Buster Olney: Kansas City Royals

Where Shields may still fit 

February, 1, 2015
Feb 1
ShieldsKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAt one point, it was thought that James Shields would land a nine-figure deal this offseason.
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it’s apparent that James Shields reached the zenith of his negotiation leverage on the night of Dec. 9. That was the night when Jon Lester finalized his decision to go to the Chicago Cubs, and the San Francisco Giants and other teams faced the reality that they needed a Plan B.

Shields was in a good spot in that moment, it seemed, because unlike Cole Hamels, he wouldn’t require a trade investment of prospects, and unlike Max Scherzer, he wouldn’t require the equivalent of a Defense Department budget to sign. Whatever cards Shields held at that time were probably the best he has seen all winter.

But that leverage is now gone, and Shields is in the worst possible spot of any free agent, when most teams are finished spending for the winter and more readily identify reasons to dismiss an available player. In Shields' case, the loudest concerns are about his age (33), his heavy workloads (eight straight seasons of 203 or more innings pitched), his need for a ballpark that forgives his tendency to surrender fly balls to left-center field; his home games have been in the pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field and Kauffmann Stadium, and he has a career ERA of 5.42 in Fenway Park.

The longer a premium free agent like Shields remains unsigned, the more his negotiating strategy and leverage position gets picked apart. As we move into February, some executives have become convinced that while Shields was an interesting alternative on Dec. 9, he is now hurt by looming market alternatives.

“If you’re in a position where you’ve got money to spend, would you rather jump at Shields, or wait?”

Does Scherzer improve MLB’s top team? 

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
Max Scherzer and Jordan ZimmermannGetty ImagesMax Scherzer will join an already-formidable rotation anchored by Jordan Zimmermann.
The Washington Nationals have agreed to a seven-year contract with Max Scherzer for a reported $210 million, half of it deferred -- Scherzer reportedly will receive $15 million annually for 14 years -- the most ever spent on a free-agent pitcher, the most ever paid out to a right-handed pitcher and the second-most dollars doled out for any pitcher, with the deal slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw's and ahead of Felix Hernandez's.

With that kind of payout, the Nationals can reasonably expect a marked upgrade in 2015, yes?

Well … not really.

Scherzer is an outstanding pitcher who has 492 strikeouts in his past 434 2/3 innings, and perhaps he'll be the guy who pushes the Nationals to a place they haven't gone before, the World Series.

But if Washington had maintained the status quo with its rotation -- arguably the best in the majors as it was -- the Nationals probably would've had an excellent chance to get to the postseason again. Here is the WAR (wins above replacement) for each member of the Nats' rotation in 2014:

Jordan Zimmermann 4.9
Doug Fister 4.5
Stephen Strasburg 3.5
Gio Gonzalez 2.3
Tanner Roark 5.1

That's a tremendous group, reflected in its cumulative 20.3 WAR, and there really is no reason to think that quintet wouldn't do something close to that in 2015, or maybe even better. Fister, who turns 31 in a couple of weeks, is the oldest of the group, and seems to be getting better and better. Gonzalez is 29, Roark is 28, Zimmermann is 28 and Strasburg is 26.

But the Nationals appear poised to break up the band.

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Christian Yelich, Marcel Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton Getty ImagesChristian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton are 23, 24 and 25 years old, respectively.
Giancarlo Stanton got a lot of attention in 2014 for his record-setting contract, for leading the National League in homers, and for that frightening moment when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. All of that obscured Stanton's improvement as a player defensively, just one more reason why he and teammates Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna make up the No. 1 outfield combination in the majors.

With that, here's Part VI of the team element rankings: The top 10 outfields, based on the thoughts of MLB evaluators:

1. Miami Marlins

The Marlins' trio of Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna is incredibly young, and while colleague Jonah Keri might consider this blasphemous, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether these guys might eventually compare favorably with some of the trios that the Montreal Expos fielded through their extraordinary history of outfielders, such as the trio of Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine (or Warren Cromartie), or the Moises Alou/Marquis Grissom/Larry Walker set. Stanton appears destined to be remembered as one of Major League Baseball's great power hitters, Yelich's career is off to an excellent start, and the other day, ESPN Insider Tony Blengino explained why Ozuna looks ready to break out.

Opposing pitchers already worked carefully to Stanton -- especially lefties, given his 1.000-plus OPS against them -- but this probably will be the season he starts to get a steady dose of the Barry Bonds treatment, as Andrew McCutchen and Freddie Freeman did last season. Stanton had 94 walks last season, and a rival scout mentioned the other day that it's a wonder he didn't have a lot more than that.

