With a "magic number" of three, the Royals stand a good chance of clinching their first Central Division title this week, possibly in this series against the Mariners. The Royals confounded the PECOTA projection system this year, which pegged them at a 72-win, last place finish. Meanwhile, PECOTA projected the Mariners to win 87 games, good for second in the West behind the Angels. Instead, the Mariners have been well below .500 much of the year, costing General Manager Jack Zduriencik his job.
To be fair, it wasn't just the computers that liked the Mariners and didn't believe in the Royals. But the Mariners were plagued this year by the same problem that has plagued them for several seasons now - a punchless offense. Seattle's lineup had pieces that never seem to fit together and were hurt even further when All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano had a disastrous start to his season. Cano has come on in the second half, hitting .317/.374/.520 with 17 home runs in his last 81 games, but it has been too little, too late.
The Mariners have scored the fourth-fewest runs despite the fifth-most home runs in the league. Slugger Nelson Cruz has had a fine season, whacking 42 home runs, second in the league. Third baseman Kyle Seager has been a plus, as has outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, back after missing all of 2014 with gastrointestinal problems. Gutierrez has slugged 15 home runs in just 50 games, nearly matching a career high.
But the offense has had plenty of problems otherwise. The team is dead last in batting average with runners in scoring position at .232, striking out 23% of the time in those situations, most in the league. Collectively, Mariners catchers are hitting .157/.204/.260. In comparison, Giants pitchers are hitting .168/.187/.295 this season.
The team acquired slugger Mark Trumbo mid-season to jumpstart the offense, but it has come at the expense of defense. With lumbering defenders like Cruz and Logan Morrison already liabilities on the field, the Mariners did not have room for all the designated hitters. Accordingly, the Mariners have the worst Defensive Runs Saved in the league at -46.
The Mariners pitching staff led the league in ERA last year, but has fallen to twelfth this year. The Royals will miss ace Felix Hernandez in this series, who has been solid but plagued by a poor second half. Hisashi Iwakuma missed over two months with a lat strain and struggled in his return, but has been solid since the start of August with a 2.97 ERA over his last nine starts including a no-hitter on August 5. Iwakuma does not throw very hard but has been a reliable groundball pitcher with a plus split-fingered fastball.
The Royals knocked Cuban left-hander Roenis Elias for seven runs in less than four innings back in June. Elias has shuttled between the minors and Seattle this year, making a few relief appearances in his return, and will be making his first start since September 12, when he gave up two unearned runs in 5 1/3 innings against Colorado. Lefty James Paxton missed three months of action this year with a strained tendon in his finger and has yet to take on a full workload since returning. In his first two starts back, he has yet to complete five full innings.
Mariners relievers have the fourth-worst ERA in the league at 4.06 with the third-highest walk rate. The team designated closer Fernando Rodney for assignment back in August, eventually shipping him to the Cubs. Right-hander Carson Smith has had a fine season with 11.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings and a 2.53 ERA, but lost the closer's role to Tom Wilhelmsen after a few blown saves. Wilhelmsen has a 3.14 ERA this year and has converted all twelve of his save opportunities. The rest of the Mariners bullpen is a motley collection of unproven players or journeymen relievers, few of which have put up very good numbers this year.
The Royals took two of three from the Mariners in Seattle back in late June. The Mariners have been playing better ball of late, winning 12 of their 18 September contests, so the Royals cannot take them lightly. Kansas City has been struggling lately, but finishing strong can alleviate a lot of concerns. Perhaps clinching the division title and celebrating in front of their home fans will be the catalyst that drives the Royals towards another memorable October run.