By: Joel Norman
Every MLB season, one small market team seems to come out of nowhere and battle for playoff contention and even make it into the playoffs farther than anyone would have expected them to. In 2008, the newly named Tampa Bay Rays made it to the World Series after failing to post a winning season in their previous ten years of existence. In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates came a win away from advancing to the NLCS after 20 straight losing seasons. This year's surprise is the Kansas City Royals. Since 1994, the Royals have had only two seasons where they finished above .500 (2003, 2013) and their highest divisional finish is third place in the highly competitive AL Central. This year, the tide is turning and Kansas City has been battling the Detroit Tigers all season long for supremacy in the division.
The key behind the Royals success has been their youth movement. Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler were all developed in the Kansas City farm system. In addition to their plethora of developed players, the Royals have also traded for talented players such as James Shields, Alcides Escobar, and Jeremy Guthrie. They seem to excel in every major category. The offense, lead by Perez, Gordon, and Butler, are third in all of baseball with a .263 team average despite hitting the fewest homers in all of baseball, 84 at the beginning of 8/28/14. When it comes to pitching, Kansas City posts a solid 3.54 team ERA and boasts several impressive feats: Four Royals starters have at least ten wins, the only team in baseball to claim this, and their closer, Greg Holland, leads MLB in saves with 40 and only has blown two of those chances. Perez, Gordon, and Holland all helped the AL win home field advantage in the World Series and they hope that the Royals will be able to benefit from it in October.
Coming into 2014, the Detroit Tigers were once again World Series favorites. Propelled by two time MVP and former Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers entered this season hoping to return to the World Series after falling to the eventual World Series champions in back to back seasons. What they have gotten instead is a rough season filled with plenty of adversity. Former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander has struggled to remain consistent as his 4.82 ERA might suggest. After having a strong April, things began to go south fast for Verlander in mid-May and since then he has been far from his old self. Verlander's ineffectiveness forced the Tigers to go out and acquire David Price and sacrifice talented centerfielder Austin Jackson in the process. Another problem has been their bullpen which is 28th out of 30 teams in ERA with a 4.45 mark. Despite these problems, Detroit has been propelled by their second best offense with a team average of .274 and a lineup that includes Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, and Ian Kinsler. They might have struggles, but they are still a team to be reckoned with.
The Royals have won every series this month that has at least three games in it and put together an eight game win streak that included two sweeps. The Tigers have only won three series and tied two others in August and seem unable to fully pull it together. As of the start of this season, the Royals payroll is $70,194,182 less than the Tigers, yet at the start of August 28 Kansas City is in first place and is ahead by 2.5 games. Though the Royals are having a better season, the Tigers definitely have more talent and the last month of the season will determine who will win the division and avoids being in the dreaded Wild Card Game . Besides their two matchups against each other from the 8-10 and 19-21, both teams have relatively easy schedules. On the weekend of the 5-7 the Tigers face the San Francisco Giants and the Royals face the New York Yankees. That weekend is the only time that either team faces a real challenge besides when they face each other. The only other team that both teams will face that is over .500 is the Cleveland Indians. Besides that, their schedules are relatively similar and loaded with sub .500 opponents, so this makes it even tougher to predict who will win the division.
After looking at it all, I still believe that the Detroit Tigers will win the AL Central. Their pitchers may not be having a better season than those of the Royals, but where Kansas City lacks in experience, Detroit thrives; Verlander, Price, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez all have made it to the World Series at least once in their careers. Those four will be heavily relied on to get the Tigers ahead of the Royals and they will because each of them are better pitchers than anyone on the Royals. Obviously superior offensively, Detroit might not win the division because of their inconsistent bullpen. The Tigers need to pray that Joe Nathan returns to form in September and that another shutdown reliever emerges to compliment Al Alburquerque. Kansas City is good enough to make the playoffs, but they will be forced to win the Wild Card Game to advance.
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