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Series Preview: Royals vs. Twins, 4/12-4/13

Don’t look now, but the Royals have won two of their first three series and split the third.  They trail Cleveland for first place in the AL Central, and while it’s still early, what the heck, it’s been a lot of fun to watch.

The Royals look to take another series in this young season, traveling to Target Field to take on the despised Minnesota Twins.  Is it me, or are the Twins kind of like the haughty, arrogant characters often played by Greg Kinnear or Ted McGinley (who, coincidentally played a pompous manager of the same Twins in Major League: Back to the Minors) in almost every film or television role they get?  They walk in with their pitchers who don’t walk people and hitters who move runners over and solid defense.

Pssh.  Twins.  I say bring ‘em on!

To be honest, I’m mildly terrified of this starting rotation.  I feel like it might fall apart at any moment, and a Twins series is usually when these things happen.  Hopefully, Jeff Francis can keep his momentum going and Kyle Davies can figure something out.

The Royals should have opportunities – Brian Duensing isn’t exactly a world-beater, and Francisco Liriano is having command issues.  The newfound approach at the plate could net the Royals more walks than they usually seem to get against the Twins and more baserunners means more scoring chances.  It’s just up to the Royals to come through.

Some solid pitching wouldn’t hurt either.

In the spirit of providing a balanced preview of the series, so my second-place-Royals-homerism doesn’t run rampant, Wally Fish, Senior Editor at Puckett’s Pond and I are collaborating on this preview.  He was my predecessor here at Kings of Kauffman, so he’s one of the good Twins fans.  (He grew up in Minnesota – let’s cut him a bit of slack.  But just a bit.)

Kansas City Royals:

2011 Regular Season Record: 6-3, t-2nd in the AL Central (1.0 GB)
49 Runs Scored (5th in the AL) / 45 Runs Allowed (9th in the AL)

Minnesota Twins:

2011 Regular Season Record: 3-6, 4th in the AL Central (4.0 GB)
24 Runs Scored (13th in the AL) / 41 Runs Allowed (7th in the AL)

Pitching Matchups

April 12th (8:10 pm EDT): LHP-Jeff Francis (0-0, 1.98 ERA) vs LHP-Brian Duensing (0-0, 5.14 ERA)

Francis has looked every bit like the first round pick the Rockies took in 2002. In two starts, he’s been a bit unlucky, as he gave up a homer to the second batter he faced in 2011 but otherwise held the Angels scoreless. The Royals only scored one run themselves until the bottom of the ninth. In Francis’s second start, he left with the lead only to watch Joakim Soria inexplicably blow a three run lead and the save. The Royals benefit by throwing a lefty atJustin Morneau and Joe Mauer in the first game of the series. As for the rest of 2011, if Francis can stay healthy (shoulder issues and surgery have stolen most of his last three seasons), he could be the bargain signing of the offseason ($2 million).

It may not look like it if you stop at his 5.14 ERA, but Duensing’s first start of the season was solid. He allowed 4 earned runs but only 6 hits (2 of them HR) and 2 walks while striking out 7. After giving up 3 runs in the 1st and another run in the 2nd, Duensing allowed just 2 singles and no runs his last 5 innings. It’s even more encouraging that he pulled that off against the vaunted Yankees lineup. While Brian didn’t factor in the decision, he kept his team in the game and the Twins eventually came back to win 5-4 in 10 innings. Against the Royals, Duensing has a 3.33 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 2.83 SO/BB in 27.0 innings.

April 13th (1:10 pm EDT): RHP-Kyle Davies (0-1, 9.00 ERA) vs LHP-Francisco Liriano (0-2, 7.71 ERA)

Davies looked fine for the first five innings of his first start on April 2. The problem, as is usually the case with the former Brave, is that he doesn’t make it much past that point. On Saturday against the Angels, he gave up two hits and a walk while surrendering three runs in the sixth inning. On Wednesday, the Tigers jumped on him right away, taking advantage of two walks to get the bases loaded, then watching the bases clear on a Victor Martinez double. He walked five and gave up six hits in 3.2 innings. Maybe some day he’ll figure things out.

