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Three ways the Royals can improve the team right now

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Kansas City is cruising, but it can still improve easily.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Kansas City Royals sit at the top of the American League Central with an extremely comfortable lead. Consider this--if the Royals, starting tomorrow, would lose eight consecutive games, they would still be in the playoffs.  This is easily the most complete Royals team I've seen in my lifetime; the Royals have an ace, a balanced lineup with great defenders and solid offensive performers almost everywhere, and a deep, shutdown bullpen. This is a team that can both score and prevent runs.

Despite that, the Royals still have issues. It's easy to forget, but even the best baseball teams lose and lose all the time. If the Royals play at a .600 winning percentage, they will still lose 65 games-that's 65 days we all turned off the TV or went home sad. Really, when you think about it, 65 losses, 65 days is quite a bit: These are some things that happened in fewer than 65 days:

  • The entirety of July-August 2014
  • The German invasion of Poland in 1939
  • Watching the extend edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 390 times
  • The combined mission time of Apollo 7 through 13
  • Experiencing the Wild Card Game 328 times
  • The jaw-dropping awe of Ronda Rousey knocking out Bethe Correia--2,753 times
Needless to say, 65 games is quite a bit if considered outside of the 162 game context of the regular season. So, improvement is always possible. The best team does not always win the World Series, but the best team has the best chance to win the World Series, and that's the goal of this team.

In addition, the Royals currently have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. As the Royals are 34-18 at Kauffman Stadium and 28-24 on the road, that should be incentive enough to try and keep it. However, each of the Royals' likely foes in the playoffs have extreme home/road splits as well. The New York Yankees are 30-17 at home, the Baltimore Orioles are 32-20 at home, the Houston Astros are 38-18 at home. The Toronto Blue Jays, who just dropped the Royals three times out of four at the Rogers Center, are 32-21 in its turf confines. Winning home field advantage would allow Kansas City to begin each round of the playoffs at the K as well as the rubber game of the series, which is no small advantage.

So, improving is vital to the Royals, even though they are in a relatively cozy position. Here are three ways the Royals can easily do so.

Replace Alcides Escobar at leadoff with Lorenzo Cain

Ricky Henderson is the man who is most often referred to as the prototypical leadoff hitter. To old-school baseball guys, a leadoff hitter is a fast guy who is able to work the count, make contact, hit for average, get on base, and steal bases.

Escobar possesses a lot of these characteristics. But there's someone who's even better than Escobar at these things: Lorenzo Cain.

Here's a comparison of the leadoff-type stats that both players have accumulated this year:

Leadoff Stats, Escobar vs. Cain
Player AVG OBP Contact % Steals Pitches/PA
Alcides Escobar .279 .318 83.8 7 3.43
Lorenzo Cain .314 .371 83.0 19 3.78

Escobar and Cain have essentially the same ability to make contact. In every other stat, Cain is better than Escobar--significantly better. Cain does every single thing a leadoff hitter should do according to tradition. The only difference is that Cain also has power, and it is silly to penalize Cain for having an additional offensive tool.

I recognize Ned Yost doesn't understand sabermetrics and likely does not have any wish to attempt to do so, and therefore he does not comprehend that your best hitter, which is Lorenzo Cain, should hit most often. His reasoning is most likely that Cain is a 'run producer', aka a guy that is supposed to get RBIs and not necessarily set the table for other players.

But the Royals already have a bunch of 'run producers.' Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, Ben Zobrist, and Alex Gordon are all great for that. Replacing Escobar with Cain, allowing those other better players to bat ahead of Escobar, would not only be simple, but it would help immediately and cost nothing.

Get Salvador Perez more rest

Yes, this sounds counter-intuitive: Salvador Perez, the Royals' best catcher, should play less often? Absolutely.

Back in May, I wrote that Ned Yost was running Perez into the ground by playing him so often. In it I included this quote from a piece on the matter last December:

During his media session Monday at the MLB Winter Meetings, Yost praised Perez multiple times for his defensive and his bat, while also admitting that something needs to change next season.

"I can't catch Sal 150 games again," Yost said. "I can't. I'll kill the kid."

Perez caught the most games and most innings in MLB last season — 1,249 innings in 146 games. We're icing our knees just writing that.

And that was just the regular season. Perez caught another 141 innings in the postseason. Then he played in MLB's Japan Series not even two weeks after the World Series ended.

Last year, Perez caught 1,390 innings in 161 games and posted the worst offensive season of his career. This year? While Perez does not lead Major League Baseball in either games played or innings caught, he is on pace to catch 1,229 innings this year, only 20 fewer innings than last year's regular season.

No other catcher has caught more than 1,229 innings in a single season in the past five years. Perez is on pace to do that in two consecutive seasons. In fact, there are only two catchers who have shouldered that heavy of a workload in consecutive seasons in the past 20 years--Russell Martin and Jason Kendall.

I closed my piece with this:

It is in the Royals best interest if Perez remains a catcher for his career.  It is in Perez' best interest if he is able to use his knees past his 30s.  Ned Yost must stop using Perez as much as he is.  Perez is a great asset, but only if he is not consumed by the greed of constant winning.  While, yes, Drew Butera or Erik Kratz will be a downgrade and give the Royals a poorer chance to win should they play, the long-term consequences must be considered.  After all, baseball is a marathon.

On May 14, when I published this questioning of Perez's constant usage, Perez was hitting .282/.291/.420.

Since then, Perez has played 59 games and has hit .224/.241/.416. In his last 35 games, Perez is hitting .173/.193/.323. Perez needs time off, because he is an active detriment to the team if he is creating outs 80% of the time, regardless of his home run count. According to Fangraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement, 18 catchers have been more valuable than Perez this season. Yost needs to pump the brakes.

Use Ben Zobrist in a platoon with Omar Infante

Ben Zobrist is a really good baseball player. Zobrist is also a switch hitter and can play every position on the field. Omar Infante is a really bad baseball player. Infante bats right-handed and struggles against right-handed pitching.

Do you see what I see? WAY UP IN THE SKY...

Ahem.

Zobrist is a marked improvement over Paulo Orlando, which is why Orlando was sent down to Omaha. And since Jarrod Dyson is absolutely terrible against lefties, it makes perfect sense for Zobrist to play lots of left field in Alex Gordon's absence.

But what also makes perfect sense is if Zobrist played second base, hitting from the left, versus righties with Jarrod Dyson in left field. That maximizes Dyson's value, as he's only really a viable starter versus righties, and minimizes the negative impact that Infante wreaks. Infante is hitting .228/.241/.315. That should be unplayable for a team with championship aspirations. Of course, in a perfect situation, the Royals would have released Infante already, but that's something for another day.