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Royals No. 1 in MLB team defense ranks 

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Kansas City RoyalsJamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe formidable OF trio of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain sets the tone for the Royals' D.
More and more, the use of defensive shifts is impacting the play of individuals. Last summer, there might not have been a better example than Jhonny Peralta. If a coach stood at the plate and mashed ground balls at Peralta and some of his peers, Peralta might be among the least impressive, lacking the range or the arm strength of someone like Andrelton Simmons.

But the Cardinals bought into the use of shifts last season, and Peralta, who was regarded as so limited in range at shortstop that the Tigers replaced him, finished third in Defensive Runs Saved. Some of the Pirates' defenders might be dressed up in a similar way by Pittsburgh's advanced use of shifts.

That's a factor in Part IV of our team element rankings. Earlier this week, we laid out the top-10 rotations, the top-10 bullpens and the top lineups. Now it's time to rank the defenses.

1. Kansas City Royals

In the postseason, casual baseball fans got to see the vision of GM Dayton Moore, who decided to fill the vast Kauffman Stadium outfield with guys who can cover a whole lot of ground and infielders who can make plays.

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Biggest remaining needs for contenders 

December, 7, 2014
Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoThe Red Sox signed two big hitters this offseason. Now, they need to make a splash on the mound.
SAN DIEGO -- As the winter meetings kick off, here are the most significant needs for 12 teams that view themselves as top contenders in 2015:

1. Boston Red Sox: A starting pitcher

Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval are unique in this winter’s market in that they each have the ability to hit good pitching, and so it’s possible that Boston’s offense will rebound in a big way next season. But it really won’t matter unless Boston finds a way to make up for the departures of Jon Lester and John Lackey -- maybe even by re-signing Lester.

As of this morning, the Red Sox rotation looks like this, according to their website:

1. Clay Buchholz
2. Joe Kelly
3. Rubby De La Rosa
4. Allen Webster
5. Anthony Ranaudo

As a reminder, Boston’s ranking in ERA after the All-Star break, when it mostly competed without Lester and Lackey:

30. Minnesota Twins, 4.99
29. Colorado Rockies, 4.51
28. Chicago White Sox, 4.47
27. Boston Red Sox, 4.27

If not Lester, then the Red Sox need James Shields; if not Shields, they need Jeff Samardzija, Doug Fister or one of the other high-end starters on the market.

As the Lester bidding nears a conclusion, John Henry flew to meet with Lester one-on-one, writes Rob Bradford and Alex Speier. The Red Sox should bolster their rotation by using trade chips rather than signing pitchers to long-term deals, writes Brian MacPherson.

Max Scherzer would also be available, writes Michael Silverman.

Here’s the problem with that for Boston:

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What lies ahead for key Series people 

October, 30, 2014
Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy Jason O. Watson/Getty ImagesGM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy deserve a lot of credit for three Giants titles in five years.
Here's a look at what comes next for many of the primary figures from the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals

For Pablo Sandoval, there's free agency. Six months ago, it seemed like there was no chance Sandoval would work out a deal with the Giants, and it's still very possible he'll leave, given the gap between what he might ask for and what the Giants seem comfortable in paying. They've had concerns about his conditioning, and going beyond a three-year deal may seem like an enormous risk.

But more than any other franchise, San Francisco places a high value on what a player has done in the past, including contributions on the field, clubhouse standing and with Giants fans. This is part of the reason they gave Tim Lincecum a two-year, $35 million deal last fall: He won Cy Young Awards for the team, and was beloved by the fans.

So it's possible that the Giants will extend themselves beyond their comfort level for Sandoval, given his role in the team's three championships and how revered he is in San Francisco. And no one can doubt how much confidence he plays with on the sport's greatest stage.

Before Game 7, Sandoval chatted next to the batting cage, and I asked him about how Yordano Ventura had stared him down in two plate appearances in Game 6, first when he hit a bouncer to the mound and then later after he drew a walk.

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Bumgarner set to do whatever team needs 

October, 29, 2014
Madison BumgarnerKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsGiants ace Madison Bumgarner said he's ready to throw "200 pitches" in Game 7 if necessary.
KANSAS CITY -- A small group of reporters waited near Madison Bumgarner's locker Tuesday night as he finished dressing following the Giants' Game 6 loss. He buckled his belt, his back to the room, and as he turned, his hair still damp from the shower, he noticed the waiting gaggle.

"You want to talk with me?" he asked. "I didn't play."

Yes, but he probably will Wednesday night, presumably, in the decisive innings of the World Series, in the 2,462nd and final game of the long season. Giants manager Bruce Bochy could not detail after the Game 6 blowout exactly when or how he might use Bumgarner, or for how long, because he doesn't know how well Tim Hudson will fare in his Game 7 start.

