The Royals will roll into September with a large lead in the division, a playoff spot virtually guaranteed, and with the best record in the league, just like everyone predicted. Barring a large collapse, the Royals will have little to play for in September, but there will still be reasons to tune in. Here are a few of the storylines.
The return of Alex Gordon
Alex Gordon returns this week, most likely as soon as tomorrow. Gordon looked impressive in his rehab stint in Omaha, hitting .429/.568/.607 in 37 plate appearances and his body seemed to respond well to playing left-field. Manager Ned Yost says he will ease Gordon back into the lineup, playing him 4-5 times a week, and with a large lead, the Royals can afford to be overly cautious. The first time Alex Gordon runs after a fly ball in the corner, Royals fans everywhere will hold their breath.
What will be interesting to see is where in the lineup Ned decides to bat Alex Gordon. Since Gordon has been out with injury, the Royals have acquired Ben Zobrist as the #2 hitter in the lineup, bumping Mike Moustakas to sixth. With Zobrist hitting well the last month and Moustakas catching fire the last two weeks, it seems unlikely either of them will be asked to move down to seventh. Alex Gordon may initially start off hitting that low just to ease him back, but once he's back to his old self it should be pretty clear he should hit near the top of the lineup with the slumping Alcides Escobar bumped to the bottom.
Sorting out the rotation
The Royals will have Johnny Cueto to start Game One of a post-season series, with Edinson Volquez firmly in the October rotation as well. After that the rotation is a bit of a question mark. Yordano Ventura appears to have solidified a rotation spot with a 5-0 record and a 3.07 ERA over his last seven starts. However inconsistency or a lack of composure could jeopardize that spot.
The fourth and final spot will likely come down to Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen. Medlen is still ramping up to a full starting pitching load, but if he proves able to handle a 100 pitch game, he could have the inside track. Duffy has a 3.03 ERA over his last ten starts, but has shown some trouble going deep in games, and with the right-handed heavy Blue Jays looming in October, Duffy may instead be stashed in the pen.
Who will play right field?
Ned Yost has indicated that when Gordon returns, Ben Zobrist will see most of his action at second base, putting Omar Infante on the bench. That still leaves right-field up in the air, with Alex Rios, Jarrod Dyson, and Paulo Orlando as options. Rios, who has been terrible overall this season, has been better lately, hitting .424 in his last nine games and a respectable .281/.319/.382 since the start of July. Dyson has also been hot lately, and has been more valuable overall this season both at the plate and in the field. Paulo Orlando has been a surprising sparkplug, but is probably destined for a bench role in October. Ned Yost still has to figure out how to dole out playing time in right field, and he can use September as an audition period.
Greg Holland has been a bit shaky lately, allowing 11 runs over his last 17 innings. with three blown saves since the start of July. Opponents are .339/.422/.500 since the break, the 17th highest OPS-against among relievers in the second half. His velocity has been down and he has been battling elbow stiffness, but some of his poor second half can be due to a .455 BABIP since the All-Star break, fourth-highest among all relievers. Ned Yost will have to determine if he can continue to depend on his former All-Star reliever, or if he needs to shake up the famed "H-D-H' trio.
Wade Davis has experienced back issues in the second half and Ryan Madson is experiencing a "dead arm", making it imperative the Royals rest them in September. The Royals also need to see if Luke Hochevar can pitch on back-to-back nights after recovering from Tommy John surgery. They will also need to determine if Chris Young and Jeremy Guthrie are useful enough in the bullpen to carry on a post-season roster.
With such a large lead and little to play for, the Royals have the luxury of resting many of their regulars to keep them fresh for the playoffs. Catcher Salvador Perez clearly wore down at the end of last season, making it important the Royals keep him rested and healthy this October. Last year Salvy appeared in 150 games, catching 1,248 innings. This year he is on pace to play in 141 games and is on pace to catch 1,191 innings. Expect Salvy to get more rest down the stretch.
The worry is the team might get rusty or complacent with little to play for in September. The Royals have just six games against the Twins and the makeup game in Wrigley Field against the Cubs as their only games left against teams with winning records. The Royals will have to go from playing meaningless games against bad teams in September to turning it back on to face the best in October. Ned Yost will have to find a delicate balance between keeping them team rested and keeping them fresh.
Shaun Newkirk has recently reviewed some of the potential September callups, who could include speedster Terrance Gore, infielder Christian Colon, former first-round pick Kyle Zimmer, and promising young pitcher Miguel Almonte. Any of these players that were on the 40-man roster as of August 31 will be eligible to be included on the post-season roster, so the Royals will want to take a good look to see if anyone can help come October.
Terrance Gore is almost certain to be included as a designated pinch-runner, but the Royals may want to take a close look at Kyle Zimmer. The right-handed Zimmer has excelled since returning from injury this season, and could be a useful bullpen arm much like Brandon Finnegan was last October.
Clinching the division
The way things are going, the Royals are likely to clinch their first-ever Central Division title during their mid-September road trip that takes them to Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. It is a title that has been a long time coming, and the entire organization and fan base should celebrate. Even though there is still much more work to be done, their incredible regular season should be applauded. If there was any way you could top last year's amazing October run, it would be by having an incredibly dominating regular season topped by a championship. And the Royals are well on their way to achieving the first part. For the second part, you'll have to wait til October.