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Royals series preview: The Houston Astros

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It’s not getting any easier

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Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros
Down low
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

With both teams entering action this weekend with starts dramatically different than each enjoyed in 2016, the Kansas City Royals head to Minute Maid Park to face the American League West leading Houston Astros. No one needs reminding how terribly the Royals’ season has started, but the Astros have opened the season 3-1, the exact opposite of the 1-3 mark with which they opened last year en route to a dismal 17-28 start which buried their playoff hopes.

A popular choice to win the West, the Astros are loaded with high-ceiling talent and would pose an issue for the Royals regardless of whether they were coming into the series reeling, as they undoubtedly are after getting properly shellacked by the Twins. As it stands, the Royals stand 0-3 with an uphill battle in front of them this weekend.

The starting pitchers in each game will be:

  • Friday, 4/7, 7:10 PM CDT - Jason Vargas (LHP) vs. Mike Fiers (RHP)
  • Saturday, 4/8, 6:10 PM CDT - Danny Duffy (LHP) vs. Dallas Keuchel (LHP)
  • Sunday, 4/9, 1:10 PM CDT - Nathan Karns (RHP) vs. Lance McCullers Jr. (RHP)

Royals at Astros pitching matchups

Pitcher G IP K K% BB BB% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR rWAR
Pitcher G IP K K% BB BB% ERA FIP xFIP SIERA fWAR rWAR
Jason Vargas 3 12.0 11 23.4 3 6.4 2.25 3.15 4.28 3.96 0.3 0.5
Mike Fiers 31 168.2 134 18.5 42 5.8 4.48 4.43 4.12 4.26 1.8 0.3
Danny Duffy 42 179.2 188 25.7 42 5.8 3.51 3.83 3.79 3.53 2.8 4.1
Dallas Keuchel 26 168.0 144 20.5 48 6.9 4.55 3.87 3.53 3.77 2.7 0.5
Nathan Karns 22 94.1 101 24.2 45 10.8 5.15 4.05 4.23 4.23 1.2 0.2
Lance McCullers Jr. 14 81.0 106 30.1 45 12.8 3.22 3.00 3.06 3.68 2.1 1.6

Who knows what Jason Vargas will be this year? Dayton Moore and the Royals have to be hoping that he’s a solid number-four starter. Mike Fiers was a perfectly serviceable option for the back end of the bullpen last year. His K-rate took a nosedive last year, and his BABIP jumped .030 from where it had been in 2016, while his quality of contact didn’t see a marked difference. His struggles seemed to be connected to his fastball, which didn’t lose velocity but lost pitch value as he had to start moving away from it more and more in favor of his changeup and curve and then newly reintroduced slider.

Danny Duffy faces off against Dallas Keuchel, who hopes to rekindle the magic of his 2015 AL Cy Young winning season. Judging by his pitch selection in his first start, it looks like (as noted in the aforelinked Jonah Pemstein article) is doubling down on trying to induce grounders, all but scrapping his four-seamer in favor of a heavier reliance upon his cambio.

Offseason acquisition Nathan Karns will face off against the positively filthy Lance McCullers Jr. Karns lives off of his plus fastball and plus curve, but his changeup is a work in progress. Of bigger concern was his high walk rate, an issue it seems the Royals will be dealing with from all of their pitchers. McCullers’s four-seam fastball and curve are world-beaters, and he’s of the Rich Hill School of Curve Tossing, throwing it more than his fastball. His splitter doesn’t have much difference in velocity from his four-seamer, though it drops about four inches more, and his change isn’t anything to write home about. Still, his raw stuff has the Astros, their fans, and fantasy owners alike wondering if McCullers is an ace in the making.