But as Hudson throws his first pitch, Bumgarner will almost certainly be in the San Francisco bullpen, and if the phone there rings in the first or second or third inning, the name uttered by pitching coach Dave Righetti will probably be "Bum." The call will be for Bumgarner, 25, who has been transcendent in this postseason. That's why reporters staked out his locker late Tuesday night, looking to flush out the details of how Bumgarner feels, how he will prepare, how he might fare in the biggest game of the season.

Except Bumgarner really isn't a details person. He is more about the task and getting it done.

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Russell Martin set up for big payday 

October, 28, 2014
Russell MartinDavid Maxwell/Getty ImagesRussell Martin finished second among all MLB catchers in WAR in 2014 (behind only Jonathan Lucroy).
KANSAS CITY -- The final innings of the 2014 Major League Baseball season will play out here in the next 36 hours; meanwhile, executives from 28 other teams and dozens of agents are lining up for the start of the offseason, like runners lining up for the opening gun of the winter marathon.

There is enormous curiosity within the industry about how many dollars will be paid out in the pitching market, given the relatively high volume of elite starters that will be available in one way or another over the next 13 months. Will Max Scherzer get offers of greater than $144 million (which is how much he reportedly turned down from the Tigers in the spring)? How much will Jon Lester get? Will the Reds seriously consider trading Johnny Cueto, who is headed toward free agency next fall? Will the Nationals be able to lock down Jordan Zimmermann? Will some agents try to move quickly to grab a share of the available dollars, in anticipation of what could be a pitching market depression by late December?

No such questions hover over Russell Martin, who might be the best-positioned player in the free-agent market this fall, because he is a one-of-a-kind luxury item. He is the Lamborghini of the catching market.

Martin will be 32 at the outset of the 2015 season, coming off a year in which he had a .402 on-base percentage, fourth best among all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances.

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The keys to Pablo Sandoval's success 

October, 26, 2014
Pablo SandovalEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesHampered by illness, Pablo Sandoval still managed to smack two pivotal hits in Game 4.
SAN FRANCISCO -- The great thing about working with Pablo Sandoval, says San Francisco Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens, is that no matter the situation, he possesses a relentless optimism. He is upbeat. He is convinced he will figure out a way to succeed.

This trait served him well Saturday, because he had plenty of reason to be miserable. Sandoval had been one of the unlucky souls who contracted the bug that has been going through the San Francisco clubhouse in recent days, from Tim Lincecum to Michael Morse, and as he completed batting practice before Game 4, Sandoval explained through stuffed sinuses how awful he had been feeling, how he had been throwing up the night before, how he had been administered IV fluids. Sandoval was breathing through his mouth because of how congested he was.

Carrying his bat, Sandoval turned to bench coach Ron Wotus, who was in the midst of hitting ground balls to infielders, and started to explain to Wotus why he hadn’t taken his share. Wotus nodded, and encouraged Sandoval to go to the clubhouse. “Save it for the game,” Wotus said.

Sandoval did that, found a quiet place, and slept. “A power nap,” Sandoval said later. When he awoke about 30 to 45 minutes later, he felt better, and he was able to go through his typical pregame preparation that served him well in Game 4.

Sandoval is a switch hitter who has struggled from the right side of the plate this year, but Meulens and manager Bruce Bochy believe that Sandoval’s struggles as a right-handed hitter this season are simply explained: He just doesn’t get as many reps against left-handed pitching as he does against right-handed pitching, a common problem for switch-hitters.

But before every game, Meulens says, Sandoval has made a point of going into the indoor batting cage and taking some right-handed swings against a left-handed batting practice pitcher.

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Giants exposed KC's playoff inexperience 

October, 22, 2014
BumgarnerAP Photo/Jamie SquireMadison Bumgarner had a masterful performance in Game 1 of the World Series.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Royals have become America's team during the postseason, the team that casual fans are rooting for because of their energetic style and because, quite simply, they haven't been on this stage for a very long time.

But the difference in experience between these Royals and the Giants showed itself in a sequence of hitters in the third inning, in Kansas City's one serious opportunity to climb back into the game.

With the Giants leading 3-0, Brandon Crawford made an error and Mike Moustakas pulled a double into the right-field corner. The Royals had runners at second and third and nobody out and the top of their lineup coming up, and Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey faced a difficult challenge in trying to navigate their way without surrendering runs.

Alcides Escobar struck out just 83 times in more than 600 plate appearances during the regular season, but it had become evident in his first at-bat that when Bumgarner got ahead in the count, he intended to attack the shortstop at the top of the strike zone, and now in the third inning, he did this again.

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Will the Royals try to run on Bumgarner? 

