Welcome to the first installment of this season’s Series of the Week feature. Each week, I’ll be picking one series that is the most intriguing to me and break down why it is worth watching more than the others. Now that the Mariners and the Athletics are back from Tokyo and the rest of Major League Baseball is set to kick off the 2012 season, the most interesting series this week is taking place in Anaheim, where Albert Pujols is making his debut in an Angels uniform on Friday, April 6th for a three-game weekend series against an upstart Kansas City Royals team.
How they’re performing right now:
The Angels and the Royals are both starting off 2012 with quite a bit of optimism. Last year was tough for each of them, but in different
ways. For Kansas City, it was manager Ned Yost’s first full year with the team, and they continued to bring up their young talent from the Minor Leagues in an effort to develop their young core into a legitimate winning team, something Royals fans haven’t seen 1989, which was the last time they won more than 84 games in a season. In preparation for 2012, the Royals have shown that they can hit this spring; their .302 team batting average is second-highest in the American League and they ran fourth in runs scored (149). Their pitching has struggled (4.78 ERA, 1.51 WHIP), but the coaching staff isn’t worried and they like what they see.
On the other hand, the Angels were supposed to contend for the AL West crown in 2011 and ended up fading as the Rangers ran away with their second division title by a 10-game margin. So, GM Jerry DiPoto made some huge investments over the winter, bringing in C.J. Wilson to deepen the starting rotation even more and Albert Pujols to transform their lineup. So far, so good in Spring Training; they lead all of MLB with a .306 team batting average and are fifth out of 30 teams with 159 runs scored. Their pitching is expected to dominate, and the team ERA of 3.70 and WHIP of 1.29 this Spring is a good indicator of what’s to come.
Probable pitching match-ups:
The Angels have put together one of the best rotations in the MLB and Kansas City has the monumental task of facing the best that Los Angeles has to offer, with their ace Jered Weaver on the hill for their home opener. As for the Royals, Ned Yost decided to give veteran Bruce Chen the Opening Day start instead of giving it to Luke Hochevar, who has followed his strong second half with a solid spring. Below are the probable starting pitchers for their first head-to-head matchup of the year:
Bruce Chen (KC) vs. Jered Weaver (LAA)
Luke Hochevar (KC) vs. Dan Haren (LAA)
Jonathan Sanchez (KC) vs. C.J. Wilson (LAA)
It was a trying year for the Royals in 2011, but even with their 71-91 final record in the AL Central, they did take some strides forward.
It’s hard to have a winning record when the pitching staff gives up 762 runs and the offense scores 730. However, the team batting average of .275 showed the league that these young players can do some good things with the bat. Kansas City ranked in the top-5 in the American League in both batting average and runs scored, so the problems obviously lie on the pitcher’s mound. Their team ERA ranked third lowest in the AL (4.44) and the 730 runs given up was the third highest total in the league. GM Dayton Moore is hoping that Bruce Chen can use his veteran leadership to help this young rotation, especially new acquisition Jonathan Sanchez, who has great stuff, but had a very poor 2011.
On the flip side, 2011 was a fantastic year for the Angels pitching staff, and it was the offense that let them down. They found out quickly that it’s great to hold teams to one or two runs, but when they can’t score more than that, it goes to waste. LAA lead the American League in team ERA (3.57), were fourth in team WHIP (1.27), and had the second-lowest runs allowed (633). However, they were in the middle of the pack with a team batting average of .253 and ranked 10th out of 14 teams with 645 runs scored. There is the simple reason why they were only marginally successful with such a great pitching staff. It seems pretty simple, but it’s true.
Recent head-to-head meetings:
It has been a tale of two seasons between these two teams over the last two years. In 2010, Kansas City had the edge at home, but the majority of the games were played in California, where the Angels dominated and took the season series 7-3. Last year, it was just the opposite; the Royals once again beat the Angels at Kauffman Stadium, but they also won the majority of the games in Anaheim, taking the 2011 season series 7-3.
There are some newcomers to this matchup, outside of Wilson and Pujols. The Angels have also brought in Chris Iannetta to take over the catching duties and veteran LaTroy Hawkins to take over the 8th inning setup role. For the Royals, in addition to their young players getting their first full year in the Majors together, they added Sanchez to the starting rotation and Jonathan Broxton to the bullpen. Now that Joakim Soria is out for the year, he seems to be the best candidate to take over the closer job. Both of these teams have made improvements and acquisitions to their roster in key spots that will have a direct result in the outcome of the games.
What people are saying:
Michael Engel, editor of the Kings of Kauffman, which is the dedicated FanSided site for the Royals, has some optimism of his own for his team in 2012. He recognizes that the team is very young, but they have the potential to grow together very quickly and realize how good they can be this year. One of the players that Engel will be keeping an eye on his former number one overall draft pick, starter Luke Hochevar.
Engel shows some of his concerns with Hochevar’s lack of consistency: “Hochevar has been an enigma his entire career. He’ll have stretches where he looks every bit like a former number one overall draft pick. He also has stretches where he just pours gas on the fire during a rally. After a strong second half in 2011 and a good spring, he may be turning the corner to being more of a consistent starter at the top of a rotation.”
Match-ups to watch for:
Continuing to talk about Hochevar, Engel is most excited to see their 28-year-old right-hander face Albert Pujols and his mega-million dollar swing in the second game of the season. Pujols has had a fantastic spring, batting a hair over .400 with 5 home runs and 15 RBI in 52 at-bats. Like Michael said, Hochevar has had a strong spring himself, compiling a 3-1 record, 2.84 ERA, and 1.21 WHIP. This will be an exciting matchup to watch for sure.
Outside of watch Pujols hit against just anybody, I’m most excited to watch Eric Hosmer hit against fellow left-hander C.J. Wilson. The newly acquired pitcher is originally from Southern California and is pitching his first game in an Angel uniform at home, which will create a lot of excitement amongst the fans, while Eric Hosmer is looking to build upon his solid rookie season and a spring where he hit .429 with 5 home runs, and 28 RBI in only 24 games. Even though Hosmer came in third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2011, this year could be the year that he becomes a household name throughout the league.
Ned Yost has a lot of confidence in his team this year and I think that the Royals are going to be one of the biggest surprises in 2012, but it’s not going to start in their first series against the Angels. After taking a deeper look at the match-up, the pitching of Los Angeles is just too overwhelming this early in the season. When you have a top four of Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson, and Ervin Santana with a solid bullpen, it’s hard to compete. Their lineup is more experienced than the Royals, and being at home when Albert Pujols is making his long-awaited season debut is going to give the Angels a huge emotional lift, leading to them winning the first series of the year, taking two out of three.