On Friday, Adam took a look at the PitchFx data to see if there was something in the numbers that reflects Liriano’s struggles this season. For the most part I’m of the belief that it’s just sample size, but there is no question that he’s fighting his control. His current 7.7 BB/9 is almost double his worst single season mark and well above his career 3.3 BB/9. Not only is he fighting with his ability to throw strikes, when he gets in in the zone  he’s still not hitting his spots the way he needs to be. It’s an issue of both command and control. His slider, which has always been his money pitch, has been slightly below average – according to PTLWs (pitch type linear weights) – for the first time in his career. Hopefully this is the game that helps him “find himself” and things are set up for him to do that. He’s been much better in his career at home (3.05 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 4.25 SO/BB) than he has on the road (4.99 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 2.15 SO/BB. Liriano has a 3.83 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 3.31 SO/BB in 49.1 innings against Kansas City in his career.

Who’s Hot

Kansas City Royals:

Billy Butler is 13 for his first 33 and leads the team with 7 walks. He’s been robbed of at least two hits that were lasers, just hit right at someone. He’s hitting everything hard and seeing the ball well, as usual. Alex Gordon is teasing Royals fans by opening the year leading the league in hits and scoring nine runs. He’s 15 for 42 to open up and has three outfield assists as well. Chris Getz may be the leadoff hitter for a while (see below) as he’s walked in three straight games in that role and is off to a 10-29 start.

Minnesota Twins:

The Twins have just one player on the roster with an OPS+ over 100 (league average). That player is Denard Span, so he’s who is hot by default on the offensive side of things.

Joe Nathan gave up a run in the bottom of the 9th on April 3rd against the Blue Jays but the Twins held on to win. Since that game, Minnesota’s bullpen has given up just 1 earned run in 16.0 innings of work.

Who’s Not

Kansas City Royals:

Mike Aviles is 3 for his first 26. He’s left 14 on base. He’s committed three errors.

Kila Ka’aihue hit a walkoff homer in the second game of the year but otherwise, he’s struck out 13 times in 34 at bats and will see a steady diet of slow curveballs until he adjusts.

Minnesota Twins:

The entire offense which apparently hasn’t left Fort Myers. As a team they are hitting 0.214/.266/.288 which ranks them 13th in the AL in all 3 slash stats. They are also dead last in the AL in HR, SB and BB. For an offensive “highlight” on this team you have to turn to doubles, where they rank 10th in the AL.

Injury Update

Kansas City Royals:

15-Day DL: C-Jason Kendall (Right shoulder surgery)

60-Day DL: RHP-Henry Barrera

Minnesota Twins:

15-Day DL: 2B-Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Fractured left fibula), RHP-Kevin Slowey (Shoulder strain)

3 on 3 Questions

Royals Questions:

Wally: After a very forgettable debut season in the minors last year, Aaron Crow has been nothing short of brilliant coming out of the Royals bullpen. Do you believe the organization should keep him in the bullpen long term or transition him back to a starter at some point in the future?

Michael: First, I was surprised Crow started above Double A, much less opening up in the majors. As a two time first round pick, though, it’s time to put up, and he performed in spring. I’m of the mindset that if a pitcher can hold up over 200 innings, they should start. He’s more valuable as a starter, but for now, in the bullpen, his stuff is filthy. He’s mixing his pitches well, hitting 96-97 with ease, and his slider is a force. Considering the Royals have big arms in the minors to work the bullpen (or already up, guys like Jeremy JeffressTim Collins, and minor leaguers Patrick Keating and Louis Coleman), they’d be silly to keep him in a long-term bullpen role. Crow’s worked more than one inning in every appearance, so my hunch is the Royals see him as a starter in the big picture.

