Reinvented Tribe, Royals making strides
CLEVELAND -- The Indians and Royals are playing a series at Progressive Field here in the second week of September that has potential postseason ramifications.
That sentence alone qualifies 2013 as a success for two AL Central clubs who dramatically reinvented themselves last winter.
The Indians brought aboard a two-time World Series winning manager in Terry Francona and spent aggressively on two of the winter's top five available free-agent position players in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. The Royals shipped a seemingly can't-miss prospect in Wil Myers off to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis and also traded for Ervin Santana in a bid to improve a wobbly rotation.
Now, the stated goal, for both clubs, was to challenge the defending AL champion Detroit Tigers for the Central crown. But in honest moments, the leaders of either club might openly admit that would be a tall task.
The more realistic hope was real, tangible progress in a sport not generally prone toward quick fixes. The Indians lost 94 games last year, the Royals 90. Today, the Tribe is on pace for 87 victories, the Royals 84.
That's progress, which itself is success.
"It's definitely gratifying to see the progress we've made this year," Shields said of the Royals. "Obviously our No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs and win a championship. But if you asked me in Spring Training if we had a shot to make the playoffs in September, I'd take it."
The real probability of that shot sways considerably from day to day by the time you get to this point in the calendar. The Royals lost a heartbreaker to the Indians in Monday's series opener to drop four games back of the Rays, who currently hold the AL's second Wild Card spot, in the loss column. Their playoff odds, as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, dipped all the way to 0.9 percent.
For the Indians, on the other hand, Monday's 4-3 win raised their Wild Card percentage to 24.8 percent, and the Royals, who they'll face three more times next week, are the last above-.500 club they'll face this season.
Both clubs take heart in the Rays, Yankees and O's beating up on each other out East. The Rays, on Tuesday, begin a final stretch of 20 games in 20 days, with 14 against contenders. If they hold onto that Wild Card spot, they'll have earned it, no doubt.
But the mere possibility that the second Wild Card might come from the Central and not the East is a credit to the strides made by two formerly flagging franchises.
In the wake of 2012, the Royals' highly regarded farm system wasn't affecting the bottom line, there were concerns about the developmental paths of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas and there was little doubt that the rotation, as currently constructed, wasn't going to cut it.
The Indians, meanwhile, had some solid core pieces in Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley but on the heels of a 5-24 August and with abundant questions in the rotation, the external expectation was a rebuild, not a reload.
Everything changed for the Tribe the day Francona was hired, as that was the first signal the Indians were intent on getting better, not younger. And everything changed the day the Royals made the controversial Myers move, one that might have shortened their window (Shields, like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, will be free-agent eligible at the end of 2014) but sped up their route to respectability.
"I give them credit," Francona said. "That takes a lot of guts to do that. [Shields is] about as close to a guaranteed 200-inning guy as there can be in the league. He does it every year."
The next out Shields records in this 2013 season will complete his 200th inning, and he and the resurgent Santana and re-signed Jeremy Guthrie have guided one of the steadiest rotations in the league, setting the stage for a bullpen loaded with high-velocity weapons. The pitching staff, as a whole, benefits from what some advanced metrics rate as the best defense in the Majors. And as Hosmer, after a brutally slow start, has regained the confident and mechanically sound stroke that made him such a rookie sensation at the end of '11, the Royals erased the memories of all that was ailing them in April and May (22-30) to make a strong surge. Since June 1, the Red Sox, A's and Tigers are the only AL teams with a better record than the Royals' 53-39 mark.
That surge has ensured general manager Dayton Moore, in his seventh full season at the helm, will be back for what currently stands as the final season of his contract. It has also likely saved manager Ned Yost, whose seat appeared uncomfortably warm when the Royals changed hitting coaches at the end of May.
Make no mistake, though: The 2014 season will be the ultimate judge of all Moore has built these last seven years, and it will ultimately determine whether moving Myers, who has shown early signs of superstardom with the Rays, was a worthwhile endeavor. With that in mind, it seems reasonable to expect added action on the Royals' part this winter. Perhaps they'll deal from their bullpen depth to solidify their gaps at second base and right field or make use of the influx of national TV money due to arrive in 2014 to take a stab at the free-agent market (Carlos Beltran might look good in Royal Blue again).
Whatever the case, the Royals will have reason to enter 2014 with confidence, not just hope, and that's a major distinction for a franchise that, prior to 2013, hadn't played meaningful September baseball since 1985.
"Experience," Shields said. "That's what it comes down to. We had a clubhouse full of guys who hadn't really been in this situation before, and it showed in April and May. We lost a lot of one-run ballgames in May. We figured out how to win them after May was over, and here we are. Just going through different situations in a season is definitely huge for an organization as a whole and also individually."
The Indians have experienced a similar change in organizational culture, and that starts with the winning mentality instilled by Francona and his coaching staff. Pitching coach Mickey Callaway did great work coaxing comeback seasons out of Justin Masterson, currently hobbled by an oblique injury, and Ubaldo Jimenez, while also getting surprising surges from Corey Kluber and the formerly AWOL Scott Kazmir.
The Tribe's rotation has been better than advertised, the lineup and bullpen worse. But a deep bench, masterfully employed, has made for a resilient bunch that has taken advantage of the softer parts of the schedule. And that schedule, as noted, is plenty soft down the stretch.
"We know it works in our favor compared to some of the other playoff teams," Kipnis said. "But it doesn't matter if you don't take advantage of the teams you're supposed to beat."
Nor does a dynamic winter matter if it's not followed up by a successful season.
"Sometimes when you change things like that, it doesn't always go for the better," Masterson said. "But it happened. Changing the coaching staff and adding some guys really did improve every bit of what we needed."
The Indians and Royals both changed for the better in 2013. Whether it results in an October berth is yet to be determined, and the 2014 yield will provide added context. For now, though, it's hard to look at the leap from 90-plus losses to September relevance and not see profound progress.