KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A nice bounce-back series against the lowly Astros won’t mean as much if the Royals fail to take care of business this weekend against the Twins.
The Royals are gambling a bit with Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen going back-to-back Friday and Saturday — something the Royals said they wanted to avoid because of their similar pitching styles. It won’t affect Vargas tonight — but the Twins could, in terms of timing, be ready for Chen on Saturday.
At any rate, here’s a look at five issues surrounding the Royals these days:
— The struggling offense. There were some positive signs in Houston, such as Alcides Escobar ripping a two-run double Thursday, Mike Moustakas delivering a game-winning homer Wednesday, and Billy Butler, dropped to sixth in the order, looking more comfortable Thursday (single, walk). But overall this group must get WAY better. Only one team has scored fewer runs than the Royals (Houston, of course), and no one in baseball has hit fewer home runs than the Royals’ four. Newcomers Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante have been decent table-setters, but the Royals’ Big Four of Eric Hosmer, Sal Perez, Alex Gordon and Butler has not delivered through 14 games.
— Stop giving away outs. And no, I’m not talking about sacrifice bunts. In fact, two attempted sac bunts in Minnesota led to base hits and a throwing error, and eventually the three runs the Royals scored Sunday. No, the outs the Royals are giving away too easily have come on double plays and poor base running. The Royals have already hit into 15 double plays this season — only Boston and Cleveland have hit into more, and they can get away with it because they hit for power. The Royals spend most of their time trying to manufacture runs, and that’s harder to do when you’re bouncing into double plays. Also, the Royals have been caught stealing six times — no American League team has been caught more. That’s a lot of free outs for opposing pitchers.
— Defense should improve. Only two AL teams have committed more errors than the Royals’ 13. That’s a high number of errors for a team as gifted defensively as the Royals. Some of the errors have been from laziness — Danny Valencia’s lackadaisical effort on a routine grounder in Houston, and center fielder Jarrod Dyson carelessly botching a routine ground single to center in Houston. Royals pitchers have been guilty of mental errors — Yordano Ventura throwing wildly to first to try and get a slow-footed runner (Jason Castro) who wasn’t going anywhere, and Wade Davis not setting his feet on a potential 1-2-3 double play that cost the Royals a game in Minnesota. If you’ll recall, though, the Royals were shaky defensively to start last season. Not a huge worry here — this is still by far the best defensive team in the game.
— The bullpen is coming around. There have been some disturbing hiccups from the bullpen, and no one is quite sure of his role outside of closer Greg Holland. But everyone did their job in Houston. The bullpen was flawless, throwing nine shutout innings while striking out 14 hitters. That’s the type of power bullpen a manager dreams of.
— What to do with Danny Duffy. Duffy was so overpowering (two innings, four Ks) in his outing Wednesday that you wonder if manager Ned Yost now will tandem him with Davis in the eighth inning. With all of his command issues, you wouldn’t think Duffy would make a consistently effective late-inning guy. But maybe he’ll prove bozos like me wrong. It could be that Duffy’s mental approach — he admits that his mind tends to wander when he’s starting — is more suited for short relief.
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email email@example.com.