We've run out of two-team cities but let's wrap up the week with a look at the Royals and Cardinals, who at least play in the same state. The Royals made their first playoff appearance since 1985 when they won a wild card last fall and then surprised everyone by advancing all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, where Alex Gordon was left 90 feet short from tying the game. The Cardinals have won two straight NL Central titles and made the playoffs four seasons in a row.
Catcher: Salvador Perez versus Yadier Molina
There's no questioning the defense of the two Gold Glove winners, but both declined a little at the plate in 2014 -- albeit with extenuating circumstances.
Royals manager Ned Yost rode Perez into the ground as he started 143 games, including the final 34 games of the season. Perhaps not surprisingly, after hitting .283/.329/.437 in the first half of the season, he hit .229 in August and .235 in September. More troubling, however, was the complete collapse of his plate discipline, with just three walks in the second half. We saw Madison Bumgarner exploit Perez's aggressive approach on the final out of the World Series with a bunch of high fastballs out of the strike zone.
After averaging .313 the previous three seasons, Molina hit .283 with less power. Some of that decline came after he hurt this thumb in July and he didn't hit well when he returned in late August, but his numbers were already down before the injury. Molina will be 33 in July and he has a lot of mileage, so it's possible he won't bounce back to that 2011-13 peak level.
Edge: Cardinals. Perez is a nice player and I expect his offense to bounce back a little if Yost actually gives him a few more days off, but Molina is still the model defensive catcher in the sport and he gets on base more.
First base: Eric Hosmer versus Matt Adams/Mark Reynolds
As well as Hosmer hit in the postseason, he wasn't that good in the regular season, with a batting line that was just below league average. First basemen aren't supposed to be league-average hitters. Adams had the better season, although he's basically a platoon guy as he hit .190 versus lefties without much power. The Cardinals have brought in Reynolds to share time with him.
Edge: Royals. I haven't given up on Hosmer. If he can get back to his 2013 numbers -- .302, 17 home runs -- he gets the nod.
Second base: Omar Infante versus Kolten Wong
We have a 33-year-old coming off a sub-.300 OBP versus a 24-year-old coming off a sub-.300 OBP. Go with the potential. Wong has some pop, some speed and the ability to be average or better defensively. If he can consolidate his skills, work a little on the plate discipline and showcase the power he displayed in the postseason on a consistent basis, he has All-Star potential.
Third base: Mike Moustakas versus Matt Carpenter
Carpenter has hit .296/.384/.429 the past two seasons while scoring the most runs in the majors. Moustakas' batting averages since reaching the majors: .263, .242, .233, .212. It ain't working.
Shortstop: Alcides Escobar versus Jhonny Peralta
For years, statistical analysts kept arguing that Peralta was underrated, that his defense was actually better than he was given credit for. When he signed with the Cardinals as a free agent, the contract was heavily criticized considering Peralta was coming off a PED suspension. Instead, he had a good season, finished 14th in the MVP voting and a lot of new people were saying his defense was better than he'd been given credit for. Escobar is at times an electrifying defender although the defensive metrics don't rate him as an elite fielder. He doesn't have much power and doesn't walk, so his offense is all batting average-driven.
Edge: Cardinals. You worry a little about Peralta's age (33), but he should have another good season in him.
Left field: Alex Gordon versus Matt Holliday
Holliday has aged well and even at 35 projects to be a force at the plate, although he is coming off a career-worst .270 average and lowest OPS+ since his first two years with the Rockies. Still, Gordon is the guy here. He's an elite defender in left who has deservedly won four straight Gold Gloves. One of the highlights of the playoffs was seeing Gordon -- and the rest of his outfield mates -- get national recognition for their ability to run down everything in the outfield. At the plate, Gordon hit a respectable .266/.351/.432, although a terrible September dragged down his numbers.
Center field: Lorenzo Cain versus Jon Jay
Jay has been a very nice complementary player for the Cardinals the past four seasons, averaging 2.6 WAR per season. He doesn't have one outstanding skill -- well, he did lead the majors with 20 hit-by-pitches -- and he had just three home runs, but provides value by getting on base and playing adequate defense. But I'll take Cain, who carries a similar offensive profile -- not sure he'll hit .301 again -- and would have won a Gold Glove except he split time between center and right.