October, 21, 2014
Madison BumgarnerAP Photo/Jack DempseyMadison Bumgarner has an elongated delivery, which the Royals might try to take advantage of.
KANSAS CITY -- When San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner delivers the ball to home plate with a runner at first base tonight, the numbers that appear on the stopwatch of Kansas City Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz will indicate to him that the Royals should try to steal.

Bumgarner is 6-foot-5 and has the wing span of a condor, and if you think of his body like a catapult, the time required to remove the ball from his glove, draw his arm all the way back and then sling it toward home plate is relatively slow, no less than 1.3 or 1.4 seconds.

Kuntz has said during the course of the postseason that everything the Royals try to do is dictated by those numbers on the stopwatch: If the pitcher's delivery time is 1.2 seconds or more, Kansas City will run. But 1.3 seconds? In the Royals' world, that's like a green light.

But over time, Bumgarner has developed a speed trap.

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10 key matchups in the World Series 

October, 20, 2014
Bruce Bochy and Ned YostGetty Images, US TODAY SportsBruce Bochy and Ned Yost will match managerial wits in the 2014 World Series, which begins Tuesday.
Time to look at the crucial matchups to watch in the World Series:

1. The San Francisco Giants vs. the Kansas City Royals' track team

The Baltimore Orioles demonstrated that it's very possible to slow the Royals' baserunners with pitchers who deliver the ball quickly and with an unorthodox approach to holding runners on. Kansas City had just one steal in the American League Championship Series.

Some of Kansas City's baserunners never seemed completely comfortable in reading the intent of first baseman Steve Pearce, who would be five feet off the base and then retreat, sometimes for a pickoff, sometimes not. The Giants could have Brandon Belt do the same thing.

The Giants' starting pitchers, like the Orioles' starters, are generally effective in controlling a running game.

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A hero one step beyond 'unlikely' 

October, 17, 2014
Travis IshikawaThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesTravis Ishikawa would normally be out of a tight game in the later innings.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jake Peavy’s eyesight is awful, and the truth is he sprinted out of the Giants’ dugout Thursday night not entirely sure of what he had just seen. Peavy didn’t know whether Travis Ishikawa’s long drive to right field had cleared the tin on top of the wall, or if it had ricocheted off the brick. He only knew that Ishikawa had mashed a ball beyond the reach of the Cardinals’ outfielders, far enough to score the game-winning run and win the pennant.

“I’m so proud of you!” Peavy screamed at Ishikawa, as he moved to embrace him.

“Get out of the way!” Ishikawa shouted while trying to dodge Peavy, unsure of whether he needed to avoid being touched by teammates in order to make this journey around the bases count.

Or at least that’s what Ishikawa and Peavy think he shouted; nobody could remember with complete clarity even a few minutes after, because of how overwhelmed they were by the moment.

Tim Hudson couldn’t recall exactly what Giants manager Bruce Bochy said to him when they hugged on the field, but whatever it was, Hudson was weeping with the realization that after 16 years in the major leagues, and after having his ankle dislocated in 2013, he will play in the World Series. Hudson started tearing up again as he started talking about the words between him and his manager. “I’m a marshmallow,” he said.

Buster Posey, the catcher admired by teammates because of how understated he is no matter how tense the situation, pumped his fists happily on the field, once, between hugs with teammates. Third-base coach Tim Flannery was crying. Mike Morse waved happily to someone he knew in the stands. The stoic Madison Bumgarner couldn’t stop smiling; neither could Brandon Crawford. Jeremy Affeldt shouted, randomly.

Among them, Ishikawa struggled to catch his breath.

On the last Wednesday of the regular season, the day of Game No. 158, there was no thought that he would play a meaningful role in the postseason, let alone play left field. He has been a first baseman for almost his entire career, and 23 days ago, he had exactly zero career starts in left field in the major leagues.

But the Giants were desperately seeking a solution in left field, having learned the last week of the regular season that Angel Pagan would miss the rest of the season and the playoffs. Gregor Blanco was needed in center field and Juan Perez had performed poorly in September, and in conversation with Bochy, Giants general manager Brian Sabean suggested that he try Ishikawa, who had a handful of outfield starts in the minor leagues. Bochy, with nothing to lose, went along with it and found a left fielder in the last hours of the regular season -- a decision that had gone well right up until the third inning of Game 5 Thursday night, when Ishikawa misread a line drive by Jon Jay.

The potential for another crushing defensive mistake like that loomed in Bochy’s mind into the middle innings. He had usually pulled Ishikawa out of games in the sixth or seventh inning, and as he and bench coach Ron Wotus shared thoughts in the eighth inning, Bochy decided that he was going to give Ishikawa one more at-bat and then replace him with Perez.

One more chance for Ishikawa. One more swing. And when he hit the ball

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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My awards voting, playoff notes and more 

October, 6, 2014
Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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