W: It’s only been 9 games, but Alex Gordon looks to be a completely different player in 2011. After 4 underwhelming seasons, Is this the year that Gordon finally becomes the player that looked destined for superstardom when he was drafted or is his hot start just a mirage?

M: Aside from “when will Mike Moustakas come up?” this is the biggest question of the early season. I may be tempting fate, but after years of hearing the same thing, it seems like this year is the year where Gordon has finally listened to instruction and made adjustments. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer reconstructed his swing in the offseason and he’s staying back a lot better so far. Even against lefties, Gordon’s staying back and driving the ball. In general, he just looks better at the plate. He’s always been good for an above average walkrate, so that should help him maintain success. He’s made all the plays in the outfield so far as well.

W: Just how long can the Royals keep running Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies out there every 5 days?

M: I’m about tired of the Kyle Davies circus. The only problem is the Royals don’t really have any other options right now. If they intended on replacing him with any of the minor league starters, they may as well have brought them north from Arizona in March. The next option would be Sean O’Sullivan, and for as much as I dislike Davies, I may dislike O’Sullivan more. Davies, from time to time, has at least had quality starts.

Hochevar gets a bit of a bad rap. If he could keep his focus for every batter of every inning, he’d be a solid #3 on many teams. This being the Royals, he’s the ace. Still, through 18.2 IP, he’s walked just 2 which is a good thing. He’s throwing strikes and trusting the defense to make the plays for him. In 2011, he has a 2/1 GB/FB ratio. That’s about the best we can hope for.

Twins Questions:

M: Is Joe Nathan going to hold up, or should Matt Capps get ready in case there are complications from his elbow injuries of the past?

W: Prior to needing Tommy John Surgery last spring, Nathan had thrown at least 68.1 innings every season since 2003 – which was his first full season as a reliever for the Giants. Since pitchers typically return to action with a stronger elbow ligament after TJS and given that relievers tend to recover more quickly, I don’t believe there is any reason to question whether or not Nathan will be able to hold up any more than any other major league pitcher. That said, Matt Capps is possibly the best “backup” closer in all of baseball. He offers the Twins a great deal of insurance in the event that Nathan gets hurt again.

M: What’s the deal with Francisco Liriano?

W: Location, location, location. It’s all a matter of command and control. Well, that and a small sample size. Two bad starts is not something to freak out about. If they happened in the middle of the season, it wouldn’t be generating much buzz or concern, but since these 2 starts have come back to back right out of the gate it has people more on edge. Personally, I’m not worried and he is without question the 2nd best pitcher in the division. His velocity is down just a tad from 2010 but the numbers are in line with some of his previous seasons so I don’t believe there is any cause for concern from that perspective either.

M: While the White Sox signed Adam Dunn for the offense and Jesse Crain for the bullpen and the Tigers brought in Victor Martinez, Brad Penny and Joaquin Benoit, the Twins stood relatively pat, signing Tsuyoshi Nishioka out of Japan but otherwise making no big splash in free agency. Will they regret that later this summer, or do they have enough right now to win the Central?

W: They stood pat this offseason but got better at the same time. The return of a healthy Joe Nathan and Justin Morneau trumps anything the other teams in the division did. Nathan also helps buoy the rebuilt bullpen, but beyond that Jose Mijares and Glen Perkins are healthy this season and the team will have Matt Capps at their disposal for the entire year. Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn are also healthy to start this season after both pitched through pain much of last season. Beyond all of that, unlike the White Sox and Tigers, the Twins have depth and reinforcements available in the minor league system which will help them win the division yet again when all is said and done.

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Tags: Aaron Crow AL Central Alex Gordon Baseball Billy Butler Chris Getz Francisco Liriano Jeff Francis Joe Mauer Justin Morneau Kansas City Royals KC Kila Kaaihue Kyle Davies Mike Aviles MLB Royals

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