Bullpen

After some serious struggles early in 2016, Ken Giles looks to have gotten his mojo back. Reinserted into the closer’s role, Giles is filthy, but he’s far from the only Astro reliever peddling filth. Will Harris, Chris Devenski, Luke Gregerson, and Michael Feliz are all rock solid. Tony Sipp, former prospect Brad Peacock, and former flame-throwing Royals Rule 5 pick Jandel Gustave round out the rest of the pen for A.J. Hinch’s Astros.

Position players

Catcher

Gone is Jason Castro. Enter Brian McCann. McCann hates fun. Let’s punish him by not talking about him. Evan Gattis is the backup catcher and will likely see some time at designated hitter, though the days of Gattis in the outfield are probably a thing of the past. Gattis has mammoth power, but his rough work behind the plate makes him an offense-first “catcher” whose skills are probably better suited for designated hitter if he were a slightly better hitter.

First Base

After suffering through a 2016 in which neither of their first base prospects (A.J. Reed and Tyler White) panned out forcing them to give a lot of playing time at first to utility infielder Marwin González, Gonzalez shifts back into a bench role, ceding the job to last year’s Cuban signee Yulieski Gurriel. With only 150 plate appearances under his belt and a quick jaunt through the minors, Gurriel is a huge question mark, but his moving across the diamond from third, his natural position, should at least mean that they’re getting good defense from their de facto first baseman.

Second Base

A four-time All-Star, José Altuve is a pint-sized dynamo. The shortest player in the league, he added power to an already outstanding package. For three straight seasons, he’s been worth at least 4.5 fWAR, two of those seasons seeing him win batting titles. The difference between Altuve and a Royals second baseman could not be more stark.

Shortstop

As if the Astros’ middle infield needed any help looking better than the Royals’ after the keystone, Carlos Correa looks like and plays the part of young superstar. 449-foot dongs? He hits those. In 255 games heading into this season, he’d already been worth 8.3 fWAR. A former first overall pick of the draft, he destroyed the minors and instantly asserted himself as a force to be reckoned with upon getting called up as a 20-year-old. Now 22, the sky is the limit for Correa.

Third Base

A true shortstop moved off of his natural position thanks to Correa’s superb package, Alex Bregman will get his first shot at a full season in the majors. A high-floor, high ceiling talent himself, Bregman highlights Houston’s embarrassment of riches. As a rookie last year, he started his major-league career mired in a 1-32 slump, yet finished the season with a .336 wOBA and a 112 wRC+. His K-rate leapt to 24.0% in the bigs, where it had never been above 14.5% at any minor-league stop, so the odds of improvement as he further acclimates himself to the bigs are decent.

Outfield

Going from left to right, the Astros outfield features old friend Nori Aoki, George Springer, and Josh Reddick with Jake Marisnick serving as the late-inning defensive replacement. Aoki is a laugh riot. Springer has quietly become a bona fide star, worth 10.3 fWAR in his 345-game career, highlighted by a 3.8 fWAR 102-game 2015 and a 4.5 fWAR 162-game 2016. Signed to a four-year, $52MM deal in the offseason, Reddick would probably be best used as a platoon outfielder, limiting his exposure to lefties. With Duffy and (to a much lesser degree) Vargas pitching, Reddick could see limited time this series. Marisnick’s bat never really developed from his days as a highly touted prospect, but his defense will keep him in the mix for the foreseeable future as a fourth outfielder for anyone needing one.

Designated Hitter

Signed to a one-year, $16MM deal in the offseason, Carlos Beltrán will somehow get a little playing time in the outfield, too. Beltran is riding two straight productive years with his work at the plate counterbalancing some pretty bad defensive play to see him worth 2.0 and 2.3 fWAR in 2015 and 2016. While one could argue the addition may have been unnecessary, he does afford them even more flexibility and depth.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

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Poll

How will the Royals fare against the Astros?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Get swept
    (75 votes)
  • 42%
    Lose two games to one
    (102 votes)
  • 20%
    Take two of three
    (49 votes)
  • 5%
    Sweep the ‘Stros
    (13 votes)
239 votes total Vote Now