gotten so little in return. Matt LaPorta will get an opportunity to start, as will Lou Marson, so it’s probably still a little early to completely trash the trades, but still… Quite a bummer for Indian fans.

There’s still hope for Cleveland fans that Grady Sizemore will bounce back and Shin-Soo Choo can build off his breakout year. And maybe Travis Hafner can hit 20 bombs. Although he hasn’t done that since 2007. They picked up Austin Kearns and Shelley Duncan on minor league deals, which I suppose could help at some point. Other than that, their big major league move was to sign Mike Redmond. In this case, big is a relative term.

But the pitching even with Lee for half the summer the Indians had the second worse staff in baseball. And now they tentatively have Jake Westbrook penciled in as their number one starter with Fausto Carmona as their number two. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer someone else at the top of the rotation other than a guy who hasn’t pitched in a year and a half after undergoing the Tommy John surgery. And with Kerry Wood at the back of the pen, this staff looks like it will once again flop to the bottom of the AL.

Oh, the Indians will likely have the lowest payroll in the division come Opening Day.

Detroit Tigers

The Verlander extension got a ton of ink, but that masks a simple fact about this team: They are extremely unbalanced with old players (Magglio Ordonez, Adam Everett, Brandon Inge) and newcomers (Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore are currently listed at the top of the Tigers depth chart in center and second, respectively.) That’s a potentially combustible mix.

I see some similarities with the Royals here: A lockdown top of the rotation ace (Verlander for the Tigers and Greinke for the Royals) and a big bat in his prime in the middle of the order (Miguel Cabrera and Billy Butler.) The Tiger veterans are a little better than the Royal veterans, but that just means they cost more.

Further, it will be interesting to see where Max Scherzer figures into the Tigers pitching mix. For now, he’s slated for the rotation but many feel his future lies in the bullpen. One thing is for sure, with Verlander and Scherzer in the rotation the Tigers will be making a ton of hitters look foolish. While Porcello doesn’t pile up the strikeouts, he is developing into a talent. Beyond that, there are a ton of question marks for the rest of the staff. For Tiger fans that’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins overhauled the middle of their infield by trading for JJ Hardy in November and then acquiring free agent Orlando Hudson just last week. Both players represent upgrades from the players they are replacing. Hardy is superior with the glove and is a prime candidate for an offensive rebound from his dismal 2009. He has 20 home run power, but before we project any power numbers, it will be interesting to see how the Twins new outdoor stadium plays. Hudson is solid with the glove, with better range to his left than back up the middle. Offensively, this is a huge win for the Twins. Last summer, their 2B hit a combined .209/.302/.267. Yuck. That s Royals designated hitter territory. (Memo to Dayton: Check on the availability of Matt Tolbert!) Hudson will have no problem improving upon that production.

Last year, the Twins had an extremely productive offense – one of the best in the league. Their 5 runs per game was the fourth best rate in the AL, behind the other three playoff teams. (Yankees, Angels and Red Sox were one, two and three respectively.) I suppose we can expect a little less from MVP Joe Mauer and the Twins still are going to give some at bats to Delmon Young. Still, you have to admit the Twins have improved their offense.

The big mystery is the aforementioned Target Field. Past years, the Twins held a distinct home field advantage and knew exactly how to tailor their club to the Metrodome. Now, it’s anyone s guess.

Quick Summary

The division still belongs to the Twins who were able to upgrade an already solid offense. The Sox could pose a threat with their rotation, but haven’t replaced the power they lost when Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome left as free agents. It feels like the Tigers are looking toward the future and the Indians are hoping a pitching staff cobbled together with spit and duct tape holds up.

The Royals haven’t done much to improve their team but it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where they finish third. That’s an optimistic, if everything goes right, best-case scenario finish.

So here’s my predicted order of finish in the Central. I ll revisit this about a week before the season starts and make changes as necessary before submitting my final selection just prior to Opening Day.

1. Twins
2. White Sox
3. Tigers
4. Royals
5. Indians

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