Right field: Alex Rios versus Jason Heyward
This isn't up for debate and that's even before my thinking that Heyward may be poised for a big season. Rios hit 25 home runs in 2012 but just four with the Rangers last year. Leaving a good home run park for Kansas City isn't a good way to find that power again.
Edge: Cardinals. Easy.
The Royals have Kendrys Morales as their DH, replacing Billy Butler, which didn't exactly get the fans pumped up. Jarrod Dyson is a good fourth outfielder, a speed demon who brings more defense, but there isn't much here behind him. Besides Reynolds, the Cardinals have Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk in the outfield and Pete Kozma in the infield.
Edge: Cardinals. Not really a big strength for either club. Both need their starters to remain healthy.
No. 1 starter: Yordano Ventura versus Adam Wainwright
Ventura's potential versus Wainwright's elbow. I don't think Ventura is quite ready to explode on the league and you're always going to worry about a little guy who throws that hard breaking down. Wainwright got his elbow cleaned up after the season and while he's expected to be fine, there's no guarantee.
No. 2 starter: Jason Vargas versus Lance Lynn
Give Vargas credit: He keeps finding the right parks to pitch in -- first Seattle, then Anaheim, and then Kansas City. Interestingly, he actually had a 4.53 ERA at home in 2014 as opposed to 2.73 on the road. Anyway, he's a fly ball guy who doesn't generate a lot of whiffs and is thus helped a lot by his outfield defense. Lynn's ERA fell from 3.97 to 2.74 so the perception is he had a much better season when he actually had pretty much the exact same season -- a 3.28 FIP in 2013 versus 3.35 in 2014. Why the ERA improvement? In 2013, batters hit .299 with runners in scoring position; in 2014, .194.
No. 3 starter: Danny Duffy versus Michael Wacha
This matchup is all about health. Duffy missed some time in September with rotator cuff inflammation (and has a Tommy John surgery in his past), although returned to pitch out of the bullpen in the postseason. Wacha, meanwhile, missed several months with a scapular stress injury in his shoulder, a fairly rare injury for a pitcher -- Brandon McCarthy suffered one earlier in his career and is apparently the only documented case of recovery. When Wacha returned late in the season he certainly didn't look like the same pitcher. So ... call me concerned. While Duffy's 2.52 ERA was a little misleading -- his strikeout/walk ratio of 113/53 in 149.1 innings wasn't anything special -- I like his power stuff from the left side.
No. 4/5 starters: Jeremy Guthrie/Edinson Volquez versus John Lackey/Carlos Martinez/Marco Gonzales/Jaime Garcia
Guthrie and Lackey sort of cancel each other out and while the Cardinals don't have a clear No. 5 at the moment, they have three interesting guys. Martinez and Gonzales have breakout potential while Garcia has been a reliable pitcher when healthy.
Trevor Rosenthal had a difficult year for the Cardinals, and the bullpen, a big strength in 2013, was nowhere near as dominant. Kansas City's pen could be even better in 2015 with the return of Luke Hochevar, plus Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Brandon Finnegan, the 2014 draftee who had some big moments in the postseason, likely starts the year in the minors as the Royals try him as a starter.
The Cardinals have been in the postseason 11 times in the past 15 years, so it's easy to say they'll be back again. But there is some collapse potential here as the team is depending on two starting pitchers coming off injuries and three core offensive players in Molina, Peralta and Holliday in their 30s. But I love the Heyward acquisition that brings his Gold Glove defense and solid offense to a position where the Cardinals had the lowest OPS in the majors. The Cardinals only outscored their opponents by 16 runs and finished last in the NL in home runs, so while they won 90 games, it was a team that had to often scrape and claw to wins.
The Royals essentially bring back the same team as 2014, minus James Shields. This is a team without power -- last in the majors in home runs -- and is now without their best starting pitcher from last season. Yes, the outfield defense is terrific and the bullpen should be lights out again, even with some regression. But will Vargas and Guthrie be adequate again? Will Hosmer and Moustakas be better at the plate? Can a team that was also last in the AL in walks score enough runs?
I see the Cardinals as the better bet to make the playoffs, although I'm picking Pittsburgh to win the NL Central. I'll put St. Louis at 88 wins and Kansas City at 80. I just don't see another magical year for the Royals.