The Kansas City Royals are currently baseball's hottest team after picking up their ninth-straight win in Tuesday's 11-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers. The win gave Kansas City a .5-game lead over the aforementioned Tigers in the AL Central, making this the latest the Royals have been in first place since 2003.
For Kansas City and its fans, it's an exciting time. Just a few weeks ago it seemed like manager Ned Yost was days from being fired, James Shields was a few quality starts from being put on the trade block and the team was set to pull the plug on the 2014 season. A 12-3 June later, the Royals sit atop their (albeit, unimpressive) division and only have one team that will likely challenge them the rest of the way—a luxury that teams like the AL East-leading Blue Jays and NL East-leading Nationals can't boast.
But as bright as things are looking for the Royals, they can't get comfy. The Tigers will likely either figure things out or address their issues by looking outside the organization and be a much harder out come August and September than they were in this week's three-game series. Also not to be forgotten, Kansas City's hot streak is a product of all cylinders firing at the same time, something that can't be expected for 92 more games. We've seen what the Royals look like when the lineup isn't at peak performance, and it's far from a playoff contender. So how do the Royals improve to give themselves a better shot at the AL Central crown?
The first step is by removing the weak links in what is largely a strong bullpen. Greg Holland and Wade Davis have both been All-Star-caliber in the late innings (despite Davis' two blown saves), and Aaron Crow and Kelvin Herrera have been quality bridge options in the seventh and eighth innings. But that can't be said for every arm in the Kansas City bullpen.
Michael Mariot and Louis Coleman have been two weak links in the Royals' relief corps, posting ERAs of 6.65 and 6.41, respectively. They've each pitched in at least 13 games, so the sample sizes aren't terribly small, and both have allowed runs in at least three of their last five appearances, so their struggles can't be blamed on rough starts. With the trade deadline just over a month away, several quality relief arms figure to be available on the trade market, and Dayton Moore would be wise to pursue at least one so Mariot and Coleman aren't dragging down an otherwise-stellar bullpen.
Historically reliable lefty Tim Collins also hasn't been as effective this season, posting a 4.15 ERA through his first 18 appearances. His struggles aren't nearly as detrimental as those of Mariot and Coleman, but Moore could also look to add another left-handed reliever on the trade market if Collins can't get his ERA back into the mid-3s by the end of July. At the moment, however, replacing one or both of Mariot and Coleman appears to be a much more pressing issue.
Turning to the offense, Moore must look to address the lack of power that plagued his team for much of the first two months of the season. The recent power surge of Mike Moustakas (three home runs since June 10) has given the Royals a home run threat for the time being, but this is the same player who was facing a potential demotion as recently as last month. So to assume he'll keep this up would be a shortsighted move, and another power bat would still improve the lineup even if Moustakas can build on his hot June.
The most logical spot to put said power bat would be in right field, where offseason acquisition Norichika Aoki has been average at best. For a player who provides little in the way of home run power, his .261 batting average leaves much to be desired, and his 11 doubles are something the Royals would be willing to sacrifice if they replace Aoki with a reliable power hitter. Some trade options include Los Angeles' Matt Kemp, Minnesota's Josh Willingham and, to a lesser extent, Washington's Tyler Moore. Kansas City could also check in on Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist; while he's not nearly as much of a home run threat as Kemp or Willingham, he would still give the Royals a much more well-rounded option offensively than Aoki.
If Eric Hosmer falls back into a slump, the team could also target either a platoon partner or outright replacement for him at first base (the first being more likely). But adding a middle-of-the-order bat while patching up the largely reliable bullpen should be atop Moore's to-do list as he looks to get his team ready for a run at the AL Central crown.
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