The Royals are officially on the national consciousness already having been blessed by Sports Illustrated. Now the World Wide Leader is coming to town to broadcast Sunday's Royals-Indians game. I was lucky enough to get to chat with ESPN commentator Dan Shulman to discuss the Royals and preview the game on Sunday.
RR: The Royals have been a feel-good story in the league, but what is the national perspective on what kind of threat they can be down the stretch?
Shulman: I think people are looking at them very seriously. I think the biggest thing people think about to be honest with you is how long it's been since they made the playoffs. As you know they have the longest drought in baseball since 1985, so that's a big part of the story.
I think people until this last few weeks looked at them as a very streaking, inconsistent team. People wondered when the group of young hitters, the nucleus, when they would all take a step forward and become more consistent and we didn't see that happen in the first half of the season. But now they're one of the best stories and one of the hottest teams in baseball. The offense has been better, the rotation is good, the back-end of the bullpen have been as good as it gets in baseball, I think people know they have a very athletic team, a strong defensive team. This is just my opinion, but when I grew up the Royals were one of the marquee franchises in baseball and I like to see a team that hasn't had success in a while to have success. Its good for the fans, good for the city, and I think good for the sport.
RR: Dayton Moore built this team on pitching and defense, while the offense has been inconsistent. Is that a formula you think can succeed when it comes to post-season action or does this offense really have to step it up if they want to be serious contenders?
Shulman: I don't think they have to be great, they have to be good. Mike Moustakas is better now than he was at the beginning of the season. Billy Butler is better now than he was at the beginning of the season. Getting Eric Hosmer back would be a key to them. I think the formula for Kansas City is to have good starting pitching, turn the ball over with a lead to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, and hope you have one more run than the other guy. This team can win games 3-2 and 4-3, so I think the offense has to contribute but the strength of this team is pitching and defense.
RR: The front-runner before the season was the Tigers, and when they acquired David Price, people thought they would run away with the division. That hasn't played out, so what has been their problem and are they still a sleeping giant?
Shulman: Its a good question. I think we're past the point to say "sleeping giant." I think they've had a bit of a disappointing season. Their bullpen looked like it might be a concern at the beginning of the year, and it has been a concern for a lot of the season for the Tigers. Anibal Sanchez is now on the disabled list, Justin Verlander is battling a shoulder injury and hasn't been the Verlander we've seen in recent years. Even with David Price, who got knocked around badly his last time out, even the starting pitching hasn't been as good as they would have hoped, and the bullpen hasn't been as good as they hoped it would be. Offensively, they're a very good offensive team, but I don't think they're head-and-shoulders above everybody else offensively. I think they've got the potential to be very, very good, but the longer this goes on, the more you think they might not reach the heights they hoped they might reach.
RR: One of the best stories in Kansas City this summer has been Alex Gordon. He has really worked hard to become of the better left-fielders in baseball and this year there has been talk of him as a dark-horse MVP candidate. Its probably Mike Trout's to lose at this point but what is the perspective of Alex Gordon nationally and how do you think he'll show in MVP-balloting this year?
Shulman: I think everybody knows he's a great left-fielder. I think he's won three Gold Gloves in a row, if you look at some of the newer defensive stats like Defensive Runs Saved and so on, he rates really high, as high as anybody. He's a very productive offensive player, he hits for a decent amount of power, he hits doubles, he's a very good player, a very, very good all-around player.
When I think of an "MVP candidate", to me that means a guy that has a chance to win the award. I don't think he has a chance to win the award. I think he has a chance to finish fourth/fifth/sixth. In terms of winning the award, if you look at Mike Trout, he has a team that is definitely going to the playoffs, and you compare him to Alex Gordon, good as Gordon is, Trout's the better ballplayer. Trout has more home runs, more RBI, more stolen bases, I think it is Trout's award to lose. So I'm not sure I would use the word "candidate", but I think when its all said and done, if Kansas City makes the playoffs, I think Gordon has a chance to finish fourth/fith/sixth.
RR: Salvador Perez has made a couple of All-Star teams and started this year, but is he still an underrated player throughout the league or are teams aware of how good he is now?
Shulman: I think opposing teams, players, and coaches know how good he is. I'm not sure the general public knows how good he is, and that's one of the things we want to talk about this weekend. He's been an All-Star, he's won a Gold Glove, he threw a guy out from his knees the other night. When you watch the local Kansas City telecast, the announcers rave about him and how good he is. But I think he's still under-appreciated nationally, and I think he's a big, big reason why they're doing as well as they are. I think Gordon and Hosmer and even Butler are better known than Perez, and I think Salvador Perez needs to be mentioned as much as those guys. He's having a terrific year, so we're going to try to get his name out there a little bit.
RR: Its been a unique season in that there has not been a team that stands out as a clear favorite. Is there a team in either league you think can break away from the pack and establish themselves as a favorite heading into October?
Shulman: I think Washington is the best team in the National League. I think they have the highest upside of any team in the National League, including the Dodgers. Those teams are starting a series next week in Los Angeles. But I think Washington has the most upside. They had some injuries in the first half of the year, but relatively speaking they are healthy now. If they put it all together, they're the team to beat in the National League.
In terms of the American League, I still look at Oakland and the Angels and I think those are the two best teams. Both have suffered a hit with Garrett Richards with the Angels and Sean Doolittle of the Athletics getting hurt, but I still think those are two terrific teams.
I think Seattle with their pitching is really, really dangerous. I think Kansas City at its best, can play with them. But as you know, until the last month or so, they've been an up-and-down team, so I think it will be interesting to see the Royals in September. They haven't been in the playoffs. They were in the race last season, but couldn't finish it off. I want to see how they do against the Tigers in a couple series in September. I think the toughest games to win are at the end of the season when the playoffs are on the line. I'm really curious to see how Kansas City responds.
RR: Are there any storylines for Sunday's game you'd like to preview? What will you be looking for in the Indians-Royals game on Sunday?
Shulman: With respect to the Royals, we want to talk about defense. I think defense doesn't get discussed enough. I think pitching and hitting dominate the conversation and Kansas City his a very good defensive team. They have all kinds of range in the outfield, a very good shortstop, a very good catcher, they have a lot of plus defenders.
Its been a number of years since we've been, but we want to talk about how nice the stadium is. It doesn't show up on national television that often, but we want to talk about the ballpark, how beautiful it is, and the great tradition as you go back to the mid-to-late 70s all the way to the 80s with the championship in 1985.
In terms of the Indians, they made a late run last year and took a Wild Card spot. They won 92 games last year and had a heck of a season. So while although they're five, six games out right now, I don't think we want to count them out. I think we want to make sure we're cognizant of the fact that both of these teams have hopes for October.
Royals Review would like to thank Dan Shulman for his time and to ESPN for broadcasting the game on Sunday. You can catch Shulman, John Kruk, and Buster Olney as they broadcast the Kansas City Royals vs. Cleveland Indians on Sunday, August 31 at 7 CT on ESPN.